The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was today placed on an empty chair in Oslo’s city hall in a symbolic act to mark its award to Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese writer and pro-democracy activist who is serving a jail sentence in his home country.
In the centrepiece of a simple, moving ceremony watched by an audience of 1,000 people, among them Norway‘s king and queen and a clutch of fellow Chinese dissidents, the chairman of the Nobel committee, Thorbjoern Jagland, placed the citation and medal on a simple, blue upholstered seat on a small row of chairs to the right of the hall’s stage.
“We regret that the laureate is not present here today,” Jagland told the audience, who stood several times during the ceremony to applaud.
“He is in isolation in a prison in north-east China. Nor can the laureate’s wife, Liu Xia, or his closest relatives be here with us. No medal or diploma will therefore be presented here today. This fact alone shows that the award was necessary and appropriate. We congratulate Liu Xiaobo with this year’s peace prize.”
It is the first time since 1936, when the German journalist and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky was stopped by Nazi authorities from travelling to Oslo, that the peace prize has been awarded in this way. On three other occasions – Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991, Lech Walesa in 1983 and Andrei Sakharov in 1975 – family members have had to collect the prize instead.
While Liu was jailed for 11 years last year for subversion, his wife remains under house arrest, meaning no one could collect the award for him.
The decision to award the prize to Liu, a former university academic radicalized by the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest – Jagland said the award was “dedicated to the lost souls of 4 June” – has enraged China, which insists Liu is a common criminal.
Beijing used its increasing economic heft to press 18 countries with diplomatic representation in Oslo not to send diplomats to the ceremony. Pakistan, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Argentina were among those boycotting the event.
Authorities in China launched a severe crackdown on other dissidents ahead of the ceremony, described by rights groups as one of the most severe for years. Some were placed under house arrest, others moved forcibly from Beijing or deprived of phone and internet connections. Some foreign websites, such as the BBC, were suppressed and there were even apparent attempts to censor the web use of pictures of an empty chair, a symbol for Liu’s prize.
In his absence, the Norwegian actor Liv Ullman spoke on Liu’s behalf, reading out extracts of his last public address, in December last year to the court which was about to jail him. Explaining his philosophy of protest, it has as a central message: “I have no enemies, and no hatred.” Several audience members wiped away tears during a section in which he described his love for Liu Xia.
The ceremony ended with a performance by a children’s choir – a request from Liu in the one message he was able to send from prison via his wife.