By DOUG MELLGREN and IAN MacDOUGALL
OSLO — Chinese dissidents are leading the odds of winning the Nobel Peace Prize this year, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the 60th since the establishment of the People's Republic of China.
Speculation on the chances of Chinese dissidents for the peace prize, announced this year on Friday, has been a yearly ritual. But this time there's a stronger current of expectation surrounding critics of China's long-standing communist regime.
Emerging superpower China remains deeply sensitive about criticism of its bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square. And awarding dissidents would be a major poke-in-the-eye in the year the communist regime celebrates its diamond jubilee.
The Nobel Peace Prize committee is famous for making grand symbolic gestures aimed at influencing the world agenda, as in 1989 when, in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre, the prize went to the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
U.S. President Barack Obama is thought to have been nominated but it's unclear on what grounds.
Nobel watchers say he could be a contender for next year's prize, following his lofty call for global nuclear disarmament at the United Nations last month, which came after the nomination deadline for the 2009 prize.
Other possible contenders include human rights activists from Colombia, Jordan, Russia, Afghanistan and Vietnam.
Despite the strong buzz surrounding Chinese dissidents, the Nobel committee said the race wasn't over.
"We have not come to a final conclusion," the committee's nonvoting secretary Geir Lundestad told The Associated Press late last week. "We will meet again and decide."
In his 1895 will, award founder Alfred Nobel stipulated that the peace prize should go "to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses."
Unlike the other Nobel Prizes, which are awarded by Swedish institutions, he said the peace prize should be given out by a five-member committee elected by the Norwegian Parliament. Sweden and Norway were united under the same crown at the time of Nobel's death.
The committee has taken a wide interpretation of Nobel's guidelines, expanding the prize beyond peace mediation to include efforts to combat poverty, disease and climate change. Some experts believe the committee will turn to human rights this year, because it hasn't picked a human rights activist since tapping Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi for the prize in 2003.
"Twenty years since Tiananmen Square? Maybe a Chinese?" said Dan Smith, of the London-based International Alert peace group.
Possible candidates could be Hu Jia, a human rights activist and an outspoken critic of the Chinese government, who was sentenced last year to a three-and-a-half-year prison term for "inciting subversion of state power." Another could be Wei Jingsheng, who spent 17 years in Chinese prisons for urging reforms of China's communist system. He now lives in the United States.
Chinese dissidents also topped speculation in 2008, when the 10 million kronor ($1.4 million) award went to Finland's ex-president Martti Ahtisaari for decades of work as a peace mediator. That year, Chinese officials reacted angrily to the mere suggestion that a critic of its regime might win the prize.
The Nobel committee, however, has tended to ignore such pressure. Twenty years ago, it brushed aside Beijing's threats of diplomatic reprisals and awarded the prize to the Dalai Lama. This year also marks 50 years since China seized full control of Tibet.
Both Hu and Wei are among the favorites according to Irish bookmaker PaddyPower, which also gives low odds to Obama.
Obama embraced the goal of a nuclear-free world in an agenda-setting speech in April and renewed that commitment as the 15-nation U.N. Security Council last month unanimously approved an ambitious strategy to stop the proliferation of atomic weapons.
"In many ways we have a strong candidate for next year, Obama and other world leaders" who backed the U.N. resolution, said Jan Egeland, director of Oslo's Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. "But too late for this year."
Egeland was one of the key architects of the Oslo accords, a much-lauded series of negotiations between Israel and Palestine that came in 1993. Parties on both sides shared the peace prize the following year.
Kristian Berg Harpviken, the director of the Peace Research Institute, Oslo, said his top guess was Piedad Cordoba, a senator and leader of Colombians for Peace, an organization whose aim is to facilitate peace negotiations between the government and the country's leftist FARC guerrillas.
Harpviken, who stressed that the institute has no inside information, also mentioned Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, a philosophy professor in Jordan who advocates interfaith dialogue in a region shot through with sectarian violence, and Afghan human rights activist Sima Samar. She currently leads the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and serves as the U.N. special envoy to Darfur.
As always, the prize committee has remained tightlipped about who's been nominated, saying only that a record 205 groups and individuals were put forward by the nomination deadline. The list of each year's nominees is kept sealed for half a century.
Those with nomination rights include members of national governments; university professors in history, political science, philosophy, law and theology; and former peace prize laureates.
The names of some candidates are known because those making the nomination have announced their pick.
Egeland, for example, said he nominated Denis Mukwege, a physician in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo who opened a clinic to help rape victims.
"He is working for the people in the biggest war," he said. "Sometimes the committee has to address the biggest wars."