By Debbi Wilgoren and Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 10, 2010; 7:46 AM
The blue-and-white upholstered chair reserved for him was empty. At the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo Friday, jailed Chinese dissident and intellectual Liu Xiaobo was nowhere to be seen.
Yet his campaign to bring universal human rights and democracy to China was recognized at a somber and formal ceremony made more visible, in many ways, as a result of Beijing's efforts to suppress it.
"We regret that the laureate is not present. He is in isolation in a prison in northeastern China," said Nobel committee secretary Geir Lundestad. "Nor can his his wife or closest relatives be with us....This fact alone shows that the award was necessary and appropriate."
The audience of several hundred dignitaries, diplomats and officials responded with sustained applause and a standing ovation. An oversize portrait of Liu, 54, had been hung on the stage in the stately hall. His eyes, behind his trademark spectacles, appeared to take in the proceedings.
"Liu has only exercised his civil rights. He has not done anything wrong," Lundestad said. "He must be released."
When he finished speaking, he placed the medal and certificate normally awarded to the laureate in the empty chair upon the stage, triggering another ovation.
China blocked broadcasts of the ceremony on television and Internet sites. Just before 8 p.m. in Beijing, as the ceremony was beginning, CNN and BBC television channels went blank - as they had intermittently throughout the day. Chinese television news led their programs with stories on the latest economic figures, and new worries over inflation.
Also, some text messages containing the words "Liu Xiaobo" and "Nobel prize" were being blocked from delivery.
Chinese Internet users, or "'Netizens," tried to start an online campaign of support for Liu by changing their avatars either to yellow ribbons or empty chairs. One image being passed around online and via Twitter showed a black chair, in the shape of a human with arms and legs, and with handcuffs around the ankles.
Meanwhile, police in Beijing maintained a heavy presence outside the apartment compound of Liu's wife, Liu Xia, who has had her telephone and Internet communications cut off for several weeks, since the announcement of the prize.
The government prohibited the Lius and their family members from leaving China to attend Friday's ceremony, and barred other activists from traveling or even gathering at cafes or public places for fear that they would find a way to celebrate the occasion.
The crackdown triggered outrage and condemnation from around the world. It was the first time the award was not presented to a laureate in person since 1936, when Carl von Ossietzky, a German pacifist jailed by the Nazi regime, was prevented from attending the ceremony.
The absence of Liu and his family members also meant that the $1.4 million cash prize went uncollected.
Foreign embassies in Norway were warned that if they sent representatives to the Nobel ceremony, they would risk unspoken diplomatic "consequences." China broke off trade talks with Norway. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu denounced the Nobel committee members as "clowns" and accused them of "orchestrating an anti-China farce."
As of Dec. 6, the Nobel committee said, 46 countries had announced they would send representatives to the prize ceremony. Fifteen countries--China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia,Pakistan, Iraq , Iran, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Egypt, Sudan, Cuba and Morocco--said they would stay away.
The government of Serbia had planned to boycott the ceremony in order to maintain good relations with China, but reversed that stance on Friday in the face of an outcry at home and from the European Union and said it would send an human rights official--not a diplomat--to witness the event.
"We had to affirm our relation with China and respond to Serbia's interests with regard to the European Union," Human Rights Minister Svetozar Cipliche told the Associated Press. Serbia is a candidate for EU membership.
President Obama, chosen to receive the prestigious prize one year ago, said in a statement that Liu "is far more deserving of this award than I was."
"I regret that Mr. Liu and his wife were denied the opportunity to attend the ceremony that Michelle and I attended last year," Obama said. "...The values he espouses are universal, his struggle is peaceful, and he should be released as soon as possible."
Liu was jailed after authoring Charter '08, a pro-democracy manifesto that was published Dec. 10, 2008 and has since been signed by more than 10,000 people inside and outside China.
Obama said Liu "reminds us that human dignity ... depends upon the advance of democracy, open society, and the rule of law."
Scores of activists, lawyers and professors have been prohibited from leaving the country in recent days, or placed under house arrest, with their telephone and Internet lines cut. As the Nobel ceremony drew closer, some were also told not to speak to reporters.
The Chinese government continued its furious assault on the Nobel committee in the state controlled press on Friday. The lead headline in the Global Times said; "Beijing firm on Nobel." The China Daily lead story claimed: "Most nations oppose peace prize to Liu."
Activists said the crackdown has had one unintended, opposite effect - that of underscoring the need for political reform that Liu was awarded the prize for championing.
"The more people are barred from leaving the country, and the harder the government works to stifle news of the Nobel ceremony domestically, the more meaning the event takes on for the curious ordinary Chinese," Renee Xia, the international director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said in an e-mailed statement.
Wilgoren reported from Washington. Richburg reported from Beijing.
(See other Nobel laureates, including Poland's Lech Walesa and Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, who were prevented from receiving their prizes in person). (Read about how Chinese media have demonized Liu Xiaobo.)