When the Chinese political situation gets tense, new animal memes proliferate on the Chinese internet. A decade ago, river crabs were in vogue. Last month, it was bunny rabbit emojis alongside rice bowls. In each case, zoological zaniness has signaled the start of a new round of moves and countermoves between government employees trying to sweep the web clean of unwanted discussions and digitally savvy citizens looking for ways to circumvent the censors. Tracking Chinese politics means keeping your knowledge of China’s ever-growing meme menagerie up to date.
The latest addition is Winnie the Pooh in a crown. That materialized after the Chinese Communist Party announced on Feb. 25 that it would allow presidents to serve more than two five-year stints, doing away with the term-limit system adopted in the early 1980s to prevent a return to pure authoritarianism. Chinese authorities obviously do not want free and open conversations about Xi Jinping’s possible ascendancy to president for life. But critics have come up with clever ways to address the taboo topic — like Pooh, long associated with the portly Xi, in kingly garb.
This cat-and-mouse game is common. Censors try to stem dissent by deleting social media posts that venture into politically sensitive territory. Then critics use satire and allusion to circumvent Big Brother’s rules.
After Xi’s announcement, Pooh wasn’t the only internet star. Former Qing Dynasty official-turned-warlord Yuan Shikai also enjoyed a brief surge in popularity online. Yuan is famous — or infamous — for chafing at limits on his power; after muscling Sun Yat-sen out of the presidency of the newly formed Republic of China in 1912, he set himself up as an emperor. “Posted without comment” photos of Yuan spread quickly on Chinese social media — until the censors figured out the meaning behind the meme and began sweeping them away.
Censors, quite like Xi himself, don’t believe in reasonable limits. Recently they went so far as to temporarily ban the letter “N” because people were using it in equations calculating how many five-year terms Xi might serve. Nor do censors restrict themselves to conversations directly related to Communist Party politics. Just weeks ago, they decided to go after #MeToo postings, as discussions of sexual harassment risk bringing down powerful business and government figures. As a work-around, mainland internet users started pairing rice and rabbit emojis; the character for rice is Romanized as “mi” (pronounced “me”), that for bunny as “tu” (“too”).
Online evasions are not new. During Hu Jintao’s two terms as president, which ended in 2013, bloggers mocked his signature campaign promoting a “Harmonious Society” via satirical discussions about crabs. Though the written characters for both terms are different, in homophone-rich Mandarin, “hexie” can either refer to harmony or river crabs.
Deep knowledge of Chinese history, culture and language is necessary to understand many online moves and counter-moves. But it’s not always required. Even those with only a passing interest in China can grasp why critics of a Communist Party leader with imperial ambitions have brought up George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” and why censors have made mention of the book verboten.
These evasive maneuvers are often cute (images of King Winnie) or scholarly (historical allusions) or stunningly innovative (mi tu). They are also, of course, symptomatic of something deeply disturbing.
The stifling of civil discourse has intensified on Xi’s watch; hundreds have been arrested for blog posts and social media comments that crossed the government’s line. This process has been part of a broader repression of civil society, which includes the 2015 arrest of five feminist activists, the forced closure of nongovernmental organizations such as a leading women’s legal clinic in Beijing, and the detention of activist lawyers and journalists.
As the state exacts greater prices from those who dare to speak out directly, the number of people willing to take the risk of writing open letters warning of Xi’s concentration of power has dwindled. Hence the proliferation of animal memes, which, given the party’s recent move on term limits, is unlikely to slow any time soon.
Maura Elizabeth Cunningham and Jeffrey Wasserstrom are co-authors of the updated third edition of “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know,” which will be published by Oxford University Press this month.