The Norwegian Nobel Committee wasn’t able to physically present this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to its winner, jailed Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, but he was certainly there in spirit. The unusual, highly symbolic ceremony generated what may be a record number of standing ovations.
Norway’s King Harald and Queen Sonja were among those rising from their chairs on around a half-dozen occasions and offering long and loud applause, not just for the contents of the traditional address made by Nobel committee chairman Thorbjørn Jagland but for Liu himself. He remains in isolation in a prison in northeastern China, Jagland told the audience, and neither he nor any of his family members were allowed to travel to Oslo to collect his prize awarded “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental rights” in China.
“We regret that the laureate is not present,” Jagland said, adding that the forced absences of Liu and his family showed how necessary and important the prize was. Jagland’s declaration of congratulations to Liu set off the first lengthy round of applause from the audience, which as usual, filled the huge lobby of Oslo’s City Hall (Rådhuset).
Jagland also congratulated China itself, commending the country for its “extraordinary” economic achievements in recent years. He said that China’s role as an emerging world power can have a “huge impact” and went so far as to suggest that China is “carrying mankind” on its shoulders.
Its new status, though, carries with it new responsibilities, said Jagland, who has been disappointed by Chinese officials’ ferociously negative reaction to Liu’s award. They consider him a common criminal, while the Norwegian Nobel Committee maintains that Liu was jailed simply for trying to exercise what should be his “universal right” to freedom of expression.
“He has not done anything wrong,” Jagland declared. “He must be released,” he added, setting off another standing ovation.
Referring to China’s angry reaction, its cancellation of meetings with Norwegian government officials, its attempt to boycott Friday’s Peace Prize ceremony, its crackdown on dissidents and censorship of most reporting on the Peace Prize, Jagland drew comparisons to other countries’ reactions when their critics have received the prize. Even when Iranian dissident Shirin Ebadi won the award, Jagland noted, the Iranian ambassador still attended the ceremony. China tried to ignore it, returning all communication from the Nobel committee unopened and urging other countries to stay away as well.
“The point of these awards has never been to offend anybody,” Jagland said. Rather, he said the Nobel committee wants to honor the work people like Liu have done “for all of us. This is why Liu Xiaobo deserves our support today,” setting off more applause.
Jagland compared Liu to Nelson Mandela, who also was imprisoned for his struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and noted that the committee angered many in the US when it awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Dr Martin Luther King. He claimed China can also “grow strong” if its people are granted full civil rights.
The Nobel committee did its best to maintain as “normal” a ceremony as possible under the circumstances, with musical interludes and the chairman’s address. At the part in the program when the prize is normally presented to the winner, Jagland simply placed the diploma and gold medal on Liu’s empty chair.
Famed Norwegian actress Liv Ullman stepped in where Liu should have delivered the Nobel Lecture, reading aloud from his essay “I have no enemies,” and portraying his undying optimism that China’s progress “will not stop.” His essay, which also related his “boundless” love for his detained wife, suggested that an “enemy mentality” in China is slowly weakening, and he sees signs of growing tolerance and good will.
The ceremony ended with a series of Norwegian folk songs sung by a children’s choir from the Norwegian National Ballet and Opera, a special request from a winner who views children as the future of humanity.