Perhaps this time around the chair won’t be empty.
In a surprise announcement yesterday, the Chinese and Norwegian governments announced that they will resume normal bilateral relations, marking the end of a six-year tantrum by China. The standoff began following the 2010 awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize – by a nongovernmental Norwegian group – to the imprisoned democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo, prompting China to suspend all high-level interactions with the Norwegian government.
Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison in December 2009, on ludicrous charges of “inciting subversion.” Not content to persecute him, Chinese authorities have also assiduously clamped down on Liu’s family, friends, and supporters. As well as holding his wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest for years, many of the principal signatories and co-drafters of Charter 08 –the pro-democracy manifesto Liu helped pen – have been under tight police surveillance, prevented from meeting one another or giving interviews to the media, and denied the right to travel abroad.
In December 2010, an extraordinary gathering of Chinese human rights and pro-democracy activists, and many of their supporters from around the world, descended on Oslo for the Peace Prize ceremony. It’s hard to say what was most memorable: the roar of telephoto lenses snapping pictures of the glinting medal? The Norwegian actor Liv Ullman calmly and movingly reading Liu’s famous essay, “I Have No Enemies”? No: it was the empty chair, the one in which Liu the laureate should have been seated.
Over the past six years the Norwegian government and Liu Xiaobo have shared something in common: both know what it means to be the target of Beijing’s opprobrium and to pay a price for respecting the right to free speech, though for Liu the result has been devastating. In resuming trade talks, Norway should also resume pressing for better human rights in China; the situation has deteriorated significantly since President Xi Jinping assumed power in March 2013. It is disturbing that in their joint statement the Norwegian government said it will not “support actions that undermine [China’s core interests], and will do its best to avoid any future damage to bilateral relations.”
Oslo no doubt recognizes that being a credible defender of human rights can be complicated. But if Norway is serious about seeing the rights of China’s people improve, it should start by announcing that Liu Xiaobo is welcome in Norway to receive his Nobel Peace prize in person as a free man. No more empty chairs.