We all know that China has the world’s largest online population, and its government is among the most intrusive when it comes to censorship.
But what we may not is that on China’s domestic sites, posts about sensitive issues — Tibet, ousted officials, and occasional village rebellions — are often deleted quickly, and searches for similar terms are usually blocked. So how do people get around them?
The most interesting of all is the case of “Teletubbies vs. Master Kong”. This is not a new cartoon and surely not meant for kids, either. That is the argot for what might be happening or have happened in a rumored “coup” in Beijing.
Almost overnight, everybody on Sina Weibo becomes part of a “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” reality show – they look for traces of truth in every rumor, and in their hands lies a secret code book.
“According to unreliable resource, the 18th tug war has a winner. The winner is the team of dragon led by carrot and his team mates Teletubby, Subor study machine and wood son Li. The team led by Master Kong beef instant noodle was defeated because they lost tomato and it was a great loss.”
Total nonsense? Not if you know the ciphers.
Carrot: 胡萝卜(hu luo bo), a vegetable = 胡锦涛 (hu jin tao), President of China
Teletubby: 天线宝宝 (tian xian bao bao), popular cartoon character = 温家宝 (wen jia bao), Prime Minister of China
Subor study machine: 小霸王学习机 (xiao ba wang xue xi ji), famous brand of children electronics = 习近平 (xi jin ping), one of China’s 9-member Politburo and who has been speculated as China’s next President
Wood son Li: 木子李 (mu zi li) = 李克强 (li ke qiang), one of China’s 9-member Politburo and who has been rumored to be China’s next Prime Minister
Master Kong: 康师傅 (kang shi fu), famous instant noodle brand = 周永康 (zhou yong kang), one of China’s 9-member Politburo and who has been rumored to be a supporter of Bo Xilai
Tomato: 西红柿 (xi hong shi), a vegetable = 薄熙来 (bo xi lai), fallen political star that has been the center of recent political dramas in China
Outrageous? Yes. Inventive? Yes. Necessary? Yes.
This one is a bit less silly: Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous artist and government dissident, who was jailed for several months last year and remains under close watch at his house in Beijing, has long been a human rights icon for Chinese people. But he’s scarcely mentioned online due to censors and rules, and so netizens have slightly altered the three Chinese characters in his name to give the sounds new meaning.
Definition: “‘Love the future’ is a coded reference to Chinese artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei (艾未未) that began to be used after Ai’s disappearance in early 2011. Ai’s surname sounds the same as the word ‘love’ in Chinese, and his given name ‘Weiwei’ can be converted into the word “future” by adding two small strokes to the second character.”
For more on this weird but not inaccessible phenomenon, see the China Digital Times’ lexicon of Chinese terms used online.