After Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident and 2010 Nobel Peace laureate, died in custody on Thursday evening, his Chinese admirers went online to voice their sympathy and grief — and countless government censors buckled down for a long night's work.
The Chinese government's drive to silence discussion of Liu — who died of liver cancer at age 61 — predates even 2009, when he was handed an 11-year sentence for helping draft Charter 08, a document calling for multiparty democracy and freedom of speech. On Chinese social networks, searches for "Liu Xiaobo" return nothing, and most Chinese citizens barely know his name.
Yet on Friday, China's social media sites were filled with expressions of solidarity and grief, suggesting that Liu's case — and his ideals — may be more influential in China than many outsiders believe. These expressions were often cryptic and muted — snatches of poetry, allegorical quotes — but still, the censors responded in force.
On Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, they deleted photos of Liu and his wife, Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest since Liu's arrest, though she has never been charged with a crime. They blocked flickering candle emojis, the letters RIP and LXB, and the dates "1955-2017," the years of Liu's birth and death. They removed poems by Liu and Liu Xia; photos of the South African revolutionary Nelson Mandela, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993; and even the phrase: "someone died today."
"I think this kind of pokes a hole in the narrative that he's not well known in China," said William Nee, a Hong Kong-based researcher at Amnesty International. "I don't know if I'd characterize this as a paradigm shift. But it might be that some of the seeds he'd started to plant — or, the ideas in Charter 08 — have started to bear fruit among the rights defense community, and they're becoming more well known and are spreading among parts of the general public."
Authorities granted Liu medical parole in late May after he was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer. Yet they effectively kept him under arrest, confined to a hospital room with state security agents standing guard. He was allowed no visitors but his wife and brothers.
Liu, his family and his supporters reportedly requested that he be moved abroad for treatment, but the government refused. On Thursday he became the first Nobel Peace laureate to die in custody since German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky died while being detained by the Nazis in 1938.
China's censorship apparatus is extraordinarily sophisticated and multilayered. It features algorithms that automatically flag or block certain words — Liu's name, for example. But Internet companies, acting on government orders, also employ armies of censors to ensure that sensitive content doesn't slip through the cracks.
Yet Friday's outpouring of support also exposed some of the censorship apparatus' weaknesses. On Friday, "LXB" was censored, but "XB" was not. The Chinese word for candle — 蜡烛 — was censored, but adding a space between the characters — 蜡 烛 — brought up several results, many related to Liu's death.
Even some official accounts carried thinly veiled expressions of sympathy. One post by the state-run New China News Agency posted a Chinese expression: "All one's miseries come from anger at one's incompetence."
Many young Chinese, including avid social media users, have grown accustomed to the pervasive censorship, and some Liu-related posts were met with expressions of confusion.
"The atmosphere in the office is still normal," said one state media reporter who requested anonymity to avoid reprisals from her higher-ups. "Nobody's discussing this topic in the office. I guess people who choose to work for state media have normalized strict government censorship. People will only see [Liu's death] as a piece of news, nothing more."
Zhang Xiaodong, 25, a Beijing-based software engineer, said that many young Chinese don't "pay much attention" to politically sensitive topics — for them, there's simply no upside. He said he'd heard of Liu Xiaobo, but not that he had died.
"Most people are apathetic about daily current affairs and politics," he said. "People often joke about themselves. They say, 'We are ordinary people, we'll just have a piece of watermelon and enjoy it as we have no clue what's going on.'"
China's Foreign Ministry and its English-language state media cast Liu's death as an internal matter, calling Liu a "convicted criminal."
"We call on relevant countries to respect China's judicial sovereignty," Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular press briefing on Friday, adding that China had lodged "stern representations" with countries that remarked on Liu's treatment, including the U.S. The ministry removed all mentions of Liu from a transcript of the briefing posted to its website.
"Liu Xiao's death, while unfortunate, should be a sobering reminder that many in the West remain hostile to China's political development," the state-run People's Daily Online said in an English-language commentary. "It is nonsense to say that China opposes democracy and human rights simply because its system is different from the Western system. What China does oppose is the politicization of Liu's case and any interference in its internal affairs."
The only place in China where residents publicly mourned Liu's death was Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous territory that has its own judicial system, a relatively free press and uncensored Internet access. Hundreds of people gathered at a vigil in front of the central government's office to lay flowers and sign a book of condolence.
In a brief statement, the White House said President Trump was "deeply saddened" to learn of Liu's passing, and sent "heartfelt condolences" to his wife.
Trump praised China's President Xi Jinping as a "very good man" hours after Liu's death at a news conference in Paris on Thursday. (Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a statement of his own, called on Beijing to "release Liu Xia from house arrest and allow her to depart China, according to her wishes.")
The Taiwanese government on Thursday released a statement calling on Beijing to "initiate democratic constitutional reforms." The government agency accused China of "violating global, universal values" by restricting Liu's rights. China and Taiwan have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, but Beijing claims sovereignty over the island, which democratized in the 1980s after decades of authoritarian rule.
"We deeply believe that the shackles of violence and incarceration absolutely cannot stop people's heartfelt freedom or the yearning for democracy and justice," it said.
Special correspondent Ralph Jennings in Taipei, Taiwan, and researcher Gaochao Zhang in the Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.
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