Eloquence of the empty chair

Saturday, 11 December 2010

The empty chair at yesterday's Nobel peace prize ceremony is a needed reminder of two things.

First, despite its huge advances and ever-growing integration into the global economy, China operates on a very different set of values from our own. And second, for all its successes at home and abroad, the opaque and authoritarian regime in Beijing sees Liu Xiaobo and the values he represents as a threat to its continuing hold on power.

The closest recent parallel to Mr Liu was Andrei Sakharov, who won the peace prize in 1975. The Kremlin was similarly outraged by Western "interference" in the Soviet Union's domestic affairs. But though it barred Mr Sakharov from accepting in person, it did allow his wife to do so on his behalf.

China, by contrast, has imposed a domestic blackout – insofar as is possible in this ultra-connected age – and prevented anyone remotely connected with Mr Liu from travelling to Oslo. Where the Kremlin affected indifference to the recognition of Mr Sakharov, China trumpeted warnings to other countries not to attend the ceremony and even set up an absurd "Confucius Peace Prize" of its own.

Yes, the real Nobel peace prize has been politicised, and its committee sees events from a thoroughly European and social democratic vantage point. Last year's prize for Barack Obama was as much a rebuke for the departed George Bush as an endorsement of his successor, whose fine words have yet to have much effect on the real world.

But politicisation cannot obscure the truth that basic human rights are indivisible – that individual freedom and the rule of law are as important in China as in Norway or Sweden. They are also the most solid foundation for peace. Only 16 years after Mr Sakharov's award, the Soviet Union was no more, undone by forces he had helped to unleash. Just maybe, the same will be true of Mr Liu, and the despotic pseudo-communism that governs China today.