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Friend or foe of Nobel winner, you can't go!

PETER PARKS / AFP - Getty Images

A plainclothes policeman gestures to a photographer outside the house of jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, in Beijing Wednesday.

By NBC News’ Adrienne Mong and Bo Gu

BEIJING – Liu Xia has been under house arrest since Oct. 8 – when her husband, Liu Xiaobo, won the Nobel Peace Prize. Her detention started after she was allowed to pay him a brief visit at the Jinzhou Jail in northeastern China.

On Oct. 24, Liu Xia issued an open letter thanking the Nobel Prize Committee and supporters of Charter 08, a manifesto her husband wrote calling for political reform and democratization in China that was signed by more than 350 Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists.

“Liu Xiaobo said this prize goes to all the dead spirits at Tiananmen Square, and I think the prize also goes to everyone, every fearless Chinese who protects their dignities,” wrote Liu Xia.

Under strict surveillance and with no possibility of traveling to Oslo, Norway, to collect the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday on behalf of her husband, she invited 144 people to attend the ceremony in their place. Among those invited were Liu’s friends and lawyers, those who signed Charter 08, renowned artists, intellectuals, and political dissidents. 

The Chinese government’s response came swiftly. Liu Xia lost all means of communications with the outside world after her last tweet on Oct.18. 

But she’s not the only one whose communication and freedom of movement has been curtailed. Dozens of Netizens have been harassed by the police for circulating news online or celebrating Liu’s prize. People considered to be influential activists have been placed under house arrest, including the writer Yu Jie, who openly criticized Premier Wen Jiabao; Ding Zilin, leader of the Tiananmen Mothers campaign; and Chen Guangcheng, a blind activist who was just recently released from prison.

And the list doesn’t end there. People even suspected of being potential Oslo attendees – whether or not they are on the list of the 144 people invited by Liu Xia – have been restricted from traveling outside of the country. 
Friend or foe – you can’t go!
He Guanghu, a professor of religion at Renmin University, was one of the first to be stopped. 

As he was traveling Nov. 19 to Singapore for a seminar, he was told by Chinese customs officials that his departure could “jeopardize state security” and a travel ban had been ordered by the Beijing Public Security Bureau.  He was outraged and wrote on his personal blog that he reserves the right to sue the authorities. “If the people have no security, what’s the point of ‘state security?’”

It’s possible that officials suspected he could re-route his itinerary from Singapore to Norway, but it was impossible to understand why Mao Yushi, a revered 81-year-old economist, was not allowed to travel abroad.

Adrienne Mong / NBC News

Internationally renown artist Ai Weiwei Tweeted when he was prevented from boarding his international flight last week.

Mao is neither a friend of the Liu couple nor an invitee of Liu Xia’s. On Dec. 1, Mao was on his way to Singapore for a meeting on international development in the Himalayas. He, too, was stopped by customs officials and given the same excuse of “jeopardizing state security.”

“There’s only one goal for them to prevent people from leaving the country – to make the Nobel Peace Prize award look deserted,” Mao said during a phone interview with NBC News. “I have signed Charter 08.  I’m sure that’s the reason I got stopped. This is the first time I’ve ever been banned from leaving China.”

Liu Xiaoyuan, a Beijing-based lawyer, also found out that he had been deemed a potentially dangerous enemy of the state when he tried to fly to Japan for an academic conference. Liu Xiaoyuan was not invited by Liu Xia and did not sign Charter 08, so he was confused why he wasn’t allowed to leave the country.

“They are just being paranoid and presume everyone leaving China is going to Oslo for the prize. This is just like the Cultural Revolution,” he said. When NBC News asked what the travel ban would do to China’s international reputation, Liu gave a frank answer, “They simply don’t care now.”

"They cannot stop people giving the prize to Liu Xiaobo, but they definitely think they can stop people attending the party," said Ai Weiwei, an internationally famous artist whose Sunflower Seeds exhibit is on view at the Tate Modern in London.

Ai and Mo Shaoping, a top lawyer who initially represented Liu Xiaobo, are two of the more prominent luminaries prevented from traveling overseas. Both men said they had been invited to attend the Oslo ceremony but had no plans to do so. Ai said he had even informed security officials in Beijing that he would not be present at the Nobel ceremony.

Regardless, last Friday, Ai was waiting to board a flight for Seoul, where he was to take part in a conference, when police officers told him his "travel may affect national security," he said.  
The same thing happened to Mo when he tried to board a flight for London Nov. 9 to attend a lawyers’ conference. As with Ai, he said this was the first time he’s ever been blocked from traveling out of the country.
"What they've done to us has no factual or lawful support. We were going there for an academic seminar, which has nothing to do with national security," Mo said. "As a citizen, everyone has the right to leave the country ... We are going to sue them when the time is right."

HO / AFP - Getty Images

This file picture taken on March 14, 2005 shows 2010 Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo in Guangzhou in southern China.

China throwing its own party
In addition to restricting the movement of activists, the government has waged its own PR campaign. A newly formed Chinese organization announced that it will award the “Confucius Peace Prize” so China can “promote its own view on peace and human rights to the world.” In a not-so-subtle dig, the award will be given out Thursday, a day before the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo.
China has exerted diplomatic pressure on foreign embassies not to send representatives to the award ceremony. The Nobel committee said that out of the 65 invitations it sent out to embassies in Oslo – 19 countries have declined so far, including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Cuba, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran. 

And Chinese citizens living in Norway have also being subjected to Beijing’s lobbying efforts. Geir Lundestad, of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, told the Hong Kong-based newspaper the Apple Daily, that he had received calls from Chinese living in Oslo who said that they were encouraged by the Chinese embassy to protest the award. 
A throwback to a more repressive era
Beijing’s widespread and blunt reaction to the Nobel Prize raises concerns of a return to a more repressive era, raising the specter of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in June 1989.

“[The Nobel ceremony] is an event that has really catalyzed the Chinese government in terms of attempting to prevent participation and expression of its own citizens at some event overseas," said Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “It's unprecedented in terms of recent history, particularly since Chinese citizens' rights to travel and ability to get passports to leave the country has been one of those rights and freedoms that the Chinese government has granted in recent years."

The Chinese government's heavy-handed response betrays some of its larger suspicions – more strident coverage in the state-run media and on blogs claims that the prize is part of a U.S.-led grand design to humiliate China.

"This award has been interpreted as an overseas smear on the Chinese government," Kine said. "It's responding as if under attack."

And yet Beijing's handling of the Nobel Peace Prize fits a pattern.
"We have been chronicling an ongoing tightening since 2008. There's less space for non-governmental organizations, civil society, and things have worsened significantly since the international financial crisis," said Kine.

That China emerged from the financial crisis with its economy relatively intact has fueled a sense of triumphalism,  according to a diverse group of business groups, diplomats, and activists. "There's less of a sense that [Chinese officials] have to obey by the same old rules," said Kine.

“They’ve got money now, and money can make many things happen. But it’s not very appropriate that it is the taxpayers’ money they are using,” said Mao, the economist.
But if China wants to be a responsible stakeholder, as many of its own citizens desire, it must stop being such a bully, activists say.
"China as a big country should act as a big country," said Mo, the lawyer.