China's Nobel Winner: No-Show Speaking Volumes

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Peter Parks / AFP / Getty Images

A plainclothes police officer tries to stop photos from being taken outside the house of the wife of jailed Chinese Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo

As China's human-rights activists prepare for their moment on the world stage, they have gone noticeably silent at home. On Dec. 3, the Norwegian Nobel Committee will honor Liu Xiaobo, the winner of this year's Peace Prize, for his work promoting human rights in China. But Liu will almost certainly remain locked away in northeastern China. And his wife Liu Xia, who was his chief representative outside the prison's walls, is now under house arrest. After her husband's award was announced on Oct. 8, she was initially able to take a few phone calls and communicate via e-mail and Twitter. But those channels have now gone silent.

As none of Liu's family seems likely to make it to the ceremony in Oslo, the Nobel Committee has said it will not hand out his medal or diploma. Instead, Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann will read from some of Liu's writings. And the organizers are expected to include a symbolic representation of the laureate's ongoing detention. "It is up to the committee to decide, but I expect there might be an empty chair on the stage," says Yang Jianli, a Massachusetts-based Chinese activist. "That empty seat will speak loudly. It serves as a reminder to the world what the situation is in China, and also remind it once again how difficult it is for China's democracy movement and how much of a sacrifice we have made in past 30 years."

Chinese authorities reacted angrily to the Nobel Committee's awarding of the Peace Prize to Liu, a literary critic who became a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations that were crushed by the Chinese military, killing hundreds. He has spent much of the time since in prison or under surveillance, refusing any deals, including one reportedly offered since the Nobel was awarded, to accept exile.

By not allowing Liu or a direct family member to accept his award, the Chinese authorities hope to diminish the importance of the ceremony, but in so doing they create an unflattering parallel. The last time the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony did not have a representative of the laureate to accept the award was in 1936. That year the winner, German journalist and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, was moved from a Nazi concentration camp to a hospital where, under police custody, he was treated for tuberculosis. While the German authorities said he was free to travel, according to his official Nobel biography, "secret police documents indicate that Ossietzky was refused a passport."

The 1975 winner, Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, was not allowed to attend, but his wife Elena Bonner represented him at the ceremony. She noted that as she spoke, her husband was standing outside a courthouse in Vilnius, Lithuania, awaiting news of his friend Sergei Kovalev, a scientist who was on trial for "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda." Burmese democracy advocate and political leader Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest when she was awarded the Peace Prize in 1991. Her sons accepted the prize for her. Since then, Suu Kyi has spent all but a year and a half in detention for her opposition to Burma's ruling junta. She was most recently released on Nov. 13, leaving Liu the only Peace Prize laureate in detention.

Beijing has pressured other governments to boycott the ceremony. So far, 19 countries, including Russia, Kazakhstan, Cuba, Morocco, Iran, the Philippines, Ukraine and China, have said they will snub the event. Yang said he was angered by the decision of Navanethem Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, to not attend the ceremony, citing a previously scheduled engagement celebrating Human Rights Day. Previously, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was criticized for not pushing for Liu's release when he met with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Chinese authorities have also blocked several human-rights advocates from flying out of the country — including lawyer Mo Shaoping, law professor He Weifang, artist Ai Weiwei and economist Mao Yushi — presumably in fear that they would attempt to attend. Human-rights groups estimate that since the prize was awarded two months ago, at least three dozen activists have been put under house arrest. And like the case of Liu Xia, the restrictions seem to have heightened as the Nobel ceremony draws closer.

Zeng Jinyan, an activist and the wife of jailed dissident Hu Jia, wrote via Twitter on Monday that six or seven unidentified men visited Hu's parents' house. The men were assigned to watch over Hu's 73-year-old mother, who laughed and shook their hands, Zeng wrote. Chinese author and activist Yu Jie was put under house arrest on Oct. 18, followed by his wife a week later. Yu's latest book, China's Greatest Actor: Wen Jiabao, was a takedown of China's Premier, who is one of the country's more respected politicians and generally seen as a man of the people. But despite the criticism of such a high-ranking leader, Yu believes it wasn't the book, published in August, that got him into trouble; it was Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Prize.

For a period while under house arrest, Yu was still able to make some phone calls and communicate via e-mail, instant message and Twitter. While he could order books online and call to have groceries delivered, Beijing police had set up a table outside his apartment in a suburb on the city's southeastern edge to ensure that neither he nor his wife could leave. "They won't let us take half a step outside," he told TIME last month. "Even prisoners have time to get fresh air." On Nov. 12, he told his 17,000 Twitter followers that he was reading Paul Johnson's A History of the American People. That was the last time Yu was heard from.

"This is really a case of a disappearance," says Bao Pu, Yu's Hong Kong–based editor. "One possibility is he is confined to his house with no phone, no Internet and therefore no contact with the outside world." When a TIME reporter visited Yu's apartment building this week at a housing complex called Spring's Vitality, three men were stationed behind the building's main door and at least three others patrolled outside. "You don't need to know who I am," said one of the men as he escorted the reporter out of the complex.

On Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu accused the Nobel committee of "orchestrating an anti-China farce," and called supporters of the Peace Prize "a few clowns." (An organization reportedly working with the Ministry of Culture has also just awarded the inaugural Confucius Peace Prize to Taiwan's former vice president Lien Chan in the lead up the the Oslo ceremony.) Among the Chinese government's criticisms of the Nobel Peace Prize is that giving it to Liu Xiaobo, who was convicted by a Beijing court on Christmas Day 2009 of "inciting subversion of state power," is an affront to the country's legal system. But human-rights activists like the editor Bao Pu, the son of high-ranking former official Bao Tong, who now lives under house arrest in Beijing, point out that the detentions of Liu's wife and other supporters haven't been legally authorized. "What they are doing is highlighting exactly the problem," Bao Pu says. "The Chinese legal system is absurd."