As criticism against President Xi Jinping’s power grab has surfaced on Chinese social media, censors have been busy removing content from the web to maintain an illusion of mass support for the Chinese leader and his ruling Communist Party.
Victims of the purge range from the somewhat expected (George Orwell books and the word “disagree”) to the more bewildering (the letter “N” was one that even took China experts by surprise).
The Chinese government on Sunday announced plans to scrap a constitutional clause limiting presidential service to two terms, which would pave the way for Xi to rule the country indefinitely. Many Western observers condemned the move, as did many people in the country. The Chinese internet “was flooded with complaints” soon after the announcement, wrote Victor Mair, a University of Pennsylvania professor and Sinologist.
Mair said censors “took quick, drastic action” to silence critics.
China Digital Times published a list of terms and phrases that have been censored on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform, since Sunday. The list includes phrases such as “incapable ruler” and “I oppose,” as well as words including “shameless,” “disagree” and “emperor.”
It also includes the names of Orwell classics Animal Farm and 1984; the term “Xi Zedong,” a portmanteau of Xi’s name and Mao Zedong’s; and Winnie the Pooh, a cartoon that critics have used to mock Xi.
The English letter “N” was also briefly censored, but the Digital Times said it was no longer blocked as of Monday.
It’s not entirely clear why the letter was singled out, but Mair suggested that censors may have been targeting a mathematical expression of disapproval. Critics may have used the term “N > 2,” he explained, with N (a signifier for an unknown quantity) referring to Xi’s possible terms in office.
The sheer scope of this week’s censorship effort suggests Xi was surprised by the pushback to the government’s decision, according to a co-founder of GreatFire.org, a group that helps internet users circumvent Chinese censorship. The co-founder goes by the pseudonym Charlie Smith.
“The response from Chinese netizens indicates that Xi may have miscalculated how this would be received by the general public,” he told The Guardian. “Hence, he has asked the censors to put in overtime and things like the letter ‘N’ end up as collateral damage.”
Smith also said the online crackdown may intensify if protests continue.
“If the momentum continues to build and netizens continue to look for other ways to express their displeasure with Xi, we could reach a critical point where the authorities might have to consider ‘turning off’ the internet, however they might do that,” Smith said.