BEIJING – The Nobel Peace Prize was placed Friday on an empty chair in Oslo’s city hall, creating a potent new symbol of the struggle for human rights and political reform in China.
Laureate Liu Xiaobo would have been sitting in that chair, were he not locked away in an obscure prison in China.
Liu, a poet and essayist, is serving an 11-year sentence for penning a manifesto calling for the end of one-party rule and greater freedoms in China.
An enraged Chinese government dismissed the prize as an “anti-China farce” honoring a “criminal,” and successfully lobbied 18 countries to join its boycott of the ceremony. Chinese censors blocked television and websites carrying news of the event.
The prize became a dividing line between two distinct visions of international relations.
On one side is the Nobel organization, with its long-standing position that human rights are universal values.
The other side is exemplified by China, where the government is fostering economic growth without a corresponding possibility of freedom. On Friday, China was joined in its boycott by two kinds of allies: small countries in need of Chinese business and, in far greater number, nations that also bridle at foreign criticism of their human rights practices.
The last time a government blocked the recipient and his representatives from accepting the prize was in 1936, and the country was Nazi Germany.
That comparison, like the awarding of the prize to Liu, infuriates Chinese officials. In honoring Liu, government spokespeople and state media argue, the Nobel committee is an arm of conspiracy meant to weaken and embarrass China.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters in Beijing this week that attempts to use the Nobel to pressure China or stop its development would fail.
“The Nobel Prize committee must admit that they are the minority, that China and the vast majority of countries and people are against their practices,” Jiang said.
Liu, 54, is a literature professor, poet and essayist who first rose to prominence in 1989 when he rushed home from the United States to participate in the demonstrations on Tiananmen Square. He joined hunger strikers camped out on the square, and later, as tanks roared into the capital, convinced some of the students to flee. Liu’s cool head and persuasive entreaties are credited with saving some of the students’ lives.
From that time, the government branded Liu a subversive. His writings were unwelcome in China, and he served multiple stints in prisons and labor camps.
In 2008, Liu wrote the now-banned document known as “Charter 08.” The manifesto was signed by hundreds of Chinese dissidents.
Liu was convicted of inciting subversion against the state and trying to overthrow the government. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
In the weeks since the Nobel committee announced Oct. 8 that Liu would be honored, white-knuckled struggle within China has testified to the depth of the hostility racking the Communist Party.
“It’s a massive embarrassment,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “Just look at how much effort China has put into … airbrushing any sign of dissatisfaction, and then suddenly all this has been reduced to ashes in two months.”
Even before the prize was announced, China’s edginess was evident. High-ranking Chinese diplomats leaned on the Nobel committee to dissuade them from honoring Liu.
Liu’s wife was not allowed to go to Oslo to accept the prize in his place. She is being held virtually incommunicado in a Beijing flat. Many of Liu’s friends and fellow dissidents have been placed under house arrest or been detained trying to leave the country.
In the shadow of official anger, China’s beleaguered dissidents embraced this year’s prize as a shout of encouragement. Human rights activists emphasized the prize as evidence that, even as the international community sometimes appears to be falling over itself to do business with China, the world is still not entirely prepared to sweep political repression and other abuses under the rug.
“This is very precious. It’s a huge encouragement for all the people who fight for democracy in China, because it shows the world has not forgotten about them,” said Sun Wenguang, a prominent Chinese dissident and friend of Liu’s. “If the Chinese government continues to act this way, it will become more and more isolated in the world.”
In Oslo, Norwegian Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland said Liu wished to dedicate the prize to “the lost souls of June 4,” the day in 1989 when Chinese troops opened fire on demonstrators gathered on Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds and perhaps thousands.
“We can say that Liu reminds us of Nelson Mandela,” Jagland said, referring to the 1993 Peace Prize recipient (along with F. W. de Klerk), an anti-apartheid activist who served 27 years in prison before being released and elected president of South Africa. “Liu has only exercised his civil rights. He has not done anything wrong. He must be released.”