Freedom of speech is tenuous at best in China, but censors are cracking down especially hard on criticism of President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power, particularly his effort to remove term limits so he can rule indefinitely.
TechCrunch sees Chinese censors going into “overdrive” and banning just about every phrase that could conceivably be used to express even the mildest objection to Xi’s imperial ambitions:
“I don’t agree”, “migration”, “emigration”, “re-election”, “election term”, “constitution amendment”, “constitution rules”, “proclaiming oneself an emperor” and “Winnie the Pooh” – the Xi’s online nickname – were among a host of phrases to be banned on microblogging site Weibo, according to U.S.-based China Digital Times.
Anyone found trying to enter the Chinese words was greeting with a messaging information that “the content violates the relevant laws and regulations or Weibo’s terms of service.”
Weibo restricting the messages users could post, Weibo also banned certain search terms, according to China Digital Times. In contrast, the top ten trending searches on FreeWeibo, a website that offers an unrestricted view of content on the service, all reflected responses to the news.
China Digital Times asked for readers’ help in compiling a “Grass-Mud Horse List” of the keywords banned on Weibo. The list is gigantic as it includes a number of specific word combinations that might expose Chinese users to unacceptable ideas, while banning the individual words would be impractical. For example, Chinese citizens can search the Internet for “explosions,” but not certain explosions the government would rather not discuss.
The list of banned search terms has been piling up for some time, but its growth surged after Xi made his move for a lifetime presidency and permanent control of the Communist Party.
The BBC notes that China “employs millions of people to monitor and censor Internet activity,” so they have the manpower to micromanage discourse and prevent popular unease with Xi’s power grab from reaching critical mass. For example, the censors have been able to hunt and kill provocative Weibo posts such as: “It took over 100 years to overthrow imperialism, and 40 years of reform and opening up, we cannot return to this type of system.”
As the BBC explains, China’s thought police are especially keen on blocking references to emperors and monarchs, searches for information on how to flee China, and snide cracks about Winnie the Pooh, who became a satirical proxy for Xi Jinping after a 2013 photo showed the plump president tromping alongside a Tigger-like U.S. President Barack Obama. The photo went on to become the most censored image in authoritarian China. Jokes about the Bear of Little Brain seizing dictatorial control of the Hundred-Acre Wood are clearly beyond the pale today.
However, Chinese citizens are strongly encouraged to say they like the amendments that would make Xi president for life. In fact, the government reportedly pays 50 cents apiece for posts supporting its positions, creating a group of state-financed trolls known as the “50 Cent Party” to dissidents.
The BBC notes another tactic employed to keep dissent under control involved Chinese-language media reporting the list of constitutional amendments without any special attention paid to the one that lets Xi stay in office forever, merely listing it as the 14th out of 21 modifications to the national constitution.
Censors also reportedly blocked Weibo users from changing their profile pictures – one suspects Winnie the Pooh and the more hamfisted Chinese emperors of antiquity would have been popular choices – and simply deleted impertinent chat messages before the recipients could read them.
Internet companies could be fined or shut down for failing to follow Beijing’s censorship directives, so they are likely to err on the side of caution when it comes to muzzling the population. For example, Disney itself was blocked from sending images of Winnie the Pooh on Weibo.
“He is here today and forever, with no political rivals within the leadership or in civil society,” Dr. Feng Chongyi of the University of Technology Sydney said of Xi Jinpooh in an interview with Australia’s SBS News. “You can see the resentment and anger within society. In Chinese cyberspace last night, everywhere, it was an overwhelming expression of anger.”
“I hope the public in Australia, government, business, everyone, if they had any illusions before, now they should be awakened to the reality that we are dealing with a very ruthless dictator. Things will follow the political logic of dictatorship. Financially, they will ignore economic rationality; they will ignore normal political foreign relations,” warned Feng, who SBS notes was detained for questioning while on a research trip to China last year.
Chinese Internet users are famously resourceful when it comes to evading government censorship, but The Diplomat notes that Beijing is mounting an attack on one of their primary tools for doing so: virtual private networks. The goal is to use heavy taxes to drive smaller VPN providers out of business, or simply throw them in jail, and raise the cost of access for the remaining private networks that can circumvent Chinese censors. China has made a cold-blooded calculation that people are only willing to pay so much for freedom of speech.
At the same time, the already formidable “Great Firewall of China” is being made stronger and the resources devoted to censorship are being increased under Xi’s “Internet sovereignty” initiative, creating a sense of despair among activists and curious young people. As one Chinese undergrad student put it to The Diplomat: “The government has been censoring quicker and quicker. It used to take a couple days, then a couple hours, now it might be 20 minutes.”