HONG KONG – Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo – while the man languishes in prison – has inflicted humiliation of epic proportion upon the thin-skinned Communist leadership in Beijing.
So epic, it will surely enter the Party’s pantheon of taboos, up on its Mount Rushmore to censorship: Tiananmen Square, Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and the Falun Gong. At least, that’s what my new sources in Chinese media lead me to believe, since it’s the state-controlled media that ruthlessly enforces Party diktat.
How could this event not join that fivesome?
Liu himself practically ensured it when he dedicated his Nobel to the most taboo of taboos: the “lost souls” of June 4, 1989. On that day, Chinese tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, under the government’s nose, and mowed down hundreds of protesters. The exact number of dead remains unknown.
The Party has since forbade any public discussion of what it refers to as the “June Fourth Incident.” How could any casual future discussion of Liu’s Nobel not lead inevitably to Tiananmen? Leading this blackout will be foot-soldiers in the media.
A young Chinese woman now working as a cub reporter for a provincial city newspaper recently described for me her orientation, during which the chief editor addressed all new editorial staff. With a Party-appointed cadre in the newsroom, the editor referred obliquely to “five landmines” that cannot be touched.
Most revealing is that my young colleague wasn’t surprised.
“We don’t even need to be told about them,” she says. “Everyone just knows that.”
I’ve heard similar tales of self-censorship, under threat of reprisal, from the older journalists of Communist Eastern Europe. It would be as if the U.S. media were forbidden to ever mention the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, or black-white race relations on the home-front. Unimaginable.
Several young mainlanders I know working as journalists in Hong Kong — who of course receive their news unfettered — laughed Saturday night when explaining to me how some Chinese spread the word about Liu internally via the Chinese version of Facebook and Twitter: they dodged nosy censors by placing stars between the three Chinese characters that comprise Liu’s name.
That’s fine for those Chinese savvy enough to leap “The Great Firewall.” What about the hundreds of millions who can’t? What, if anything, will they learn of Liu?
At the same time, who can blame Chinese media for kow-towing today? The authorities are vindictive. After all, Liu Xiaobo isn’t the only Chinese critic behind bars: dozens of journalists and bloggers are locked up right beside him.