Chair left empty for jailed Chinese Nobel winner

Image: Norwegian Nobel committee chairman Jagland sits next to an empty chair during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony at Oslo City Hall
Norwegian Nobel committee chairman Jagland sits next to an empty chair during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony at Oslo City Hall.Scanpix Norway / Reuters
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Clapping solemnly, dignitaries in Norway honored this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, with an empty chair.

Friday's ceremony was the first time in 74 years the award was not handed over. Liu wasn't able to collect the prestigious $1.4 million payout in Oslo on Friday because he is being held in a Chinese prison. China was infuriated when the 54-year-old literary critic won.

In 1936, Adolf Hitler prevented German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky from accepting the award.

China repeated its claim Saturday that the world is meddling in its affairs. The ceremony was censored in China, which has seen a clampdown on dissidents and some news websites blocked in recent days.

"We oppose anyone making an issue of this matter, and oppose anyone interfering in China's internal affairs in any way," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a statement posted early Saturday on the ministry's website.

On Friday, police in Beijing stepped up patrols at key points, including Tiananmen Square, where witnesses say hundreds or thousands were killed when troops crushed 1989 reform protests, and Liu's apartment, where his wife is believed to be under house arrest. Authorities also tightened a clampdown on dissidents.

In China, both CNN and BBC TV channels went black at 8 p.m. local time for nearly an hour, exactly when the Oslo ceremony took place. Security outside Liu's Beijing apartment was heavy and several dozen journalists were herded by police to a cordoned-off area.

But there were no signs of trouble in the Chinese capital where memories of Tiananmen have faded for many as China has risen as a global economic and political power while guarding the Communist Party's tight hold on society.

China also pressured foreign diplomats to stay away from the Nobel ceremony. China and 17 other countries declined to attend, including Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba. At least 46 of the 65 countries with embassies in Oslo accepted invitations. Serbia, which had said it would stay away, announced Thursday that it had changed its mind and would attend.

Those accepting were not formally listed, but they include most European countries, the United States, India, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and South Africa.

In Washington, President Barack Obama said he regretted that Liu and his wife were not allowed to go to the ceremony as he and first lady Michelle Obama did when he won the peace prize last year.

"Liu Xiaobo is far more deserving of this award than I was," he said.

Empty chair to represent LiuThe 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.

"We can to a certain degree say that China with its 1.3 billion people is carrying mankind's fate on its shoulders," Norwegian Nobel committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said at the ceremony in Oslo's grey-walled City Hall.

The thousand guests rose to a standing ovation when he called for Liu's release.

"If the country proves capable of developing a social market economy with full civil rights, this will have a huge favorable impact on the world. If not, there is a danger of social and economic crises arising in the country, with negative consequences for us all."

The absence of the laureate was symbolized at the ceremony by an empty chair and a large portrait of Liu, bespectacled and smiling. After his speech, Jagland placed the Nobel award on the chair, amid applause.

Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann read out an address made by Liu, who was closely involved in Tiananmen and more recently helped found the reform group Charter 08, to a court during his trial for subversion in December 2009.

"Hatred can rot away at a person's intelligence and conscience. (The) enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society's tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation's progress toward freedom and democracy," the address said.

But the former literature professor saw cause for hope.

"I, filled with optimism, look forward to the advent of a future, free China. For there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme."

Jagland said Chinese attempts to control the internet showed its weakness. "Information technology cannot be abolished. It will continue to open societies."

"Liu has told his wife that he would like this year's Peace Prize to be dedicated to 'the lost souls from the 4th of June.' It is a pleasure for us to fulfil his wish."

Among the 1,000 guests at the City Hall ceremony were House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Ambassador Barry White.

China's "very public tantrum has generated even more critical attention inside and outside China and, ironically, emphasized the significance of Liu Xiaobo's message of respect for human rights," Salil Shetty, Amnesty International's secretary general, said Thursday.

In a chaotic ceremony Thursday in Beijing, former Taiwanese Vice President Lien Chan was honored with the first Confucius Peace Prize — intended to put forth China's idea of peace.

Lien was absent and his aides seemed not to know anything about it. Instead, an unidentified, ponytailed girl accepted it on his behalf.

Tan Changliu, chairman of the awards committee, said the new prize should not be linked with Liu.