For the first time in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize the award may not be handed out this year after a strenuous campaign by the Chinese government to stop one of its citizens, the jailed human rights campaigner Liu Xiaobo, receiving the honour.
Under Nobel Prize rules, the 10 million kronor (£880,000) award can only be collected by the laureate or a close family member.
The government in Beijing placed Mr Liu's wife under house arrest as soon as the award was announced last month and his two brothers are under surveillance. One of them, Liu Xiaoxuan, who had said he would represent his brother at the Oslo ceremony, sent a brief text message last night to the outside world, saying: "I am being monitored, cannot take interviews, can only keep silent."
The Chinese government has also stepped up its diplomatic efforts to prevent the ceremony going ahead. Yesterday, in a highly unusual move, five countries declared they would not be sending ambassadors to the ceremony. Russia, Kazakhstan, Cuba, Morocco and Iraq are all joining with China in an unprecedented boycott.
Ambassadors from 16 other countries have yet to reply to the standard Nobel invitation, which has been accepted by 36 nations.
Earlier this month China wrote to all diplomats in the Norwegian capital pressuring them not to attend the ceremony. They received letters warning there would be "consequences" if their governments showed support for Liu Xiaobo – whom Beijing says is a "criminal".
There has never before been such a furious anti-Nobel campaign, according to the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Geir Lundestad. "I don't know of any example where a country has so actively and directly tried to have ambassadors stay away from a Nobel ceremony," he said.
The pageant itself is still scheduled to be held before around 1,000 guests in Oslo City Hall on 10 December. There will be a speech by the chairman of the peace committee, after which text messages from the winner will be read out by the Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann. There will also be music from a children's choir requested by Mr Liu, who is serving an 11-year sentence in a Chinese jail for "subversion" after co-authoring a Charter calling for reforms to China's one-party political system.
But the handover of the Nobel gold medal, diploma and prize money will not happen – for the first time in the history of the prize.
Recipients of the honour have been absent in the past. The most recent was the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest last week. When she was named the Nobel laureate in 1991, her son Alexander Aris gave the acceptance speech on her behalf.
During the Cold War the Polish labour leader Lech Walesa was not allowed out to collect the honour, but his wife was permitted to travel to Oslo to accept it on behalf of her husband in 1983. When the Russian physicist Andrei D Sakharov won it in 1975 the Soviet authorities gave permission for his wife, too, to collect the prize.
Even in 1936, when the winner, Count Carl von Ossietzky, a German journalist who had been held in Nazi concentration camps, was refused a passport to travel to Oslo, the prize money, if not the award itself, was collected by his lawyer – who was later jailed for embezzling it.
The Chinese crackdown is more draconian than has ever been demonstrated by any government when a dissident has been awarded the prize.
Most ambassadors have remained silent on their reason for declining. But a spokesman for the Russian embassy in Oslo, Vladimjir Isupov, said yesterday: "It is not politically motivated and we do not feel we are pressured by China." The Russian ambassador would not be in Norway at the time of the ceremony, he said.
But few observers believe that. This year's laureate, Liu Xiaobo, has been an annoyance to the Chinese Communist Party through long years as a political activist. The 54-year-old university professor first came to international attention in 1989 when he returned from the United States to Beijing to take part in the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. After they were bloodily suppressed he was sent to prison for nearly two years. In 1996 he was jailed again and sent to a "re-education" labour camp for three years, where he married another activist, Liu Xia. Since then he has continued to speak out on a range of taboo subjects, including China's treatment of Tibetans.
His current jail term for "inciting subversion of state power" came after he helped write Charter 08, a manifesto calling for political change in China. The document – published on the 60th anniversary of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 2008 – demanded a new constitution in China, an independent judiciary and freedom of expression.
Two days before it was due to be published Mr Liu was arrested by police in a late-night raid on his home.
In making the award the Norwegian Nobel Committee commended his "long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China". The country had made rapid economic progress in recent decades, it said, and lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But now it needed to make political progress too, in line with Article 35 of its own constitution, which says that "citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration".
Such public criticism has outraged the government in Beijing.
Some believe that foreign pressure on China is counter-productive. Before Mr Liu's last trial the United States government called on Beijing to release him "immediately and to respect the rights of all Chinese citizens to peacefully express their political views". The Chinese government responded by holding a one-day trial – on Christmas Day when it assumed most people in the West would be busy with other matters.
So determined has it been that Mr Liu's award should not be collected that it has imposed travel bans on all prominent human rights activists, for fear that they might turn up in Oslo to make a speech accepting the prize for Mr Liu. Among them is Mr Liu's lawyer Mo Shaoping, who has been banned from attending a legal conference in London.
Mr Liu's wife posted on the internet a list of 143 Chinese activists, academics and celebrities she wanted to invite to the award ceremony. None appear to have been allowed out of the country.
Meanwhile Liu Xiaobo languishes in prison. Once a month his wife visits him for an hour watched over by two guards and a security camera. "Mentally and physically he's fine," she said after one recent visit. "He runs for an hour each day, he reads and he writes me letters."
As to when the formal presentation might finally be made, the organisers were noncommittal yesterday. It will be delayed indefinitely, they said, "until we have the right people here".
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