The Top ███ Chinese ██████s of 2023 (Part Two: Comedy to Tragedy)

In part two of our retrospective on the most sensitive topics of 2023, as selected by our Chinese team, we focus on dissent and disasters. In part one we covered long-standing taboos on discussions about Xi Jiping and the Tiananmen Massacre, as well as the increasingly explosive problem of youth discontent. The following six themes are not the “most censored” words of 2023 but rather some of the more important censored themes. 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.”

Dissident Leanings

Censored terms: Chizi, Wang Yuechi, Slap, Lew Mon-hung

Comedy proved a notable avenue for dissent in 2023. Chinese comedians performing abroad broke new ground with politically minded stand up routines. Many of them have paid a price for their humor. Wang Yuechi, known by his stage name Chizi, had all his Chinese social media accounts deleted after performing a North American stand-up tour during which he touched on human rights, Xinjiang, and the changes to China’s constitution that have allowed Xi to indefinitely extend his tenure as state president. One stand up comedian in China was issued a lifetime ban for an innocuous joke about the People’s Liberation Army and his dogs. Revitalized corps of “culture cops” stirred further anxieties that the space for humor is now even more tightly closed. 

Music was also highly subject to censorship. The folk-rock band Slap’s song “Red Child’s Eighteen Wins,” a satirical commentary on current social dynamics infused with allusions to the Ming Dynasty novel “Journey to the West,” was a major viral hit until censors took it down. Amidst a dazzling breadth of references spanning the White Paper protests, the shackled Jiangsu mother, “Second Uncle,” the Tangshan BBQ beating, and Olympic skier Eileen Gu, to name but a few, the song offered a biting criticism of contemporary China. A leaked censorship instruction required all content relating to Slap to be removed, except for that which “exposed” or “criticized” the band: 

Carry out a comprehensive cleanup of all content related to the band “Slap” (delete encyclopedia entries, search terms, videos, lyrics, and promotional content; delete topics and hashtags, shut down Baidu Tieba “topic bars,” and remove all related merchandise) and their songs (including “Red Child’s Eighteen Wins,” “The Eighteen Dark Arts of Master Bao,” “The Eighteen Generations of Uncle Pan,” “The Eighteen Hexagrams of Boss Bei,” “The Eighteen Prohibitions of Director Ma,” “The Eighteen Verses of Director Lang,” etc.) Content that exposes and criticizes [the band or their songs] will be allowed to remain online. [Source]

Another perhaps unlikely voice of dissent came from the Hong Kong businessman and writer Lew Mon-hung, a former member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. In August, Lew published a piece titled “The Economy is the Problem, Its Root is Politics” in Singapore’s flagship Chinese-language paper, Lianhe Zaobao. Lew called for immediate political reform, including the “implementation of constitutional democracy, universal suffrage and elections,” a striking indictment of the Party’s rule. The essay, coming from a once ardently pro-China writer and published in an outlet widely perceived as sympathetic to the party, caused a stir in China. Comments praising it were censored on Weibo and Lianhe Zaobao, one of the few international Chinese-language newspapers accessible from mainland China, became a restricted term on Weibo. 

The Special Privileges of the Politically Connected 

Censored terms: Arctic Catfish, Miss Blood Bank

The special privileges of Party members and their kin is a recurring topic of controversy, anger, and censorship. Two major incidents in 2023 brought these feelings to the fore. 

The “Arctic Catfish” incident, named after the username of a young Chinese woman studying in Australia, touched on the corruption of the reform era. The young woman, the granddaughter of Shenzhen transport bureau official Zhong Gengci—who retired 16 years ago—posted to Weibo flaunting her family’s extravagant wealth and mocking those who questioned its provenance. Anger over her posts eventually led to an official investigation, which found that Zhong had engaged in corruption. However, the perceived leniency of his punishment (expulsion from the Party, a reduction in his pension, and confiscation of an unspecified amount of illicit gains) did little to quell public anger or dispel notions that Party officials are exempt from serious repercussions for their actions. 

The “Miss Blood Bank” incident also involved a wealthy woman’s social media boasts. In November, a Shanghai woman posted to Douyin about the extraordinary measures taken to save her life after a car accident in Tibet. She claimed that her husband’s “aunty” had used her connections to Shanghai’s powerful municipal health commission, a Party body, to mobilize all public employees of Ngari Prefecture to donate blood for her. Her post caused an immediate furor on social media: who was this powerful “aunty”? Were public employees truly compelled to donate blood? In other words, was this a case of flagrant abuse of public resources to service the private needs of a member of the “Zhao family”? This case, too, ended with a whimper rather than a bang after an unusual joint investigation by The Shanghai Observer and The Paper found no wrongdoing. Both papers are controlled by the Party-operated Shanghai Media Group; the former is the mouthpiece of the Municipal Party Committee, and the latter is the Chinese-language sibling of the English-language Sixth Tone. The report’s evident flaws—limited sourcing despite a large team of reporters, to name but one—only served to strengthen suspicions that “Miss Blood Bank” had been given special treatment due to her connections to the Party. Censors struck down a mass of non-approved commentary on the incident. 

Gymnasium Collapse Kills Middle Schoolers in Heilongjiang

Censored terms: 11 Die After Gymnasium Collapses at Qiqihar No. 34 Middle School, Sea of Flowers Left by Mourners in Front of Qiqihar No. 34 Middle School, We Should Not Remain Silent About the Qiqihar Accident, Mother of Qiqihar Victim Weeps in Public, Parents of Qiqihar Victims Enraged After Hospital Refuses To Let Them Identify Their Children’s Bodies

In July, ten young volleyball players and their coach were killed when the roof of the gymnasium at No. 34 Middle School in Qiqihar, Heilongjiang collapsed during practice. Their deaths sparked widespread anger over shoddy construction and, later, the censorship of mourning displays and the callous way in which the parents of the victims were treated. 

After the collapse, mourners left flowers and the deceased girls’ favorite snacks in front of the school gates. Photographs of the veritable sea of remembrances shared to Weibo were taken down by censors. Censors also targeted videos that appeared to show police pressuring parents to sign a pledge not to “cause trouble” before they were to be allowed to identify their childrens’ remains. The videos offered an unvarnished look at the way the Party-state treats accident victims and their kin as problems that must be “handled,” rather than as individuals expressing grief. 

At Least 29 Perish in Beijing Hospital Fire 

Censored terms: Changfeng Hospital, Fengtai Fire, Major Fire at Chengfeng Hospital, Patients Cling to Window AC Units To Escape Changfeng Hospital Fire

Around noon on April 18, a fire broke out in Beijing’s Changfeng Hospital. It was not until 8:40 that evening that the first report on the fire was published. For eight hours, there was a near-total news and social media blackout of information on what turned out to be the capital’s deadliest fire in two decades. 29 died in the fire, a number that came under suspicion because it came just under the threshold of 30 that would see the fire classified as a “particularly major fatality incident,” requiring more stringent handling and follow-up investigations. Journalists and editors focused their fear on the information blackout. One Beijing editor wrote to WeChat, “The most terrifying thing is not the death of 29 people, but eight hours of silence.” On Weibo, many echoed those sentiments: “Freedom of the press is a barometer of how civilized a society is.” Many of the criticisms of the news media’s handling of the fire were censored. 

Botched Response to Disastrous Floods in Hebei

Censored terms: Zhuozhou Flood, Supermarkets in Zhuozhou Are Currently Well-Stocked

Floods caused by Typhoon Doksuri ravaged northern China this past summer. Zhuozhou, a Hebei city near Beijing, was particularly afflicted. Dozens died in the floods, raising the specter that officials had failed to adequately prepare or worse: intentionally sacrificed Hebei. An article quoting Hebei’s Party Secretary suggesting that the province should be a “moat” for Beijing, implying that the lives of Hebei residents are worth less than those of Beijingers, was censored after causing a furor. During the flood, Zhuozhou’s Public Security Bureau posted a desperate cry for help to Weibo, only to delete it shortly afterwards. Hashtags related to the flood and resource crises were censored on Weibo. 

In a darkly ironic twist, China’s Ministry of Water Resources published a volume titled “In-Depth Study and Implementation of Xi Jinping’s Key Pronouncements on the Management of Water Resources,” just two weeks before the floods. The ministry also organized compulsory study sessions on the tome across central, provincial, and local water management departments. Netizens ruthlessly mocked Xi’s hubris in claiming to “point the way forward” on matters he has no expertise in. In November, Xi’s handling of the flood came in for renewed criticism after Xinhua published a fawning article on Xi’s concern for citizens affected by natural disasters that conversely served to highlight just how belatedly he has visited disaster zones. The focus of the piece was Xi’s visit to Zhuozhou, three months after the flood.  The top comment on a screenshot of the article that highlighted just how late Xi tended to visit read, “how timely!” 

Elderly Protest Health Insurance Reform in Wuhan

Censored terms: Wuhan Medical Insurance, Wuhan Zhongshan Park, Is It Possible To Replenish Depleted Personal Medical Insurance Accounts?, Wuhan Medical Insurance Reform, Major Reforms to Wuhan’s Medical Insurance

If 2022 was the year of the White Paper protests, then 2023 was the year of the “White Hair” protests. Elderly and retired workers led mass protests against medical insurance reforms proposed by cash-strapped municipal governments. The proposed reforms would have transferred contributions to retirees’ “personal health accounts” to a state-controlled outpatient insurance fund which the elderly feared would result in less coverage and high deductibles. Coverage of the protests was heavily censored online with Weibo issuing a blanket ban on all terms related to the Wuhan protests.


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