Nobel Peace Prize Is Bittersweet for Jailed Dissident

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Heiko Junge / Pool / Scanpix Norway / Reuters

Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, looks down at the Nobel certificate and medal on the empty chair where this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, would have sat, during the ceremony at Oslo City Hall

The ceremony Friday, Dec. 10, awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo in absentia drew the world's attention to the jailed Chinese dissident's courageous struggle for human rights. But history suggests the award may not alter his plight.

The 1991 laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, was also absent from her award ceremony; the charismatic figurehead of Burma's democracy movement had been placed under house arrest in Rangoon by a brutal military junta. Like Polish opposition leader Lech Walesa and Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov before her, Suu Kyi was forced to send someone in her place — her 18-year-old son Alexander attended the Oslo ceremony. The then chairman of Norway's Nobel Committee, Francis Sejersted, sounded a somber note, warning, "We must face up to the likelihood that this will not be the last occasion on which a Peace Prize laureate is unable to attend."

Nineteen years later — with military rule still entrenched in Burma — Sejersted has been proved right. This year, though, there was no proxy; Friday was the first time a Nobel Peace Prize winner was not represented at the ceremony since 1936, when the award for the previous year went to German anti-Nazi activist Carl von Ossietzky, who languished in a Nazi concentration camp and later died of tuberculosis. Thorbjorn Jagland, current chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, placed the blue diploma — engraved with the initials LXB — and prize medal on the seat of an empty chair as an audience of international diplomats and dignitaries, including House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and actor Denzel Washington, delivered a standing ovation.

Liu's absence alone, said Jagland in his keynote address, "shows that the award was necessary and appropriate." Jagland's speech extolled the Gandhian virtues of the imprisoned 54-year-old writer and academic, praising him for his commitment to nonviolence and his championing of human rights. Departing from the script posted on the official Nobel website, Jagland declared, "We can say [Liu] is like Nelson Mandela."

The giant elephant in the room was not a universally reviled apartheid regime or military junta but a rising global superpower. In the week before the prize ceremony, China had ramped up criticism of the Nobel Committee and of Liu and his supporters. On Tuesday, Dec. 7, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu denounced the award's "Cold War–like" pressure tactics meant to force political change, adding, "We will not change because of interference by a few clowns."

Jiang claimed that more than 100 nations and international organizations supported China in its opposition to this year's Nobel award, but she didn't list them. After Beijing asked other nations to boycott the ceremony, some 16 of them — including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Egypt, Sudan, and Cuba — declined to attend, while 46 embassies in Oslo sent representatives to the ceremony.

In his speech, Jagland sought to counter Beijing's objections, insisting that the prize was not meant to "offend anyone" and taking pains to praise China's economic miracle, saying the country "is carrying mankind's fate on its shoulders" while calling on its leaders to grant "full civil rights."

Don't expect Beijing to heed that plea for political reform. Liu was sentenced last Christmas to an 11-year prison term for "inciting subversion of state power"; he now spends his days in a cell with five common criminals. His crimes included co-writing Charter 08, a reformist manifesto that called for an end to the Communist Party's monopoly on power. In the weeks since Liu's award was announced, China's crackdown on political activists has intensified. Several were barred from leaving the country for fear they would attend the Oslo ceremony.

Zhang Zuhua, an activist who helped Liu draft Charter 08, was grabbed off the street by national-security police Thursday afternoon in Beijing, according to a statement from the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders, and his current whereabouts are not known. "The Chinese government is losing credibility by making a mockery of its own pledge to uphold international human rights standards," said Renee Xia, international director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, in a written statement. "Its angry retaliation against the Nobel Peace Prize — by harassing its own citizens — reinforces the fact that it is the Chinese leaders, not the Chinese people, who reject the universal values of which the Nobel Peace Prize speaks."

Stories about Liu on CNN International and BBC were blacked out in China in recent days, and several websites, including the official Nobel website, where the prize ceremony was streamed, were blocked. Online, the phrase empty chair has become code for Liu, and despite reports of it being blocked by censors, the phrase could still be found in a few posts on Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter. On Thursday, in a gesture deemed to counter the Nobel award, a Chinese organization gave a Confucius Peace Prize, which it described as representative of Chinese values. Lien Chan, the former Vice President of Taiwan, won the award but wasn't on hand to attend the ceremony. His office told reporters they knew nothing about the award.

Reporters who gathered Friday outside the Beijing apartment complex where Liu's wife Liu Xia is under house arrest were barred from entry. At the ceremony in Oslo, a Norwegian actress read Liu's final statement in court before his sentence, in which he described his wife's love as "the sunlight that leaps over high walls and penetrates the iron bars of my prison window ... allowing me to always keep peace, openness and brightness in my heart."

Despite the universal acclaim his courage has earned, the abiding image of Liu is one of loneliness. "I am an insensate stone in the wilderness," he said in his final court statement. Nobel Prizes may honor the courage of those who challenge abusive regimes and raise awareness of their plight, but they don't alter the situations. No one knows this better than Aung San Suu Kyi, who only this year was released from house arrest. In a phone interview this week with the BBC, she described her hearing of the 1991 ceremony as "a little strange" because "it had to do with me, yet it seemed to have nothing to do with me." When asked about Liu, Suu Kyi spoke little of politics or of being a fellow laureate, simply saying, "I think it's really sad, and as one human being to another, I'd really like to hold out a hand of sympathy."