OSLO, Norway — Pro-democracy advocates marched on the Chinese embassy in Oslo on Thursday, demanding that China release imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
Chanting “Freedom to Liu! Freedom for China!” about 100 protesters tried to deliver a petition with more than 100,000 signatures urging the dissident’s release from a Chinese prison before being diverted by police away from the embassy gates.
The protest came on the eve of the Nobel prize ceremony, where the 54-year-old Liu will be represented by an empty chair. Friday will be the first time the peace prize will not be handed out since 1936, when Adolf Hitler prevented German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky from accepting the award.
Liu, a literary critic and democracy activist, is serving an 11-year sentence on subversion charges brought after he co-authored a bold call for sweeping changes to Beijing’s one-party communist political system. Previously almost unknown even within China, he has in recent weeks been transformed into a cause-celebre among global rights activists and a source of curiosity to young, Internet-savvy Chinese.
Chinese authorities have placed Liu’s supporters, including his wife Liu Xia, under house arrest to prevent anyone from picking up his prize.
China was infuriated when the prestigious $1.4 million prize was awarded to Liu, describing it as an attack on its political and legal system. It said the country’s policies will not be swayed by outside forces in a “flagrant interference in China’s sovereignty.”
Amnesty Norway, which organized the peaceful protest, said it was not surprised the Chinese Embassy refused to accept the petition after previous futile attempts.
“We will now mail all the petitions to Chinese authorities in Beijing,” Amnesty spokeswoman Ingvild Gjone Lyberg said.
“Liu should not be jailed for his words. It’s against the Chinese Constitution,” said Renee Xia, a demonstrator. “The Chinese government is violating its own constitution by criminalizing free speech.”
Nobel committee secretary Geir Lundestad said Liu will be represented “by an empty chair … the strongest possible argument” for awarding it to him.
China has also put pressure on foreign diplomats to cancel their attendance at Friday’s ceremony. China and 18 other countries have declined to attend, including Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba. At least 45 of the 65 embassies in Oslo that were invited have accepted the invitation.
Lundestad said countries gave various reasons for not attending, but some were “obviously affected by China.” He noted that two-thirds of embassies had resisted Chinese pressure and accepted the invitation.
China warned that attendance at the ceremony would be viewed as a sign of disrespect.
“We hope those countries that have received the invitation can tell right from wrong, uphold justice,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.
The Norwegian-Chinese Association was planning a pro-China demonstration outside the Norwegian Parliament during Friday’s Nobel ceremony.
“We are against the Peace Prize for Liu Xiaobo. It creates a conflict between China and the rest of the world,” group spokesman Ya Ming Yuen said. “China has made enormous progress and is much more democratic now compared to 10 years ago.”
Ya expects about “a hundred” people at Friday’s protest, and vehemently denied Lundestad’s claim that Chinese living in Norway had been pressured by the embassy to participate.
“That is not true and I have asked Lundestad to apologize,” he said.
Nobel Peace Prize Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland urged China to consider political reforms, saying the committee’s decision to award Li the prize was also a message to Beijing that as a world power China “should become used to being debated and criticized.”
“This not a prize against China,” Jagland said.
In Beijing, China handed out its newly inaugurated Confucius Peace Prize — hastily created as a riposte to the Nobel — honouring former Taiwanese Vice-President Lien Chan. In a chaotic ceremony Thursday, Lien was absent and his aides seemed not to know anything about it. Instead, a small, unnamed girl accepted it on his behalf.
Several news websites, including the BBC’s and Norwegian broadcaster NRK’s, were blocked in China on Thursday, apparently to blot out any possible coverage of the ceremony. Some Nobel-related reports on CNN’s website were also inaccessible.
Li Heping, a civil rights lawyer, said the government’s harsh reaction to the prize was an eye-opener for the West.
“In the past, the West didn’t have a consensus on China. But this affair, this Nobel prize, has created one because it is linked with the West’s core values,” said Li, who was disbarred after pursuing human rights cases.
The U.S. Congress and prominent rights groups repeated their calls for Liu’s release, saying China’s actions violated both domestic laws and Beijing’s international commitments.
China’s “very public tantrum has generated even more critical attention inside and outside China and, ironically, emphasized the significance of Liu Xiaobo’s message of respect for human rights,” Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary general, said Thursday.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley reaffirmed U.S. support for the Nobel peace prize.
“We think there absolutely should be a ceremony … Mr. Liu and his wife should be there to be able to receive the award,” Crowley said in Washington.