Liu Xiaobo: Prisoner of Consciousness?

10/15/2010 01:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If you think of China as one large brain, before October 8th, knowledge of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo was relegated to a small cluster of brain cells somewhere out near the perimeter.

The government here had, until then, effectively marginalized consciousness about Liu. Knowledge of his activism for further expansion of citizens' rights and increasing the pace of democratic reforms was limited due to government control of any mention of him in the domestic media -- and by erasing, or blocking, what it could online.

Outside of small circles of activists, journalists and academics in Beijing and a handful of other major cities here in China, few people had ever heard of Liu.

Not many knew of his sentencing to 11 years in prison on Christmas Day 2009 for his part as lead author of Charter 08 -- a document he and other democratic activists produced two years ago calling for greater political freedoms for China's citizens through non-violent, gradual processes of democratic reform.

It was that sentence, however, where Chinese authorities made their mistake. Previously, Liu had been in and out of detention or under house arrest for his beliefs and writings, but had not formally been charged with a crime.

There are many people like Liu who go through similar harassment and detention -- petitioners, labor activists, reformers -- often too many, so that journalists here have a hard time justifying writing stand-alone stories on any one of them.

Choosing Christmas Day 2009 as the date to sentence Liu was an obvious attempt to try to limit the amount of foreign reporting on his trial. That might have worked.

But it was the harsh sentence of 11 years in prison -- almost a day for each Chinese character written in Charter 08 according to some calculations -- where the Chinese authorities erred.

I can't remember if I read this or thought this myself, so my apologies if it wasn't an original thought, but I recall (reading or thinking) this last year when I heard the news of his sentence: "China has just given Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize."

Would Liu have gotten the Nobel Peace Prize with just a sentence of a year? Two? A few? I don't think so.

By most anecdotal evidence, pre-October 8, 2010, knowledge of Liu in the wider Chinese consciousness was miniscule. In story after story in the foreign press about Liu since then, quotes from your average Zhou Baijiu on the street show this quite well.

Yet, while there has been almost no mention of the award to Liu in the Chinese official and government-controlled press, and only a terse statement denouncing the award to Liu by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it is obvious that consciousness about Liu and Charter 08 has grown further beyond that small cluster of brain cells along the perimeter.

One thing that can be said for certain is by issuing such a harsh sentence to Liu, the Chinese government did more to spread word about Liu than he ever could have done himself.

How much that consciousness grows and what it means for China is impossible to say. My gut feeling is that it really won't amount to much. China is so complex that any generalization about the impact of Liu getting this award is doomed to misfire.

Because of this, I was curious to find out what some of the people I know here thought about the news, just for a small sample of public opinion at the very least. In the last few days, I've been asking some of my 20-something Chinese friends a simple question: Had they ever heard of Liu Xiaobo before October 8th?

Not surprisingly, only one of the several young friends I talked to had heard of Liu before he was given the award. Most were now curious to find out more, though some were not. I didn't get the feeling from any that it would spark greater activism or democratic reform.

The only one that knew of Liu before, a 28-year-old interpreter living here in Shenzhen that I know quite well, said she'd only heard about him a few months before the 2008 Olympics when Hu Jia, another activist sometimes thought of as a possible Nobel prize candidate, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for "subversion of state power."

I know she wants to leave China -- she studied in the United States before -- and things like this reinforce her views about getting out.

A 27-year-old male Beijinger I used to work with, who now works in advertising and studied in the UK for a year, had only just heard of the news when I asked him. He wanted to know what the prize had to do with "peace" -- and wanted to learn more about Liu's background, but was having trouble since most information was blocked.

The only non-university grad or current university student I asked the question was Grace, a 25-year-old former factory worker from Hunan Province who now works at a bar in Shenzhen.

She'd never heard of Liu and didn't know what the Nobel Peace Prize was and didn't express much curiosity in either the winner or the prize. Like most high-school graduates and regular manual workers in China (and anywhere, for that matter), Grace has enough daily concerns to keep her mind occupied.

Samantha, a 28-year-old Guangdong native and university graduate working in a foreign trading company here in Shenzhen, hadn't heard about Liu before I mentioned him. "Who is he?" she asked. "I didn't watch the news yesterday."

When I told her that it wasn't on the Chinese news, she was a bit perplexed about why this was and wondered how I'd heard about it. Similar to blue-collar worker Grace, Samantha is typical of many white-collar young workers here -- university-educated, but apolitical and unconcerned about world affairs.

She is just happy to be working and earning a living and getting opportunities that her parents never had before China's "reform and opening up" started 30 years ago.

I almost didn't want to say much more about Liu and cut the conversation short, but she did say she was going to try to find out more.

The person I most suspected would have known about Liu previously was Betty, a 26-year-old Beijinger who works in state-owned English-language media and is generally on top of most things. She's also the only Communist Party member I asked.

Betty had also just found out about the news and thought it was "cool" that he got the award. "It is very nice to offer such a prize to a Chinese person in prison, such an un-peaceful place," she said. Betty was worried that Liu would be tortured and would probably disappear someday because he'd been given the award.

Lincoln, a 23-year-old international business student in Guangzhou, had just been reading some news about Liu in the foreign press when I asked him. He hadn't heard of Liu before October 8th either.

"Liu's suggestions might be positive," Lincoln said. "He has a vision for the future. But in China's current stage of development, we probably can't have that kind of [open] politics."

"In China, around 900 million people are farmers or live in rural areas. They don't have any understanding about liberal politics, so multi-party government is impossible now. The education level is still really low."

The most surprising thing I heard from anyone I talked to was what Lincoln had to say next. Usually you hear from many people here about China's "5,000 years of history" and that China is a very old country, and that it is hard for people from outside to understand.

It's a hackneyed response, kind of a "Chinese exceptionalism" used to dismiss remarks or questions from foreigners who "don't understand" China -- and to which there is often no reasonable comeback, since you don't want to offend someone.

"China is a very, very young country," he said. "You can say that China is really only 30 years old. Before that, it was blocked off from the world. Nobody outside really knew what China was like -- and people inside China didn't really know what the world was like."

*This post first appeared at The Globalist.