If there was any wonder about how far the concepts of democracy and human rights have come in China, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo has provided a stark answer. A government blackout of information on the first Nobel awarded to a Chinese citizen is almost total on the mainland.

That such a feat could be accomplished in a country of 1.3 billion with more than 300-400 million Internet users is a sobering thought. As a real-life social science experiment, the Nobel award leaves little room for further naiveté.

When I went to teach journalism at a Chinese university in 2006, I found that expatriates there generally occupied two camps in regard to the future of democracy and human rights in China. I’d call them the optimists and the pessimists.

One American professor in particular would wax lyrical about the positive changes the Internet had brought about. No longer were mainland Chinese citizens reliant only on state-run media for news. Chat-rooms, blogs,
instant messaging and, most recently, Twitter were giving them the opportunity to state their opinions and fill in the gaps created by a censor-happy central government. The wishes of the collective voice of the people could not be ignored.

Plenty of other China watchers made the same argument, particularly those interested in doing business with and in China. Their unifying thesis has always been that “market forces” will ineluctably bring suffrage to the Middle Kingdom.

It wasn’t a new line of reasoning. The same logic was a leading factor in admitting China into the World Trade Organization in 2001 after 15 years of heated debate over the country’s human rights abuses. It was also the justification by the International Olympics Committee in its choice of Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. China would “see the light,” the argument went.

The pessimists, however, have seen more ground lost than gained in the last half of this decade. The Chinese government censors web sites based outside the country by using a vast and sophisticated firewall called the Golden Shield, which filters all incoming net traffic at three fiber optic “chokepoints” into the country. In some cases it blocks entire URLs, such as YouTube and Facebook. But over time the system has evolved to pinpoint specific web pages. For example, an American newspaper might be completely accessible within China except
for one story about, say, the Dalai Lama.

Censorship of the Internet within China has also grown tighter, in part through a series of “anti-pornography” purges used as a means of shutting down sites that are popular with online posters. The central government has an estimated 40,000 “net police” deleting information on Chinese web sites.

It was in this virtual environment that Liu’s so-called Charter 08 was posted online in late 2008, calling for reforms to improve human rights in China. Most importantly, the manifesto called for an end to one-party rule and a move toward democracy. Liu was arrested shortly before Charter 08 was actually posted, and the central government eradicated the document and all references to it from web sites based inside the mainland.

The adjective “Orwellian” is often used to describe the Chinese government’s control of media, but the blackout of information about Liu’s Nobel is stunning even to those familiar with the practice. The only official response by the Chinese government has been for international consumption. It labeled the award a “blasphemy.”

Chinese blogger Bei Feng published a roundup of the government’s response in an article for Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Daily. Immediately after the award was announced, many bloggers found their Twitter-like microblog platforms disabled. Bei wrote that an employee at the popular web portal Sina.com was moved from his regular job to help delete comments on microblogs. One employee tasked with the same job reportedly complained, “I’ve deleted so much my hands are sore.”

The State Council’s Information Office issued a directive that the words “Liu Xiaobo” and “Peace Prize” are prohibited in any forum, blog or interactive media. Professional television and print media were ordered not to publish any information about Liu. The State Council is the country’s top executive office.

The crackdown soon moved to the virtual world, according to Bei. Shortly after Twitter and domestic microblog users began making plans for various celebrations of the award, police began arresting them.

Bei concluded, “The vast majority of Chinese, numbed to the whole nature of politics in our country, have not responded at all, or perhaps don’t even realize Liu Xiaobo was given the prize.”

Indeed, references to Charter 08 were scrubbed so fast after it was posted that even savvy web users didn’t have a chance to learn of its existence. I worked at an English-language newspaper on the mainland during Liu’s arrest and, a year later, his sentence to 11 years in jail for “inciting subversion of state power.” No reporter or editor I talked to had heard of Liu or his manifesto.

This week I emailed a friend who still works at that newspaper. He responded, “The official line inside China right now is not only to deny the existence of Liu Xiaobo (domestically), but also to deny the existence of the Peace Prize itself (any search for “Nobel Peace Prize” now returns zero hits). The condemnation thing is for the outside world; inside China, they’re pretending it didn’t happen.”