It’s looking increasingly likely that the Norwegian Nobel Committee won’t be able to physically hand over this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to either its winner, jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, or a member of Liu’s family, because Chinese authorities aren’t allowing any of them to travel to Oslo. The awards ceremony will go on, though, and committee officials think it will be one of the most important ever.
It will be the first time in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize that the committee won’t be able to formally award it, reports newspaper Aftenposten. The award stands, though, and the committee seems determined to carry on despite a storm of opposition from the Chinese government.
In the weeks since the committee announced it would award the prize to Liu, Chinese officials have kept Liu (photo at right) in jail, placed his wife (photo below) in house arrest in Beijing, harassed other human rights activists and prevented many of Liu’s known supporters from leaving China. They have tried to mount a boycott against the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and issued angry commentaries to media around the world, explaining why they’re so upset about the prize for Liu. They consider him a criminal.
The Norwegian Nobel Institute’s computer system has also been attacked by hackers and several other ambassadors in Oslo have felt threatened by letters they received from the Chinese Embassy in Norway, which claimed there would be “consequences” for them if they attended the ceremony.
But Oslo’s City Hall will be packed as usual on the day of the ceremony, reports the committee, even though Chinese officials have tried to discourage attendance. A few ambassadors in Oslo, reportedly including those from Iran and Cuba, have gone along with China’s request to drop the ceremony this year, but committee secretary Geir Lundestad said on a nationally televised program on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Wednesday evening that they still expect a full house on December 10th, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death.
Even though both the winner and his representatives can’t attend, there will be some powerful symbols of their forced absence due to be broadcast worldwide. An empty chair, for example, will be in place where US President Barack Obama sat last year, on which a large photograph of Liu will be propped up.
Since no one will be able to make an acceptance speech, officially called the “Nobel Lecture” and traditionally delivered by the winner, famed Norwegian actress and director Liv Ullmann will read aloud from Liu’s writings about human rights and democracy.
Lundestad said that a children’s choir will also sing at the ceremony, after receiving word just after the award was announced that Liu wanted children’s voices present at the ceremony to symbolize the future.
King Harald V and Queen Sonja will attend both the ceremony as usual, along with the Nobel Banquet that evening and the Nobel Concert on December 11.
So despite efforts by the Chinese to spoil the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and draw attention away from the issues that prompted the Nobel Committee to award the prize to one of their leading dissidents, Nobel officials are undaunted and think this year’s prize already has made its mark.
“We had expected strong reactions (from the Chinese government),” Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland told newspaper Aftenposten on Thursday, adding that he’s thus not surprised by China’s official opposition.
He thinks all the controversy has boosted the importance of the prize. “I think it will stand as one of the most important ever, perhaps the most importnant,” he told Aftenposten. “The prize has strength in itself which can lead to change being forced forward.”
Jagland claims he’s already seen signs of change. “It has forced all countries to take up the issue of human rights, and shown how many countries can have high ideals without always achieving them in the light of practical politics,” he said.
In China, human rights issues have been sidelined so as not to interfere with China’s economic development, and even countries like France and Japan hesitated before confirming their attendance at the Nobel ceremony. “That shows what strength China thinks it has,” Jagland said.
The ceremony will be historic regardless, since the prize can’t be delivered. When earlier winners like Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma (photo at right) and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov won the prize, members of their families could collect their prizes. China has blocked that possibility for Liu, at least so far.
“I can’t find a single time when the price couldn’t be handed out,” Nobel historian Asle Sveen told Aftenposten, who agrees with Jagland that the situation makes this year’s prize among the committee’s most important.