A day after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese professor and political activist, rose to another normal day in the company of five others in a 30 square metre jail cell in a corner of northeast China.

Mr. Liu, however, was not in the minority in likely being unaware of the news of his award. Most of his compatriots, too, across the length and breadth of China, had little idea that one of their countrymen had received one of the world's most prestigious prizes.

In Beijing, newspapers did not write of the announcement. Morning television news shows carried on as usual, discussing floods in southern China, the end of the week-long national holiday and the Chinese Premier's visit to Europe. In Beijing's Central Business District, passers-by, scurrying to work after a week of vacations, said they had little idea of any award. Most did not know who Liu Xiaobo was.

In reality, the award is likely to make little difference, either to the lives of ordinary Chinese, or to the gradual reform of China's political system. Yet it marks a remarkable journey for a literature professor, who has now become the face of China's fast-expanding civil society movement.

The small but growing group of Chinese scholars, lawyers and activists, who quietly push for reforms here — most with little success and no recognition — welcomed Mr. Liu's award as a vindication of their own different struggles. A land rights activist in Shanghai, who has campaigned, over two decades, for judicial reforms to ensure fair compensation for those displaced by China's development, said the news would encourage her to carry on her work. She, like Mr. Liu, has spent several years in detention.

For them, Mr. Liu has become an unlikely symbol. “I firmly believe that China's political progress will never stop, and I'm full of optimistic expectations of freedom coming to China in the future, because no force can block the human desire for freedom,” Mr. Liu said on December 23, speaking during his trial which ended with an 11-year jail term for him for subverting State power.

Once a soft-spoken literature professor who professed a love for Franz Kafka, his life was transformed by the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests, which he described as “the major turning point in my 50 years on life's road.”

He gave up teaching positions in Europe and the United States and returned to China to join the student movement. He became a moderate voice in the movement, even negotiating with the military before tanks entered the famous square. He was later imprisoned for his role in the protests.

“Simply for expressing divergent political views and taking part in a peaceful and democratic movement, a teacher lost his podium, a writer lost the right to publish, and a public intellectual lost the chance to speak publicly,” he said during his trial.

In its verdict on Christmas Day last year, the Beijing Intermediate People's Court cited his role in the release of Charter 08, a call for democratic reforms in China, as well as articles he had written criticising the Communist Party.

Yet, Mr. Liu is regarded as a moderate voice in the spectrum of Chinese civil society. In his trial, he praised the party's role in addressing poverty, improvements in China's political and judicial system, and the humaneness of his handlers in prison. Fourteen overseas Chinese activists, in a letter this week, criticised the award going to Mr. Liu because of his moderate and “misleading” calls for gradual reform.

For some, that has made the government's response puzzling. “The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, an incarcerated Chinese criminal. The Nobel committee once again displayed its arrogance and prejudice against a country that has made the most remarkable economic and social progress in the past three decades,” the official Global Times newspaper wrote on Saturday.

But not everyone in China criticised the award. On Twitter, thousands of young Chinese welcomed the news, promising their own unique tribute to Mr. Liu. They would all eat salmon — in China, the most famous export from Norway.

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