The considerable abilities that must be necessary to keep control of a nation of more than a billion people do not necessarily translate into even the most elementary skill at public relations. Any PR consultant could have told the Chinese government that the least damaging thing it could do for its own reputation would be to quietly release dissident Liu Xiaobo and allow him to travel to Oslo to accept his Nobel Peace Prize.

But China instead kept Liu in jail and his friends and family under house arrest, so the prize was awarded on Friday to an empty chair: a piece of symbolism that was a much more vivid condemnation of China than any appearance by Liu could have been.

Previous winners such as Andrei Sakharov (1975), Lech Walesa (1983) and Aung San Suu Kyi (1991) have been represented by family members because they were either not allowed out of their countries or were afraid they would not be allowed to return. Ditto Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who won the literature prize in 1970. But Liu is the first laureate since German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky in 1935 to be unrepresented in Oslo.

The Chinese government’s rhetoric against Liu is markedly similar to that of the Soviet Union and its client states in the Cold War era. But much else has changed, and in the words of the Nobel committee there is a note of optimism, almost triumphalism, that would have been inappropriate 30 years ago:

“The human rights activists in China are defenders of the international order and the main trends in the global community. Viewed in that light, they are thus not dissidents, but representatives of the main lines of development in today’s world.”

Even China is a much freer and more open society than it was in 1980.

Its rulers no longer deny that democracy and human rights are desirable, but they insist those things must be interpreted in Chinese terms, not slavishly copied from Western models.

Hence Hu Xijin, editor of a state-owned newspaper quoted in Friday’s Age: “Telling China to adopt American or Australian-style democracy? Won’t China become chaotic if it does so? My own experience tells me it certainly will.”

This too is a well-worn theme, but its previous exponents have been more prominent on the right than the left: the “Asian values” school of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, with their assertion that human rights are culturally specific rather than universal, and that to impose a Western model on Asian countries was imperialist and illegitimate.

The Nobel committee’s award is a patient but eloquent refutation of that idea. It proclaims, in more forthright terms than most Western leaders would dare to use, that China’s own interests as much as anyone’s are bound up with the need for genuine democracy, and that its treatment of Liu Xiaobo is a sign of weakness, not strength.

Liu is no revolutionary: he is dedicated to non-violent change, and everyone must hope that China’s transition to democracy can be accomplished by peaceful means. We might even hope that its leaders own ineptitude in the PR stakes will hasten the day when they will have to bow before the pressure for reform.