Even before Liu Xiaobo became the first Chinese national to win the Nobel Peace Prize, the Communist Party’s censors were already hard at work trying to keep the news from this country’s 1.3 billion citizens.

As skilled as Beijing’s propagandists are at controlling information, some news is too big to squelch. Within minutes of the announcement that Mr. Liu had been chosen by the Norwegian Nobel committee in recognition of “his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China,” people on the streets outside his Beijing home were whispering that it was a “big problem for the government.”

Within hours, terms like “Liu Xiaobo” and “Nobel Prize” were among the most searched-for terms by China’s 420 million Internet users.

Inevitably, many will go on and try to read Charter 08, the pro-democracy manifesto that Mr. Liu drafted two years ago, just before the 54-year-old was jailed for “inciting subversion of state power.” If they can get around China’s Internet restrictions, they will read Mr. Liu’s demands for change and perhaps wonder why their rulers found his words so threatening when the rest of the world sees them as so admirable. China’s democracy movement, in retreat since the Tiananmen Square protests were crushed in 1989, has been emboldened for perhaps the first time since.

The awarding of the prize to Mr. Liu, who has been a thorn in the side of China’s rulers since he joined hunger strikers on Tiananmen 21 years ago, cannot help but be interpreted as a slap at the Communist Party and the way it rules this country.

That he was honoured while serving an 11-year prison sentence could be seen as nothing short of an insult tossed from Oslo at those who have built China into an economic powerhouse without reforming the country’s Leninist political system or its desultory human-rights record.

An insult is certainly how Beijing saw it, dubbing Mr. Liu’s award “an obscenity” and warning darkly that it would hurt relations between China and Norway. The Nobel committee had earlier complained that a Chinese diplomat had clumsily tried to warn them against choosing Mr. Liu.

“We have to speak when others cannot speak,” Norwegian Nobel committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said in explaining the choice of Mr. Liu. “As China is rising, we should have the right to criticize.”

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said: “I would hope the fact that he’s now a Nobel Peace Prize winner would cause our friends in the Chinese government to look seriously at that issue of his release from prison. But I would say, more than anything, we’re delighted for him and send him our congratulations.”

More important than relations with foreign governments, though, will be how China’s rulers deal with the news domestically. In the early hours, all the predictable defences were deployed: Police were stationed outside the home of Mr. Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, who was later forced to leave Beijing.

International television channels such as BBC World and CNN went black inside China whenever they mentioned the new Nobel laureate. His very name became a forbidden word, as text messages between Chinese mobile phones containing the term “Liu Xiaobo,” in either Chinese or Latin characters, were blocked. The only mention of the award on the official Xinhua news wire was a short item attacking Mr. Liu and saying that his win had “desecrated the prize.” At the direction of the Central Propaganda Bureau, other media outlets ignored the news completely.

The Internet – the freest political forum in China – quickly became the main battleground. “Websites are not to create news items or exclusive stories on the Nobel prize. Exclusive stories that do exist must all be deleted,” read an order from the propaganda office, according to the Berkeley University-based China Digital Times, which regularly posts directives from authorities that are circulated to the media in China.

Mr. Liu’s Wikipedia page, as well as the main website where Charter 08 was originally posted, both have long been blocked by China’s so-called “Great Firewall.”

But, in an era when so many of China’s citizens are online, and an increasing number of them know how to get around the Great Firewall using virtual private networks and other tricks, news of Mr. Liu’s win quickly burst through the dam.

“Who is Liu Xiaobo? I’m confused …he was sentenced to 11 years for subverting the state. What is it all about?” asked one contributor to an online forum in Fujian province.

The answers came from his fellow “netizens,” encouraging the curious to dig a little deeper into the issue. “Read Charter 08, then you will know why [the Communist Party] hates him so much. [Charter 08] means killing the Party!” wrote one respondent. Another posted a timeline of Mr. Liu’s actions and arrests, while a third outlined the key points of Charter 08.

Some who did find out about the news through circuitous routes seemed dismayed that they had to try so hard to find out that a fellow citizen had won a Nobel prize. “Blocking the Internet can’t block people’s mouths. Blocking people’s mouths can’t block their hearts,” wrote blogger Ma Yingshi.

The same phenomenon was unfolding on the streets surrounding the dissident’s apartment building in central Beijing. Passersby stopped to ask about the crowd of policemen and foreign journalists gathered outside. “Who’s Liu Xiaobo?” one asked. “I can’t tell you here,” replied a man in jeans and sneakers, looking over his shoulder at the row of police. “It’s sensitive.”

Liu Xia told Reuters by telephone, “They are forcing me to leave Beijing,” as her brothers packed her bags with plainclothes police waiting for her outside. “They want me to go to Liaoning [a northeastern province] to see Xiaobo. They want to distance me from the media.” She added that she was looking forward to telling her husband that he was now a Nobel laureate.
Mr. Liu was formally nominated by International PEN, a worldwide association of writers. He had previously served as the president of the independent Chinese chapter. “I think [the Communist Party] thought that by handing down [Mr. Liu’s prison] sentence, other writers and thinkers would fall into fear of the authorities,” said John Ralston Saul, president of International PEN. But Beijing’s move has backfired, Mr. Ralston Saul said, and “now [other Chinese writers] have some international support.”

While some overseas dissidents criticized the choice of Mr. Liu – accusing him of being “soft” on China’s leaders – most of his fellow activists praised him as a worthy recipient. Some who have stood beside Mr. Liu since Tiananmen Square said he represented their entire generation of dissidents, and the award gave them courage that their cause, occasionally feared dead, was alive after all.

“China will definitely change, with or without this Nobel prize,” said Li Hai, a political activist who spent eight years in jail for trying to compile a list of all those who had been detained or disappeared following the bloody events of June 4, 1989. “But this prize shows us that the international community supports this change. It will give us a strong push forward.”

In the hours following the announcement in Oslo, Mr. Li stood on the sidewalk in front of Mr. Liu’s Beijing apartment. He ignored the nearby police and patiently repeated for anyone who asked the story of China’s first Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the government that won’t let him accept the award.


Liu Xiaobo’s Dec. 8, 2008, manifesto called for democracy and greater freedom of speech in China. It called for sweeping changes to the way China is governed, including the election of public officials, the establishment of an independent judiciary and the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate China’s recent past.

“The current system [in China] has become backward to the point that change cannot be avoided,” the document reads.

Czech inspiration The manifesto was modelled on Charter 77, a document co-written by former Czech president Vaclav Havel that is seen as having galvanized opposition to the Communist regime in the former Czechoslovakia.

Crossing the red line Nearly all of the 303 writers and intellectuals who put their names to Charter 08 when it was published online have been detained or questioned by police. Despite the charter’s status as a taboo topic both online and in the official Chinese media, more than 10,000 others have signed their names to fit.