The Nobel committee honoured peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo on Friday at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway, even though the imprisoned Chinese dissident couldn't attend.
An empty chair represented the 54-year-old professor and democracy activist, who is serving an 11-year prison sentence in northeast China.
Liu's wife, activist Liu Xia, also was not able to attend the ceremony because she is under house arrest in China, while many of Liu's friends who wanted to travel to Oslo were barred from leaving the country.
Thorbjorn Jagland, chair of the Norwegian Nobel committee, said Liu was awarded the prize for his "long and non-violent struggle for fundamental rights in China."
Jagland said awarding the prize to Liu was not "a prize against China," and Beijing, as a world power, "should become used to being debated and criticized."
"Liu has only exercised his civil rights; he has done nothing wrong. He must be released," he said, drawing a standing ovation.
Chinese officials have criticized the decision to award Liu the peace prize, which they have described as a Western political tool designed to intimidate and pressure China.
"His views will in the long run strengthen China," Jagland said. "We extend to him — and to China — our very best wishes for the years ahead."
After his speech, Jagland turned and placed the medal and diploma in the empty chair. It was the first time since the 1930s that the award and diploma were not handed out to either the prize-winner or a representative of the winner.
Before the ceremony, U.S. President Barack Obama — last year's winner — said in a statement Friday that he regretted that Liu and his wife were not allowed to attend the ceremony.
During the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony honouring Liu Xiaobo, Norwegian actress Liv Ullman read from a statement made by Liu to a court during his December 2009 trial:
"I have no enemies and no hatred," the statement said.
"Hatred can rot away at a person's intelligence and conscience. Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society's tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation's progress towards freedom and democracy. That is why I hope to be able to transcend my personal experiences as I look upon our nation's development and social change, to counter the regime's hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love.
"It is precisely because of such convictions and personal experience that I firmly believe that China's political progress will not stop, and I, filled with optimism, look forward to the advent of a future free China. For there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme."
Obama said Liu "reminds us that human dignity also depends upon the advance of democracy, open society and the rule of law."
Liu is one of the authors of "Charter 08," a document that calls for democratic reforms and an end to single-party rule in China. He also was an activist in 1989, during the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests.
"I haven’t seen such electricity in an audience for a long time, people kept rising to their feet," Canadian essayist and novelist John Ralston Saul said after the ceremony.
Some 1,000 guests, including Chinese dissidents living in exile, ambassadors, royalty and other VIPs, sat solemnly in the atrium of Oslo's modernist city hall for the ceremony.
Saul is the head of PEN International, an organization that works to advance freedom of expression. He said the organization would keep trying to assist Liu, a writer and past president of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre.
"In a way it's a victory for him, even though he's in prison, and it's also a victory for the international importance — the idea, the reality — of freedom of expression."
China and more than a dozen other countries — mostly fellow authoritarian states — declined invitations to the ceremony.
"We're seeing a much more confident and assertive China," CBC's Anthony Germain said from Beijing.
"A China whose influence has grown to the point where it can say Western notions of democracy and human rights are dressed up as universal values, when actually they are really foreign ideas being forced upon China."
In Oslo, the Norwegian-Chinese Association held a pro-China rally with a handful of people proclaiming the committee had made a mistake in awarding the prize to Liu.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement praising Liu's win.
"Mr. Liu shares Canada’s commitment to peace, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law — and should be free to express his views," Harper said. "While Canada values its strong relationship with China, we will continue to stand up for those denied basic human rights and the freedom of expression."
Liu's supports called 'clowns'
In Beijing, both CNN and BBC TV went black at 8 p.m. local time, exactly when the Oslo ceremony was taking place. Security outside Liu's apartment in Beijing was heavy and several dozen journalists were herded away by uniformed police to a cordoned-off area.
Police cars were positioned on every surrounding corner and officers patrolled outside the apartment block where the blinds were drawn on Liu's top-floor unit. Other prominent dissidents were moved out of Beijing ahead of the ceremony, Germain said.
Liu's award has elicited a furious response from Beijing, with daily tirades in state media berating the Norwegian Nobel committee as misguided and inherently opposed to China's development. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu this week described Liu's supporters as "clowns" and accused the Nobel committee of "orchestrating an anti-China farce by themselves."
Security was also tightened Friday on Beijing university campuses, where students seemed aware of Liu's prize. Additional guards were posted and visitors required to show identification upon entering.
While many students expressed support for Liu's democratic ideals, some backed the government's depiction of him as a source of conflict unworthy of such an honour.
"The prize has become so political," said Peking University student Grace Lee. "It's supposed to be for people who struggle for peace, not people who cause conflict between countries."