BEIJING (Reuters) - It was meant to be China's answer to the Nobel Peace Prize, a timely riposte to the honoring of jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo. But the winner of the first "Confucius Peace Prize" didn't even bother to show up.
Instead, it was left to a scared-looking girl, whom organizers did not properly identify, to collect a stack of bills for the $15,000 cash prize meant for former Taiwan vice-president Lien Chan.
Lien had won the prize for his efforts to improve relations between China and Taiwan, the self-ruled island Beijing claims as its own, beating out five other nominees, including past Nobel Peace Prize winners Mahmoud Abbas and Nelson Mandela.
"We believe that Mr. Lien Chan, with his knowledge, dignity, and political wisdom, would not refuse peace, and he would not refuse this prize," Confucius Prize organizer Tan Changliu gamely told a packed news conference in Beijing.
Lien, now honorary chairman of Taiwan's ruling Nationalist or KMT party, has not commented publicly on the prize.
Lai Shin-yuan, chairwoman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, told Taiwan lawmakers that the island's government found the prize "amusing."
"As far as we know it is an unofficial prize. We don't plan to make any comment on it," she said. "But we do find it amusing."
Lien travelled to China in 2005 in his then capacity as chairman of the KMT in the first such trip since the Communists won control of the mainland in 1949 after forcing the KMT to flee into exile in Taiwan.
He has since visited China numerous times and had several meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
The prize, offered before more than 100 journalists in a cramped windowless conference room in a Beijing office block, was first suggested in an opinion piece in the popular Chinese tabloid the Global Times three weeks ago.
Its timing is no coincidence, coming the day before the Nobel is formally awarded to Liu in Oslo, an event that has prompted a slew of invective from the Chinese government for honoring a man it calls a subversive and a criminal.
Tan said China's prize had nothing to do with the government, though an invite to the ceremony had suggested involvement of a department under the Chinese Culture Ministry. Ministry officials said they had never heard of the prize.
"This prize is from the people of China, who love and support peace. It has no relation to the Chinese government, the Ministry of Culture or Beijing Normal University," said Tan, referring to the university where his resume says he got his doctorate.
When pressed by journalists on claims in a press release that the prize had been chosen by "democratic voting by Internet users," Tan admitted that no Internet voting had occurred, swiftly adding next year's prize would incorporate voting.
Mainstream Chinese media have not reported on the prize, and Tan refused to answer questions on the merits of pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo's Nobel award.
But the awarding of the prize bore at least one resemblance to what will transpire at Friday's Nobel ceremony -- its recipient was not in attendance.
The Chinese government, furious after Liu won the Nobel Peace Prize in October, has not allowed Liu or his wife to go to the Nobel gala in Oslo. Liu's wife and numerous Chinese activists have been put under house arrest ahead of the Nobel ceremony.
Additional reporting by Maxim Duncan in Beijing and Lin Miaojung in Taipei; Editing by Miral Fahmy