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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to reporters in Edmonton on Oct. 8, 2010.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he hopes Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize will lead China to "look seriously" at releasing the jailed dissident.

Mr. Liu was sentenced last year to 11 years in prison on subversion charges after he co-authored a document calling for greater freedom in China, among other activism. On Friday he was bestowed the peace prize by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, angering the Chinese government.

While congratulating Mr. Liu on the award, Mr. Harper walked a diplomatic line in calling for the activist's freedom. "Our government has expressed concerns in the past about his imprisonment," the Prime Minister told reporters at a news conference in Edmonton.

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"I would hope the fact that he is now a Nobel Peace Prize winner would cause our friends in the Chinese government to look seriously at that issue of his release from prison.

"But, as I say, I think more than anything, we're delighted for him and send him our congratulations."

Mr. Harper has been trying to shore up Canadian-Chinese relations since 2006, when he took public shots against Beijing over human rights issues. Earlier this year, Chinese President Hu Jintao made a carefully choreographed state visit to Ottawa ahead of the G8 and G20 summits in Ontario.

Cheuk Kwan, chairman of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China, welcomed Mr. Harper's declaration and said he hopes China will now free Liu.

"That's a very brave move," Mr. Kwan told The Canadian Press. "I like it because for the first time in many months, Harper is being very open in calling for something that the Chinese do not want to hear."

Mr. Kwan also called the Nobel Committee's decision "a very positive development."

"It's not going to change anything, but it gives hope to a lot of people inside China and outside China."

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In naming Mr. Liu, the committee honoured his more than two decades of advocacy for human rights and peaceful democratic change - from the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989 to the manifesto for political reform that led to his latest jail term.

The award infuriated Chinese officials and Beijing quickly warned that the decision would harm relations with Norway, which is the home of the independent peace prize committee.

U.S. President Barack Obama urged China to quickly release Liu calling him an "eloquent and courageous" supporter of human rights and democracy.

The president praised China for its stunning 30 years of transformative economic growth. "But this award reminds us that political reform has not kept pace, and that the basic human rights of every man, woman and child must be respected," he said.

Mr. Kwan said awarding Mr. Liu the peace prize is a validation of his approach to activism.

"Some people might criticize him as having a very mild approach, meaning that he's not obviously overtly anti-communist like many dissidents had wanted him to be, and, in fact, there's a bit of a split in the pro-democracy camp in terms of whether or not he deserved the peace prize," Mr. Kwan said.

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"He did not call for the downfall [of the Chinese government] He took a very positive approach in saying, "We need political reform. We need freedom of expression and we need human rights.' "

With files from Peter Ray in Montreal

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