There’s set to be an empty chair on Friday at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo. It was supposed to be filled by Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, sentenced last year to 11 years’ imprisonment for his writings and, particularly, helping draft the Charter 08 manifesto, which calls for reform and democracy in China.
Even with Liu Xiaobo absent, though, the chair wouldn’t have had to be empty—if his wife or a close relative could have been there to accept the prize in his stead.
That was what happened in the cases of Cold War dissidents Andrei Sakharov of the USSR and Lech Walesa of Poland, whose wives received the prizes for them, and Myanmar dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, whose son did the same in 1991.
But in Liu Xiaobo’s case, that won’t happen because his wife, Liu Xia, has been under house arrest since this year’s Peace Prize was announced on October 8. CNN reports that “police have cut off all of Liu Xia’s communications: she has no phone, no Internet access and is not allowed to meet with her husband’s legal team.”
And AP reports that the Chinese authorities have been “stopping many others such as lawyers, academics and activists from leaving the country—apparently to prevent them from traveling to Oslo for the ceremony.”
As the New York Times notes, “the last time no one was present to accept the peace medal was in 1936, when the German journalist and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who had been awarded the prize in 1935, was not allowed to leave Nazi Germany in either year.”
But, in addition to China itself, there will be others absent from the ceremony. The countries eligible to attend are those that have embassies in Oslo. Of these, at least 44 are to be present, including all the Western countries.
China, however, has apparently persuaded or bullied 18 other countries into “declining to attend.” A spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry called the ceremony “an anti-China farce” and said, “We are not changing because of interference by a few clowns and we will not change our path.”
Those who will be skipping the alleged farce include, as AP notes, “Chinese allies Pakistan, Venezuela and Cuba, Chinese neighbors such as Russia, the Philippines and Kazakhstan, and Chinese business partners such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.”
The others: Afghanistan, Colombia, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Serbia, Sudan, Tunisia, Ukraine, and Vietnam.
While there are no surprises in the list, Iraq and Afghanistan stand out for a certain irony after so much Western blood and treasure have been expended in an effort to get them into the Western camp.
Also notable in the group are other Arab and Muslim countries thought to be Western-aligned like Egypt, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. The group as a whole attests to both the growth of China’s power and the fragility of allegiance, and dissonance of values, at the outer fringes of what could loosely be called the Western camp.
Liu Xiaobo’s empty chair at the ceremony will, lamentably, symbolize a good deal more than the absence of a heroic individual or of those closest to him.
It will also evoke the ongoing lack of democracy—or of much hope for it—in a large part of the world now that the previous U.S. administration’s democratizing impulse has collided with inimical cultures.
The empty chair is also a warning of the growing arrogance of freedom’s enemies.