'Who is Liu Xiaobo?' China censors all mention of Nobel laureate
The fate of ailing Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo has moved people around the world. But in his home country of China, most don't even know his name.
Beijing (dpa) – On Tuesday afternoon, people strolled around Beijing’s Sanlitun shopping district as usual. If you asked passers-by about the main news of the day, the most common reply would be the sweltering weather.
"Here, in Beijing, the heat is terrible," said a 45-year-old woman. "And in the south, everything is flooded by rain."
Others might mention the recent G20 leaders' summit in Germany.
And on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, trending topics on Tuesday were a celebrity wedding, worst mistakes when eating hotpot, and the case of an old man who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion in southern China.
The fate of ailing Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo – which has made headlines around the world and spurred back-and-forths between Beijing and Western governments – couldn’t be further from their minds.
The government has censored all references to Liu from the internet in China, and state media have kept mum even as news about the activist has hit global news outlets in recent weeks.
Liu, a writer and activist, is the co-author of Charter ’08, a document signed in 2008 by 300 intellectuals, calling for a free, democratic and constitutional state in China, which is a one-party state governed by the all-powerful Communist Party.
A year later, Liu was imprisoned for subverting state power. And in 2010, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia for his work campaigning for human rights in China.
His continued detention made him a focus for human rights campaigners worldwide, but in June this year the news that he had been diagnosed with advanced liver cancer and placed on medical parole brought him again to the world's attention.
Since then, foreign governments, including the United States and Germany, have pleaded unsuccessfully with Beijing to allow Liu and his wife, Liu Xia, to travel abroad for treatment.
All updates about Liu’s condition have come from the hospital in Shenyang and, intermittently, from family friends.
But due to state censorship, none of this information has reached the Chinese public. The vast majority of Chinese people do not even know who he is.
"Liu Xiaobo? Do you mean Tu Youyou?" a woman in her mid-twenties asked when hearing the name of the Nobel laureate. Tu also won the Nobel Prize – for medicine in 2015, and in contrast to Liu, her achievement has been lauded by state media.
A search for Liu on Baidu, China’s main search engine, returns no relevant results.
The authorities have censored sensitive topics for years, but observers say the clampdown is becoming more acute.
When President Xi Jinping travelled to Hong Kong two weeks ago to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the region’s handover from Britain, state television broadcast the pomp of the flag ceremony but failed to mention the tens of thousands of protesters against Chinese influence in the city.
Websites such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and The New York Times are permanently blocked in China. They can only be accessed through virtual private networks, or VPNs, which circumvent the so-called "Great Firewall."
But the government is cracking down on VPNs as well and might ask telecom carriers to prohibit their use by next year, according to reports.
In Liu’s case, a few select state media were allowed to distribute videos showing Liu’s hospital visit with US and German cancer experts last week. The videos show the German doctor praising the quality of care Liu had received but do not mention the fact that Liu told the doctors he wanted to continue treatment abroad.
Even the Chinese Foreign Ministry censors references to Liu. At a regular press briefing on Monday, a ministry spokesman answered a barrage of questions from foreign reporters about the Nobel laureate. His answer was always the same – that other countries should stay out of China’s "internal affairs."
But questions and answers about Liu’s condition were missing from the transcript of the meeting that was published later on the ministry’s website.
Such censorship does not come as a surprise to many urban, educated Chinese.
When informed about Liu's background, the woman who mistook Liu for another Nobel laureate seemed unperturbed.
"Well, maybe the government didn't like that he was promoting democracy," she said matter-of-factly.