Empty chair to mark Liu's absence at Nobel gala

OSLO (Reuters) - An empty chair will represent jailed Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo at next Friday’s awards ceremony and symbolize China’s policies to isolate and repress dissidents, a top Nobel official told Reuters.

China is furious at the Norwegian Nobel Committee for awarding what many consider the world’s top accolade to Liu, who is serving an 11-year sentence for his political activism.

Beijing has kept his wife Liu Xia and dozens of other dissidents under house arrest to prevent them from coming to Oslo for the lavish December 10 ceremony, where the laureate would normally receive his medal and make an acceptance speech.

“There is going to be a large picture of Liu and there is going to be an empty chair, which we notice is seen as a very powerful symbol,” Geir Lundestad, the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s executive secretary, said on Friday.

The gesture comes amid heightened rhetoric from Beijing, which has pressured diplomats to boycott the ceremony and denounced the award to Liu as an “obscenity” that would have consequences for Norway’s relationship with the Asian power.

Liu received his jail term in 2009 for “subverting state power” after he helped write a manifesto in 2008 calling for strengthened human rights and multi-party rule in China.


Lundestad said the 54-year-old activist, writer and poet would be the fifth laureate in the 109-year history of the prize who could not come to the award ceremony for political reasons.

Past winners unable to attend in person were Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 laureate, Poland’s Lech Walesa (1983), Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov (1975) and German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky (1935).

“These are outstanding names,” said Lundestad. “Many will consider them a sort of honor roll in our history.”

Liu will be the first since Ossietzky who did not or could not designate a family member or other representative to accept the award. Ossietzky languished in prison and concentration camps during the Nazi regime of Adolph Hitler.

“When Ossietzky won, Hitler said no German would accept any Nobel prize ever again,” said Nobel historian and author Oeyvind Stenersen.

He said the image of an empty chair at the podium next Friday before a stately gathering of about 1,000 guests -- including Norway’s King Harald and Queen Sonja and Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg -- was likely to resonate powerfully.

“The committee is thinking how to arrange this to make their message very clear,” said Stenersen. “They want to play a role on the world scene and help set the world agenda.”

Instead of the traditional speech by the laureate, a highpoint of next week’s ceremony will be Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann reading a selection of Liu’s writings that Lundestad called “very personal, very moving.”

Lundestad said he expected up to 50 Chinese dissidents living outside China to attend the ceremony.

He said most ambassadors to Norway would also be there despite a campaign by China urging them to stay away. Russia, Cuba, Morocco, Iraq, Kazakhstan and China have declined invitations and a number of other nations have yet to decide.

Additional reporting by Wojciech Moskwa; editing by Philippa Fletcher