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Chair’s Notebook #5 December, 2010
Note from Oslo

In early December, as Chair of Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International, I was invited to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo. Liu Xiaobo, who was the absent laureate this year, is currently serving an 11-year sentence in a very remote prison for seven sentences (224 Chinese characters) concerning the Chinese dissidents' manifesto for democracy called Charter 08 that he and others wrote in 2008. Liu Xiaobo was the first president of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre (ICPC), and a longstanding case of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN.

Liu Xiaobo, Grand Hotel, December 2010

Liu Xiaobo: "I have no enemies...."

On December 10th, at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, the ideals that we share and work for in PEN—freedom of expression, democracy and peace—were celebrated; in the words of absent Laureate, Liu Xiaobo: Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity and the mother of truth. Deep winter already; Oslo was very cold and the surrounding countryside blanketed in snow, trees etched in frost, candlelit  restaurants in the intimate city centre filled with jolly Norwegians celebrating Christmas. 

On the morning of December 10th, at a Breakfast Seminar, at which Scottish PEN’s wonderfully expressive Empty Chair was prominently displayed,  Tienchi Martin (current chair of ICPC and friend of both Liu and his wife) brought Liu Xiaobo into the room, with these words: Liu Xiaobo’s dinner on December 10, 2010 may look like this: boiled vegetables with sand, and a few pieces of fat meat as a special treat. He might have an extra piece of steamed bread, and his rice bowl could also be refilled today. In short, it is a privileged meal that will long be remembered, because it is a meal that will leave the stomach truly filled. After all, he is the first Chinese to win the Nobel Peace Prize.  

In the afternoon, 1000 people gathered in Oslo’s City Hall; Norway's king and queen sat with the crowd, facing the low stage. The ceremony began with a Norwegian soprano singing Edward Grieg’s exquisite Solveig’s Song, a lament for an absent lover, which today seemed to be the song of Liu’s wife, Xia, also prevented from travelling to Oslo by China. (Not only has she been under house arrest and completely cut off from outside world since October 20th, but the day before the Nobel ceremony, an enormous barrier was erected outside her Beijing apartment, so no photographs could be taken of her building.)

In a brilliantly crafted speech, delivered with no histrionics, in English, Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland cited Liu’s writings, notably Charter 08, and relevant sections of the China’s Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech to China’s citizens. He noted that Liu’s award is in the tradition of Andrej Sakharov, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and Aung San Suu Kyi, all of whose countries roundly condemned the awarding of the Prize to them. The speech was broken by four protracted standing ovations; the Chinese guests were clustered in rows and then there were row upon row of Norwegians, who seemed to all quietly share, without question, a commitment to human rights, of which this prize is the most public and global (and often controversial) symbol. The king and queen stood for every ovation. Then the citation and medal were carefully placed on an empty chair on the platform, a Nobel Peace Committee straight-backed chair covered in a soft blue tapestry stitched with white birds in flight.

After several Chinese traditional songs were played on a violin, Liv Ullman read the lengthy “Final Statement” Liu made on the eve of being sentenced one year ago. Somehow the serenely aging, beautiful actor embodied the words of the slight, intense philosopher-poet, keeping clear the sense of something urgent and uncertain, written from a prison cell. In the reading, the aspirations of the Chinese people for democracy and the support of Westerners for our Chinese friends and colleagues were joined; many wept a little. Then, at Liu’s request (the only instructions the Nobel Committee received from him concerning the ceremony), a chorus of children sang. 

I felt extraordinarily privileged to be in the room. There was something ineffably Norwegian about this ceremony—grace and dignity rather than formality, no pomp, even with royalty, just what we all happened to be doing in Oslo this cold Friday afternoon in December. Later, the torchlight parade had the same quiet certainty—simple phrases repeated in unison, wrapped and muffled people walking on snow, mittened hands wrapped around torches which illuminated ordinary faces, Chinese, some from other countries, most Norwegian, some holding small portraits of Liu, rounding the corner quite silently, led by banners, then standing and facing the portrait thrown up on the façade of the Grand Hotel, over the balcony upon which the Laureate would normally stand for greetings and applause. The square was very full, people spilling up the staircases at one end. People lingered even after their torches burned down. 

– Marian Botsford Fraser

Link to all the PEN notebook entries