Rats! Taobao Censors Toys, Vendors Cry Fowl

Toys riffing on China’s hottest online idiom, “calling a rat a duck,” were yanked from online shelves this past week, a sign of the idiom’s continued political sensitivity. 

The tongue-in-cheek saying “calling a rat a duck” (指鼠为鸭, zhǐ shǔ wèi yā) was born of an incident at a Jiangxi university, where a student found a fried rat’s head in their cafeteria meal. Local officials initially denied that the “foreign body” in the student’s food was a rat’s head, and instead insisted that it was a duck’s neck (a popular delicacy). The massive online furor over the incident spurred the Jiangxi government to create a joint investigative team comprised of members of four provincial-level agencies spanning education, public security, market regulation, and state-owned asset management supervision. The investigation concluded that the student had, in fact, been served a rat’s head. The new idiom is a riff on the Qin dynasty-era chengyu calling a deer a horse” (指鹿为马, zhǐ lù wéi mǎ) which means to deliberately misrepresent something, especially in the service of power. The “calling a rat a duck” incident has inspired broad public debate about how official mendacity causes the public to lose faith in the government.

On a much lighter note, the phrase gave birth to creative imaginings of duck-rat hybrids, which quickly became popular toys and keychain adornments. The products had a short shelf-life, as censors stepped in to remove the toys from online marketplaces and quash discussion of their existence. Even articles debating whether the toys were “cute or disgusting” were censored. An article by the WeChat account @Argon科技 arguing that the removal of the rat-head-duck toys likely violated Chinese law was also taken down by censors. Relevant portions of the article have been translated below: 

As to why there is a ban on selling these products online, our current best guess is intervention by a government bureau. If this is the case—that the product was banned by a government bureau—that is cause for concern. While such methods might help contain continued fallout over the incident by covering up certain truths, they will cause tremendous losses for retailers. Some merchants may already have mass-produced these rat-headed-duck toys, and they will suffer huge losses if online sales of the toys are completely banned. I believe that rat-head-duck toys should be allowed on the market. Government power should only be exercised within the confines of the law. Exercising power beyond those limits will cause a loss of public trust in the government. 

In summary, rat-headed-duck toys are normal products. Nothing about their design violates the law or regulations. Indeed, we are unable to understand why products such as these cannot be sold normally, or why they’ve been pulled from online shelves. Even more of a mystery is how they could possibly infringe on anyone’s rights. To quote Xinhua: “When it comes to market regulation, going forward we must ‘dissect sparrows’ [i.e., use case studies to understand local conditions] according to the principles of full transparency, warts and all. We must find the locus of diseases and prescribe the right medicine. We must strengthen law enforcement capabilities, correct shortcomings, perfect management systems, enforce accountability, and build a line of defense against ‘disorderly conduct.’ At the same time, we must strengthen oversight of the entire enforcement process by tackling problems early, nipping them in the bud, and thus truly forcing power into the cage of the system.” Stop abusing the public’s good faith, okay? [Chinese]

An advertisement for one of the banned rat-headed-duck toys on e-commerce site Alibaba. The text circled in red notes that the product has been removed and is no longer for sale, and asks if the purchaser would like to see other items.


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