At least 19 countries will be absent from today’s ceremony bestowing the Nobel Peace Prize on Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in the wake of his government’s campaign to portray the award as a western effort to undermine its authority.
Those absent will include countries with unelected rulers such as Cuba and Saudi Arabia, Chinese neighbors Kazakhstan and Vietnam, and U.S. allies Colombia and Egypt. Their decision to skip the ceremony in Oslo comes as Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu derided the award as a “farce” bestowed by “clowns” in comments to reporters in Beijing on Dec. 7.
“Mr. Liu Xiaobo is far more deserving of this award than I was,” President Barack Obama said in a statement e-mailed to reporters. “I regret that Mr. Liu and his wife were denied the opportunity to attend the ceremony that Michelle and I attended last year.”
“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,” Obama said. “But Mr. Liu reminds us that human dignity also depends upon the advance of democracy, open society, and the rule of law.”
The no-show list, double the number from two years ago, reflects China’s growing global influence as its economic power expands, says Iver B. Neumann, Research Director at the Oslo-based Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.
“China is the rising power of the century,” said Neumann in an interview Dec. 8. “This seems to be one of the central dramas of world politics today. The discussion will certainly not blow over.”
At the same time, the award has focused attention on China’s treatment of political dissidents as the country expands its economic dominance. Chinese authorities won’t allow Liu to attend the ceremony and placed his wife under house arrest three days after the prize was announced. The committee on Oct. 8 said he deserved the prize “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”
China passed Japan this year to become the world’s second largest economy, and will grow about 10 percent in 2010 and 2011, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said in a Nov. 18 report.
The People’s Daily, which reflects the views of China’s ruling Communist Party, said in a Nov. 5 commentary that awarding the prize to Liu was a deliberate attempt to undermine China’s government.
“Clearly, the West does not want a strong China,” the newspaper said. The award “explicitly reveals Western countries’ attempts to back anti-socialism forces and utilize them to disrupt China’s development.”
The newspaper stayed on the attack today, saying in a commentary that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee is facing an “unprecedented embarrassment.” The television channels and websites for CNN and BBC were intermittently blacked out in China ahead of today’s ceremony.
The award isn’t directed against China, the chairman of the Nobel committee, Thorbjoern Jagland, said at a news conference yesterday. “It’s a prize honoring those people in China -- and Liu Xiaobo is one of the most prominent ones -- that are clearly understanding that further economic development in China must be combined with political reforms.”
The empty chair at this year’s award ceremony underlines the significance of the committee’s choice, according to Geir Lundestad, the director of the Nobel Institute, which organizes the event. He says countries are growing more reluctant to distance themselves from China’s policies because of its political and economic clout.
“China is becoming more important in international politics, and a dwindling number are willing to criticize the parts of the country’s policies that deserve criticism,” Lundestad said Dec. 8 in an opinion article in the Oslo-based newspaper Aftenposten.
That may be reinforcing China’s determination to set its own agenda and not tolerate international interference, according to Bates Gill, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“The political environment in China today seems to currently call for and allow for this kind of very, very strong reaction to perceived slights to China’s interests,” Gill said in an interview. “It is extremely unfortunate that the Chinese government has reacted as strongly as it has. I sense it to be an overreaction.”
Liu in Custody
Liu was taken into custody in December 2008 for his role in organizing Charter 08, an open letter signed by more than 300 Chinese academics, lawyers and activists calling for direct elections and freedom of assembly. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Christmas last year.
Obama on Oct. 8 called on China to free Liu and said the peace prize selection “reminds us that political reform has not kept pace” with economic developments in China.
China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Colombia, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Argentina, Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Cuba and Morocco won’t attend the ceremony, the Nobel committee said yesterday. The Philippines will also stay away because the ambassador has “an earlier-arranged consular mission in Denmark,” Ed Malaya, a spokesman at the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, said today. Forty-five countries are expected to attend.
In 2008, when former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari received the prize, 10 embassies weren’t represented.
Liu’s absence will be marked in Oslo City Hall with an empty chair at the podium and Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann will read from his writings, according to the ceremony program. An evening torchlight procession through the streets of the Norwegian capital will end at the Grand Hotel, where the laureate traditionally greets the crowd from the balcony of the 136-year-old establishment. This year, a picture of Liu will be projected on the facade of the hotel.
There are two demonstrations scheduled in Oslo today, one in support of the laureate and one protesting the prize, according to the Oslo police and the NTB news agency. Amnesty International in Norway yesterday delivered 100,000 signatures to the Chinese embassy calling for Liu’s release from prison.
The U.S. won’t try to sway countries that have decided not to attend, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said Dec. 8. While allies such as Afghanistan won’t be present, Crowley said there was widespread support for the committee’s choice.
“We will be there on Friday to observe this recognition, and we know that we will not be alone,” he said.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang said any effort to force China to alter its treatment of political prisoners is misguided.
“Some people believe that they can use Cold War practices to exert pressure on China and therefore change China,” Jiang said. “I think that is too naive.”
A Beijing-based group this week announced the Confucius Peace Prize as an alternative to Norway’s Nobel, and awarded it to former Taiwanese vice-president Lien Chan. A Lien spokesman said he hadn’t been notified and he did not attend yesterday’s ceremony in Beijing. A six-year-old girl accepted the award on Lien’s behalf, the South China Morning Post said today.
China is using the boycott in part to test its allies’ loyalties, said Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Internal politics plays a role as well, she said.
“If you make this out to be an anti-China plot by the West, it’s something people understand,” she said.
Liu’s absence tomorrow will mark the fifth time in the award’s 109-year history that a peace prize winner was prevented from attending for political reasons, according to Lundestad.
The four others were German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky in 1935, Soviet dissident and nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov in 1975, Polish Solidarity founder Lech Walesa in 1983 and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991. With the exception of Ossietzky, the laureates were represented by family members at the award ceremony.