‘When people say I should give up or smoke less, I say, ‘What can be more harmful than the Communist Party?’,” Liu Xia says, drawing on a cigarette at a teahouse near her Beijing apartment.

“Compared with the Communist Party, cigarettes are a good thing for me!” Liu jokes during our discussion of her enforced separation of almost two years from her husband, the jailed dissident writer Liu Xiaobo.

International support has grown for Liu Xiaobo to become the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and some see him as the favourite for this year’s award. Yet when the prize is announced on Friday, Liu is likely to be with his five cellmates at a prison in China’s north-eastern city of Jinzhou, about 300 miles from Beijing.

Liu, 54, was sentenced to 11 years for subversion on Christmas Day last year. He was the main organiser of the Charter 08 for democratic reform, which was signed by 300 writers, lawyers and activists, and modelled on the Charter 77 produced by Czech dissidents.

The authorities have allowed Liu Xia, 50, to visit him just once a month since he was transferred from Beijing in May. “They say we can’t discuss anything from outside,” Liu Xia said when asked if she had talked about the Nobel-prize campaign with her husband.

Liu Xiaobo’s ideas and actions are entirely congruous to the actions and ideas held by [former winners] His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu and Aung San Suu Kyi, Kwame Anthony Appiah, president, PEN American Center.

“We were told that we can only discuss family affairs. If we talk about anything else, the meeting can be cut off immediately,” she said.

Guards allow them to discuss their love of poetry and literature during the visits, and let Liu Xiaobo read and write. “But mainly I just tell him I’m living well outside, and which friends I’ve met and had dinner and drinks with. He would be glad to hear this,” Liu Xia said.

Police seized Liu Xiaobo at the couple’s apartment in December 2008, days before the release of Charter 08, while he was working on an article on the charter for a Hong Kong magazine.

Liu Xiaobo had previously spent five years in different forms of detention, and many more under police surveillance and occasional house arrest.

The former Beijing Normal University literature lecturer lost his job and was detained for nearly two years for defending students who joined the 1989 democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. Liu, a renowned literary critic and philosophical essayist, had also urged an investigation into the brutal military crackdown on the protesters.

Liu Xia married him in 1996, just before he was sent to a “re-education through labour” camp for three years because of his continued activism. They did not have time to get their wedding certificate, making it harder for Liu Xia to visit him, she said.

In the years before his latest arrest, the couple remained under close surveillance, like the playwright monitored by a sympathetic East German state security officer in the 2007 Oscar-winning film The Lives Of Others.

“We watched that film together when Xiaobo was still at home,” Liu Xia said. “We said there are no such good police officers in China. In fact, there aren’t even any in Germany.”

Such views have inspired a growing number of Chinese writers, lawyers and other activists to risk state punishment by publicly calling for improved human rights and democratic reform.

Charter 08 demands sweeping changes to create a “free, democratic and constitutional state”, and urges the release of all political prisoners. The original 303 signatories – joined later by thousands of others – set out their ideals for transforming China into a liberal democracy and lament a lack of “freedom, equality and human rights”.

Shortly after his arrest, more than 150 US and Europe-based intellectuals – including award-winning writers Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco, Seamus Heaney and Hari Kunzru – issued an open letter calling for Liu’s release.

Liu was one of the main topics at last week’s conference of PEN International, the global writers’ group whose members include Liu and other Chinese dissidents.

“We’re thrilled by the idea of the nomination,” said Marian Botsford Fraser, head of the group’s Writers in Prison Committee, although it stops short of publicly backing Nobel nominees.

Individuals within the group have publicly supported him, most notably Kwame Anthony Appiah, the president of the PEN American Center.

“Liu Xiaobo’s ideas and actions, in my view, are entirely congruous to the actions and ideas held by [former winners] His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu and Aung San Suu Kyi,” Appiah wrote in his letter of nomination.

“All have endeavoured to use non-violence in effecting gradual change, of persuasion and compromise in upholding human rights and in making the transition toward a peaceful society.”

Former Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel, who signed Charter 77 as a dissident writer, also co-published a letter of support for Liu in the New York Times last month with Czech human rights advocate Dana Nemcova and the Bishop of Prague, Vaclav Maly. Tutu and the Dalai Lama have also backed Liu.

As it does each time a Chinese dissident is nominated, the Beijing government has tried to put pressure on the Nobel Institute not to choose Liu.

On Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said giving Liu the prize would send the “wrong message”, saying he was jailed “because he violated Chinese law”.

If Liu wins, “it will directly push the development of democracy and serve as a warning to Chinese authorities,” said Yao Lifa, who last month joined 100 Chinese activists in signing an open letter in support of Liu’s nomination.

“The effect would be that more Chinese will wake up and focus on China’s democracy movement and the development of human rights. It will encourage people, solidify their confidence, and let them feel more hopeful,” said Yao, also a Charter 08 signatory.

Liu Xia said she was “very moved” by the support but was unsure of the consequences. “I didn’t imagine him winning, so it’s more difficult to imagine how things might go after he gets it.

“Havel, the Dalai Lama and Tutu are the world’s conscience. Since the detention of Xiaobo, Mr Havel has kept appealing to give the prize to Xiaobo; he always supports him.”

Another Charter 08 signatory, Beijing-based philosophy professor Xu Youyu, said Liu and many other Charter 08 activists had faced “persecution and oppression” merely for asserting the “core values of civilised society” embodied by the Nobel Peace Prize.

“To bestow the prize upon Liu Xiaobo is one of the strongest responses which could be sent,” Xu wrote in his own open letter.

“This would, clearly and unambiguously, reaffirm the values held most dearly by humankind, serve as monumental support for the struggle for the freedom and democracy which China’s 1.3 billion people lack, and would mark a major step in defence of world peace.”