The Forbidden Images of the Chinese Internet
Nothing reflects the lasting potency of the iconic “Tank Man” photo quite like the dogged attempts to censor it on China’s internet. Practically any image that so much as gestures at the famed photograph of a man in front of a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square risks deletion from the country’s closely monitored web; recreations showing a line of books approaching a cigarette package, a swan before an oncoming truck, and a grasshopper in front of a tire have all been removed. According to Weiboscope—a social-media monitoring project at Hong Kong University—even Francisco Goya’s Third of May 1808 (1814), which echoes the Tank Man in sentiment and composition, could not make it past censors.
A Beijing demonstrator blocks the path of a tank convoy along the Avenue of Eternal Peace near Tiananmen Square. Photo by Bettmann via Getty Images.
Behind China’s Great Firewall—which is more like a continually shifting, dynamic barrier—the Tiananmen Square massacre did not happen, the ongoing Hong Kong extradition bill protests are a mere squabble incited by Western countries, and Winnie the Pooh doesn’t exist. This tightly controlled media climate has given rise to innovative circumvention tactics. While searchable keywords in plain text face automated deletion, digital images require more nuanced monitoring. News articles from banned websites like the New York Times appear in upside-down screenshots on Weibo, a social site akin to Twitter (which is blocked in China). One writer managed to keep a photo from the Hong Kong protests up on WeChat, but only after adding brushstrokes and flipping it sideways. Resourceful netizens also use images of ordinary objects and cartoon characters as symbols in an ever-growing visual lexicon made for dodging censorship.
In recent months, the grip on the internet has tightened. In June, the protests and the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre kept censors on edge. The Washington Post and The Guardian were freshly banned, along with 10 other major news sites. And a series of sensitive anniversaries this month—including deadly riots in Xinjiang in 2009 and the death of democracy advocate Liu XiaoBo in 2017—pose more challenges for Chinese internet censors trying to clean the web of what government leaders call “spiritual pollution.”
Jason Ng, author of Blocked on Weibo (2013), notes that the Chinese government’s utmost priority is discouraging unified, anti-establishment action. But for Ng, the intrigue lies in the gray areas—where the state does more than prevent political unrest. “Clearly, it is not only protests that are being censored. There is some sort of intentionality,” he said. “It is fascinating to think through the moral reasons why things are removed. How does the government try to shape social mores? How do they try to shape culture through censorship?”
Some removed images are unsurprising: depictions of state-sanctioned violence, cartoons disparaging government leaders, and aerial shots of protests. But many of them appear innocuous at first glance. All images—even harmless ones—of top Chinese political leaders are banned, except on official websites and approved blogs. For other content, moderators tend to err on the side of caution since private companies, rather than the government, are responsible for complying with state guidelines. After President Xi Jinping eliminated term limits, for example, censors temporarily banned the letter “n,” which was likely a reference to the math symbol and was used to poke fun at the undefined length of his tenure.
The Chinese Communist Party is particularly sensitive to politically charged jokes. In 2013, when an image comparing then–U.S. president Barack Obama and Xi Jinping to Tigger and Pooh Bear went viral, the rotund honey aficionado was quickly banned, and last year, the movie Christopher Robin did not release in China. Charlie Smith, a pseudonym for the co-founder of GreatFire.org, a China-based information freedom organization, believes this is a testament to the sensitivity of China’s leader. “Quite honestly, if you were to be compared to any kind of cartoon character, you could do way worse than Winnie the Pooh—maybe Squidward,” he mused.
While Pooh Bear might be the most well-known of playful creatures removed from China’s web, he’s not the only one. Years earlier, censors blotted out mention of a 72-foot-tall inflatable frog after internet users likened it to former president Jiang Zemin, once nicknamed “toad.” And after a 2013 recreation of “Tank Man” replaced the tanks with inflatable rubber ducks, “the yellow rubber duck, in whatever context, was doomed to the blacklist forever,” Smith said.
Anything that might jog netizens’ memory of controversial events is subject to scrutiny. Images of candles, typically held at memorials, were removed around the time of the Tiananmen Square anniversary. Other, more covert references, such as playing cards that read “8964” for the year 1989 and date June 4th, have been removed. When Liu Xiaobo died in July 2017, censors went so far as to block out images of an empty chair—Liu was honored with an empty chair at the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony when he was barred from leaving the country, turning a mundane household object into a political symbol.
Beating censorship means making the image obscure to censors but clear to fellow internet users. Homonyms help: Because Chinese is a tonal language, words have different meanings based on how they are pronounced, leaving room for a myriad of wordplay.
One of the earlier viral uses of a homonym can be traced back to the creation of the mythical “grass mud horse.” The Chinese phrase cao ni ma, enunciated one way, can mean “grass mud horse,” but pronounced another way, it means “fuck your mother.” The two pronunciations have different Chinese characters, allowing the mythical creature to remain uncensored despite obscenity policies. The subversive horse was featured in an Ai Weiwei photo, starred in a music video, and eventually grew into an internet legend about its battle with the hexie, or “river crab.” In Chinese, hexie also sounds like “harmony,” referencing former president Hu Jintao’s initiative to create a “harmonious society.” Ai has incorporated this symbol into his work, as well—his 2010 work He xie (crabs) features 3,200 porcelain crabs, and when the government condemned Ai’s Shanghai studio, he invited supporters over to eat crab before the demolition.
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!”