But censors catch up with even the most ingenious of homophones. On May 21st, two weeks before the anniversary of Tiananmen Square, a photo of baijiu—a type of alcohol that also sounds like the numbers eight (ba) and nine (jiu)—alluded to 1989 resulted in filmmaker Deng Chuanbin’s detainment. When #metoo (wo yeshi) was censored out of concern it would spread Western sentiments, Chinese netizens started posting mi tu, or “rice bunny,” which sounds like “MeToo.” Soon, mi tu was also banned, and images of rice bunnies popped up in its place.
China’s approach to internet censorship parallels its economic model more broadly: offer enough freedom for people not to feel constrained, but not so much as to organize and challenge the existing structure. It’s a fine line and a blurry one, and like a recent viral Weibo post
pointed out, the absence of major international news on the Chinese internet—like the U.S.–China trade war—is becoming “increasingly strange.” (Shortly after, the post was deleted.)
But Smith believes there is at least some cause for reserved optimism. “Given the rise of image-based social networks, and improved smartphone technology, it’s also becoming easier to doctor an image if one wants to try to evade censorship,” he wrote in an email. “Maybe Winnie the Pooh will come back in another form!”