When Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize last week, the authoritarians in Beijing responded in their typical, iron-fisted fashion. The Foreign Ministry immediately called the award "blasphemy" and a "desecration," and characterized Liu as a common criminal. They cancelled official meetings with the Norwegian government and accused countries that lauded Liu's selection of ignorance, jealousy and malice toward China's success. They also placed Liu's wife, Liu Jia, under house arrest, and detained several Chinese who attempted to celebrate the award. Other supporters of Liu have gone missing at the hands of state security, including Ding Zilin (founder the Tiananmen Mothers, an advocacy group that seeks an official reappraisal of the 1989 massacre), Ding's husband, and dissident writer Jiang Qisheng, a close friend of Liu's.
After its initial broadsides, Beijing instituted a comprehensive effort to blackout domestic coverage of, and discussion about, the prize. The "Ministry of Truth," Chinese netizens' Orwellian name for the cohort of agencies involved in managing the government's multi-layered censorship regime, moved quickly to warn all news outlets and Internet content and service providers to block any reference to Liu or his prize. Searches for Liu's name, the word "Nobel" and, according to a source who monitors censorship on Chinese user-generated content and micro-blogging sites, even the Chinese characters for the word "peace" brought up the censors' familiar warning that one had stumbled upon forbidden content.
Last Thursday, however, the Ministry of Truth sent out new instructions for media outlets and Internet portals to push a spate of articles that, alternately or in some combination, demonize the prize, demonize Liu, and accuse the West of using the prize to beat up on China. One article (in Chinese only) attacks the award by linking Lui's receipt of it to the Dalai Lama's 1989 prize, and portraying both as tools of Western imperialists bent on containing China. Another is a piece of vintage communist sophistry that quotes a useful idiot by the name of Arnulf Kolstad, a Norwegian professor of Chinese studies, who calls Liu an inappropriate choice and intimates that the Chinese president would have been a better choice for the award. A third cites a Chinese professor citing the award as evidence of a Western conspiracy to force foreign concepts of human rights on China. This last article is quite interesting, however, as it is written in such a way as to make it very easy to read between the lines and see that Liu Xiaobo was jailed for 11 years for trying to promote human rights and democracy, and that this is what he is being recognized for with the Nobel Prize. Today, the Chinese media is shrilly demanding the Nobel committee apologize to the Chinese people. The state run Global Times, sister paper to the People's Daily, cites a survey conducted by its internal "pollsters," finding that 6 out of 10 (only 6 out of 10?) Chinese believe the prize should be withdrawn and China issued an apology. Chinese media has also been highlighting the fact that Liu Xiaobo's literary magazine received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, with one website going so far as to post the grantee's tax returns online, showing that Liu is still drawing a salary despite his imprisonment.
The excellent China news aggregation and commentary site Danwei noted that what we are now seeing "suggests that the Party's propaganda apparatus is finally gearing up to 'lead public opinion,' a media control strategy used by the Party since 2005. Before 2005, the Party typically responded to negative events by suppressing all related news stories. Over the last five years, however, the Party's more common reaction to politically sensitive news has been to temporarily block all reports, craft an official version of events, and order media outlets to publish only the official version." And while Beijing is busy pushing its own narrative, contacts inside China report that efforts to search for information on Liu from non-Chinese sources remain heavily blocked.
Despite this sophisticated effort, the regime has not been able to keep all its citizens' thoughts in line, judging by some of the commentary that has leaked out through holes in the Great Firewall over the past week. China Digital Times has translated some of Chinese netizens' sarcastic and mocking posts directed at the authorities here. My personal favorite is a hilarious imagined conversation between Chinese president Hu Jintao and the prosecutor in Liu's case, in which the prosecutor explains to Hu how various "subversive" elements of Charter 08 (which Liu was jailed for co-authoring) have their roots in Chinese Communist Party documents and quotations from CCP leaders.
And its not just snarky Chinese tweeps who are pushing back on the party's attempts to "harmonize" this issue. A group of 200 Chinese intellectuals, activists and lawyers published an open letter supporting Liu and calling for the Chinese leadership to seize this opportunity to move forward political reforms toward democratization. Perhaps more significantly, a group of 23 Chinese Communist Party "elders" has issued its own public letter that doesn't mention Liu by name but does attack the "invisible dead hand" of the propaganda system and call for dramatic expansions of freedom of expression. This letter was actually written a week before Liu received the Nobel Peace Prize and was allegedly written in response to several recent pro-reform comments by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. China watchers are speculating that Wen, and possibly Hu, are attempting to push back against party hardliners in the ongoing leadership succession process.
The true extent and nature of what is happening in China's opaque political system right now is obviously unknown and unknowable to those of us outside its upper echelons, but it seems clear that something is fomenting and the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo is playing a role.