The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in Oslo, Norway yesterday was marked by an empty chair due to the absence of the recipient of the award, Chinese author and rights activist Liu Xiaobo. The empty chair in itself sends a powerful image which makes this year’s Peace Prize even more significant.
Last night’s ceremony was the first time in 74 years the prestigious $1.4 million award was not handed over, because Liu is serving an 11-year sentence in China on subversion charges for urging sweeping changes to Beijing’s one-party communist political system.
Liu Xiaobo is an academic who has spent the last twenty-five years writing about Chinese society and calling for non-violent change in China. Despite having written 11 books and over 900 articles, and been imprisoned four times, he was not widely known – until October 8th 2010 when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He is the man the Norwegian Nobel Committee call, “a symbol for all human rights activists in China”.
China was infuriated when the 54-year-old literary critic won, describing the award as an attack on its political and legal system. Since the Peace Prize announcement, many of those closest to Liu Xiaobo, including his wife Liu Xia, have been placed under house arrest to prevent anyone from picking up his prize.
In Beijing, both CNN and BBC TV went blank at 8 p.m. local time, exactly when the Oslo ceremony was taking place. Security outside Liu’s apartment in Beijing was heavy and several dozen journalists were herded away by uniformed police to a cordoned-off area.
The last time a Nobel Peace Prize was not handed out was in 1936, when Adolf Hitler prevented German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky from accepting his award.
China had successfully pressured more than a dozen countries not to attend the ceremony to honour Liu Xiaobo last night. China and 17 other countries have declined to attend, including Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba.
Some 1,000 guests, including ambassadors, royalty and other VIPs took their seats in Oslo’s modernist City Hall for the two-hour ceremony, among them U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Ambassador Barry White. About 100 Chinese dissidents in exile and some activists from Hong Kong were also attending.
Chinese dissident Wan Yanhai, the only one on a list of 140 activists in China invited by Liu’s wife to attend the ceremony, said the jubilation felt by many at Liu’s honor will be tinged with sadness.
“I believe many people will cry, because everything he has done did not do any harm to the country and the people in the world. He just fulfilled his responsibility,” Wan told The Associated Press. “But he suffered a lot of pain for his speeches, journals and advocacy of rights.”
Wan managed to travel to Oslo because he fled to the United States in May after Chinese authorities increased their harassment of his AIDS advocacy group.
Amnesty International said members of Norway’s Chinese community were being pressured by Chinese diplomats to join anti-Nobel protests planned for last night and had been threatened with retaliation if they failed to appear. Outside Parliament, the Norwegian-Chinese Association held a pro-China rally with a handful of people, proclaiming the committee had made a mistake in awarding the prize to Liu.
The Nobel Peace prize can be collected only by the laureate or close family members. Cold War dissidents Andrei Sakharov of the Soviet Union and Lech Walesa of Poland were able to have their wives collect the prizes for them. Myanmar democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi’s award was accepted by her 18-year-old son in 1991.
The ceremony in Oslo was followed by a torchlight parade through Oslo’s streets and a banquet hosted by Norwegian King Harald and Queen Sonja.
In the Swedish capital of Stockholm, the other Nobel laureates were to be honored in a separate ceremony Friday. Winners in literature, physics, chemistry and economics received their awards from Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf, followed by another lavish dinner.
On Thursday, about 100 protesters chanting “Freedom to Liu! Freedom for China!” marched to the Chinese Embassy in Oslo but were thwarted by police from delivering a petition with more than 100,000 signatures urging Liu’s release from prison.
China’s high-pressure tactics continued unabated hours before the ceremony, with China handing out its new Confucius Peace Prize – hastily created as a riposte to the Nobel.
China’s campaign to vilify this year’s recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize has backfired as criticism of Beijing rose and the imprisoned dissident seemed to be turning into a celebrity.
Liu, the world is behind you!