In order to evade China’s censors, which employ the most extensive internet censorship system in the world, Chinese netizens have created their own vocabulary to discuss “sensitive issues”.
This language keeps evolving as the government constantly adds new topics and terms that are prohibited.
And there’s no better example of this linguistic cat-and-mouse game between China’s social media users and the country’s legions of online censors than the current COVID-19 epidemic.
The government’s handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak has fuelled criticism of the government, including the initial cover-up of the epidemic and restrictions on information that is clearly in the public’s interest.
In response to the swell in online criticism, a host of new terms have become “sensitive”.
In January, users of the Chinese social media platform Weibo complained that the words “Wuhan” and “Hubei”—where the epidemic originated—were being restricted. Only a small proportion of users could see posts containing those words, and criticisms of the authorities in those areas were stifled.
On WeChat, another popular social media platform, combinations such as “Xi Jinping goes to Wuhan” and “Wuhan + CCP + Crisis + Beijing” were systematically being censored, a recent report from research group Citizen Lab confirmed.
Netizens began to use “wh” and “hb”, the initials of Wuhan and Hubei, as replacement terms. That’s fairly simple. But it gets more complicated.
Since China’s National Red Cross and its ability to distribute supplies has been questioned, netizens anticipated ‘Red Cross’ would be censored and replaced it with “red ten” (the Chinese character for ten “十Shí” resembles a cross). When people express suspicions that supplies had been mishandled by the national Red Cross society, hashtags such as “supplies are reded” began trending.
Another example is the use of “F4”. Initially a Taiwanese boy band that attained popularity across the region in the early 2000s, it now refers to four regional politicians: the governor of Hubei province; the secretary of Hubei’s Communist Party Committee; the mayor of Wuhan; and the party secretary of Wuhan. Many hold these four men most responsible for the massive outbreak.
Innocuous sentences can also hold a deeper meaning, such as excerpts from the leaked police statement that Dr Li Wenliang, who had warned about the virus outbreak in December, had to give to the public security bureau:
“Can you do this?” the January 03 police statement reads, referring to the police’s demand that he “stop illegal activities” related to the virus.
“Can,” he confirms.
“Do you understand?” it continues.
“Understand,” Li responds.
Social media users began posting the exchange as a sentence – “Can you do this? Can. Do you understand? Understand.” – and the phrase went viral.
These posts were deleted, but netizens then revived and adapted the statement with more rebellious content. “I cannot and do not understand.”
The same night, the hashtag “I want freedom of speech” trended on Weibo. Once detected, it was removed, with those using it blocked.
Amid the heightened censorship of the coronavirus outbreak, new words are being censored on a daily basis. But Chinese netizens are used to substituting “sensitive words” for alternatives.
China’s censorship system is perplexing. The list of “sensitive” words is constantly changing, and is never publicly revealed. There are some words that certain users cannot write, but other users can. As a result, people are always self-censoring in an attempt to beat the system.
There is a certain genius at work as netizens – among them talented journalists, students, scholars and activists – develop a rapidly expanding alternative dictionary.
Yet this never-ending dance also drains their energy. Not least because when their accounts are removed, netizens are forced to create new ones and start again the process of connecting with their followers.
This leaves a lingering sense that such wisdom and imagination could be better spent on something more productive than fighting a constant battle to be heard. (Source: Amnesty Intl.)