Social media sites help Chinese discuss Nobel Peace Prize winner despite state censorship

Sunday, October 10, 2010 | 6:19 p.m. CDT; updated 2:18 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 11, 2010
Pro-democracy protesters display a poster featuring a picture of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo and the words "Release Liu Xiaobo" as they march to China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong on Sunday. The decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the imprisoned Liu sparked praise from Western governments, brought condemnation from Beijing and exposed the difficulties fitting a powerful, authoritarian China into the international order.

COLUMBIA — The Chinese mainstream media fell silent Friday when a jailed Chinese dissident was named winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

But lively conversations took place on social media websites, said some China observers in Columbia.  

In all of China's search engines, key words such as "Liu Xiaobo," the prizewinner’s name, and "Nobel Peace Prize" were blocked, said Wang Kaikang, a journalism graduate student at MU from China. Only the state-owned news stations mentioned the honor. On Chinese Google, Wang said, the server failed to respond for several minutes if one tried to search Liu’s name.

Government censorship allows no media coverage of Liu receiving the award. But even censorship has its limits. Wang said more and more Chinese now use special software to help them sign on to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. It's a technique called “climbing over the wall,” or the “Great Firewall,” as it is known to many Chinese.

“Online censorship needs time, effort and money. You also need a lot of people to do it,” said Wang, 23. “So, often you have leaks.”

Wang said his friends have been discussing Liu Xiaobo on a Chinese social networking website, debating whether he was the best candidate for the award and whether the Nobel Peace Prize Committee was too politicized.

Hsiao-Mei Wiedmeyer, president of Columbia Friends of China, said she thinks censorship in China is easier said than done.

"All of my young friends from China know a way or two to get information online," she said. "The Chinese government has done good things but in many ways is unwilling to face the reality that censoring information will have severe consequences."

A writer, critic and professor, Liu Xiaobo, 54, has written numerous articles over two decades advocating freedom and human rights. The Nobel Prize Committee said it awarded Liu the prize for his “long and nonviolent” work.

In 2008, Liu published Charter 08, a manifesto calling for human rights reforms. It  received widespread support from 303 fellow Chinese intellectuals. It also enraged the government, which sentenced Liu to an 11-year prison term.

Since June 2009, the Chinese government has imprisoned Liu for “inciting subversion of state power.” His prison term is scheduled to end in 2020.

As of Sunday, the state-owned newspaper, Xinhua News, had published only one article about Liu receiving the award. The article also only interviewed one person, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ma Zhaoxu.

“What (Liu) has done is contrary to the purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize,” Ma said, adding that the award would hurt relations between China and Norway, which awards the prize

The government has also censored CNN, the only English-language TV channel in China. CNN went off the air immediately when the story about Liu receiving the award came on, according to an e-mail from a Missourian reporter who is in China. 

“About three minutes later, the channel was back but with a story about the Chilean miners,” wrote Joshua Barone, who was in China covering the China Open.  “I heard from someone else here that you can't even mention Liu by name in (a text message) without receiving a send-failure message.”

Daryl Moen, an MU journalism professor who has traveled to China and worked with Chinese journalists, said censorship cannot stop the people's desire to communicate. 

"The bosses of the Chinese media will keep that information from the Chinese populus," he said. "There will be a thousand little breaks in the dike. First of all, a small group of people will know, and it will leak out to the public."

The leaks already have occurred. Liu, who is in a prison 300 miles from Beijing, learned from his jailers that he had received the award, according to an Associated Press article.  

Liu Xia, wife of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, informed her friends through a Twitter message that she was able to visit her husband in jail on Sunday, though she has been under house arrest since the Nobel Peace Prize Committee announced that Liu won the award. 

Randy Gan, a former MU student who was involved with the MU Chinese Student Association, followed Liu’s first democracy protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989 as a graduate student in China. He said he has kept up with news about the dissident since then.

Gan, 47, said he heard radio broadcasts about Liu on Voice of America, a U.S.-run radio service that broadcasts international news in 44 languages into countries where independent journalism is suppressed or non-existent. Now, with the pervasive nature of the Internet, Gan said he hopes the news exposure could contribute to Liu’s early release.

Wang said he didn’t think the Nobel Peace Prize would curtail Liu’s time in prison. He noted that the Dalai Lama was awarded the same prize in 1989 but remains in exile from China to this day.

“Liu’s news will get many people curious and want to know about him,” Wang said. “It’s a good thing when people start social dialogue.”

On Friday morning, Gan spread the news to express his excitement through the listserv of the MU Chinese Student Association.

“Liu Xiaobo won the award!!!” Gan’s message read.

Two MU graduate students from China declined to be interviewed for this article. They said they feared career repercussions when they return to China. 



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