Chinese citizens know that they have to watch their words when they discuss politics in public – on the internet for example.
Now there are two more words they have to watch: “empty chair”.
That phrase is being wiped off Chinese websites, microblogs and anywhere else in cyberspace it might appear as censors desperately try to stop people here talking about Friday’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony honoring a Chinese dissident, where there will be an empty chair.
Liu Xiabo, the winner, cannot be in Oslo to collect his gold medal and his $1.4 million prize – he is just one year into an 11 year jail sentence for subversion because he penned an open letter calling for democratic reforms in China.
His wife can’t go either, because she has been under house arrest since her husband’s prize was announced. His brothers have been told they won’t be allowed out of the country.
Since nobody can collect the prize, the Nobel committee has decided to put an empty chair on the podium, with a portrait photograph of Liu Xiaobo behind it.
But the Chinese government does not want anyone talking about it. So if you write “empty chair” in a post on the Chinese internet, you will find your post taken down a few minutes later.
Next week, “empty chair” will probably not set off any alarms in the Chinese censors’ office. But they will likely find another apparently innocent phrase that is just as politically sensitive, and they will set to work cleaning that one out of cyberspace instead.