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A man walks in front of a poster of Chinese dissident and peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo at an exhibition at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, December 9, 2010. (AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images)
A man walks in front of a poster of Chinese dissident and peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo at an exhibition at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, December 9, 2010. (AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images)

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A Chinese resident who doesn't know Liu Xiaobo? Blame the River Crabs Add to ...

The following post is part of a new series that brings a fresh perspective to global news from our team of foreign correspondents

This is the story of Liu Xiaobo and the River Crabs.

You may have heard of the former, especially if you live outside China. Mr. Liu is the Chinese dissident who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. He’s currently in a prison in the city of Jinzhou, serving an 11-year sentence for the very same thing that won him the Nobel: his long and peaceful opposition to authoritarian rule in this country of 1.3 billion people.

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If you haven’t heard of Liu Xiaobo, then there’s a good chance you live in China. In which case, you may be familiar with the River Crabs.

The River Crabs are not just something that might end up on your plate at a Shanghai restaurant (in fact, it can be dangerous to your personal liberty to order too many of them – more on that later), they’re the guardians of The Truth, or at least the Communist Party’s version of it, on the Chinese Internet.

If it’s possible to feel sympathy for a crustacean, spare a thought for the guileless river crab. A twist of language (their Chinese name, “he xie” sounds almost the same as the word for “harmonious,” as in President Hu Jintao’s ideal of a “harmonious society” or “hexie shehui”) has made them into the villains in the daily battle over what can and can’t be said on the Chinese Internet.

The River Crabs, or harmonizers, have been around almost as long as the Internet, making sure no one reads information that might make them angry at their government, but they’ve been busier and busier in recent years. First, they had to squelch the escalating talk two years ago around the 20th anniversary of the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. They picked up their game for that one, eventually casting such troublesome websites as Facebook and Twitter to the other side of China’s so-called Great Firewall.

Then came last Oct. 8, and the news that Liu Xiaobo had become the first Chinese national living in mainland China to win a Nobel Prize.

I was standing outside Mr. Liu’s apartment block in central Beijing when news came from Oslo. (I was supposed to meet his wife Liu Xia that day for an interview that never happened. Police arrived before the crowd of reporters and put Ms. Liu under de facto house arrest that continues until today.) You could feel tension rise in the streets as word spread through the neighbourhood, and more police arrived to fortify their hold on the entrance to the Lius’ apartment.

A Chinese friend asked me that day what I thought the prize would mean. It was a big deal, I told her. China’s fractured opposition now had a face, a name and a cause to rally around. The country’s democrats now had their Nelson Mandela, their Aung San Suu Kyi, their Vaclav Havel. Some news was too big for even China’s skilled censors to contain, I asserted.

On that point, at least, I was very wrong. While an astonishing 500-million Chinese now use the Internet, most of them remain – often without knowing it – within the confines of what’s sometimes called the “Great Chinese LAN.” While there are ways to get around the Great Firewall, they are complicated and sometimes expensive. A large percentage of those 500-million people simply don’t bother.

The Baidu search engine and the wildly popular Sina Weibo microblogging site, to name two that have benefited most the troubles of Google and Twitter in China, actively cooperate in Beijing’s censorship of the news. Once a directive from the top makes it clear that a topic such as Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize isn’t to be discussed, all searches of that name lead only to dead ends or officially approved material (such as state media editorials attacking Mr. Liu as a tool of the West.) Microblog posts on the topic are swiftly deleted.

Because of the diligence of the River Crabs, the dissidents that Western journalists based in China spend much of their time writing are actually known only to a small fraction of China’s vast population. I’ve never seen a study on the topic, but I’d wager that the percentage of people who know that a Chinese national won the Nobel Peace Prize last year falls with each step you take you take away from relatively cosmopolitan and connected cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

Beyond the work of the River Crabs, the Chinese authorities went further than anyone expected in trying to nullify the effects of Mr. Liu’s Nobel Peace Prize. Not only was Mr. Liu in prison the day his award was placed on an empty chair in Oslo (putting him in the company of Ms. Suu Kyi, Soviet dissident Andrey Sakharov and anti-Nazi journalist Carl von Ossietzky), travel bans were placed on dozens of Mr. Liu’s family, friends and sympathizers to keep them from travelling to Oslo on his behalf.

His wife, Liu Xia, hasn’t been seen in public since last October, and her Twitter account has gone silent since then. The secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee recently called her treatment “ unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize.”

I recently sat up late talking and drinking beer with two educated young Chinese who were helping me research a story in Yunnan province. There was no one else around – we were poolside at a hotel in which we appeared to be the only guests – so we started talking about our family histories. Li, our driver, told us he came from a family of Christians who had been persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Yu, our local Yi language translator, told us how she had recently become a devout Buddhist.

They were connected and intelligent young people whom I thought would know more than most about what was going on in their country, so I asked them what they thought about Liu Xiaobo. The name drew blank stares. I tried again, this time asking if they had heard about what had happened to Ai Weiwei, the prominent artist and dissident who was recently detained without trial for 81 days because of his political activities.

Again, the name was unfamiliar to them. (Among the younger Mr. Ai’s provocative acts was a party he hosted to “celebrate” the demolition of his Shanghai studio at which he promised to serve 10,000 river crabs.)

A frown grew across Li’s face as the conversation continued. “I know our country isn’t perfect,” he said slowly. “But it bothers me a lot that a Chinese person won the Nobel Peace Prize and they hid this news from us.”

Score one for the River Crabs. For now.

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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