A crackdown on “typos” used to spread “illegal and harmful information,” and the censorship of an unpublished draft novel, have illustrated the further narrowing of online speech in China ahead of the upcoming 20th Party Congress expected this fall.
Chinese netizens have long employed a rich range of homophones, variant characters, and “typos” to evade the grasp of the censors and automatic filtering for designated sensitive words. In mid-July, Weibo and Bilibili announced a crackdown on “typos” used to spread “illegal and harmful information.” CDT has archived and translated a plethora of such “typos” in our Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon. (“Grass-Mud Horse” is itself homophonous internet slang for “F*ck Your Mother.”) Despite attempts to quash it, the language used to evade censorship is still developing, as a leaked trove of censorship documents from social media platform Xiaohongshu reveals. The site’s content moderators discovered 546 nicknames, or “typos,” for Xi Jinping over a two-month period. Xi’s name generally triggers automatic censorship of social media posts. Some machine translation apps have also recently begun refusing to render his name. Even innocent misprints of Xi’s name are no small matter—one in the West Strait Morning Post in 2013 resulted in an order from the Xiamen Municipal Propaganda Department demanding all papers containing the error be removed from shelves and those responsible “severely punished.” Deeply obscure nicknames for Xi are also censored: a recent example saw a group of students convinced they’d discovered a WeChat “bug” that was, in fact, automatic censorship triggered by an insult for Xi Jinping unknown to them. CDT has translated a portion of the Xiaohongshu list of nicknames for Xi, many of which play on long-established jokes that Xi resembles Winnie the Pooh, is a new-era emperor, or is accelerating China’s demise:
“The Driving-in-Reverse Emperor” (倒车帝): Xi’s critics have tagged him the accelerator-in-chief, an accusation that his attempt to drag China back into its totalitarian past is hastening the Communist Party’s demise. This name plays on the perception that China is going backwards. As put by one Shanghai resident during the city’s long lockdown: “We’ve put the car in reverse and we’re giving it gas.”
“Xissolini” (习索里尼): comparison to the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
“Swim 1000 Meters a Day” (一天游泳一千米): A sarcastic comment on Xi’s swimming habits as described by state-media outlet Xinhua. Mao often used swimming as a political symbol to convey coming change. He famously swam the Yangtze right before formally launching the Cultural Revolution.
“Foreskin Xi” (习包皮): Likely a play on Steamed Bun Xi, a nickname bestowed after he made a trip to a humble Beijing restaurant in 2013. “Baopi” (包皮) has a variety of meanings including “foreskin,” as well as the “skin” around the filling of a steamed bun. Homophonous variants include “Wash the Foreskin” (洗包皮) , “Foreskin Show” (戏包皮), “Breathe in the Foreskin” (吸包皮),” “Delight in the Foreskin” (喜包皮), “Tie the Foreskin” (系包皮), “Cherish the Foreskin” (惜包皮), “Play with the Foreskin” (嬉包皮), “Raid the Foreskin” (袭包皮), “Know the Foreskin” (悉包皮), and “Giggle at the Foreskin” (嘻包皮).
“Tsinghua Graduate” (清华毕业): A snide reference to Xi’s academic credentials, which are stellar but which some critics claim were unearned.
“The Devil Mao Incarnate” (毛魔转世): As with the Mussolini-inspired one above, this nickname imagines Xi as the reincarnation of one of the 20th century’s greatest dictators, in this case Mao Zedong. [Chinese]
There are diminishing returns to such workarounds. As the language used to avoid censorship becomes more abstract, it also becomes more impenetrable, effectively “quarantining” the forbidden idea among a small group of initiates and preventing its dissemination to a broader audience, thus accomplishing the original goal of censorship. Yet the ubiquity of censorship means these work-arounds remain necessary.
Earlier this month, the author of a serialized online novel discovered that she had been locked out of her unpublished draft (stored in WPS, a widely-used word processing software program) because her manuscript allegedly violated China’s strict censorship guidelines. Outraged over the potential loss of a million-plus-word draft, she took to the internet to accuse Kingsoft, a producer of office software, of spying on her work. Her accusation rocketed to the top of Weibo’s trending list, as tens of thousands expressed shock over her situation and fears that even private writing is now under surveillance. At The Wall Street Journal, Wenxin Fan reported on the author’s discovery that her work had been “frozen,” and the plight of similar authors across China:
Ms. Gu, a 25-year-old writer based in the eastern Chinese city Hangzhou, said she had been writing her urban romance novel for several months. She used a variety of writing apps to compose each chapter, which she then uploaded to a master WPS document on the cloud that she could access from different devices.
The writer said she is always careful to steer clear from politics or graphic detail. Her chapters are being serially published by Fanqie Novel, a popular online fiction website that is so rigid about sensitive content it once asked her to dial down a vivid description of a kiss.
[…] One user of the lifestyle mobile app Xiaohongshu wrote that a criminal novel she is working on has often been locked by WPS, possibly because it contained descriptions of blood and severed body parts.
A user in a writer’s forum said a document containing a romance novel was locked by WPS in February for more than a week, and speculated it might have been because the story starts with a woman busting her husband in an affair. [Source]
So how was the document censored, and by whom? Kingsoft initially denied that it had deleted the document, and then released a follow-up statement declaring that it had reviewed the document after it was uploaded to the cloud in accordance with Chinese cybersecurity regulations. As an anonymous information security expert explained to Chinese media outlet Caixin, the document was likely “automatically synchronized to the cloud, and WPS was synchronized back to the desktop after censorship on the cloud.” Cloud censorship is standard in China. Baidu’s cloud service routinely scans cloud documents for pirated, illegal, or sensitive information, and deletes offending material. (Western equivalents like Google Drive also scan for malware and copyright violations. Google has claimed that it does this by automatically matching abstract patterns rather than analyzing content’s actual meaning. Either way, the system has produced occasionally farcical results.) Yet privacy-conscious netizens were outraged by the revelation that their private documents are potentially under constant political surveillance. At MIT Technology Review, Zeyi Yang investigated whether the censorship of WPS documents violates China’s privacy laws and whether private documents are truly under the state’s watchful eye:
Mitu’s [the online handle of Ms. Gu, the author of the censored novel] complaint triggered a social media discussion in China about censorship and tech platform responsibility. It has also highlighted the tension between Chinese users’ increasing awareness of privacy and tech companies’ obligation to censor on behalf of the government. “This is a case where perhaps we are seeing that these two things indeed might collide,” says Tom Nunlist, an analyst on China’s cyber and data policy at the Beijing-based research group Trivium China
[…] WPS has not officially confirmed whether it is the act of sharing work that triggers the algorithmic censors. But a comment left by WPS’s customer service account on Weibo on July 13 seems to confirm that hypothesis: “Syncing and storing it on cloud won’t trigger the reviews. Only creating a sharing link for the document triggers the review mechanism.”
[…] Users might not be happy but WPS’s practice of reviewing all user documents (if that’s what’s happening) is likely permitted by China’s Cybersecurity Law, says Nunlist. All internet service providers are obligated to delete and block content on their platform “upon discovering information that the law or administrative regulations prohibit the publication or transmission of,” says Article 47 of the law. [Source]
Not only is CSL Art 47 really broad… but also online services are increasingly blurred and multifunctional
Not news that social media in China is censored
But drafts in a document collaboration service? In fact, sharing in those services played a role in the HK protests 4/
— Tom Nunlist (@freefader) July 12, 2022
The case lands right on the intersection of cybersecurity and privacy regulation in China – not just the letter of those laws, but the spirit.
And it hits on popular expectations of privacy. Sure, social media is censored… but not my damn drafts in the cloud!
— Tom Nunlist (@freefader) July 12, 2022