The Empty Throne. The West and Human Rights in China


Etimasia is, in the Eastern Church, the empty throne surrounded by elements of Christological symbolism. Although the image of an empty throne can be traced to the Upanishads, an empty throne was also found at Knossos, as well as the empty throne prepared for Alexander by Eumenes, commander of the Macedonian troops in Asia, and the sella curulis which was exhibited, empty, during the yearly games in Ancient Rome.

Hetoimasia, as Giorgio Agamben tells us (as well as the verb hetoimazō, and the adjective hetoimos), “is in the Septuagint’s Greek a technical term, in the Psalms, which refers to the throne of YHWH” (Agamben 2009, p. 268). Therefore an empty throne refers to the terrible Jewish tetragrammaton. In rabbinical tradition, the empty throne is one of the seven things that He Himself created before the world, while in Christian theology the empty throne is eternal as much as God Himself, but in any case, it is the symbol of his glory. Objective glory, the glory of God Himself, but also subjective glory or glorification. Elements that according to Agamben are in a circular relationship: subjective glory performs objective glory, nourishes it, substantiates it, and creates it.

There is another ‘empty throne’ that interests us. This is the chair reserved for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize honoree Liu Xiaobo on the day of the presentation ceremony in Oslo. Liu, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison for having promoted the political manifesto Charter 08 (the formal charge is ‘subversion’) was not able to be present at the ceremony, was unable to collect the check for $ 1.5 million, and was not present to make a speech.

This was a widely expected outcome, nevertheless it was decided to leave the chair empty. On this emptychair was laid the award.

Of course, the empty chair is not an oversight, but responds to a practice that draws on ancient symbolism of which we have said is found in many cultures: the ‘empty throne’. It is a ‘throne,’ a place not so much to the glory of Liu as a person, as much as it is a glorification of what he represents: Human Rights.

But, as in the thesis of Agamben regarding God, this glorification circularly feeds Human Rights, it creates them and keeps them alive (in Agamben, however, the circularity is not necessarily a positive connotation, as it denounces the conceit of the creator).

That empty chair wants to have the political power of an absence that is at the same time presence. If not, Chinese censorship would not have grotesquely intervened to prohibit not only the use of the word ‘Oslo’ (home of the Nobel Peace Prize), but above all the expression ‘empty chair’, thus creating the vacuum of a vacuum.

Not only is there a void that terrifies, but even the image of the void terrifies, because it performatively ‘produces’ the discourse on Human Rights in China.

However, the glorification is ambivalent since (we’re still following Agamben here) it denounces the emptiness of the throne and the glory. Metaphors aside, the vacant chair was a risk that the discourse on Human Rights, behind the glorification for the glorification, remains empty talk, unrealized, with no content. A tribute to a vainglorious rhetoric fueled only by hymns of praise but not rising from any facts.

This risk is not just about China, a country whose history, according to Charter 08, is characterized among other things by a long series of Human Rights violations: “The Campaign against the Right (1957), The Great Leap Forward (1958-1960), The Cultural Revolution (1966-1969), the June 4 Massacre (or Tiananmen Square, 1989), the current repression of all unauthorized religions and the suppression of the Weiquan movement for the defense of Human Rights”(Charter 08).

It is in fact a risk which leads some theorists to believe that the concept of Human Rights is an ‘ideology in decline,’ undermined by the use made of said rights by some Western powers.

While not agreeing with this analysis (the ‘performative’ value of Human Rights is of great political power), it must be recognized that Liu had exposed the hypocrisy and contradictions of the Human Rights ‘ideology’. Think of the neo-conservative doctrine (and the arduous difficulty of identifying discontinuity between the George W. Bush administration and the Obama administration on this issue), and of the attempt of exporting of democracy and Human Rights via the War on Terrorism (Obama has changed its name: from ‘War on Terror to ‘Overseas Contingency Operations’), at times ominously dubbed ‘Humanitarian War.’ In fact, this oxymoron poorly disguises the enormous disproportion between the stated purpose (peace) and the death penalty imposed collectively and without trial for the thousands (in the case of Iraq tens of thousands) of innocent civilians. The patch is worse than the hole, if the expression used to describe the killing of civilians by NATO forces is that, dating back to the medieval doctrines of ‘just war’ and, before them, among others, the Stoa and Philo of Alexandria – of ‘collateral damages.’

In other words, we are faced with a manifest contradiction between the hyped defense of Human Rights on the part of the “West’’, with all the rhetorical and ideological apparatus that accompanies them, and the violation of them by the “West’’ (the use of quotation marks around words such as ‘West’ or ‘Asia’ proves their heuristic inadequacy; we use the marks to cast a light on this point, aware that they are likely to essentialize today’s highly complex and not at all monolithic reality: see Tedesco 2009).Recent evidence of this hypocrisy is the media campaign (widely shared by highly civilized Europe) to save Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani from condemnation to death by stoning. The implicit content being that the death penalty is unlawful only if it is imposed in a manner ‘bloody ‘and’ barbaric’ (as if it was not per se cruel and barbaric when imposed by lethal injection of sodium pentothal—of Italian production). Europe has certainly not been mobilized with the same fervor against the death penalty in the United States or China, and the same can be said of the dozens of Hollywood stars or politicians (including Ed Miliband and Bernand Kouchner—the latter was the first ‘theorist’ of the ‘humanitarian war’ after the fall of Berlin Wall) that have never signed a petition against the death penalty in the United States. Let’s try to think what would happen to the mobilization of these champions if the Iranian authorities were to replace being stoned to death to lethal injection. Perhaps then critics would find nothing to complain about.

Yet criticisms similar to those of which we have just given cognizance are charged against the “West’’ by non-Western countries, primarily the Asian states and China. There is therefore a unique closeness between the critics of the ‘Western’ ideology of Human Rights and its ‘Oriental’ critics. But how are things really? And who is right?

First, with reference to the problem of war, it is necessary, at the minimum, to account for the reflection of Mencius, who supported the idea of a war that would today be called ‘humanitarian’ (made for peace and humanity).With that in retrospect it seems a sinister irony, he called such an event a ‘punitive expedition’. Mencius suggested that one of the requirements, absent in the Christian theological reflection on bellum justum, was the ‘consensus of the world’ (Tedesco, 2009, p. 55).

But this is certainly not enough for making current the idea that China wields a soft power similar to the power of attraction which Europe exerts on the Eastern European countries of the former Soviet Bloc in the orbit of rights. Albeit a target of criticism, the Statute of the International Criminal Court has not been ratified by China (nor by the United States, nor Russia) which therefore believes it is avoiding international criminal jurisdiction on the cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and aggression. It comes not only from this, of course (especially because, we repeat, the ICC is not free from-founded critical comments that we can not mention here: see Tedesco 2009, p. 4, 99). Neither is it to justify China’s position on the theme of Human Rights, the thesis that they are used, in the manner that was employed with the Socialist States at the time of the Cold War, as the tools of ‘accusers’. On the part of the supporters of ‘Asian values’, Human Rights (in particular Civil and Political rights) are being turned by the West into an insult against Asia. Used to detect their failure of these countries to respect Human Rights, while the West forgets the violations of those same rights in the States to which it is politically aligned.

Yet in China, Liu is in prison, sentenced to 11 years, because he wrote a political document in which the content contains nothing seditious or subversive in the eyes of a ‘Western.’ Charter 08 recalls the values of the rule of law as well as Europe has seen birth and development, of the rule of law in spite of its contradictions (not thelast, colonialism). Is this enough to justify a punishment so severe? It is enough for us to say, even after a massive andhealing relativistic effort to criticize Western missionary pretentions to civilize other nationsthat the censorship against Liu is not horrifying, that it is acceptable?

It seems not. On the contrary, it appears that the empty throne of Liu can be a warning not only for China but also for all the countries of the “West” that have given rise to a progressive abdication of the values of a glorious (though, again, full of contradictions which are liable to vitiate it from the foundations) legal tradition. The empty throne is also a critique of the West to the extent that it, abdicating the rule of law and habeas corpus, is denying itself (or pursues it ultimate fulfillment).



Agamben, Giorgio (2009), Il Regno e la Gloria, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino.

Charter 08 (2008),

Tedesco, Francescomaria (2009), Diritti umani e relativismo (Human Rights and Relativism), Laterza, Roma-Bari.


[*] This essay has been published in: Anna Loretoni, Jérôme Pauchard, Alberto Pirni (eds), Questioning Universalism. Western and New Confucian Conceptions, ETS, Pisa 2013



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