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Getting past the censors with creativity

By Johnny Erling
Johnny Erling schreibt die Kolumne für die China.Table Professional Briefings

What is the connection between the translated name for “Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs” (白雪公主和七个小矮人) and the characters for the date “May 35” (五月三十五) or with the Chinese term “The Driving-In-Reverse-Emperor” (倒车帝)? Why is China’s urban youth and the country’s middle class attracted to three new alleged sciences, involution (内卷), lying flat (躺平), and runology (润学)? The answers can be found online. The ominous code words are allusions to Chinese leaders, to political or social grievances of the kind that are not allowed to appear in the official media. But online, nasty satire, provocative puns, and political attacks escape China’s strict censorship time and again. Brewing resentment is finding an outlet virtually, which, according to Beijing’s propaganda, neither exists nor should exist in the new era under people’s leader Xi Jinping and his Chinese dream.

Since spring, the ominous doctrine of “run” has been haunting all websites. To understand what it means, you have to pronounce the character “to run” just like in English, which then means “let’s get out of here”. With their new word creation, Shanghai citizens decried the Covid lockdown of their authorities, who had them locked up for weeks. In early August, the website for microblogs in China chose it as the “Weibo Word of the Week”.

The trending word of anger and frustration on the Internet: The character is read as “run” in Pinyin and pronounced like the English word. It spread en masse on the web after the week-long Covid lockdown of Shanghai’s citizens.

Media expert David Bandursky explains that the new term is part of a triad of trendy online protests. They reflect the exit fantasies of a Generation Z that is constantly fed up and overburdened by indoctrination and coercion by China’s Party. This generation no longer wants to chase after a career in the rat race of school, university, and work. First, they called it “involution,” then they invented lying flat” as a second buzzword for their inner emigration. Now they dream of “running away”.

China’s leadership sees red, notes Joseph Brouwer, who has been watching the cat-and-mouse game of social media censorship for a decade. On the website “Chinadigitaltimes.net,” he writes: In my many years of following China’s censorship saga, I have never seen the government so determined to punish. It is not willing to tolerate the slightest expression of dissent or disapproval from its citizens.” Especially not before the approaching 20th Party Congress in late fall, at which Party leader Xi plans to have his third term in office approved from 2022 to 2027, effectively cementing his absolute rule for life. The Internet is rumbling, “and that’s putting it mildly”.

In July, censorship authorities launched a new campaign against misuse of the Internet and called for political cleansing of cyberspace. There, ambiguous and homophonic characters, word variants, and “typos” are supposedly being used to “spread harmful information“.

While CP propagandists do everything they can to bring public opinion in traditional media into ideological line or fuel up patriotic sentiment, they cannot handle the backlash on the Net. Sophisticated innuendos, especially in sheer mass, not only overwhelm the physical army of censors. Even sophisticated surveillance with algorithms and artificial intelligence cannot get a grip on the constantly changing gibberish and the mixture of Mandarin and English, alphabetic, Chinese or Roman numeral symbols, and traditional and simplified characters. The biggest problem is homophones, words with the same pronunciation that are spelled differently. Despite its Great Firewall, the Internet remains a hotbed of “subversion” for Beijing.

Before the age of social media: China has an old cultural tradition of intellectual resistance to dictators. The 153 allusive critical essays “Evening Talks at Yanshan,” written by oppositionist Deng Tuo after 1960, became world-famous. With these essays, Deng infuriated Mao. Deng’s essays also appeared in 1962 in a five-volume collection that was later banned.

The camouflaged protests online differ from the old Chinese cultural tradition of intellectual resistance to rulers. Once upon a time, for example, the oppositional Beijing functionary Deng Tuo exposed Mao’s megalomaniacal dreams in 153 satirical essays and historical analogies. His columns appeared openly in the Beijing Evening Newspaper after 1960 under the title “Evening Talks at Yanshan” (Yanshan yehua 燕山夜话). Later, dictator Mao took terrible revenge on him.

Criticism in the offline world has long been suppressed by today’s Party bureaucracy under leader Xi. The web has become a stage for protests, with websites like Chinadigitaltimes keeping track of Beijing’s censors’ battle against unwelcome political innuendo since 2011. In 2017, they expanded their search to all major social media platforms; in addition to Sina Weibo新浪微博, WeChat微信, Zhihu知乎, Douyin抖音 (the Chinese mother of TikTok), Kuaishou快手和 and Bilibili.

Distorted protest character of the name for the province of Henan, which saw violent civil protests by duped bank customers.

600 million active users, each with their own social media accounts, are an absolute censorship mammoth task for Beijing. The details of how this is being done were revealed to Bouwer when a 143-page document was leaked to his website, Chinadigitaltimes. It came from the Instagram-like social platform Xiaohongshu (小红书), which was founded for online shopping and networking. This platform internally evaluated all critical posts and developed countermeasures. Among their collected sensitive words (敏感词) were also more than 500 terms, designations, spellings or phrases referring to party leader Xi.

He is sometimes described as a “Driving-In-Reverse-Emperor,” a lover of Chinese “ravioli pockets” (习包子), as the supreme censor and “harmonizer” (习和谐). Or his name is verbalized with that of other dictators. North Korea’s Kim Il-song, for example, becomes Xi Il-song (习正日). The expressions are chosen so that everyone knows who is meant, but are altered in such a way that the censorship algorithms cannot immediately identify and block them.

This also applies to all other terms strictly forbidden by censorship, such as the taboo events of the Beijing Tiananmen massacre of June 4, 1989. In 2004, I first came across a microblog calling for mourning for Memorial Day, which gave the date as “May 35th” (五月三十五). If you do the math, you’ll come up with June 4. Beijing immediately outlawed the spelling May 35th. But posts then switched to Roman numerals. June 4 became the number “ⅥⅣ” or “1-9-8-9 IIXVIIIIX.” Ten years later, in 2014, censorship expert Jason Q. Ng already counted 64 paraphrases on the Internet for the memory of the massacre. In the meantime, there are even more.

A former trending photo montage on China’s Internet. Comparing Xi Jinping and Barack Obama to Winnie the Pooh and Tigger. Such posts are banned and prosecuted.

There are no limits to the ingenuity of subverting censorship time and again. Internet authorities just banned public reports of the recent mass protests by savers in Henan Province (河南), who were cheated out of their deposits by regional banks. China’s financial stability must not be questioned. Bloggers then unceremoniously renamed Henan province Helan (荷兰), which means Holland. Or they manipulated the character for Henan. They wrote it without the money symbol in its middle part. Meaning: The banks in the scandal province are broke.

But what does all this have to do with the online fuss about “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” that I mentioned at the beginning? It was sparked by online reports claiming that Shanghai’s preschools had to remove Grimm’s fairy tales from their collections. Bloggers were upset about China’s cultural officials, who had everything banned in advance of the 20th Party Congress that could lead to allusions to Party leader Xi. This is because Snow White, which is also popular in China, might remind people of how Xi visited Beijing’s Mao Mausoleum with members of his Politburo Committee on the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic. All seven are said to have bowed before the crystal coffin of the embalmed chairman.

This sounded so absurd, even by China’s standards, that the daily newspaper “Beijing News” sent reporters to Shanghai. They immediately reported on August 2 that the official “anti-rumor platform” in Shanghai spoke of fake news. But those who read between the lines were proven wrong. The reporters wrote that they had asked several preschools whether the report of the Snow White ban was true. They only said that it was “not opportune for them to answer”.

So official censorship in China is taking on ever more curious forms. Good thing that there is at least an outlet on the Internet.

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