When the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to imprisoned human rights activist Liu Xiaobo on Friday, the news sparked international dialogue about the future of human rights in China. It also marked the culmination of a nearly yearlong effort by philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, who nominated Liu for the prize in January.

“I was delighted, yes, but it’s only one step in the process,” Appiah said, explaining, “We’re trying to get more people to know about him and the peaceful things that he’s doing. These are all part of a movement.”

Liu came to international prominence when he encouraged protesters to leave the country following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Then a literature professor at Beijing Normal University, he was sentenced to two years in prison for his actions.

Since then, Liu has fought for human rights in China through the Independent Chinese PEN Center, an organization that promotes free literary expression. He served as its president from 2003 to 2007 and still holds a seat on its board.

In 2008, he helped draft Charter 08, a document calling for China’s government to live up to its constitutional guarantee of human rights. China arrested Liu for his role in the petition on Dec. 25, 2009, sentencing him to 11 years in prison and two further years without political rights.

The committee’s decision to award the peace prize to Liu, the first Chinese citizen to receive the award, has renewed dialogue about human rights in China.

“There’s a debate within the Chinese government about what direction to go,” Appiah explained. China can either move toward increased democratization and human rights, or more government repression, he said. 

In the short term, however, the Chinese government appears to have opted for the latter. In the aftermath of the prize announcement, China censored news stations such as CNN, as well as blocking Twitter posts, e-mails and message board posts that included the characters spelling “Xiaobo Liu.”

Additionally, 20 Chinese intellectuals were arrested last week for celebrating the news that Liu had received the award.

Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, wrote in a Twitter message on Sunday that she was allowed to visit her husband that evening at the prison where he is being held. He was told of the award on Saturday evening, she said.

But her phone has been tampered with, she said, preventing her from receiving phone calls. The New York Times reported late Sunday night that she was placed under house arrest after the visit.

Appiah, who has never met Liu, came to know the activist’s work through their involvement with the PEN Center. Last January, Appiah — who is president of the PEN American Center — staged a protest in New York City to call attention to Liu’s detainment.  

In his nomination letter, Appiah commended the activist for his commitment to publicizing the issue of human rights in China.

“Deeply committed to non-violence and democracy, Liu has been able both to articulate and to channel the frustrations of the Chinese people for more than two decades,” Appiah wrote.

Martin Flaherty ’81, a Program in Law and Public Affairs fellow who taught a Wilson School task force last year on China and the rule of law, said he was excited by the committee’s move.

“This really helps provide an alternative vision of China for the future that comes from China itself,” he said, noting that responses that surfaced from within China over the last few days were extremely supportive of Liu’s vision of democracy.  

“It shows that this kind of philosophy is not purely a Western idea but is something that many Chinese desire, that many Chinese are willing to sacrifice their freedom for,” Flaherty added.

“I’m hopeful that it will push China forward,” Appiah said regarding the aftermath of the news. “In the short term, Chinese government may crack down, but in the medium/long term, I think that saner heads in the administration may well prevail.”