With the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarding the Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo on Dec. 10, the Chinese government finds itself obsessed with awards. And there is one field in which China certainly has proved itself worthy of recognition: It has demonstrated world leadership in the development of innovative methods of internal censorship. China's efforts to muzzle any coverage of the awarding of the Peace Prize to Liu has also brought to the forefront the regime's determination to extend its censorship methods beyond its borders.
China's campaign began with a pre-emptive effort to bully the Nobel committee into rejecting Liu and other Chinese dissidents. Once that effort failed, the authorities denounced both Liu and the Nobel committee with vitriolic language -- Liu was called a "criminal" and the award decision an "obscenity" -- that went well beyond the vocabulary employed by the Soviets when dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were similarly honored.
At the heart of Beijing's strategy is an effort to manage the message that its own citizens, and people around the world, hear about the decision to award the Nobel Prize to Liu. China is setting a 21st-century standard for media manipulation that many outsiders have failed to adequately appreciate. The Chinese Communist Party has leveraged China's growing economic wealth, using advanced censorship techniques that use market forces to reinforce its political control.
Economic coercion is the lifeblood of China's transnational censorship. In the case of the Nobel award, Beijing warned that countries must "bear the consequences" if they attended the ceremony honoring Liu. The Chinese government also threatens to boycott or withdraw government funding from cultural events to pressure them to toe its political line.
For example, the Chinese government threatened to boycott the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, to which it had contributed $15 million, unless two Chinese writers were excluded from the event. The German event organizers initially revoked their invitation to the writers in response to Chinese pressure. However, the writers were eventually allowed to participate after the intervention of the German branch of PEN, an organization that protects freedom of expression.
China's economic coercion is designed to produce an insidious form of self-censorship. Thus, the Hong Kong edition of Esquire magazine apparently pulled a feature story on the Tiananmen Square massacre in 2009; a prominent legal journal in Hong Kong made a last-minute decision not to publish an article on Tibetan self-determination in 2008; and a blackout on independent coverage of the Falun Gong is believed to be practiced among certain Hong Kong and Taiwanese outlets whose owners have ties to Beijing.
At the same time, China has fine-tuned the traditional, punitive methods of control at its disposal. China's media landscape is actively policed by government officials who possess the most sophisticated technology available on the world market. Ironically, this is one of the benefits that have accrued to the government due to its decision to open the country to international trade.
Domestically, China's state-controlled television stations have subjected Liu to an Orwellian campaign of demonization. Simultaneously, Beijing's sophisticated Internet censorship apparatus has kicked into overdrive to sanitize discussion of the Nobel award and stop Chinese from accessing his writings.