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In China, citizens find ways to learn of Nobel prize

By NBC News’ Eric Baculinao and Bo Gu

BEIJING – The news that jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize created a lot of excitement among the foreign media here.

One of their first ports of call Friday was a housing compound in a back alley near China’s Ministry of National Defense in the western part of Beijing, hoping to see and hear from his wife, Liu Xia.

Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images

Near the China Liason Office in Hong Kong, where Chinese residents have greater freedom of speech than mainland China, protestors celebrate Liu Xiaobo being awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.

But after a couple of hours of waiting – and some scuffles with Chinese security personnel – it dawned on the crowd that there would be no appearance by Liu Xia. “No, she cannot come out,” said, Liu Xiaoquan, Liu Xiabo’s younger brother, a hint that authorities were taking preventive measures.

Which, indeed, they did. After several hours of a semi-standoff, Liu Xia was taken from her home by plainclothes police officers.

“They are forcing me to leave Beijing," she told Reuters during a phone interview as plainclothes police waited for her outside.

Preventive measure also were being taken by the government-controlled media.

China Central TV’s 7 p.m. national newscast reported on Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s trip to Europe, the status of China’s eleventh iteration of the “Five-Year-Plan” for the economy (the first version began after the revolution in 1949) and the successful artificial insemination of a panda that lead to the birth of two panda cubs in Spain – but not a word on Liu Xiaobo was mentioned.

Actually, up until Friday, many Chinese people had never even heard Liu Xiaobo’s name before – because his political writings are considered to be subversive by the government, his name has long been censored from the media.

Soon after the Nobel announcement, major Chinese Web portals like Sina, Netease and Sohu all redirected their previous special reports on this week’s Nobel prizes to their homepages or simply displayed a message saying “deleted.” And reports on the Peruvian writer Vargas Llosa winning the Nobel Literature Prize were demoted on web site homepages and buried among hundreds of other headlines. China Mobile users also found it impossible to send out any text messages mentioning “Liu Xiaobo.”

Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV did report on the award, but in the context of the foreign ministry’s condemnation of the honor.

And broadcasts of CNN and BBC, which are usually available in upscale hotels and places where foreigners gather, were blacked out when the Nobel announcement was made and during subsequent reports on the award.

‘Finally this day has arrived!’
Despite the government-controlled media blackout, the Chinese blogosphere and microblogs still exploded with excitement as soon as the news came out that Liu had been awarded the prize.

On Twitter, the popular web site that can only be accessed via proxy servers in China, it seemed like almost every tweet was about Liu winning the honor.
“I’m in ecstasy,” wrote Wang Dan, a prominent student leader at the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing in 1989 who now lives in the U.S. “Finally this day has arrived!”

Reports on dinner celebrations and firecrackers popping in major cities spread online and there were more than a few tweets from people saying they had shed tears in exhilaration at the news.

There were also sarcastic comments making the rounds, too. “The Nobel Committee must be broke! So they are giving the award to someone who cannot come to get his money!” or “Congratulations to Chinese judges who sent Liu Xiaobo to prison! They just won the Nobel Shame Prize!”

Outside the Twitter world, under the surveillance of the government’s censorship, Netizens still found ways to express joy and anger about the government’s response to the award. One person wrote, “Good new, good news, Chinese! You know what I mean!”

And on Douban.com, another popular Chinese Web portal, a user named “Chengcheng” simply posted links to reports on the win from the world’s major newspapers with Liu Xiaobo’s photo and wrote, “He’s in the headlines of all these media” without writing Liu’s name.

His post was followed by comments from other users who didn’t mention Liu’s name, but pointed out the constant struggle with censorship. “Yeah he’s on headlines of English media, but not on Chinese ones,” one person wrote. Another wrote, “Last year everyone talked about Obama winning Nobel, this year…nothing.”

Another stop in a long journey
The prize was clearly a big boost for China’s dissident community, which has been largely harassed and marginalized by China’s economic achievements and dramatic rise on the global stage.

Qi Zhiyong, who lost a limb during the 1989 armed crackdown at Tiananmen Square, said the prize was “a confirmation and promotion of Chinese struggle for democracy.” He quickly added, “but it also means we have to redouble our efforts to realize that day,” he said.

Peking University professor Xia Yeliang, who co-signed the controversial Charter 08 manifesto that led to Liu’s imprisonment, boldly declared to a group of foreign journalists that “the one-party dictatorship will be ended within ten years.”

For Liu himself, the prize marks the culmination of a long journey that began in the late spring of 1989. He cut short his fellowship at Columbia University in New York to join the historic pro-democracy movement at Tiananmen Square.

The Tiananmen movement was “teaching China’s government on how to govern in the ways of democracy and rule of law,” he declared in a manifesto that led to a hunger strike in June 1989.

Nearly 20 years later, he was still promoting the same message. “The awakening Chinese citizens increasingly recognize that freedom, equality and human rights are universal values and that democracy, a republic, and constitutionalism are the hallmarks of modern governance,” declared the Charter 08 manifesto that Liu helped compose in 2008. That document eventually led to an 11-year prison sentence.

“He has never thought of giving up, and I cannot persuade him to stop,” his wife told NBC News before the news of the Nobel award.

“You only have one life, so I let him do what he wants to do,” she added.