Oct. 6 (Bloomberg) -- Two Chinese dissidents are among this year's Nobel Peace Prize contenders, prompting moves by leaders in Beijing to pre-emptively counter possible negative attention on their human rights record.
Gao Zhisheng and Hu Jia are deemed top candidates by Oslo's International Peace Research Institute, which handicaps competition for the award that will be announced Oct. 10. It's preceded by Nobel prizes for medicine today, physics tomorrow, chemistry on Oct. 8 and literature on Oct. 9.
A decision by the Norwegian Nobel Committee in Oslo to honor Hu or Gao may increase tensions between the West and the government of the world's most populous nation.
``I hope the committee will make the right decision and not challenge the original purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize or hurt Chinese people's feelings,'' said Liu Jianchao, spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, on Sept. 25. The prize should go to those who ``truly contributed'' to world peace, he said.
Stein Toennesson, the International Peace Research Institute's director, said the prize ``will be awarded to someone active in defending human rights'' because the Dec. 10 bestowing ceremony coincides with the 60th anniversary of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Nobel committee may have decided against honoring Chinese dissidents in recent years to avoid offending the government and encourage improvements before this year's Beijing Olympics, Toennesson said on his institute's Web Site.
The panel ``may see the time as ripe'' he said, because ``the Olympic Games did not bring the improvement many had hoped for.'' China ``remains an authoritarian state that doesn't respect human rights,'' Toennesson added in an interview.
Gao, born in 1964, is a lawyer who has protested the treatment of members of the Falun Gong movement, Toennesson said. On Sept. 22, 2007, ``he was taken away from his home,'' where he had been under house arrest, ``and has not been heard of since,'' he said.
u, 35, has been outspoken on environmental and AIDS matters and more recently has criticized the treatment of Gao, Toennesson said. After addressing the European Parliament via audio in November, Hu was detained Dec. 27 and sentenced to prison for 3 1/2 years in April for subversion, Xinhua News Agency reported at the time.
They ``were arrested well before the Olympic Games,'' Toennesson said, ``so they could not express their opinion in public.''
Corinna-Barbara Francis, a researcher on East Asia for Amnesty International in London, said Hu now ``may well be the most prominent'' Chinese dissident. ``He's come to the attention of the international community and has continuously been pushing the envelope in terms of human rights.''
Njaal Hoestmaelingen, a researcher at the Oslo-based Norwegian Center for Human Rights, said picking a Chinese dissident may be counterproductive to the cause.
``The Chinese reaction may be to make such work far more difficult, and make it more difficult for Norway and other Western countries to collaborate with China on promoting human rights there,'' Hoestmaelingen said.
China's human rights record became the focus of international protests in the months leading up to the August Olympics after it cracked down on separatist riots in Tibet in March. The Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
According to Toennesson, other possible candidates for this year's 10 million-krona ($1.5 million) prize include:
-- Thich Quang Do, 79, Vietnamese democracy activist and Buddhist monk.
-- Lidia Yusupova, 47, Russian lawyer and campaigner for Chechen war victims.
-- Martti Ahtisaari, 71, who helped broker peace in Indonesia's Aceh province in 2005.
-- Bulambo Lembelembe Josue, 47, a Congolese pastor who last week won the Norwegian Rafto award, given for promoting intellectual, political and economic freedom. The Nobel has been given four times to Rafto winners, who include Yusupova and Do.
-- The Cluster Munition Coalition, an alliance of 300 organizations campaigning to ban such weapons.
-- Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Pakistan's deposed chief justice.
-- The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization or World Food Programme, which both combat hunger at a time of rising prices.
-- Human Rights Watch, an advocacy organization based in a New York City.
Last year's prize was shared by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, 60, and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Previous laureates include Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Theresa. Living laureates, governments, university chancellors, among others, are allowed to propose candidates.
This year, 33 groups and 164 individuals have been nominated, one of the largest groups in the prize's history, said Geir Lundestad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, which doesn't confirm or deny nominations.
Picking a winner is ``always difficult and we do feel a big responsibility, especially given the growing attention'' on the prize, Lundestad said.
The prize, first awarded in 1901, is one of five bequeathed in the will of Swedish industrialist and inventor Alfred Nobel. Sweden picks the winners of physics, medicine, chemistry and literature awards. The Norwegian Nobel Committee selects the peace prize recipient. The economics prize was instituted later by the Swedish central bank.