Many deleted images won’t come as a surprise, like image depicting state violence, cartoons of government leaders that appear belittling and aerial photos of protests. Still, these images are often more innocent than you would suspect. Literally all images of Chines political leaders have been banned. These pictures may only be posted on official websites. For other media content, they are more cautious, because private companies are responsible for enforcing state guidelines. After president Xi Jinping got rid of the term limit, the letter ‘n’ was banned. This is due to the fact that it referred to a mathematical symbol that was used to ridicule him.
Winnie the Pooh
The communis party in China is especially sensitive to political jokes, to put it nicely. When a picture of former U.S. President Barack Obama and Xi Jinping was compared to Winnie the Pooh and Tigger and went viral in 2013, the bear was banned from the internet in China. Charlie Smith is a co-founder of GreatFire.org and campaigns for freedom of information. According to him, the ban of Winne the Pooh might be the most famous example of censorship of cartoon characters, but certainly not the only one. For example, a 22-meter-high inflatable frog was banned after it was compared to former president Jiang Zemin. Furthermore, yellow rubber ducks have been banned because they were used in a reenactment of the Tank Man picture.
The censorship goes a step further. For example, images of burning candles are banned from the internet during yearly events like the anniversary of Tiananmen Square. The less literal references have disappeared as well, like images of playing cards with the text “8964”, because this could refer to June 4, 1986. Going one step further, images of empty chairs have been censored since the passing of Liu Xiabao in July 2017. This is because Liu was honored with an empty chair during the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in 2010. At the time, he could not attend because he could not leave the country.
Image editing plays an important role in the fight against censorship. Obscuring an image for censorship, while keeping it clear for internet users is the biggest challenge. The big advantage is the Chinese language. Many words share the same spelling, but the meaning is determined by the pronunciation. This allows room for plays on words. An example is the famous creating of “grass mud horse”. Despite the two meanings, it went viral uncensored. Still, not all puns can escape censorship. Two weeks before the anniversary of Tiananmen Square, a picture of the alcoholic beverage baiju led to an arrest, because it sounds like the numbers eight and nine. ‘Mi tu’ was quick to be censored as well, because of its similarity to ‘Me Too’. Instead of ‘mi tu’, ‘rice bunnies’ popped up all over the internet, because it has the same meaning.
Still, Smith is somewhat positive. Technological development means there is more and more room to circumvent censorship. Especially the rise of social media contributes to this, because they rely extensively on the use of images. Maybe Winnie the Pooh will return to the Chinese internet in a different form after all….
Source: Artsy | Image: Pexels Inna Lesyk, Youtube