The Chinese government reacted furiously to the choice of the dissident Liu Xiaobo as this year’s recipient of the prize and is pressuring other countries to boycott the event. Liu is serving an 11-year prison sentence for “inciting the subversion of state power” by publishing pro-democracy tracts.
However, Yang Jianli, now a Harvard-based campaigner for democracy and a friend of Liu and his wife, Liu Xia – currently under house arrest – believes that his empty chair on 10 December will send a message more powerful than any speech or slogan. Yang was asked by Liu Xia on 15 October to work with the Nobel committee to prepare the ceremony.
“We will be having at least two empty seats on the stage. But those empty seats will speak loudly and will serve as a reminder to the whole world of the situation in China,” Yang told the Observer.
After the brutal government crackdown on the student-led Tiananmen movement, Yang left for the US but returned to China on a false passport and was caught and jailed in 2002. Freed in 2007, he left China again and now maintains a high profile abroad, from where he advocates democratic reforms.
The Oslo ceremony represents a chance for a global media coup for the pro-democracy movements.
“Because of the decision of the Nobel peace prize committee the game has changed both internationally and domestically,” Yang told the Observer. “We will have the spotlight on the Chinese government and apply pressure on them so that they may reconsider their decisions on Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia.”
The ceremony itself – hosted by Hollywood stars Anne Hathaway and Denzel Washington and featuring musicians such as Elvis Costello – will provide a stirring commentary on the Chinese democracy movement. Though Liu will not be there, Yang said, an actor presenter will read from his writings near the empty chair that seems set to become a symbol of Liu’s detention.
Yang appealed to Beijing to change its attitude on the award and see it as a badge of pride for China. “The award is not meant as an insult, but is in fact an honour even for people in the Chinese government. It is a golden opportunity for the political opening up of China. We cannot afford to miss it. There is still an opportunity to change. I still have hope for that. But I do not rely on it,” he said.
Yang aims to organise events in Norway with the families of jailed Chinese activists. At the same time he will push the agenda of Charter 08, the pro-democracy manifesto Liu Xiaobo helped to write. Events will include displaying the photographs and names of jailed dissidents and also a protest at the Chinese embassy.
China’s official attitude to the award has been one of outrage. Russia, Cuba, Iraq and Morocco have said they will boycott the ceremony. Indonesia and Vietnam have indicated that their ambassadors will stay away. That has angered Yang. “It is not the right thing to do to break the off from universal values that everybody should believe in,” he said.
Yang has not heard from Liu Xia since 21 October and fears for her safety. “We have been totally cut off. We don’t know her situation. She must be under tremendous pressure. It is totally unfair.”
To most people the odds seem stacked against the dissidents. But Yang said the award of the Nobel prize had been the biggest boost to the pro-democracy movement in years.
“I am always optimistic,” he said. “On the surface you can only see the hardening of China’s attitude, but the real change is in people’s hearts. You can feel the change already in China.”