Liu Xiaobo died of cancer last week. A veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and one of the authors of the Charter 08 manifesto advocating for democratic reform, Liu was China’s first Nobel Peace Prize winner.
In spite of Liu’s advocacy for non-violent change, Chinese authorities sentenced Liu in 2009 to eleven years’ imprisonment for “inciting subversion of state power.”
Last month, Chinese authorities acknowledged Liu had contracted cancer. Liu made an appeal to leave the country to receive outside medical treatment, an appeal that was backed by numerous governments, international organizations, and NGOs. Apparently concerned that Liu would speak out against the regime, Chinese authorities denied the request. On July 13, 2017 Liu Xiaobo succumbed to cancer.
The passing of Liu Xiaobo is a very sensitive event for the Chinese Communist Party. The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests grew out of the mourning of the death of another person advocating for greater government transparency and reform, Hu Yaobang.
Concerned that martyrdom around Liu may spur similar collective action, as well as being concerned about saving face, the kneejerk reaction of China’s authorities is to quash all public discussion of Liu, which in today’s world translates into censorship on social media.
In our latest report, entitled “Remembering Liu Xiaobo: Analyzing censorship of the death of Liu Xiaobo on WeChat and Weibo,” we document the full extent of China’s heavy hand.
Our experiments show that the scope of censorship of keywords, images, and search terms related to Liu Xiaobo on two of China’s most popular social media platforms, WeChat and Weibo, has greatly increased since his passing.
Prior to his death, Liu’s name, in combination with a selection of other keywords perhaps related to his illness or political rights, might trigger censorship. Afterwards, we found that simply including his name alone was enough to trigger blocking of messages.
We also found that images related to Liu, such as those commemorating his passing, were blocked on WeChat after his death, including images shared in one-to-one chats — the first time we have observed that phenomenon.
As with our prior WeChat research, we confirmed that the censorship is undertaken without any notification to the users, and only applies to users with accounts registered to mainland China phone numbers. For example, we show that images of Liu posted to an international user’s WeChat feed was visible to other users abroad, but hidden from users with Chinese accounts.
For Weibo, we analyzed search term blocking and confirmed that the platform maintains a blanket ban on searches for Liu Xiaobo’s name. Indeed, searching just his given name, “Xiaobo”, is enough to trigger censorship in English and both Simplified and Traditional Chinese
Freedom of speech is the antithesis to one-party rule. Dictators throughout history have forced embarrassing truths into the shadows, typically by imprisoning those who speak it, and have scrubbed dissidents from history books, photographs, and other mass media.
The social media censorship we document in our latest report is but the latest manifestation of this authoritarian tendency, and underscores why careful evidence-based research is so essential to the progress of human rights.
Read the full report here: https://citizenlab.ca/2017/07/analyzing-censorship-of-the-death-of-liu-xiaobo-on-wechat-and-weibo/
The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/17/world/asia/liu-xiaobo-censor.html
Global Voices: https://globalvoices.org/2017/07/17/censorship-after-death-chinese-netizens-quietly-mourn-nobel-laureate-liu-xiaobo/