Updated at 7:15 a.m. ET on 2014-05-27
Two prominent jailed Chinese dissidents will be presented with an award by a U.S.-based non-government group to mark the 25th anniversary of the bloody military crackdown on the student-led democracy movement at Tiananmen Square.
Amid an ongoing crackdown on even the most moderate critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and New Citizen's Movement founder Xu Zhiyong will be presented with the award in their absence by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in Washington next week.
"Liu Xiaobo and Xu Zhiyong [are] both locked in Chinese prisons because the regime views the power of their ideas as an existential challenge," the group said in a statement on its website.
"Despite [the] brutal crackdown, and 25 years of harsh repression since, brave Chinese voices continue to call for democracy and human rights," it said.
It said Liu, whose 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was presented to a symbolically empty chair, had played "a major role" in advancing democratic ideas and values in China.
Citing Liu's work as editor of the NED-funded Democratic China magazine and his leadership of the Independent Chinese PEN writers' group from 2003-2007, the statement also pointed to Liu's co-authorship of Charter 08, which triggered his arrest on subversion charges.
Legal scholar Xu Zhiyong, who founded the independent, non-government Open Constitution Initiative that campaigned for the rule of law in China, will receive the award alongside Liu, also in absentia, NED said.
"Dr. Xu's landmark article in 2012, China Needs a New Citizens' Movement, helped define and encourage hundreds of initiatives to help citizens assert their rights and demand accountability," the group said on its website.
The Democracy Award is a small-scale replica of the Goddess of Democracy constructed by students in Tiananmen Square during weeks of protests and hunger-strikes that brought Beijing to a standstill in the spring and early summer of 1989.
The original statue was unveiled on May 30, but mowed down by a tank when the People's Liberation Army (PLA) moved in to disperse protesters on the night of June 3, 1989.
The statue has served as the symbol for the award since 1991.
In Hong Kong, the only Chinese city that has been able to hold annual mass vigils to commemorate those who died in the Tiananmen Square crackdown, democratic lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung welcomed the award.
But he said Liu Xiaobo's wife Liu Xia, who has been held under house arrest at the couple's Beijing home since October 2010, shouldn't be forgotten.
"A case like Liu Xia's, where her punishment has been decided at the highest levels of leadership, is very rare," Leung said.
He said the award would remind Beijing that many outside China still cared about the country's nascent democracy and human rights movements.
"The Chinese Communist Party thinks that other countries have less of an influence on it than before; that they are the nouveau riche on the block," Leung said.
"But other countries need to understand that we can't rely on diplomatic channels [to put pressure on Beijing]," he said. "We need to make use of all sorts of methods at the civil society level to support them."
'They will thank them'
Meanwhile, previous winner and rights lawyer Li Boguang, who picked up the award in 2008, said both activists should be congratulated.
"I think what they each did was equal to the other; they both wanted to see China move towards the rule of law, so Chinese people could be treated with dignity, and the whole of China become more civilized," Li said.
"But the situation regarding the rule of law in China is continuing to get worse," he added.
"I think the Chinese people will remember what Liu Xiaobo and Xu Zhiyong did for them, and they will thank them," Li said.
U.S.-based activist and documentary filmmaker Hua Ze will receive the Democracy Award on Xu Zhiyong's behalf, the NED statement said.
It didn't elaborate on who would pick up Liu's award, however.
Dozens of people linked in some way to the New Citizens Movement have been detained over the past year, according to Amnesty International, while the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group said that a total of seven activists linked to the movement have now been handed formal jail terms.
Xu was handed a four-year jail term in January for "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order," while Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo was jailed for 11 years for "incitement to subvert state power" in 2009, a year after the publication of Charter 08, which called for sweeping political change and a constitutional government.
In May 2012, Xu penned an article titled "China Needs a New Citizens Movement," which is believed to have spurred the loose nationwide network of activists to action.
The article called on responsible citizens to oppose corruption and work to support disadvantaged groups, as well as holding political meetings and collaborating to achieve these goals.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.