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Liu Xiaobo’s Death Pushes China’s Censors Into Overdrive


One of the distinguishing features of WeChat is that it does not notify users when their messages are blocked. The service also makes a distinction between accounts registered to phone numbers from mainland China and phone numbers from elsewhere.

In one experiment, researchers at the Citizen Lab found that a photo of Liu Xiaobo posted to an international user’s WeChat social media feed was visible to other users abroad but was hidden from users with Chinese accounts.

The heightened — yet uneven — censorship in recent days has elicited frustration and confusion among Mr. Liu’s supporters.

On the day after Mr. Liu’s death, one user posted on his WeChat feed: “‘Did you see what I just sent?’ ‘No, I can’t see it.’ For the last two days, this has been the constant question and answer among friends.”

The aggressive attempt at censorship is just the latest indication of the strong grip that the Chinese government maintains on local internet companies. In addition to automatically filtering certain keywords and images, internet companies like Baidu, Sina and Tencent also employ human censors who retroactively comb through posts and delete what they deem as sensitive content, often based on government directives.

Failure to block such content can result in fines for companies or worse, revocation of their operational licenses. Censors have been on especially high alert this year in light of the Communist Party’s 19th National Party Congress in the fall.

Over the years, the constant cat-and-mouse game between Chinese censors and internet users has led to the rise of a robust internet culture in which censorship is normalized and satire and veiled references are par for the course.

So even as censors stepped up scrutiny in recent days, many savvy Chinese internet users found ways to evade those efforts. In tributes to Mr. Liu, users referred to him as “Brother Liu” or even “XXX.” They posted passages from his poems and abstract illustrations of Mr. Liu and his wife, Liu Xia.

Over the weekend, however, the tributes gave way to scathing critiques as friends and supporters of Mr. Liu reacted angrily to the news of Mr. Liu’s cremation and sea burial under strict government oversight.

One user took to his WeChat feed on Sunday to express disgust with the use of Mr. Liu’s corpse in what some called a blatant propaganda exercise. “Swift cremation, swift sea burial,” he wrote. “Scared of the living, scared of the dead, and even more scared of the dead who are immortal.”

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