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Liu Xiaobo

Photo: AP Photo/John McConnico

It’s been 65 years since the chair sat empty. The last time a detained Nobel Peace Prize laureate failed to be formally represented by anyone at the awards gala was when Nazi Germany barred pacifist Carl von Ossietzky from attending in 1935. But today when China’s jailed political dissident, Liu Xiaobo, was awarded the prize for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China,” the chair sat empty once more. The 54-year-old writer, political commentator and human rights activist was sentenced in 2009 to 11 years in prison for, “subversion of state power.”

1. Liu was born on December 28, 1955 in the icy northeastern province of Jilin. The son of a university professor during the Cultural Revolution, he followed his parents to the inner Mongolian countryside and worked there for several years as construction worker. In 1977, he was admitted to study Chinese literature at Jilin University, where he created the poetry group The Innocent Hearts. Liu went on to post-graduate literature studies at Beijing Normal University where he would later become a professor. He’s been a best-selling non-fiction author in China, and was a visiting scholar at the universities of Oslo and Hawaii and Columbia University in New York City.

Liu Xiaobo in an undated photo.

2. According to Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, the activist intends to dedicate the prize to the “lost souls of June 4th,” a reference to the hundreds of students killed when Chinese troops suppressed pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Liu took part in the hunger strikes and played a key role in mediating between the stronghold of remaining students and the troops for a peaceful withdrawal from the square. Liu was subsequently jailed and lost his job. Over the years, he has been repeatedly arrested and detained for promoting democracy and human rights.

3. Liu was jailed in 2009 primarily for his work on Charter 08, an online human rights manifesto that calls for political reform in China. Charter 08 was modeled after Charter 77, a document written by intellectuals and activists in the former Czechoslovakia, and also borrows from the Constitution of the United States and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. Charter 08 was initially signed by more than 300 Chinese intellectuals and activists, and has since gained 10,000 signatures both inside and outside of China. (Read the English translation of Charter 08 here.)

4. The Chinese government has gone to great efforts to discredit the prize, and block Liu’s family and friends from receiving it on his behalf. Liu Xia is currently under house arrest and the police have reportedly blocked off all outside communication. Dozens of friends and supporters have been prevented from leaving the country for fear that they would attend the ceremony in Oslo.

5. China has also mounted an unprecedented campaign to persuade other countries to boycott the awards ceremony. According to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, 65 countries with embassies in Norway were invited to attend, but only 44 accepted. Countries that declined the invitation included Russia, Venezuela, Cuba, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

The Chinese government also established the Confucius Peace Prize to counter the Nobel Prize. The inaugural prize was awarded to Lien Chan, a Taiwanese politician for his efforts in facilitating peace between the Chinese mainland and the island, but he failed to turn up at the awards ceremony.