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Chinese media stay resolutely silent on Nobel winner

The silence was conspicuous in China on Saturday.

Dissident Liu Xiaobo languished in a prison cell, possibly unaware that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a day earlier. His wife was incommunicado after telling a reporter she was being taken away by police. And the Chinese news media appeared determined to pretend that nothing had happened.

As for most Chinese, they didn’t have to pretend. Many of them don’t know Liu exists, let alone that he has been honored with the world’s most coveted award.

This is the paradox of China: It’s an economic superpower that is very much a part of the world and yet, at times, separate from it.

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On Saturday, the world was there, with TV news reports of the toxic sludge in Hungary and other global events. There was one enormous exception, however: The Nobel Peace Prize, meant to appeal to the best in humanity and break down borders, didn’t much exist for Chinese speakers.

Only the Global Times, an English-language newspaper put out by the Chinese government, carried a stinging rebuke in its Saturday editions.

Liu, the newspaper’s unsigned editorial said, is “an incarcerated Chinese criminal.” Awarding him the prize was a “paranoid choice” that was “meant to irritate China.” The Nobel Peace Prize has been “degraded into a political tool that serves an anti-China purpose.

“It seems that instead of peace or unity in China, the Nobel committee would like to see the country split by an ideological rift, or better yet, collapse like the Soviet Union,” the editorial said.

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But all of that fire was spent only for readers of English. In the Chinese-language news media, the government used an even more striking tool: a silence that was almost total.

Without tunneling into foreign Internet via VPN, it was impossible for Chinese Web surfers to learn much about the honor bestowed on their countryman. Plugging “Liu Xiaobo” or “Nobel Peace Prize” into a search engine brought up blank screens and error messages; “Research results do not fit the relevant regulations and provisions,” read one.

The only available story was a straight recounting of the comments released Friday by China’s Foreign Ministry. The prize, the ministry said, was a “blasphemy.”

Major Chinese news websites removed the special sections that once contained articles about the Nobel Prizes. Chinese censors scrambled the signals on CNN and BBC coverage of the prize. And cellphone users complained that they were unable to send text messages containing Liu’s name.

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When small groups of dissidents gathered for impromptu celebrations, police detained them, said lawyers and friends contacted by the detained activists.

“The government is ashamed that one of its detainees has been given the Nobel Peace Prize,” said Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer based in Beijing. “Now they’re trying to stop the news from spreading so that they can minimize the effect.”

About 10 of Teng’s friends were arrested and held overnight after trying to meet for a celebratory dinner in a restaurant, he said. In all, he said, at least 20 people had been arrested for trying to celebrate Liu’s award; still more reportedly were detained in Shanghai.

Some of the activists called Teng when they were first detained; later, their cellphones were switched off.

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“All these people were activists, so they’ve been under surveillance for a long time,” he said. “Their cellphones, their land lines, they’re all tapped.”

The cellphone of Liu’s wife, Xia, also was shut off after she told a reporter Friday that police were escorting her out of Beijing to keep her away from journalists.

And on television screens across China, events thrummed along. Dignitaries set off for North Korea and met with a local emissary, who sat all alone on his side of the table in a very beige room.

A ceremonial torch made its way along the Great Wall en route to Guangzhou for next month’s Asia Games.

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Food poisoning killed somebody in Szechuan.

Sludge flowed into the Danube.

It isn’t so much that the Chinese government blocks its people from knowing about the rest of the world. But when it comes to Tibet, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and, now, the naming of Liu as a Nobel laureate, censors take pains to keep citizens from finding out what the rest of the world has to say about China.

There is, of course, a growing online community that breaks through the so-called Great Firewall to trade unprecedented reams of information about China.

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But analysts say that most Chinese remain sheltered. Most never heard that Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison last year. The literature professor had helped to write Charter 08, a now-banned document demanding democratic reform.

“First, people don’t know who Liu Xiaobo is. Second, they don’t know what the 08 Charter is. Third, they don’t even know what a charter is. They don’t know, and they don’t want to know, because it’s dangerous to know,” said Zhou Xiaozheng, director of the Law of Sociology department at People’s University in Beijing.

“As soon as I hear a foreign journalist wants to know about the Nobel Peace Prize, I can sense the danger.”

megan.stack@latimes.com


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