It is remarkable, over the period of a day and a half, how one can come to feel so close to a man one has never met – a man who is not present and yet whose presence is overwhelming in its impact. Although I have not had the privilege of meeting Liu Xiaobo, I feel that I know him and have surely seen the profound influence for good he has had on the world from his remote jail cell in China. Through his writings and the many tributes and testimonials that have been offered, I have come to know of his deep love for his wife, his spirit of dignity and strength, his love for China, and his belief in the power of freedom and human rights.
While every seat was filled at last night’s banquet, many people commented on the irony that the most important seat was the empty chair at the Prize event where Liu Xiaobo’s diploma and medal were placed in his absence. This empty chair has become a powerful metaphor for the emptiness of China’s claims to respect the human rights of its citizens. I am told that it is no longer possible to Google the words empty chair in China and that the Nobel Committee’s site has gone dark in that country as well. And yet there was a general consensus among the people I spoke with that this Prize could well mark a turning point in the struggle for democracy in that vast and powerful nation.
I had the pleasure of dining next to Geir Lundestad, the Director and Permanent Secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, and he said the committee was amazed at the overwhelmingly positive response to the decision to award the prize to Liu Xiaobo. Norwegians tend to be rather understated, and Geir said that there were rarely, if ever, standing ovations at Prize ceremonies. Yesterday, Xiaobo was given three. It was interesting to hear Geir speak of the pressure from the Chinese Foreign Ministry on the Committee to dissuade them from presenting the award to Xiaobo. One is tempted to ask how they can possibly be so afraid of this one gentle man who speaks of forgiveness and respect and who has firmly proclaimed, “I have no enemies.” The answer is simple and familiar – like all dictatorships throughout history, they are afraid of freedom and the power of free individuals to think, choose, and act of their own accord. They are also afraid of the heroes among us who are willing to sacrifice their freedom, comfort, and privileges to stand up for their principles.
I was so proud last night to be with one such hero – Fang Zheng. Zheng lost both of his legs when a tank rolled over him in Tiananmen Square. He and his compatriots are filled with joy at this Prize which truly belongs to all of them, and they are filled with the hope that this represents a new beginning for China. One of them said to me, “China, if it is free and democratic, can help bring greater peace and prosperity to the whole world.” I don’t think that is an exaggeration, but it needs to begin with China letting one man go free so that his empty chair may be filled.