Invasion of the River Crabs

… 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. …  

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.”

Mark MacKinnon

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.

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Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate NGM's new publishing partnership in the People's Republic of China. (2007)

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