The Top ███ Chinese ██████s of 2023 (Part One: 64 to 2952)

The following themes, and the six covered in part two, are not the “most censored” words of 2023 but rather a retrospective of topics that the Party-state deemed unfit for Chinese eyes, selected by our Chinese team. While some of the censored terms themselves are new, they touch on familiar issues: the personality cult around Xi Jinping, the 1989 democracy movement and its suppression, ongoing youth dissatisfaction, unlikely dissidents, the privileges of the Party-connected, shoddy construction leading to the death of children, botched disaster responses, a cover-up, and protests. Each section will lead with censored terms and then follow with a brief explanation of their provenance and context. For more on many of these themes, see CDT’s newly launched ebook, “China Digital Times Lexicon: 20th Anniversary Edition.”

Xi Jinping’s New Clothes

Censored terms: Unanimous Election, 2952, The Second Coming of Yuan Shikai, Yuan Shikai, The Emperor’s New Clothes, Eliminating The Emperor’s Cronies, Chongzhen, Big G, The One Who Should’ve Died Didn’t, Lil’ Bottle’ Wishes He Were Human, Too! 

On March 10, China’s rubber-stamp congress re-elected Xi Jinping to a third five-year term as President—an unprecedented move made possible by a 2018 revision to the Chinese constitution that repealed term limits. A massive surge of censorship followed. Banned terms included “unanimous election,” a phenomenon Party leaders including Xi himself had once criticized as undemocratic. People’s Daily even removed a 2011 essay it had published warning, “if the people’s will continues to be hijacked through ‘unanimous elections,’ it will fuel public resentment.” The number “2952” was also banned. Xi received 2952 votes for, none against, none abstaining. References to the 20th century dictator Yuan Shikai were also censored. 111 years earlier to the day, Yuan was elected president of the nascent Republic of China, only to later declare himself emperor. The term “The second coming of Yuan Shikai,” a pun in the original Chinese on the term “Anime, Comics, and Games,” was censored, as were simple “this day in history” articles about Yuan. 

Further censored terms about Xi included, “the emperor’s new clothes,” a reference to the Hans Christian Anderson fable of the same name. The term is commonly used to criticize Xi, but its use reached an apogee during the “Kong Yiji” youth unemployment crisis (see below for more). One essayist suggested: “Rather than make Kong Yiji take off his scholar’s gown, how about stripping the Emperor of his new clothes?” The essay was taken down and the term remains sensitive today. 

Historical analogies, as we have already seen with Yuan Shikai, were highly sensitive this year. In June, when the Wagner Group launched an abortive march on Moscow many perceived to be aimed at removing Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Armed Forces Chief Valery Gerasimov, many on Weibo speculated that it was a version of “eliminating the Emperor’s cronies.” The phrase has been used throughout Chinese dynastic history to describe the removal of powerful but treacherous courtiers and officials from the imperial court by another group claiming fealty to the emperor. The term was soon censored on Weibo. References to “Chongzhen,” the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty, were also censored this year. In October,  the biography “The Chongzhen Emperor: Diligent Ruler of a Failed Dynasty” was pulled from shelves without notice, sparking widespread speculation that its removal was due to parallels with Xi. 

Other censored terms for Xi included “the one who should’ve died didn’t,” which netizens posted after Li Keqiang’s death in October. (Similar posts were censored in the aftermath of Shinzo Abe’s assassination in 2022.) “Big G,” the nickname of a fictional character from the Japanese manga and anime series “Doraemon,” was also censored after it became a stand-in term for Xi—the two share a birthday, a love of soccer, and can be perceived as bullies with crude manners. 

Finally, some censored references to Xi were entirely unintentional. The beverage company Chi Forest ran a marketing campaign encouraging customers to anthropomorphize their bottles by turning them into figurines or writing short creative pieces about them with the slogan, “Lil’ Bottle’ wishes he were human, too!” “Lil’ Bottle” could be read as a diminutive and insulting version of Xi Jinping’s full name and “wishes he were human” has shades of the viral online phrase “show some humanity,” used to describe the cruelty and immorality of some corners of fan culture. Weibo soon censored the slogan and Chi Forest canceled the campaign, just the latest company to unwittingly fall afoul of censors’ red lines. 

Memories of a Massacre

Censored terms: Objects Placed in a Row/Numbers With Unclear Implications, Learning Hangzhou’s Charms Through the Humanities, Photo of Wu Yanni’s Hug with Her Teammate

The June 4, 1998 Tiananmen Massacre remains the premier third rail of online censorship in China. In June, Douyin, TikTok’s sister application, issued a directive to official accounts and key opinion leaders banning a massive range of content between June 3-5, the massacre’s anniversary: 

Comments and reposts are forbidden from displaying content including, but not limited to: lit candle emoji, numbers with unclear implications, slogans, tanks, old photos with a throwback feel, Jackie Chan/Alan Tam/Eric Tsang/Anita Mui and other Hong Kong artists, or photographs of large crowds/Victoria Harbor/Tiananmen/the Summer Palace/candlelight/objects lined up in a row, among other content. [Source]

“Objects lined up in a row” is a reference to the image of “Tank Man,” the anonymous Beijinger who held up PLA tanks on Chang’an Avenue on June 5, 1989. The original image is banned on the Chinese internet but posting creative permutations of it (often achieved by lining up objects in a row including ducks, legos, cartoon characters, or the glutinous rice dumplings zongzi) has become something of an online tradition and a staple of the cat-and-mouse game of internet censorship. 

Despite such stringent censorship of all things Tiananmen-related, the Party-state is sometimes unaware of its own taboos. During the Hangzhou Asian Games this past fall, top Party outlet People’s Daily published a video titled a “Literary Exploration of Hangzhou” that included two classical poems with sensitive political subtexts, one of which has been used by activists as an allusion to the Tiananmen massacre due to its references to “six” and “four.” People’s Daily was forced to censor its own video. The second Hangzhou Asian Games Tiananmen-related drama occurring during the women’s 100m hurdles finals. Hurdlers Lin Yuwei and Wu Yanni ran in lanes six and four, respectively. A photograph of the pair hugging after the race framed their bibs reading “64,” a tightly censored allusion to June 4th. The photograph was published as part of a collage to state broadcaster CCTV’s Weibo account, which has 132 million followers, only to be removed later—an acknowledgement of a gaffe. 

Disaffected Youth Look To Lu Xun

Censored terms: Guishange, Sunny Side Kong Yiji, Humineral

A self-deprecating meme popularized by unemployed youth took on a new political salience when censors took it as a threat to stability. A cohort of the overeducated and under-employed found consolation in a 1918 short story by Lu Xun titled “Kong Yiji,” about an impoverished scholar who is the object of local ridicule. Some began writing modern day “Kong Yiji literature,” lighthearted fare bemoaning their job prospects. The meme circulated widely and without incident until the Communist Party Youth League and CCTV published broadsides against the viral term instructing youth to exchange their “scholar’s gowns” for laborers’ “short tunics.” These insensitive pieces were met with widespread disgust, and inspired one parodic singer-songwriter known by his online name “Guishange” to write an anthem for the literature titled, “Sunny Side Kong Yiji.” With lyrics like “when I have the nerve to ‘maliciously’ ask for my pay, the cops drag my hungry ass away,” and “why’s it so easy for the elites to trample on our dignity?” the song marked a decidedly darker turn in the Kong Yiji meme. It earned millions of listens in just days but then was taken down by censors. “Guishange” had his account suspended, threatening his livelihood and causing him to ask: “They’ve forced me into a dead end, and for what? Just because I told the truth?” 

Youth dissatisfaction was perhaps best captured in the portmanteau “humineral,” a combination of “person” and “mine.” In February, a Zhihu user posted “10 tenets” of the humineral that broke down their life into three stages: extraction, exploitation, and slag removal. The basic concept holds that China’s youth are nothing but exploitable resources destined to “either fuel history’s engine, or be ground beneath its wheels.” Many joked that Chinese huminerals are the world’s third-most exploitable resource, just behind “Saudi oil” and “Australian iron.” The term went viral immediately, rising to #11 on Weibo’s trending list, and was then swiftly and thoroughly censored. 


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