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Online reaction to Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize win at once fascinating, unsettling

From a sign held up in Hong Kong, January 2010
From a sign held up in Hong Kong, January 2010
Photo by laihui/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Among the most interesting aspects of the response to jailed Chinese political dissident Liu Xiaobo’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize last week (aside from the Chinese government’s predicted angry reaction, President Obama’s call for his release, and sadly, the subsequent house-arrest detention of Liu’s wife) has been the heated exchanges online in recent days in reaction to the news, with a mix of immigrants and others chiming in with strong opinions about the award, communism, U.S.-China trade and more.

Liu, an advocate for political and human rights reforms, was sentenced to 11 years in prison two years ago for inciting subversion of state power. He also advised students involved in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, during which a still-unknown number of protesters were massacred after military troops opened fire.

This weekend, there were more than 700 comments beneath just one CNN story about China’s reaction to the 54-year-old Liu being honored with the award.

Reading the comments thread was fascinating, at once educational and unsettling. People argued back and forth over Liu’s right to the award, the continuing grip of the Chinese Communist Party as China becomes increasingly capitalist, access (or the lack thereof) to information in China, human rights, communist ideology, even Chinese imports to the United States and the outsourcing of jobs.

Some conversations were polite, others much less so. There were comments written in Chinese and comments written in English, a second language for many. There were heated arguments, with some people accusing one another of being members of the 50 Cent Party, a term used to refer to online commenters supposedly paid by the Chinese government to post on chat boards.

Many of the conversations exemplified the familiar tension that exists between those who have fled a communist government, as have the bulk of first generation Chinese-Americans, and those who support it.

In one exchange, a commenter identified as "Yinshanshan" blasted another who praised the country now in comparison "to my days there:”

911pearharbr: "At least CNN is live in China. That along is unthinkable 40 years ago. We should have CCTV live in States. You can always suspect others, if they are spies or if they are associated with any political organizations, but truth and facts speak for them self. I only lead people with facts, and the rest is up to them.

Chinese people are way better in their living standards now comparing to my days there. People can travel freely in and out of China. I am not far left nor far right, and I see positive and negative things in each system and society. I hope China will not have 70% divorce rate, will not have 40% high school drop out, will not have a deadlock political system, will not have 25% families worry of losing their homes, will not have to worry their sons to wars.

Yinshanshan @911pearharbr: "I don't agree. Only privileged class can watch CNN live in China. Satellite dishes are banned. Only village leaders are directly elected. The communist system obviously doesn't work. Only vested interest groups enjoy life in China. You are such a lier. I suspect you are hired by Chinese government to write comments."

(Just my own observation: I was not able to access CNN while in China a few years ago, only BBC, and only in some hotels.)

In another exchange, a comment by “Shangsui” about Liu received an impassioned reply:

Shangsui: "He is a entertainer for the West only. Chinese don't like (him)."

Mangojay @shangshui : "1. You are not the voice of the Chinese people. 2. Most Chinese do not know about this man and even fewer know what he has spoken or written. This is because the Chinese govt do not allow their citizens to listen or form their own opinion. Chinese are not allowed to think, only to recite propaganda and work long hours in polluted environment."

The free flow of opinions and emotions in the online exchange was in part so interesting because in China, where news of the award has enraged the government, coverage of Liu‘s award has reportedly been blacked out.

Liu's wife remains under house arrest. She was allowed a brief visit with him on Sunday, during which he dedicated his award to the Tiananmen Square victims.