As if Communist China’s frenzy to suppress criticism of Xi Jinping’s bid for a lifetime in office was not weird enough already, users of the Twitter-like Weibo social media platform report that the letter “N” was briefly classified as an “illegal” search term.
As Business Insider explains, plenty of other terms were banned for more obvious reasons, including anything that might suggest a user wanted to see mockery of Xi, support for term limits, or a desire to emigrate from China. From Sunday through Tuesday morning, searching for the letter “N” also returned a “Content Is Illegal!” response from Weibo.
Several theories were floated for why “N” was suddenly treated as an unacceptable symbol of dissent:
The letter is used in China to represent unknown numerical values, like the letter X in algebra.
Professor Victor Mair, a China expert at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a Monday blog post it was “probably out of fear on the part of the government that ‘N’ = ‘n terms in office,’ where possibly n > 2.”
CA Yeung, a Perth-based China blogger, also posited that “N = infinity.”
It could also represent “no” in Y/N select items. As Twitter user Kasumi Shen said: “You can’t choose N in a (Y/N) select item as long as you are still living in China.”
Business Insider quotes China’s state-run Global Times mocking Western “hysteria” over China’s authoritarian speech codes, although the Global Times is rather coy about their reason for needling Western media. The gist of the editorial is that Westerners do not understand China’s need for stability and social harmony as it carries out a world-historic program of modernization:
Leading billions of people toward a moderately prosperous society within a short time and then toward a high-income society is almost equivalent to recreating another Western world. Such tremendous change will bring about shocks, controversies and challenges.
Solidarity is a necessary precondition for China to successfully complete the second half of its modernization. It is the cornerstone of China in the new era. The CPC [Communist Party of China] has made us Chinese all closely connected to each other. Over the years, the authority of the CPC Central Committee and the prosperity of our Chinese society have both risen. The authority of the Central Committee is the most outstanding part of China’s competitiveness. It is the source of the country’s efficiency and ability to mobilize people and make adjustments. It is the thing the outside world most envies about China and the target of Western anti-China rhetoric.
Chinese society must strengthen its resolve. We must be aware that the world is full of competition. Solidarity is for Chinese the nation’s most crucial political resource and firm support for the CPC Central Committee is the lifeline of China’s long-term unity.
And of course, silencing everyone who disagrees is an efficient method of manufacturing “solidarity,” provided the resources are available to swiftly enforce standards as particular as blocking searches for a single problematic letter.
If China really wanted to zing Western media for hypocrisy, they would point out that at roughly the same time Beijing was shooting down searches for emigration, autocracy, the letter “N,” and Winnie the Pooh, users of Google Shopping suddenly found themselves unable to search for anything containing the word “gun,” including Guns & Roses albums, water pistols, and burgundy. They could also point to the mysterious or frankly biased standards for banning users from some social media outfits, and say Beijing is simply more serious about pursuing the widely embraced goal of controlling speech in the name of social harmony.