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Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010


The empty chair in Oslo

Ever since Mr. Liu Xiaobo was named recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for promoting democratic change in China, the government in Beijing has ensured that he receives maximum publicity — not deliberately, of course. The Chinese government did everything it could to intimidate the awards committee so that it would not name him and then exploded in fury when that campaign failed.

It denounced the recipient as a mere criminal, trashed the committee for interfering in China's internal affairs and demeaning the Nobel Prize itself, warned the government in Norway that it risked undermining relations, and pressed other governments to not send representatives to the ceremony held on Dec. 10. It was a revealing demonstration of Chinese thinking and Beijing's readiness to pull every lever to influence other states when they dare to counter Chinese desires.

The campaign was not without impact. Eighteen states, including Russia, sided with Beijing and did not attend the ceremony. Some share Beijing's noxious views of the social contract between citizens and governments; others, like the Philippines, worried that they need to be more respectful of Chinese wishes in the region.

China's anger and determination focused the spotlight on the empty chair at Oslo City Hall. Rumors that the committee might not award the prize since Mr. Liu, his friends and his family had been prevented from traveling turned out to be false. At the ceremony, Nobel Committee Chairman Torbjorn Jagland explained their decision, and demanded that China honor its own commitments to its citizens as well as to international human rights covenants it has signed. Actress Liv Ullmann read the "Final Statement" that Mr. Liu could not read at his trial.

The award was then laid on an empty chair on the dais, creating a powerful image of repression — and a reminder to all who fight against it that they are not forgotten. In keeping Mr. Liu from claiming his prize, Beijing only amplified his message. The empty chair in Oslo is a new symbol of the indomitable human spirit and its fight for recognition and freedom.

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