With the recipient in prison, his wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest, and his two brothers denied permission to leave China, the prize was not awarded for the first time since 1936, when Adolf Hitler intervened to prevent German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky from attending the ceremony.
The Peace Prize medal and diploma were instead placed on an empty chair (above).
The regime blocked international media reports of the ceremony, but the event did not pass unnoticed.
A banner was unfurled at Zhongnan University in Hunan, declaring, “Congratulations to Liu Xiaobo for winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Thank you to the world for not ignoring the Chinese people’s pursuit of democracy.”
Cyber-activists marked the occasion by tweeting, often using the euphemism of the “empty chair”.
The award demonstrates that there is a “moral minimum” of rights and values shared by all nations and civilizations, said Václav Havel, the former Czech dissident-turned-president.
With the ceremony over, attention is turning to gauging the political implications of the award.
“The recognition of Liu Xiaobo will help us bring people back together,” his longtime friend and exiled dissident Yang Jianli told The Financial Times. Charter 08 would help unify a hitherto fractious movement, said the former political prisoner, who now heads the Initiatives for China democracy advocacy group.
Giving the peace prize to a Chinese dissident is an award “to all Chinese people who fight for human rights and push for peaceful reform,” says lawyer Teng Biao. It will motivate and inspire more citizens to join the democracy movement, he believes.
“Civil society in China is growing,” he says, “and there are people trying from within the system as well.”
Teng was awarded the National Endowment for Democracy’s 2008 Democracy Award for his work in support of rule of law and human rights in China. His award was presented in absentia as the authorities denied him permission to leave China.
His reference to reformists within the regime is telling, as some factions within the ruling party realize that one-party rule is incompatible with the country’s growing social and economic dynamism.
Many within the ruling Communist Party’s own leadership recognize that reform is a precondition for sustaining economic growth and for addressing what one analysis calls “a potentially devastating minefield of environmental problems, inequality, ethnic tensions and social imbalances.”
“Freedom of speech is indispensable for any nation,” Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said during an October 3 CNN interview. “China’s constitution endows the people with freedom of speech; the demands of the people for democracy cannot be resisted.”
A purely repressive response to growing social unrest – Beijing spends almost as much on internal security ($75 billion) as it does on defense ($80 billion) – is not sustainable, observers contend.
As a recent government report recognized, a toxic cocktail of corruption, inequality and social discontent is jeopardizing the country’s economic miracle and its emergence as a global power.
By stifling civil society, curtailing public participation and preventing the emergence of an independent judiciary, the government is denying itself the institutional resources, expertise and legitimacy needed to address China’s pending crises.
Observers are also questioning China’s ability to marry the bottom-up creativity and innovation a modern economy demands with top-down political control.
Article 35 of China’s constitution, adopted in 1982, explicitly states 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.”
But, a group of eminent party veterans recently noted, this “false democracy of formal avowal and concrete denial has become a scandalous mark on the history of world democracy”.
In an open letter to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, 23 former officials, military officers and editors – including a former assistant to Mao Zedong – called on the regime to end censorship and permit the freedom of expression guaranteed under China’s constitution but violated in practice.
The Nobel committee recognized Liu Xiaobo “for his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”
It is as a writer that Liu has been most influential, publishing eleven books and hundreds of essays – an average of 45 a year, not allowing for time spent in prison and labor camps. Yet he is very much the engaged intellectual and has emerged as a key figure in the Chinese democracy movement since the events leading up to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
He was jailed in 1989–91 and again in 1996–99. His activities over the past decade included serving as president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center and as editor of Democratic China magazine. He was a principal drafter and a prominent signatory of Charter 08, the dissidents’ manifesto for democratic reform.