Oslo: When ambassadors, royalty and other VIPs take their seats in Oslo`s modernist City Hall on Friday for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, there will be one chair left empty — for this year`s winner.
Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, a democracy activist, is serving an 11-year prison sentence in China on subversion charges brought after he co-authored a bold call for sweeping changes to Beijing`s one-party communist political system.
Chinese authorities have placed Liu`s supporters, including his wife Liu Xia, under house arrest to prevent anyone from picking up his prize.
On Thursday, Chinese police surrounded Liu`s house in Beijing. Officers guarded the entrance to the residential compound and checked the identities of all who entered. About a dozen journalists stood outside while officers patrolled inside the compound in central Beijing.
China was infuriated when the prestigious $1.4 million prize was awarded to the 54-year-old literary critic, describing it as an attack on its political and legal system.
China’s friends staying away
Beijing has also pressured foreign diplomats to stay away from Friday`s ceremony. China and around 20 other countries have declined to attend.
Most of them have close ties with China, they do not want to anger Beijing or have a tendency to take a hard line against their own dissidents.
Those who have said they are staying away are Afghanistan, Algeria, China, Colombia, Cuba, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tunisia, Venezuela and Vietnam.
Ukraine and the Philippines had at first declined their invitations, but Nobel Institute director Geir Lundestad said Thursday they had changed their minds.
Serbia, which had initially refused the invitation, said Thursday it would be sending a representative after all.
At the same time, said Lundestad, "we believe that Argentina will not be coming, or at least will not be represented by the ambassador."
Russia, which signed trade agreements with China last month worth 8.5 billion dollars, has officially pleaded prior engagements for its absence.
Other countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka have economic and defence ties with China, while Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia supply it with oil.
An empty chair…
Nobel committee secretary Geir Lundestad said Liu will be represented "by an empty chair ... the strongest possible argument" for awarding it to him.
It will be the first time the peace prize will not be handed out since 1936, when Adolf Hitler prevented German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky from accepting the award.
The prize can be collected only by the laureate or close family members. Cold War dissidents Andrei Sakharov of the Soviet Union and Lech Walesa of Poland were able to have their wives collect the prizes for them. Myanmar democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi`s award was accepted by her 18-year-old son in 1991.
Among the 1,000 guests expected at the City Hall ceremony are House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Ambassador Barry White. In addition, about 100 Chinese dissidents in exile and some activists from Hong Kong will attend.
A torchlight parade through the dark, wintry streets to the Grand Hotel will follow, with chosen guests dining at a banquet with Norwegian King Harald and Queen Sonja.
Lundestad said countries gave various reasons for not attending, but some were "obviously affected by China." He noted that two-thirds of embassies had accepted.
China warned that attending the ceremony would be seen as a sign of disrespect.
"We hope those countries that have received the invitation can tell right from wrong, uphold justice," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.
Prize not against China
Nobel Peace Prize Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland urged China to consider political reforms, saying the committee`s decision to award Liu the prize was also a message to Beijing that as a world power, China "should become used to being debated and criticized."
"This not a prize against China," Jagland said.
On Thursday, about 100 protesters chanting "Freedom to Liu! Freedom for China!" marched to the Chinese Embassy in Oslo and tried to deliver a petition with more than 100,000 signatures urging the dissident`s release from prison.
"Liu should not be jailed for his words. It`s against the Chinese Constitution," said demonstrator Renee Xia. "The Chinese government is violating its own constitution by criminalizing free speech."
The Norwegian-Chinese Association plans a pro-China rally outside the Norwegian Parliament during Friday`s ceremony.
Several news websites, including the BBC`s and Norwegian broadcaster NRK`s, were blocked in China on Thursday, apparently to blot out any possible coverage of the ceremony. Some Nobel-related reports on CNN`s website were also inaccessible.
Li Heping, a civil rights lawyer, said the government`s harsh reaction to the prize was an eye-opener for the West.
"In the past, the West didn`t have a consensus on China. But this affair, this Nobel prize, has created one because it is linked with the West`s core values," said Li, who was disbarred after pursuing human rights cases.
The United States and prominent rights groups repeated calls for Liu`s freedom.
China`s "very public tantrum has generated even more critical attention inside and outside China and, ironically, emphasized the significance of Liu Xiaobo`s message of respect for human rights," Salil Shetty, Amnesty International`s secretary general, said Thursday.
In a chaotic ceremony Thursday in Beijing, former Taiwanese Vice President Lien Chan was honored with the first Confucius Peace Prize — intended to put forth China`s idea of peace.
Lien was absent and his aides seemed not to know anything about it. Instead, an unidentified, ponytailed girl accepted it on his behalf.
Tan Changliu, chairman of the awards committee, said the new prize should not be linked with Liu.