The lesser mandarins in Beijing have been hard at work through 2017, scrubbing the Chinese internet of all references to the dissident Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who has died in custody. Even RIP messages on social media were deleted. In the preceding months, search engines were trawled for links to his name, and they were cast on what the Party imagines to be the dustheap of history. But the Party has a poor understanding of history, and how it is made. Its zeal to erase Liu has only made him a household name in nations which respect liberty.
The world had come to accept one-party rule in China. Global attention was focused on its economic might rather than its human rights record, and president Xi Jinping faced no uncomfortable questions at the G20 summit. But the party’s mean-spirited refusal to allow Liu to travel overseas to seek treatment for liver cancer has rekindled repugnance for authoritarian government in China.
Beijing can erase opinion only in its exclusive domain behind the Great Firewall of China. In the world outside, the internet has exploded with disgust for the Chinese government and sympathy for Liu and his family, who have suffered with him.
One of the Tiananmen Square protesters, he was jailed for co-authoring Charter 08, a demand for democratic freedoms. The charge against him would be termed sedition under India’s archaic laws. He won the Nobel Prize for Peace while behind bars, whereupon his wife was put under house arrest to prevent her from accepting the award. Today, the paranoia visible in the coverage of the party-controlled Global Times, the only Chinese publication to write about Liu’s passing, is a clear indication that Beijing knows that the politics of pettiness has failed. In fact, it has conferred immortality on Liu Xiaobo.