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The People Speak Out about the Nobel Peace Prize in Words and Pictures

January 26, 2011

Despite the Chinese authorities’ efforts to block news of Liu Xiaobo being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, suppress domestic independent intellectuals, and attack the Norwegian Nobel Committee with rhetoric from the Cultural Revolution, there are people—especially young people and Internet users—who dared to express their support for Liu Xiaobo and the Prize openly, on the street and online through words and pictures.

Shortly after October 8, 2010, when the Prize was announced, a large banner was displayed on the campus of Central South University in Changsha, Hunan Province. The banner read, “Celebrating Liu Xiaobo’s 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Award, and Thanking the World for Not Forgetting the Chinese People’s Appeal for Democracy!”

At the Peace Prize award ceremony in Oslo on December 10, 2010, the award certificate and medal were placed on an empty chair, because neither Liu nor a family member was allowed to attend the ceremony. Quickly, “empty chair” (空椅子) became a code phrase for netizens to convey their support for Liu Xiaobo. The phrase was soon blocked by the authorities.

On December 12, netizen chatter erupted when the Southern Metropolis Daily ran a daring message—on its front page. On that page, under a ban­ner headline about the opening of the Asian Paralympics Game in Guangzhou that evening, the editors put pictures of three empty chairs and five cranes. The meaning of the empty chairs is quite clear. But the cranes? In Chinese, the word “crane” (鹤 []) is a homophone of both “congratulations” (贺 []) and of the first of the two characters—(和 [])—that make up the word “peace” (和平 [hépíng ]). Even though it is not certain why the editors chose these images, netizens who commented on the unusual graphics believed that the editors intended to convey what they felt—“congratulations on the Peace Prize” (祝贺和平奖 [zhùhè hépíng jiǎng])—without using a single word.

In a comment dated December 10, 2010, and posted on several overseas Chinese language chat forums, one netizen pointed out that in the years 2000-2006, Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, wrote positively about the Nobel Peace Prize. He believes that the government reacted in a fury about the 2010 Prize because it so effectively tore apart the veneer of progress that the government has tried to purvey to the world:

It took the hundreds of billions of yuan spent to host the Olympics and World Expo to show that China had joined the rest of the world, yet in one swoop the Nobel Committee, a mere group of five people, were able to peel off the mask of the Olympics and Expo without any effort. The CPC and government have not changed in twenty years; they have not changed at all.

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