A few days ago, I discussed UC-Riverside’s Perry Link‘s forthcoming Harvard University Press edition of the writings of the imprisoned Nobel peace laureate, Liu Xiaobo. I didn’t realize that he had just posted about his friend on the New York Review of Books blog, including his recollections of this month’s awards ceremony in Oslo, dominated by the Chinese writer’s empty chair. It’s worth a read, here:
The ceremony was one of the most exquisite and moving public events I have ever witnessed. The presentation speech was made by Thorbjørn Jagland, the chairman of the prize committee who is a former prime minister of Norway and now secretary-general of the Council of Europe. Only a few minutes into the speech, he said:
We regret that the Laureate is not present here today. He is in isolation in a prison in northeast China…. This fact alone shows that the award was necessary and appropriate.
When he had finished reading these words the audience of about a thousand people interrupted with applause. The applause continued for about thirty seconds and then, when it seemed that the time had come for it to recede, it suddenly took on a second life. It continued on and on, and then turned into a standing ovation, lasting three or four minutes.
The actress Liv Ullman read the full text of the statement that Liu Xiaobo had prepared for his 2009 trial in Beijing. The statement is called “I Have No Enemies.” Chinese authorities halted the statement mid-stream during last year’s trial.
Another friend of the Nobel laureate, Renée Xia, who is overseas director of China Human Rights Defenders, said this about the ceremony: “To us,” she said, “that empty chair is not the least bit surprising. Of course Beijing treats its critics that way. This is wholly normal. If the rest of the world is startled, then good; maybe surprise can be the first step to better understanding of how things really are.”
Hu Ping, editor of Beijing Spring in New York and a long-time personal friend of Liu Xiaobo’s, said he wasn’t expecting China to yield on human rights and democracy. Why should they?
“As they see it, the current strategy works. The formula ‘money + violence’ works, and we stay on top. We know what the world means by human rights and democracy, but why should we do that? Aren’t we getting stronger and richer all the time? Twenty years ago the West wasn’t afraid of us, and now they have to be. Why should we change what works?”
Liu Xiaobo was more optimistic, in a way. Hu recalled him saying some years ago: “We are lucky to live in this time and this place—China. It may be difficult for us, but at least we do have a chance to make a very, very large difference. Most people in their lifetimes are not offered this kind of opportunity.”
More on the powerful image of the empty chair here.