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Chinese social media sites lit up with grief for dissident Liu Xiaobo, but not for long

Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

BEIJING -- 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 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's weaknesses. On Friday, "LXB" was censored, but "XB" was not. The Chinese word for candle was censored, but adding a space between the two characters 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."

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