An empty chair will today become a powerful symbol of Chinese repression. The chair should be occupied by Liu Xiaobo, who will be awarded the Nobel peace prize at a ceremony in Oslo. He will be absent as he is serving an 11-year prison sentence in Northeast China’s Liaoning Province.
First jailed for supporting the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square, Mr Liu also spent three years in a labour camp in the nineties for campaigning on behalf of other incarcerated Tiananmen protesters. In collaboration with political theorist Zhang Zuhua, he produced a document called Charter 08 calling for an end to one-party rule in China and demanding a shift from authoritarianism towards a more liberal democracy.
The Chinese government considers his demands would threaten the integrity of the Chinese state and jeopardise the massive economic progress it has been achieving in the last few decades. It also believes that the Nobel peace prize is being used as a political tool by Western powers to undermine the nation’s rise as a great world power and rival to the United States of America.
Moral and value judgements aside, perhaps authoritarianism can deliver higher levels of economic growth than democracy. Analysis of the Chinese model appears to bear that out. Cormac McCarthy wrote: “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak”. Plato and Winston Churchill would probably agree.
So which works better – government by a totalitarian wealthy subset of the productive class or a philosophically more attractive system? Perhaps you believe a blend of moral democracy and economic authoritarianism could be successful? Take your pick. It’s a very big question and it’s easy to give a quick, unconsidered answer.
But what I find disturbing about today’s Oslo ceremony is not just Mr Liu’s empty chair. It’s the other empty chairs. The ones that will be left vacant by representatives of Afghanistan, Colombia, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Sudan, Tunisia, Ukraine, Venezuela and Vietnam. All brow-beaten into declining their invitations. All cravenly seeking favour from the Chinese Communist regime.
So if one chair in Oslo marks the absence of a brave man, the others mark the absence of those who, to paraphrase Junius, fawn upon those above them.