Nobel ceremony honors Chinese dissident in absentia

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident imprisoned for his efforts to promote democracy in his homeland, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia Friday in a solemn ceremony shunned by Beijing but attended by dignitaries and celebrities from most of the world’s countries.

A giant photo of Liu smiled out on the audience a few feet away from the potently symbolic empty chair where he would have sat had China allowed him to receive the award in Oslo, Norway. Liu, 54, is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” because he helped draft a manifesto known as Charter 08 calling for democratic reform.

The audience gave the absent laureate a standing ovation after Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, spoke of the importance of recognizing Liu’s efforts to promote human rights in the world’s most populous nation.

“We regret that the laureate is not present. He is in isolation in a prison in northern China. Nor can the laureate’s wife, Liu Xia, or his closest relatives be with us,” Jagland said. “This fact alone shows that the award was necessary and appropriate. We congratulate Liu Xiaobo with this year’s peace prize.”


The audience stood again when the diploma and gold medal were placed on Liu’s empty chair, the first time in the history of the prize that neither the winner nor a proxy was on hand to receive it. (In 1935, a man who accepted the award on behalf of Carl von Ossietzky, a German peace activist imprisoned by Hitler, turned out to be an impostor.)

The imposing hall was packed with diplomats and other prominent personalities, including the king and queen of Norway and actor Denzel Washington.

Also in the audience were participants of the Chinese pro-democracy protests in 1989, which the Beijing regime brutally crushed by sending tanks into Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds of demonstrators.

Liu is credited with helping to avert even greater bloodshed by helping to negotiate the peaceful withdrawal of many of the student protesters. He dedicated his prize, which was announced in October, to those killed in 1989.


Infuriated by the Nobel committee’s decision, China had tried for weeks to pressure countries around the world to skip the ceremony, and even gave out a competing peace award earlier this week. But in the end, fewer than two dozen nations, among them Russia and Pakistan, stayed away.

Last month, Liu Xia, the laureate’s wife, who is being held in China under house arrest, issued an open letter inviting 143 friends to attend the ceremony on her husband’s behalf. The list included artists, writers and activists. But it was not immediately clear how many of them were able to travel to Oslo.

Jagland told the audience that the Nobel committee had not deliberately set out to provoke anyone’s anger.

“The Nobel committee’s intention has been to say something about the relationship between human rights, democracy and peace, and it has been important to remind the world that the rights so widely enjoyed today were fought [for] and won by persons who took great risks,” Jagland said. “They did so for others, for all of us. This is why Liu Xiaobo deserves our support today.”


Though it hadn’t been the Nobel committee’s intention to offend Beijing, Jagland said pointedly that China should be big enough to accept criticism as it becomes an increasingly powerful force on the world political and economic stage.

“Economic success has lifted several hundred million Chinese out of poverty. For the reduction of the number of poor people in the world, China must be given the main credit. We all appreciate this,” Jagland said.

But accordingly, “China must be prepared for criticism and regard it as positive….This must be the case wherever there is great power.”

President Obama, last year’s prize winner, said in a statement: “Liu reminds us that human dignity also depends upon the advance of democracy, open society, and the rule of law. The values he espouses are universal, his struggle is peaceful, and he should be released as soon as possible.”


At the ceremony, actress Liv Ullmann read a piece of Liu’s writing, including the following passage from 2009: “I, filled with optimism, look forward to the advent of a future free China. For there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme.”

A children’s choir also performed – the only request for the ceremony made by the laureate himself.