UPDATED: Berit Reiss-Andersen, a Norwegian attorney who leads the Norwegian Nobel Committee, is relieved and glad that the widow of Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo has finally been released from house arrest in China. Now the committee may finally be able to present his Nobel Peace Prize posthumously, to her, while the Chinese Embassy in Oslo is already raising objections.
“We have looked forward to this for a long time,” Reiss-Andersen told newspaper Aftenposten just after Liu Xia landed in Helsinki earlier this week on her way to exile in Germany. “She has been subjected to a great ordeal and unnecessary suffering even though she never committed any crimes.”
On Friday, Aftenposten reported that the Chinese Embassy has reacted sharply to Reiss-Andersen’s comments, claiming in a statement sent to the newspaper on Thursday that the comments reveal her “arrogance” and prejudice against China. The statement went on to specifically name Reiss-Andersen, who also was denied a visa to China last summer when she wanted to represent the Norwegian Nobel Committee at Liu Xiaobo’s funeral. The embassy, in expressing its objections to her comments, claimed they “distort the facts,” were “malicious” and even “provocatively abusive.” The embassy also wrote that China’s “progress,” including “progress in human rights,” has been achieved through the “hard work” of the Chinese people.
Reiss-Andersen told Aftenposten she was “astonished” by the embassy’s reaction, claiming her comments were rather an expression of joy over Liu Xia’s release “and that I’m glad that Chinese authorities took humanitarian consideration into account and let her travel.” Reiss-Andersen, who was not a member of the Nobel Committee when it awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu but now leads it, told Aftenposten that her comments “were not an attack on the People’s Republic of China.”
The Nobel Committee itself has long been concerned by the house arrest of Liu Xiaobo’s widow. Reiss-Andersen said the Norwegian Nobel Committee had backed Liu Xiaobo and then backed his widow “when she was subjected to punitive measures because of her connection to the prize winner.”
Liu Xia was confined immediately after her husband was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 for his efforts to promote democracy and human rights in China. He was already in jail at the time, serving an 11-year sentence for having written and signed a political manifest that demanded democracy and political reforms in China. Chinese leaders equated that to inducing “subversion,” and considered him a common criminal for daring to challenge the state.
China’s authoritarian government was thus furious over the Nobel Committee’s decision, blamed Norway for its international embarrassment, cut diplomatic ties for seven years and never allowed Liu Xiaobo to receive his prize. He died last year, while still in prison, after suffering from liver cancer.
His wife remained confined to her home, and has been suffering from illness and depression herself. Chinese authorities claimed she was finally released and allowed to travel abroad in order to receive medical treatment in Germany, where political leaders have also long sought her freedom.
Reiss-Andersen said the Norwegian Nobel Committee invited Liu to come to Oslo last year, after her husband had died. “Our invitation stands,” Reiss-Andersen told Aftenposten earlier this week. “She is welcome here. We have evaluated that she is without doubt her husband’s only heir.” Reiss-Andersen hopes Liu Xia will travel to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on his behalf.
Aftenposten reported that it remains in doubt whether Liu Xia will express any political opinions in exile, partly because she is ill but also because her younger brother was not allowed to travel with her abroad. He reportedly is now viewed as a hostage of sorts in China, in an effort to force her to remain silent.
A Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo to honour Liu Xiaobo may also threaten the diplomatic relations Norway finally restored with China last year. The Norwegian government, which otherwise champions human rights, remained mostly silent about the ongoing imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo and confinement of his wife, reluctant to further anger Chinese officials. That has sparked ongoing criticism within in Norway and abroad, with many claiming that Norway, in its efforts to restore diplomatic relations with China, was more concerned about selling its salmon to China than maintaining principle. Prime Minister Erna Solberg was also attacked for issuing only a short statement of condolence when Liu Xiaobo died.
“The government deserves to be yelled at” regarding its silence and fear of upsetting the Chinese again, wrote commentator Therese Sollien in Aftenposten on Wednesday. The Liu Xiaobo case is full of paradox in Norway: He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by former Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende and Jan Tore Sanner of Norway’s Conservative Party when Sanner was a Member of Parliament. Brende is now chief executive of the World Economic Forum whild Sanner has since served as a minister in Solberg’s conservative government coalition. He’s been as silent as Solberg and all her other ministers over the fate of the Lius after his prize nomination succeeded but then cost Norway lots of export revenue and political ties with China.
Sanner and Solberg were in opposition when Liu won the prize. Their support for Liu and human rights in China seemed to end when they won government power. “Their silence looks bad for a country that likes to call itself a ‘peace nation’ and ‘humanitarian super power,” Sollien wrote. If Liu Xia accepts the Nobel Committee’s invitation and a new Peace Prize Ceremony is held, it remains unclear whether anyone from the Norwegian government will attend. Norway’s foreign ministry told Aftenposten that it would not be “natural” for it to comment on the exchange of words between China’s embassy in Oslo and the leader of the Nobel Committee.