by Lisa Peryman

The rule of silence

Will the death of China’s best-known pro-democracy activist in state custody embolden the country’s dissident movement despite efforts to erase his memory?

Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, one year after he was jailed for “inciting subversion of state power,” Liu Xiaobo, China’s most prominent human rights activist and pro-democracy champion, died last week at 61 following a diagnosis of terminal liver cancer as he neared the end of his 11-year sentence.

As news of Liu’s failing health and treatment at a heavily guarded hospital in the northeast of the country travelled around the world, his family and international human rights groups begged for his release for care abroad, as per the wishes of Liu himself. Unsurprisingly, these pleas were refused and prompted short shrift from authorities who have since dismissed Liu in death via state media as a way for “forces overseas” to “demonize China,” describing Liu as a “victim led astray by [the] West.”

If Liu’s condition received scant coverage in China during the last weeks of his life, the country’s censors have been working overtime since he died, on July 13 from organ failure, to erase outpourings of grief in a country where extensive mobile phone use makes their task evermore difficult with each passing year.

Even references to Liu’s name and that of his wife have been added to the nation’s virtual blacklist in an effort to mute mourning. Photographs of Liu and of people commemorating him posted to China’s social media giant WeChat have been hidden without any notification to users (which number almost one billion), reports the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. It was the first time, to their knowledge, that images on WeChat had been filtered automatically in private one-on-one exchanges. WeChat users abroad, however, were still able to access these pictures, according to their research.

China’s WhatsApp social media app is also believed to have been targeted by censors. Today, users raised the alarm over widespread service disruptions with images again the focus of concern, as well as voice messages.

A Chinese censorship researcher, known by his pseudonym Charlie Smith, told press it appeared officials had “moved to brute censor all non-text content” on the domestic platform because they were not able to scrub specific content in the same way they could with WeChat – which is obliged by law to co-operate with Chinese security agencies. Whatsapp, owned by Facebook, affords a greater degree of privacy from government snooping because it uses end-to-end encryption.

Search terms related to Liu no longer work on the country’s micro-blogging Weibo platform, with more than 300 million users. “I have no enemies,” Liu’s famous statement issued two days before he was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Christmas Day is also blocked.

Despite moves to suppress mention of Liu and his likeness, China’s Internet users are adept at finding ways to circumnavigate censors and continue to circulate tributes to Liu, referring to him as “XXX” or “Brother Liu,” and posting passages from his poems (Liu was the author of books, essays and verse) and abstract illustrations of Liu and his wife, reports the New York Times. [See also: Chinese Citizens Evade Internet Censors to Remember Liu Xiaobo]

Evan Osnos of The New Yorker and a former Beijing-based correspondent writes:

“Inevitably, some in the West will think that honoring Liu Xiaobo is an act of offense against China (or, more practically, a potential risk to relationships with the government). That’s a mistake. Honoring Liu is an act of dedication to China at its best. He was, to the end, unwilling to renounce his principled commitment to China’s constitution—to the freedoms enshrined in law but unprotected in practice.”

Hu Jia, another of China’s prominent activists and a friend of Liu’s, told Reuters:

“Chinese society, due to internet censorship and being cut off from the rest of the world, essentially does not get to hear our (dissident) voices.” But President Xi Jinping, he said, had helped the country’s dissident movement by locking up Liu, a peaceful protester, and letting him die in detention. “The last state to do that was Nazi Germany,” said Hu, referring to Carl von Ossietzky, a pacifist who died in Nazi Germany’s Berlin in 1938, the last Nobel Peace Prize winner to live out his dying days under state surveillance.

In that spirit, Chinese activists declared Tuesday, July 18, as an “International Day of Mourning for Liu Xiaobo,” which marks a traditional weeklong period following a person’s death.

The current social media crackdown occurs at a particularly sensitive time for the government as it prepares for a key Communist Party congress this autumn.

Meanwhile, the whereabouts of Liu Xiaobo’s widow Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest since her husband’s Nobel Peace Price was announced in October 2010, at this time are unknown. She has never been charged with any crime.

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