For the Party newspaper, the award was a secret attempt by the West to thrust its ideology to discredit a resurgent China.

For the activist, it was a double-edged sword — on the one hand, a recognition of struggles for greater political freedom; and on the other, a trigger for an unprecedented clampdown by the authorities.

But for the ordinary man on the street, Friday's awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was, simply, a surprise.

“Liu Xiaobo? I have never heard of him,” said Zhang Xuyun (55), as she bought groceries in a busy Beijing district. “But if it is an award for China, then it must surely be good news.”

That, however, was not a sentiment shared by the government, which launched a strong criticism of the award on Friday. The Norwegian Nobel Committee, the official People's Daily said, had “made no secret of the intention to spread Western ideology with the use of its Prize.”

China views Mr. Liu (54), who is serving an 11-year jail term, as a criminal who tried to subvert State power by calling for democratic reforms and an end to one-party rule. The award, China says, is Western interference in its judicial sovereignty.

In recent months, China launched an unprecedented campaign against the award, asking countries to boycott the ceremony. For many, this lent Friday's award an unusual degree of diplomatic importance, which in some ways overshadowed the occasion.

At home, the government has mounted a large-scale media campaign, publishing regular editorials in State-run newspapers portraying Mr. Liu as an agent of the West, and describing the prize as yet another attempt by the West to humiliate China.

This is a view that resonates among many in the middle-class, in a country where school textbooks stress a historical narrative of Western colonial humiliation — one, which the government says, has only been broken by the leadership of the Communist Party.

Charter 08, the pro-reform document co-authored by Mr. Liu, calls for greater freedom of expression, the election of public officials, an independent judiciary and greater public scrutiny of the government.

The People's Daily attacked the charter, saying it “entices people to… alter the political system and overturn the government”.

But others say the document only reinforces rights already enshrined by law. Bao Tong, a former official of the Communist Party's Central Committee and a signatory to the charter, said he was struck by its resemblance to another document — the Chinese Constitution.

Since his imprisonment in December 2009, Mr. Liu has, in many ways, become a symbol for the small group of activists, lawyers and scholars pushing for greater political freedom.

Recent weeks have brought an unprecedented clampdown on the activist community, with dozens being placed under effective house arrest, including Mr. Liu's wife, Liu Xia.

“This seems like the worst time in the past 20 years for civil society in China,” said Fan Yafeng, a legal activist and scholar formerly with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in an interview a few weeks ago.

In the long-term, Mr. Fan hoped, the award would serve as a milestone in the development of civil society in China.

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