It came as little surprise when, after the death of the dissident Liu Xiaobo last week, China’s vast army of censors kicked into overdrive as they scrubbed away the outpouring of grief on social media that followed, The New York Times reports:
The accounts of censorship have been mostly anecdotal. But systematic research from the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs shows that there was a “significant shift” in censorship techniques in the days after Mr. Liu’s death, particularly on WeChat, the popular messaging app from Tencent. On WeChat, which has more than 768 million daily active users, the number of keyword combinations that were blocked greatly increased, according to the report that the Citizen Lab published on Sunday.
Additions to the blacklist included general references to his death like “Xiaobo + died” in Chinese and in English, and even just his name “Liu Xiaobo,” effectively censoring any messages that mentioned him. Citizen Lab said it was also the first time that images were automatically filtered in private one-on-one chats on WeChat. Blocked images included photographs of Liu Xiaobo and of people commemorating him.
China Digital Times posted a list of Liu-related sensitive terms being blocked in on social media (see below).
The Communist authorities are not content to police any hint of dissent. They create a thriving universe of pro-regime, pro-party and nationalist messages, The Sydney Morning Herald adds:
Or as Harvard sociology professor Gary King puts it, the party pursues “cheerleading for the state” as “strategic distraction“. It is, in Beijing’s planning, just the beginning. The party has declared that its increasing power in the world will soon be matched by its power over global “discourse”…[Dissidents] who try to use the web to communicate covertly are subject to “increasing electronic surveillance”, says researcher Sarah Cook of the US-based Freedom House, with authorities “deploying geolocation technology to find and arrest them”. The internet has been turned from an instrument of possible organisation into a tool of repression.
“Until China develops values that appeal universally, it will lack one of the core features of global leadership,” sinologist David Shambaugh wrote last month.
However, it is the Western world that is losing contact with core values. It is valuing more highly the control and the authority that China is championing, notes Beijing-based analyst Rowan Callick.
“China has never made major concessions to foreign pressure on human rights, but especially in the few years after Tiananmen, they did make minor concessions,” said Dr Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University.
“But things have changed, China is rich, and the Western powers one by one have given up officially receiving the Dalai Lama and sponsoring resolutions in Geneva that are critical of China,” he added, referring to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. There were exceptions, he said. “But in general, Beijing now simply pays no mind to foreign pressure.”
“Tyranny is not terrifying,” Liu wrote. “What is really scary is submission, silence, and even praise for tyranny. As soon as people decide to oppose it to the bitter end, even the most vicious tyranny will be short-lived.”
Liu’s belief that the Chinese Communist party is not as formidable as it appears was one of the reasons it feared him so much — and went to such lengths to silence him. But his admirers believe that he will be proven right in the end, The FT reports.
“The party’s brain-washing has been very successful,” says Zhang Lifan, an outspoken critic of the party. “The party’s control over society is only getting stronger but everything has a limit. Once we exceed that limit party control could collapse.”
“Hatred can rot away at a person’s intelligence and conscience,” Liu said. “Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation’s progress toward freedom and democracy. That is why I hope to be able to transcend my personal experiences as I look upon our nation’s development and social change, to counter the regime’s hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love.”
It might seem puzzling that an advocate of “no enemies” who actually worked to soften the language of Charter 08 should have been singled out for punishment during the government’s crackdown, notes Perry Link. The answer seems to be that the Charter movement was viewed as an unauthorized “organization” of which Liu was the leader. The men who rule China have shown in recent times that they can tolerate tongue-lashings from the populace so long as it comes from isolated individuals, he writes for The New York Review of Books:
An unauthorized organization, even if moderate, must be crushed. In 2005 Hu Jintao issued a classified report called “Fight a Smokeless Battle: Keep ‘Color Revolutions’ Out of China.” It said people like Nelson Mandela, Lech Wałęsa, and Aung San Suu Kyi are dangerous. If similar movements appear in China, Hu instructed, “the big ones” should be arrested and “the little ones” left alone. In November 2008, when Chinese police learned that people were signing Charter 08, it was officially labeled an attempt to start a “color revolution.” That made Liu Xiaobo a “big one” who needed to be brought down. There are signs that Liu himself understood the mechanism. When he joined the Charter effort he told his friends that, in addition to editing and gathering signatures, he would “take responsibility” for the Charter—in effect, risk being a “big one.”
By pushing the Hong Kong opposition out of the legislature and persecuting Liu Xiaobo, Beijing may have set in motion a new era of resistance, argues Jason Y Ng, author of Umbrellas in Bloom: Hong Kong’s occupy movement uncovered. What separates a skilled autocrat from the rest of the mad dictators is his ability to judge the difference between going too far and just far enough, he writes for The Guardian:
Control may be the Chinese Communist Party’s best substitute for legitimacy and a necessary condition for self-perpetuation, but how much control is too much continues to confound –and may one day trip up – Xi’s leadership. What happened to Liu Xiaobo and the four ousted lawmakers in Hong Kong suggests that Beijing is now dangerously close to overstepping that line. The price for misjudging the situation will be high, and while most of it will be borne by mainland dissidents and the citizens of Hong Kong, it may pack enough punch to upset the ever-delicate balance in the house of cards.
Liu was the co-recipient in abstentia of the National Endowment for Democracy’s 2014 Democracy Award (right). The Washington-based democracy assistance group “deplored the unconscionable medical neglect” he and his wife, Liu Xia, have suffered since his imprisonment in 2009.
On July 13, China Digital Times posted a list of Liu-related sensitive terms being blocked in on social media. Among the terms blocked from Weibo search results:
I have no enemies (我没有敌人): the title of the powerful statement read by Liu as he was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2010.
Aesthetics and Human Freedom (审美与人的自由): the title of Liu’s 1988 PhD dissertation, later published as his second book.
Mister Liu (刘先生)
Xiaobo (晓波, 小波): alternative spellings of Liu’s given name.
Aspergillus flavus (黄曲霉素): A pathogenic fungus known to cause liver cancer in mammals. There has been speculation that Liu was served spoiled food during his imprisonment.
And among the terms forbidden from being posted on Weibo:
Candle (蜡烛): At Mashable, Yi Shu Ng reported that even the candle emoji was disabled on Weibo.
Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波)
liu xiao bo
I have no enemies (我没有敌人)
RIP, R.I.P. [Chinese]