Viewing the Liu Xiaobo response through Twitter

Viewing the Liu Xiaobo response through Twitter
Viewing the Liu Xiaobo response through Twitter
Posted on 2010-10-11

In the early moments following the announcement that Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) had won the Nobel Peace Prize, information was shared energetically through Twitter-like microblog platforms in China. Posts were swiftly removed, however, and many Chinese microblog users who had passed along information found their accounts disabled. One employee I know at Sina.com, who ordinarily is not involved on the censorship side, was borrowed for microblog censorship duty as the workload mounted. Said one website employee tasked with deleting comments to a friend: “I’ve deleted so much my hands are sore.”

The Twitter user “freemoren,” who often exposes official censorship directives, reported on Twitter at around 5:30 p.m., shortly after Liu Xiaobo was announced as this year’s Peace Prize laureate: “The Information Office [of the State Council] has issued its latest instructions on Liu Xiaobo’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize — microblog services across the country are to set ['Liu Xiaobo' and 'Peace Prize'] as prohibited keywords, and forums, blogs and other interactive media are not, without exception, to release any [related] information. Xinhua News Agency will come out with an official news release momentarily.” About 15 minutes later, a statement called “Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mao Chaoxu Answers Reporters’ Questions” appeared on the official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Shortly after that, the official Xinhua release came out, parroting the words of the foreign ministry spokesman. The Chinese news website Netease initially posted the piece on the foreign ministry response, but this was quickly removed.

At 6 p.m., just on the heels of all of this activity, “freemoren” reported again on Twitter: “Here is the latest order from the Central Propaganda Department: the official news release (concerning Liu Xiaobo receiving the Nobel Peace Prize) has been released, but media are not to publish it. This includes all print media and Internet media.” After this, major domestic news sites in China did post the Xinhua News Agency release, but tucked it away in inconspicuous inside pages. That night, no mention of the Nobel Peace Prize was made at all on China Central Television’s main newscast, Xinwen Lianbo. After this, Chinese websites were subjected to even tighter controls, and all news of the prize seemed to disappear.

On October 9, the day after the prize was awarded, only a handful of official newspapers ran the Xinhua News Agency release. These included Guangming Daily, Economic Daily, Beijing Daily and Shanghai’s Wenhui Bao. The only commercial newspaper to run the official release was The Beijing News.

From domestic news sites there was scarcely a peep. Not from official news sites like People’s Daily Online and Xinhuanet, and not from commercial news sites such as Sina, Netease and Sohu. The only exception was Tencent’s QQ.com, which included a link under the “hot links” column of its inside news section about China’s opposition to awarding the prize to Liu Xiaobo.

On October 8th, the evening the prize was awarded, Twitter and domestic microblogs were abuzz with plans for celebrations by Chinese internet users across the country. In Beijing and Shanghai, however, some Twitter users reported being taken away by police before they had a chance to come together. Among them, Shi Feike (石扉客), a prominent journalist, planned to meet with others at the fountain on Shanghai’s People’s Square before they all went off to have dinner. But Shi Feike was unreachable after 6:30 p.m., and didn’t reemerge until police released him around midnight, by which time he and other Web users confirmed that police had been waiting at the gathering point. Only celebrations in Guangzhou were not harassed in this way. In the city of Hangzhou, a group of celebrants reported online that they had been trailed by police, but had not been otherwise harassed.

In Beijing, web users had arranged a time and place for celebrations ahead of the Nobel Committee’s announcement. The first two places they arranged for were closed for business under official orders, and the celebrants had to change venues three times. Around 6 p.m. on the evening of the 8th, ten or more web users arrived at a hot-pot restaurant near Beijing’s Ditan Park. At 6:22 p.m., rights defender Wang Lihong (王荔蕻), who was present at the gathering, made a quick post on Twitter: “The police have come,” he wrote. There was a burst of protest, but all those present were carted off by police. Reporters from both the Associated Press and Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post were there on the scene.

The web users were separated and taken to several different police stations. The next afternoon, 14 web users who had met the night before were formally arrested and likely faced administrative detention. That same day, Sun-Yatsen University professor Ai Xiaoming (艾晓明) circulated a petition calling on Beijing police to release all those who had met for the dinner celebration.

Prominent intellectuals were not spared harassment. On the afternoon of October 8, Peking University professor Xia Yaliang (夏业良) went to a tea shop near the home of Liu Xia, the wife of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. Xia’s only intention was to mark this historic moment. But that night at 9:30 p.m. he reported on Twitter: “At around 6:20 tonight, university officials sent a car over to spirit me away from [Liu Xia's] compound at Number 9 South Yuyuantan Street, where many were gathering. The leaders said they had come to get me in order to offer their protection.”

On the morning of October 9, quite a few Beijing activists were either placed under police observation or house arrest. Political scientist Liu Junning (刘军宁) wrote on Twitter that morning: “I woke up this morning and discovered I couldn’t go out. The drive was blocked by a white car with emergency signals.” Well-known rights defense lawyer Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵) similarly revealed on Twitter: “Early this morning Wang Haiwang (王海旺), head of the State Security division of Tongzhou District, came to my house with police officers from the [nearby] Liyuan police substation to inform me that I was under house arrest.” Fan Yafeng (范亚峰), a former associate researcher at the Legal Studies Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, reported: “The internet connection in my house has been cut, and a car has been placed on guard downstairs.”

The response to Liu Xiaobo’s Peace Prize in China has been very two-sided. The vast majority of Chinese, numbed to the whole nature of politics in our country, have not responded at all, or perhaps don’t even realize Liu Xiaobo was given the prize. Among those Chinese who actively promote the democratization process, most are convinced that awarding the prize to Liu Xiaobo is a show of support and validation of China’s democracy movement. They believe the prize provides new strength to the process of democratization in China, and hope it will push the process forward.

Some scholars have voiced the hope that the Nobel Peace Prize for Liu Xiaobo will encourage the government toward a more open and enlightened approach. Beijing Film Academy professor Cui Weiping (崔卫平) said during an interview with Norway’s TV 2 channel: “I hope the Chinese government sees Liu Xiaobo’s Peace Prize as a friendly reminder, as an amicable call, as a new impetus for change in our society — and not as pure pressure.”

I spoke to one scholar, however — who wished to remain anonymous — who said that given two decades of suppression and amnesia, there are few Chinese who understand Liu Xiaobo, and his work is not widely recognized. Even awarding Liu Xiaobo with the Nobel Peace Prize, the scholar said, will do little to address the deep apathy most Chinese feel for politics.

As for the immediate effect of the Nobel Committee’s decision, Chinese columnist Mo Zhixu (莫之许) has written on Twitter: “For those who [oppose China's present system], they will in the short term fall under immense pressure as the authorities resort to active suppression to deal with further acts of defiance that might arise from Liu Xiaobo receiving the prize.”

This is a translation of a Chinese version that appeared in yesterday’s edition of Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Daily. CMP conducted an additional search to confirm which Chinese newspapers did run the official Xinhua News Agency release on Saturday, October 9.

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