The Nobel Peace Prize committee held its award ceremony on Friday with an empty chair for imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, this year’s winner whose case has both sharply focused Western criticism of China’s lack of human rights and unleashed a government crackdown by Beijing on the country’s small group of political activists.
In his keynote address in Oslo, committee chair Thorbjorn Jagland not only called for Liu’s immediate release, but warned of the perils of China continuing to grow as an economic superpower without parallel development of its civil and legal institutions.
“We can to a certain degree say that China with its 1.3 billion people is carrying mankind’s fate on its shoulders,” Jagland said. “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.”
Liu had been taken into custody in December 2008 for his role in drafting a political manifesto known as Charter 08 that called for greater political freedoms in China, many of which are guaranteed by the nation’s own constitution. Then last December, Liu, a 54-year-old former literature professor, was given an 11-year prison sentence for attempting to subvert the state.
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The Nobel ceremony, which began with trumpeters heralding the king and queen of Norway, was a very long way from the prison cell in northeast China that Liu is said to now share with five other inmates.
“It indicates the current situation of China, only an empty chair can represent the situation in China,” said Pu Zhiqiang, a leading Beijing human rights lawyer who said he’s followed by police everywhere he goes.
Chinese leaders ensured that no one would be present to accept the committee’s gold medal and $1.5 million check by keeping Liu’s wife, Liu Xia under house arrest. It also forbade any other members of Liu’s extended family, and in some cases just like-minded individuals, from leaving China. After his speech, Jagland simply placed the Nobel medal and commendation on an empty blue chair.
It was the first time that neither the winner nor a close associate was able to claim the prize since 1935 when Nazi Germany prevented pacifist Carl von Ossietzky from attending.
“Mr. Liu reminds us that human dignity also depends upon the advance of democracy, open society, and the rule of law,” President Obama said in a statement on Friday. “The values he espouses are universal, his struggle is peaceful, and he should be released as soon as possible.”
In the nine weeks after the Nobel committee announced that Liu was being recognized, Chinese officials pushed a propaganda campaign to brand Liu a “criminal,” asked other nations to boycott the ceremony in Oslo, and put dozens of Chinese activists under house arrest.
On Friday, the People’s Daily Chinese state newspaper ran an editorial explaining Liu’s absence from the ceremony in Oslo: “He has violated Chinese law and is currently serving his third jail term. This is simply because the rule of law in any country on earth does not permit an inmate to ‘accept the award’ in a fashionable way.”
Liu’s other two stays in Chinese prison or labor camps stemmed from his pro-democracy work.
On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu had told reporters that “I would like to say to those at the Nobel committee, they are orchestrating an anti-China farce by themselves.”
She added: “We are not changing because of interference by a few clowns and we will not change our path.”
The campaign to harass dissidents in China hit a fever pitch in recent days with some 300 people detained, put under surveillance or told to temporarily leave Beijing, according to figures compiled by Human Rights Watch.
“This is really a high point (of such activity) in recent history,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch's Asia division.
Those dissidents still able to answer the phone on Friday said the empty chair in Oslo was a haunting symbol of life in today’s China, where a wide array of security services can make those who speak out against the government, especially the Communist Party, simply disappear.
“The government’s understanding of universal values is far from what they actually are,” said Li Fangping, a rights lawyer who said he’d been escorted by police to the Beijing airport before flying to an undisclosed province and told not to discuss the Nobel Prize.
Pu, the fellow attorney in Beijing, said he’d been called to a meeting this week with a straightforward message: “State security told me that I should not talk too much on the 9th, 10th and 11th.”
Wu Wei, an activist in the southern city of Guangzhou, also said he had “just come back from tea”– a euphemism for often threatening conversations with security officers.
“The state security in Guangzhou warned me that I should not participate in any activities today,” said Wu, who like Liu Xiaobo is a member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, a chapter of the free-speech advocacy PEN organization.
Bequelin, the Human Rights Watch analyst, said that beyond the anecdotal accounts of dissidents having a tough time in China, the broader picture is deeply troubling.
He described the past two decades of Western economic engagement with China that was expected to result in governmental and societal reform.
“This has proven to be brutally wrong,” Bequelin said. “What we have is a China that’s far more powerful and has more reach around the world, but has not shed any of its autocratic ways.”