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Liu Xiaobo, jailed in China, honored in absentia by Nobel committee

By Debbi Wilgoren , Keith B. Richburg and Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 10, 2010; 2:15 PM

OSLO - The blue-and-white upholstered chair reserved for him was empty. His words were spoken not in his own voice, but by the Norwegian actress and movie director Liv Ullmann.

While the Nobel committee honored him with its prestigious Peace Prize in Oslo on Friday, Chinese dissident and intellectual Liu Xiaobo sat in isolation in a jail cell, some 4,000 miles away.

Yet his campaign to bring individual freedoms and democracy to China was recognized at a ceremony made more visible, in many ways, by Beijing's efforts to suppress it.

"Liu has only exercised his civil rights. He has not done anything wrong. He must be released," Nobel committee chairman Torbjorn Jagland said as the audience of more than 1,000 dignitaries, diplomats and officials -- including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) -- responded with sustained applause and a standing ovation.

Jagland then placed the medal and certificate normally awarded to the laureate in the empty chair upon the stage, triggering another ovation.

An oversize portrait of Liu, 54, had been hung on the stage. At the point in the ceremony where the honoree or a close relative would normally speak, Ullmann read from Liu's final statement before being sentenced to 11 years in jail for political incitement.

"I have once again been shoved into the dock by the enemy mentality of the regime," Liu said on Dec. 23, 2009. "But I still want to say to this regime, which is depriving me of my freedom, that I stand by [my] convictions. ... I have no enemies, and no hatred."

Hatred, Liu continued , "can rot away at a person's intelligence and conscience. Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society's tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation's progress toward freedom and democracy."

Before the ceremony, as attendees lined up outside city hall to enter, a police marching band performed Christmas carols, supporters handed out buttons emblazoned with an illustration of the laureate's smiling face and demonstrators across the street shouted "Free Liu Xiaobo!"

Organizers hope attendees left the ceremony with a more sobering image. "I think they will remember the empty chair," said Nobel committee Secretary Geir Lundestad. "[Its symbolism] speaks volumes about this year's laureate and the importance of the prize."

About 100 Chinese dissidents in exile and some activists from Hong Kong attended the ceremony , broadcasts of which were blocked on television and Internet inside China.

In the country of 1.3 billion people, a few dozen pro-democracy activists staged China's sole authorized celebration, uncorking a bottle of champagne Friday outside a huge Hong Kong tower.

Police, who videoed the event but didn't intervene, far outnumbered slogan-chanting revelers, who marched through Hong Kong's throbbing central shopping and business district in the late evening to the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government, the nerve centre of China's power in the former British colony. A handful of young Chinese visiting from the mainland took part in the celebration.

Earlier in the evening, several hundred people watched a live broadcast of the Nobel ceremony in Norway on a screen in a central Hong Kong park. It was the only public screening of the event held on Chinese territory.

Unlike mainland China and even nearby Macau, another former colony that is allowed more or less to run its own affairs, Hong Kong has a vibrant civil society and still regularly stages protests, albeit usually small, in defiance of Beijing.

Both the CNN and BBC television channels went blank in Beijing as the event began, and Chinese television news led programs with the latest economic figures and worries over inflation. Also, some text messages containing the words "Liu Xiaobo" and "Nobel prize" were being blocked from delivery.

Chinese Internet users tried to start an online campaign of support for Liu by changing their avatars either to yellow ribbons or empty chairs. One image being passed around online and via Twitter showed a black chair, in the shape of a human with arms and legs, and with handcuffs around the ankles.

Meanwhile, police in Beijing maintained a heavy presence outside the apartment compound of Liu's wife, Liu Xia, who has had her telephone and Internet communications cut off for several weeks, since the announcement of the prize.

The government prohibited the Lius and their family members from leaving China to attend the ceremony, and barred other activists from traveling or even gathering at cafes or public places for fear that they would find a way to celebrate the occasion.

The crackdown triggered outrage and condemnation from around the world. It was the first time the award was not presented to either a laureate or a close family member since 1936, when Carl von Ossietzky, a German pacifist jailed by the Nazi regime, was honored. The absence of Liu and his family members also meant that the $1.4 million cash prize went uncollected.

China broke off trade talks with Norway after Liu's selection was announced in October. Foreign embassies in Norway were warned that if they sent representatives to the Nobel ceremony, they would risk unspoken diplomatic "consequences."

At least 15 countries - China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Egypt, Sudan, Cuba and Morocco - said they would stay away.

But the government of Serbia, which had planned to boycott in order to maintain good relations with China, reversed itself Friday in the face of an outcry at home and from the European Union. Serbia, which is a candidate for E.U. membership, said it would send a human rights official - not a diplomat - to witness the event.

Liu was jailed after authoring Charter '08, a pro-democracy manifesto that was published Dec. 10, 2008 and has since been signed by more than 10,000 people inside and outside China.

President Obama, honored with the prestigious prize one year ago, said in a statement that Liu "is far more deserving of this award than I was."

"I regret that Mr. Liu and his wife were denied the opportunity to attend the ceremony that Michelle and I attended last year," Obama said, adding, "The values he espouses are universal, his struggle is peaceful, and he should be released as soon as possible."

Obama said Liu "reminds us that human dignity ... depends upon the advance of democracy, open society, and the rule of law."

Jagland, the Nobel chairman, said China's emergence as a world economic power "entails increased responsibility" to afford its citizens human rights and democratic freedoms.

"China must be prepared for criticism, and regard it as a positive, as an opportunity for improvement," Jagland said. "The fate of China will be the fate of the world."

At a news conference after the ceremony, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), incoming chair of the House human rights committee, declared the selection of Liu as laureate "a potential game-changer" and called on governments around the world to demand Liu's freedom.

"The Chinese government is using the worst bullying tactics," Smith said. "Every country that believes in fundamental human rights needs to do a gut check."

But in Beijing, the government continued to denounce the prize as a Western plot to destroy China. "We are firmly against attempts by any country or individual to use the Nobel Peace Prize to interfere in China's internal affairs and infringe on China's judicial sovereignty," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a statement. "...This political farce will in no way shake the resolve and confidence of the Chinese people."

The state-controlled China Daily newspaper led its Friday editions with a story headlined: "Most nations oppose peace prize to Liu."

In Rome, a group of laureates, including former South African president F.W. De Klerk and Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel, issued a statement seeking broader freedoms for the Chinese and offering to negotiate with the government to secure Liu's release.

"We ... commend the People's Republic of China for the expansion of economic freedom that has vastly improved the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens," the statement read. "We believe that the broader extension of human freedoms would further contribute to the success and happiness of the Chinese people."

(See photos of other Nobel laureates, including Poland's Lech Walesa and Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, who were prevented from receiving their prizes in person).

(Read about how Chinese media have demonized Liu Xiaobo.)

wilgorend@washpost.com richburgk@washpost.com richardsc@washpost.com Staff writer Andrew Higgins in Hong Kong also contributed to this report. Richburg reported from Beijing, and Richards reported from Oslo.

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