Skip to main content

Norwegian Nobel committee chair Thorbjorn Jagland looks at the Nobel certificate awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo Friday, Dec. 10.Reuters/Heiko Junge/Scanpix Norway

Inside Oslo City Hall, the bitter discord between China and the outside world seemed to descend into calm as a medal and a certificate were placed on an empty blue chair, honouring the imprisoned Chinese reformist Liu Xiaobo.

Only a few dozen metres offstage, the twin forces of Beijing's rage and the outrage of democrats seemed to take on a new life in the bitterly cold Norwegian air, as protesters and lobbyists organized by Chinese diplomats faced off against smaller clusters of Chinese and Westerners baffled by the regime's dramatic assault on Mr. Liu and the Nobel Peace Prize itself.

On the other side of the world in Beijing, there was darkness, as hundreds of millions of people found their televisions and Internet screens blacked out in a concentrated effort to prevent 1.3 billion Chinese citizens from seeing or hearing Mr. Liu's words - especially the soaring, poetic defence statement from his 2009 trial for subversion, read to a silent audience by Norwegian actress Liv Ullman.

Those entering the ceremony walked a gauntlet of anti-Liu protesters, carrying nearly identical placards reading "Peace Prize = Political Tool" and "Liu Xiaobo did nothing for peace." All but a handful were ethnic Chinese, drawn by local Chinese-language newspapers and organized by the Chinese embassy here.

"I just don't understand why they're trying to insult China like this, by saying the Chinese are wrong to call this man a criminal," said Fu Ke, 48. "We have had 100 years of this colonialism, and now we have to listen to more."

Such lines, echoing those that have blanketed the government-controlled Chinese media for the past week, mark a stark change in China's attitude. Until this year, there was an entire government department devoted to winning a Nobel Prize for China, so coveted was the award as a symbol of world-leading success.

Almost instantly, that relationship has inverted itself. By banning Mr. Liu and his family from attending the award and censoring it from the media, Beijing has created a deep and possibly irreconcilable point of conflict with much of the world.

"The problem with what they've done with Liu around the Peace Prize is that it's a total inversion of the Chinese constitution," said Irwin Cotler, the MP and former Canadian justice minister, who attended the ceremony as part of Mr. Liu's legal team (other Canadians present included author John Ralston Saul).

Thorbjorn Jagland, the chairman of the Nobel committee, used the speech to note that China had joined the company of countries that had barred their citizens from receiving the Peace Prize: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, communist Poland and the military junta in Myanmar. The implication was clear: China, by keeping Liu Xiaobo in jail, was joining an ugly club.

In central Beijing, a line of police stood guard outside the building where Mr. Liu shares an apartment with wife and fellow dissident Liu Xia, jostling with foreign journalists who tried to approach. Inside, Ms. Liu was held without access to a telephone or the Internet, as she has been for weeks. Similar restrictions were placed on many other well-known dissidents around the country.

Mr. Liu, meanwhile, spent the day in the prison cell he shares with five others in northeast China. He has a decade remaining on an 11-year sentence for inciting subversion of state power.

Chinese newspapers continued their assault on Mr. Liu and his Nobel Prize, which Beijing sees as a Western-backed effort to destabilize the country. "Facts have fully shown that the decision of the Norwegian Nobel Committee does not represent the wish of the majority of the people in the world, particularly that of the developing countries," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a statement Friday.

"Prejudice and lies are untenable and the Cold War mentality has no popular support. This political farce will in no way shake the resolve and confidence of the Chinese people to follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and the scheme by some people will get nowhere."

The few prominent dissidents not under detention Friday said they were delighted the Nobel committee had ignored China's protests and given the award to Mr. Liu. "This [prize]is a peaceful bomb which shows the power of peace. It has terrified the authorities," said Zhuang Daohe, a lawyer based in the coastal city of Hangzhou and one of the few Charter 08 signatories whose telephone was working Friday.

A number of prominent Chinese reformers - those who have fled Chinese authorities - attended the ceremony and gave press conferences denouncing Beijing's blackout.

The empty seat for Mr. Liu, said fellow Tiananmen Square activist Yang Jianli (who represented Mr. Liu's wife), "would serve as a reminder to the world that Liu Xiaobo is himself languishing in prison and, more broadly, that the human-rights situation in China should be a concern to the international community."

There were signs that the Communist Party's information embargo hadn't been completely successful. At Zhongnan University in the southern province of Hunan, a red banner was briefly hung congratulating Mr. Liu. "Warmly celebrate Liu Xiaobo being awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize," it read. "Thanks to the world for not forgetting the Chinese demand for democratic politics."

The sentiment was widely shared online, where many technologically savvy Chinese got around the so-called "Great Firewall" to watch the streaming broadcasts of the ceremony on the Nobel Prize website and elsewhere. On Twitter, a social networking website that is blocked in China but accessible via virtual private networks, there was lively commentary throughout the ceremony, especially as Mr. Liu's emotional closing statement from his subversion trial was read out in Oslo.

"Who is Liu Xiaobo? Don't ask any more. Please understand he is suffering for us now. Please call him Dr. Liu," blogger Shi Weitian wrote.

Many chose a quiet way to show their support: replacing their Twitter profile photos with an image of an empty chair, representing the empty chair where Mr. Liu's Nobel medal was placed in his absence.

"This is my empty chair. But it won't be empty forever," one supporter wrote.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe