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By Paul Greenberg
The most striking feature of this year's presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize was the empty chair reserved for the winner.
Liu Xiaobo could not attend; he had a previous engagement imposed in December of 2008. That's when he was sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment for "inciting subversion of state power," that is, advocating freedom in the "People's Republic" of China. In political speech, words can mean their opposite.
To prosper, even to survive in a typical people's democracy, which is neither the people's nor a democracy, it is advisable to watch your speech, or even the look on your face -- to hold your mouth right, as they say.
Though he was unable to deliver the traditional Nobel Lecture, there are some silences that speak more eloquently than the longest speeches. Just as the absence of a great man is felt so much more powerfully than the presence of the mediocre.
The aura surrounding that empty chair said it all -- and said it so well that the authorities in the People's Republic erased pictures of it on Chinese websites.
Despite his absence, a statement from the Nobel Prize winner and prisoner was read at the ceremony in Oslo. It was the one he had delivered at the conclusion of his trial-and-sentence. (The two tend to merge in police states.) To read it now is to entertain the thought that, if Liu Xiaobo had not earned a Nobel Peace Prize, he might have deserved one for poetry. For this is what he said:
"I have no enemies, and no hatred. None of the police who have monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentence me, are my enemies. ... For hatred is corrosive of a person's wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation's spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society's tolerance and humanity, and block a nation's progress to freedom and democracy. I hope therefore to be able to transcend my personal vicissitudes ... to counter the hostility of the regime with the best of intentions, and defuse hate with love."
No prison can hold the spirit of such a man. For his is a power beyond the state's, a power his warders fear but may never understand. Till the day it overthrows them. Add the name of Liu Xiaobo to that of Solzhenitsyn, whose words from prison and exile were far more powerful than the pronouncements of those in mere political power.
Whether issuing orders from the Kremlin or the Forbidden City, Havana or Beijing, in the end the commissars cannot hope to compete with the message sent by the sight of a single empty chair. No wonder they sought to keep its image off the internet; it said more than all their party slogans and official pronouncements.
How long, oh how long, must China -- and the world -- wait for Liu Xiaobo's deliverance?
Time and again
I wonder how long
the night will be.
-- Tu Fu (713-770)
Although he is still imprisoned, the statement from Liu Xiaobo at the conclusion of his trial will do as well as any Nobel Lecture and better than most. Much like Martin Luther King Jr., or before him, Henry David Thoreau, Liu Xiaobo is freer in jail than others are out.
Far from defeated, this prisoner sounded victorious. He was not forlorn but full of quiet hope: "I firmly believe that China's political progress will never stop, and I'm full of optimistic expectations of freedom coming to China in the future, because no force can block the human desire for freedom...."
Liu Xiaobo's absence from the ceremony in Oslo, and his presence there, both symbolized by that empty chair, are a tribute not only to freedom but a reminder of its price: the courage to fight for it, to suffer for it, and to do so gladly, hopefully, unafraid.
As another Nobel Prize winner put it in his acceptance speech, man "must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed -- love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice." (William Faulkner, December 10, 1950.)
One unafraid man is more than a match for a state full of fear. No such state can stand forever against a man whose courage is rooted in the faith -- in the knowledge -- that love is stronger than hate.
Nor is Liu Xiaobo's love only abstract, a love of principle or people in general. Ideologues regularly declare their love for The People. It's just people they despise, especially those who might have opinions of their own and refuse to be cowed. It's easy enough to love in general; it's loving someone in particular that is the challenge, the real test and triumph.
Here is something else Liu Xiaobo said at the conclusion of his trial in a statement that would turn out to be his Nobel Lecture two years later:
"Ask me what has been my most fortunate experience of the past two decades, and I'd say it was gaining the selfless love of my wife, Liu Xia. ... (o)ur love has contained bitterness imposed by the external environment, but is boundless in afterthought. I am sentenced to a visible prison while you are waiting in an invisible one. Your love is sunlight that transcends prison walls and bars. ... Even if I am crushed into powder, I will embrace you with the ashes."
Water lilies bloom on the Great River.
Brilliant red on the green water.
Their color is the same as our hearts.
Their roots branch off.
Ours cannot be separated.
-- The Emperor Wu of Liang (464-549)
There is no defeating a spirit compounded of courage and love, uncontaminated by any desire for revenge, full of hope for the future despite everything. At the end of his statement, Liu Xiaobo declared: "I hope to be the last victim of China's endless literary inquisition, and that after this no one else will ever be jailed for their speech." May it be so. His courage, his faith, his capacity for love ... all offer new grounds for his great hope.
Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
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