The Power of an Empty Chair

Woody Allen said 80% of success is turning up, but the power of an empty chair was demonstrated yesterday when Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo was unable to collect the Nobel Peace Prize.

If he had stood before an applauding Oslo audience he would have won a few minutes of fame in international news schedules and a soundbite might have reached an audience of millions.

But instead of the world seeing yet another talking head it has been given an image it will not forget for a long time. In a moment of poignant political theatre, the Nobel diploma was placed on the chair where the Tiananmen Square activist would have sat.

This will have grabbed the attention of viewers who would not have sat up and listened to a human rights activist lobbying for democratic reform. In seeking to deny Liu Xiaobo airtime, the Chinese authorities have helped make him a household name.

The imaginative power of an empty chair cannot be underestimated. It suggests that people are waiting for someone to arrive, and that one day he or she may take their rightful place.

In Jewish tradition, a chair is designated for the prophet Elijah at circumcision ceremonies, and a cup is poured for him at each Passover.

This does more than imply the presence of a prophet, it is an expression of confident hope that a new righteous age of peace and justice will one day arrive.
Something similar happened when the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel committee, Thorbjorn Jagland, next to the empty chair.

There was the suggestion that just as activists who waited for Nelson Mandela to one day leave his South African prison and had the joy of welcoming him to a new life of freedom, so Liu Xiaobo would eventually collect his award in person.

If there is not a happy ending to this particular story the image millions saw yesterday will become only more famous.

The tragedy of World War I was expressed powerfully at the Birkenhead Eisteddfod of 1917 when the chair of Hedd Wyn, a poet slain at Passchendaele, was draped in black.
It paralleled the sorrow of families across Wales who also looked at the empty chairs of fathers, brothers and sons.

There were other empty chairs at yesterday’s Oslo gathering. Sixteen ambassadors, including the representatives of Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Cuba, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, did not attend.

These countries do not want to antagonise a great power whose leaders have chosen to prioritise economic development over political reform. Their policies have lifted millions out of desperate poverty, but it will be a real sign of China’s strength when it allows peaceful dissidents a passport and a voice.

A Saturday column