A Nobel Peace Prize is usually more important in the fact of the awarding than in the ceremony itself, but the unfulfilled pageantry this Friday, Dec. 10, in Oslo will be poignant. Normally, the president of the Nobel Committee says a few remarks about the vaunted history of the award and the year's recipient, and a short movie about his or her life is screened. There is polite applause, followed by a reverent silence as the laureate is called to the stage to give an acceptance speech. A small box, unexpectedly heavy in the hand, is presented to the awardee, containing the medal itself.
This year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, Chinese essayist and author Liu Xiaobo, will most likely be in a small windowless jail cell inside Jinzhou Prison in northeastern China. His wife, Liu Xia, who had earlier expressed an interest in attending, will be under house arrest in Beijing. All of the Chinese activists, writers, lawyers, and other kindred spirits whom she had recommended be invited in her husband's stead are now also prevented from leaving China.
But one person on Liu Xia's list who will attend the Nobel ceremony is Wan Yanhai, a respected longtime AIDS activist and educator. He has been living outside China since May, when official interference made his work on AIDS difficult.
Wan has known Liu a long time. When Wan was himself detained by Chinese authorities in 2002, Liu penned a famous essay about his friend's disappearance, "Wan: Arrested or Kidnapped?" Wan was one of the original signatories of Charter 08, the online freedom manifesto he signed over MSN instant messenger. When four officers from the Beijing Public Security Bureau knocked on his door in late 2008, he tried to debate with them the merits of Charter 08 -- a testament to his bravery and resilience. Last week Foreign Policy caught up with Wan in Washington. Excerpts:
FP: Why did you decide to go to Oslo?
Wan: I've been a friend of Liu Xiaobo's for many years. I'm a supporter of his and we keep a really close working relationship in Beijing. And also, I'm part of Charter 08.
FP: Why has the Chinese government chosen to stop friends and colleagues from leaving China to go to Oslo? Why is it so important to Beijing to prevent their attendance?
Wan: Why? I don't know. I'm not a part of the regime. But it seems the Chinese government is becoming extremely aggressive. They feel overconfident. They don't care as much now about the opinions of the West as they once did. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Chinese government cared about Western views; they cared about Congress and the U.S. government. But now they don't care. They feel that they are stronger. They are confident about their economic abilities.
Before this year, the Chinese government had a history of blocking [activists who traveled outside China] from coming back. Dissidents were not allowed to come back. But today the government blocks people from leaving. They are more confident in controlling people inside China. That is my explanation.