When recent university graduate Xiang Yu learned that a Chinese democracy campaigner had won the Nobel Peace Prize, she did what Internet-savvy Chinese do: evaded government censorship to try to find out more about the winner, Liu Xiaobo.
"The government keeps information from us," Xiang said as she browsed at a bookstore in Beijing's university district. She spoke softly and then switched to English to avoid being overheard. "I wanted to find a book by Liu, but there's nothing."
A sweeping campaign to block unapproved information about Liu — who is imprisoned and won't attend Friday's award ceremony in Norway — has failed to keep the news from reaching a growing number of curious Chinese.
The English initials "LXB" were used in cyberspace and cell phone messages to thwart censors and filters that blocked Liu's name in Chinese characters. When "LXB" was blocked, some translated his name into English, "Liu Small Wave."
Still, most Chinese know nothing about the 54-year-old literary critic. He won the award for 20 years of advocacy for peaceful change, from negotiating a retreat for student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square ahead of a military assault in 1989 to writing a manifesto for democratic evolution in 2008.
For those that have heard of Liu's award, some learned through stinging commentaries run in state media to discredit him. For many, the picture is incomplete.
Xiang, who is in her early 20s, managed to find an essay by Liu online about the Tiananmen demonstrations, which to her happened "a long time ago." She doesn't know why Liu is in prison. "Was it something he wrote?" she asked. "Is it true he opposed the government?"
Slowly, and mostly through the Internet, Chinese are piecing together the answers to the questions that the government's angry response to the prize created: Why did a Chinese citizen finally win a Nobel, something that the country has longed for, without any celebration? What did he really do?
Their efforts to create a portrait of a man who remains largely a mystery in China are a challenge to the Communist Party leadership, which brooks no dissent and cracks down on people such as Liu who seem to pose a challenge to its rule.
"The government has managed to suppress access to information about Liu Xiaobo for the last 20 years, but the peace prize has brought Liu Xiaobo to the surface," said Wang Zhongxia, a recent graduate from Renmin University in Beijing, where he learned to circumvent Internet controls.
"Some people know that a Chinese citizen won a Nobel Prize, though they might not know whether the prize was for science or the peace prize. Others know the peace prize was awarded to a Chinese person, but they don't know to whom. And others know the winner is Liu Xiaobo and that his name is heavily censored by the government," said Wang, who got in trouble for printing T-shirts with Liu's picture and quotes from his manifesto, titled Charter '08. "So knowledge about him varies, but lots of people know now in some way about this."
Even those who carry out the country's strict censorship orders say word about Liu is spreading.
"I'd say only 10 percent of people in China have heard of him. But remember that China has 1.3 billion people," said an executive at the Tencent Group, the company that owns China's most popular instant messaging system, QQ, and an Internet portal.
"Online there are still ways to talk," he said, demanding that his name not be used in connection with Liu.
In the hours after the award was announced in October, the news circulated online even as the authorities made it clear that open celebration would not be allowed.
Still, it's safer in public to repeat the government's criticisms of Liu or to argue that his approach to reform is futile.
On the campus of Beijing Normal University, one professor said Liu hadn't done anything to merit the peace prize. He joked to students shortly after the announcement that China needed to win a Nobel, but not the kind Liu did, he said. The students laughed.
In the eastern city of Hangzhou, pro-democracy activist Wu Yilong emerged this fall from 11 years in prison to find the Internet existed in China. He used it to catch up on Liu and other news but was dismayed by the government's tight grip.
"I'm not surprised, only disappointed, very disappointed," he said, shortly after police turned down his request to hold a celebration march for Liu on Friday. "I had good hopes for the Chinese government, thinking it would change for the better."
Associated Press videographer Isolda Morillo contributed to this report.
- Liu Xiaobo
- Xiang Yu
- Nobel Peace Prize