The Revolt of China’s Twittering Classes

BEIJING – Last week, Liu Xiaobo was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China. That award comes at a crucial moment in Chinese politics, as it may well become a stepping stone on China’s long march toward greater freedom.

Yet few voices in mainland Chinese media are discussing Liu’s Nobel Prize. The government’s propaganda department has ordered major media to keep the news from spreading to the general public by imposing strict censorship. In fact, on CCTV’s widely viewed 7 p.m. national newscast, not a word on Liu was mentioned on the day he received the prize.

Despite this news blackout, China’s blogosphere and microblogs exploded after Liu was announced as the winner. For example, on Sina’s microblog site, bloggers used pictures, euphemisms, and English or traditional Chinese characters to avoid censorship.

Twitter-style microblogging is extremely popular in China. Twitter.com was officially blocked last year, following the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown and the riots in Xinjiang that summer. Soon afterwards, its most famous Chinese clone, Fanfou.com, also was closed down, leaving one million registered users homeless. Nevertheless, although Twitter can be accessed in China only via proxy servers, it still plays a vital role in Chinese Internet life because of its ability to connect different news sources and social activists.