The Norwegian Nobel Committee has awarded the 2010 Peace Prize to Mr. Liu Xiaobo for his work promoting human rights in China. Not surprisingly the award comes over the objections of the Chinese government, which considers Mr. Liu a criminal. We applaud the decision and the outstanding work of Mr. Liu, who has labored for years to bring democracy to his country.

Mr. Liu is a literary critic and social commentator, once known as one of China’s “angry young men” for fiery criticism of his country’s literature, particularly its silence over the Cultural Revolution. He was living overseas when democracy protests seized international attention in 1989. He returned home from the United States, where he was a visiting scholar at Columbia University, to become one of the leading voices for democratization. He anticipated the inevitable outcome of the protests and tried to get the protesters to leave Tiananmen Square. He failed.

He was arrested in the crackdown that followed and jailed for more than a year. He lost his teaching job when he was released, but he continued to press for political reform, human rights and a reassessment of the official verdict on the Tiananmen incident. He was again arrested in 1995, detained for eight months and eventually sentenced to three years in a labor camp. Upon his release, he turned to the Internet to press for reform in China.

In 2005, he joined like-minded advocates to draft “Charter 08,” a manifesto that called for extensive reforms to China’s political system, such as democratic elections, checks and balances, and an independent judiciary. The document was unveiled just before the triumphant celebration of the Beijing elections in 2008. Originally signed by 303 Chinese intellectuals, Charter 08 was posted online and garnered 10,000 more signatories, both in China and overseas. For that act — “inciting subversion of state power” in the charges against him — he was sentenced last year to 11 years in prison.

The Nobel committee honored that work, citing “his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” It noted that “The campaign to establish universal human rights also in China is being waged by many Chinese, both in China itself and abroad. Through the severe punishment meted out to him, Liu has become the foremost symbol of this wide-ranging struggle for human rights in China.”

Predictably, the award has infuriated the Chinese government. Beijing had some weeks ago reportedly warned that giving Mr. Liu the honor would harm Norway’s relations with China, a remark that was repeated after the announcement last week. In a statement posted on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website, a spokesperson noted that “To give the Peace Prize to such a person is completely contrary to the purpose of the award and a blasphemy of the Peace Prize.” It added that “Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who has been sentenced by Chinese judicial departments for violating Chinese law.”

To its credit, the Nobel committee did not back down. It applauded China’s economic success and efforts to lift millions of people out of poverty while noting that the government has not been as quick to protect the rights guaranteed by the Chinese constitution and international conventions that Beijing has signed. Pointedly, the committee reminded the government that “China’s new status must entail increased responsibility.”

Mr. Liu’s work is critically important because his is a Chinese voice calling for democracy and reform in China. Too often, those advocates are foreigners and their criticisms are dismissed as the uninformed imaginings of people who do not understand China. As outsiders, say supporters of the current system in China, they do not appreciate the country’s particular needs and circumstances. That line of attack cannot be used against Mr. Liu.

Unfortunately, for Mr. Liu and his supporters, the prize-winner’s fame is greater outside China than within his country. Many if not most Chinese are unlikely to know him or his work. As TV news broadcasts in China announced the award, screens went black; reportedly Twitter and text messages that included Mr. Liu’s name were blocked. This illustrates the dilemma Beijing faces. Its denunciations of the Nobel Committee for giving Mr. Liu the prize draw attention to him and his ideas. But even if he and his receiving of the Peace Prize come to be better known in China, the fact remains that he is in prison, suffering for his commitment to his ideals.

Mr. Liu and his fellow human rights advocates in China know that the struggle for reform will be a long one. Sudden change will likely undermine their cause. So, they are trying to build a framework for democratic reform of China. In fact, Chinese leaders have acknowledged that reform is not only inevitable, but is desirable. This summer, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in a speech noted — as have other political leaders — that economic modernization can only succeed if there is political modernization.

How that process will unfold is uncertain. The forces resisting change are strong. Mr. Liu’s award, however, is a crucial reminder that time is on the side of the reformers, that they command international attention, respect and support. Congratulations, Mr. Liu. Beijing, release him from prison.

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