An empty chair in Oslo and candles in the night for Xiaobo

The Chinese government did everything it could to diminish the Nobel Peace Prize – but yesterday its power was clearer than ever

An empty high-backed chair played a poignant starring role at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo yesterday after this year's winner, the democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, was barred from attending by the Chinese government. He is being held in a prison in the remote North-east of the country.

With no one allowed by China to attend on his behalf – not Mr Liu's wife nor any other member of his family – the Nobel Committee found itself, only for the second time in the prize's 100-year history, unable to deliver the coveted medal and the $1.4m (£886,000) prize money. A diploma bearing his name, however, was simply placed on the seat of the chair. US President Barack Obama, the winner last year, issued a statement in Washington urging China to release Mr Liu, saying he was "far more deserving than I was" of the prize.

Mr Liu, one of the last pro-democracy student leaders to leave Tiananmen Square after the crackdown in June 1989, was sentenced a year ago to 11 years in prison for his part in unveiling Charter 08, a manifesto calling for democratic government in China.

The Chinese government dismissed members of the Nobel jury as "clowns". A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Beijing added: "Facts fully show that the decision of the Nobel committee cannot represent the overall majority of the people of the world. One-sidedness and lies have no footing to stand on; a Cold War mentality is unpopular."

Speaking at the ceremony, however, the chairman of the committee, Thorbjoern Jagland, said it was Beijing that was opening itself to fresh global criticism and opprobrium with its actions. Calling also for Mr Liu's release, he won a standing ovation from hall of roughly 1,000 guests.

"Many will ask whether China's weakness is not manifested in the need to imprison a man for 11 years merely for expressing his opinions on how his country should be governed," he told the assembled dignitaries, VIPs and foreign ambassadors.

Indeed, Beijing's refusal to allow Mr Liu to travel to Oslo was in itself telling, he said. "This fact alone shows that the award was necessary and appropriate." Mr Liu's wife, Liu Xia, was put under house arrest when China learned of the Nobel Committee's choice.

In addition to the symbolic empty chair, organisers displayed a large portrait of Mr Liu behind the podium, while the actress Liv Ullman read from a statement he made in court upon his conviction last year entitled: "I have no enemies: My final statement". In it he said: "There is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme."

Former Norwegian prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, who attended the ceremony, said: "When they allow neither Xiaobo nor anyone else to attend in his place, it demonstrates that China has a long way to go." The usual torchlight parade saluting the winner was set to go ahead last night. A large picture of Mr Liu was to be projected onto the facade of the central Oslo hotel where traditionally the Peace Prize winner appears on a balcony to wave.

The only precedent for yesterday's empty chair was in 1935, when the Nazi government in Germany barred pacifist Carl von Ossietzky or any of his representatives from travelling to Oslo. Four other winners have been unable to attend over the years, including the Soviet human rights champion Andrei Sakharov in 1975, and in 1991 the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. They were each able to send family members.

Mr Obama noted that he was making his request for Mr Liu's release on International Human Rights Day: "We respect China's extraordinary accomplishment in lifting millions out of poverty, and believe that human rights include the dignity that comes with freedom from want. But Mr. Liu reminds us that human dignity also depends upon the advance of democracy, open society, and the rule of law."

China had called on countries to boycott the Oslo ceremony and 17 countries stayed away, including Russia, Venezuela and Cuba. Serbia had previously agreed to the boycott, but changed its stand at the last moment and did send a representative.

Liu Xiaobo's Statement

Taken from his address during his trial for subversion in November 2009, and read out yesterday by the Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann:

I have no enemies and no hatred. None of the police who monitored, arrested, and interrogated me, none of the prosecutors who indicted me, and none of the judges who judged me are my enemies. Although there is no way I can accept your monitoring, arrests, indictments, and verdicts, I respect your professions and your integrity... Hatred can rot away at a person's intelligence and conscience. Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society's tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation's progress towards freedom and democracy. That is why I hope to be able to transcend my personal experiences as I look upon our nation's development and social change, to counter the regime's hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love.

It is precisely because of such convictions and personal experience that I firmly believe that China's political progress will not stop, and I, filled with optimism, look forward to the advent of a future free China. For there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme...

If I may be permitted to say so, the most fortunate experience of these past 20 years has been the selfless love I have received from my wife, Liu Xia. She could not be present as an observer in court today, but I still want to say to you, my dear, that I firmly believe your love for me will remain the same as it has always been. Throughout all these years that I have lived without freedom, our love was full of bitterness imposed by outside circumstances, but as I savour its aftertaste, it remains boundless. I am serving my sentence in a tangible prison, while you wait in the intangible prison of the heart. Your love is the sunlight that leaps over high walls and penetrates the iron bars of my prison window, stroking every inch of my skin, warming every cell of my body, allowing me to always keep peace, openness, and brightness in my heart, and filling every minute of my time in prison with meaning.

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