Beijing's angry reaction to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize was seemingly intended to downplay this year's award, but instead it's adding new importance to Mr. Liu's upcoming Nobel ceremony in Oslo.
If, as is now expected, Liu nor his family attend the Dec. 10 event, says Norwegian Nobel Institute Executive Director Geir Lundestad, it will be the first time that no one is present to collect the prize since it went to German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky 75 years ago, who wasn't allowed to leave his country. In other controversial cases, representatives picked up awards for the missing laureates.
“Everybody understands why he is not here,” says Mr. Lundestad. “There is no negative significance at all, it only makes the message even stronger. It could turn out to be positive, unfortunately.”
Many will see this year's ceremony as a gauge of China's influence in Europe, and whether countries here are willing to overlook human rights issues to secure better ties with Beijing. In recent weeks, China has discouraged many countries from sending representatives to the Nobel ceremony.
So far, 36 out of the around 58 embassies have agreed to attend. Russia, Cuba, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Morocco, and China are among those that declined, according to the Norwegian Nobel Institute. Sixteen have still not replied, most likely because they are awaiting clarifications from their governments. But embassies representing all of the EU member countries and the US will most likely be attending, as well as Japan.
Lundestad says the pressure from China to boycott this year’s ceremony is unprecedented in his 20 years as director of the Nobel institute. “It will be obvious that some staying away will be out of political reasons,” he says. “I have never experienced in this form that an embassy contacts others.”
Human rights issue
The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Liu on Oct. 8 for his “long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” He took part in the Tianamen protests in 1989 and is a leading author of Charter 08, a manifesto published in 2008 demanding basic human rights and political reform in China.
Thorbjørn Jagland, Norwegian Nobel Committee chairman, told Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten today that this year’s award had already had enormous significance because it had forced all countries to take up human rights and would be perhaps one of the most important Nobel Peace Prizes ever.
Liu will not be coming to pick up his award because he is serving an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.” His wife will most likely not attend because she has been under house arrest since Oct. 10 and his brothers will probably not be allowed to leave China, says Lundestad.
Following the peace prize announcement, China cracked down on Liu supporters. Human Rights in China, an international nongovernmental organization based in New York and Hong Kong, has reported that nearly 40 individuals inside China have been put under house arrest in the weeks following the announcement.
In addition, Chinese Human Rights Defenders says it has received approximately 100 reports of citizens who have been harassed, interrogated, subjected to surveillance, detained, or placed under “soft detention” across the country.
China has sharply criticized the committee’s decision to give the award to a convicted person in China, saying that it showed no respect for the judicial systems of China. It has also cancelled high-level meetings with Norway’s fisheries ministry and sent letters to foreign ambassadors in Oslo dissuading them from attending next month's ceremony.
There are always a certain number of ambassadors who do not come to the Peace Prize ceremony, usually about 8 to 10 in a normal year due to disinterest or conflict with their schedules, says Lundestad. There have also been instances where ambassadors boycotted the ceremony, such as the Germans when Mr. von Ossietzky won.