Language is changing at a torrid pace in China, and it's not just a massive infusion of English words that is to blame. Nor can we simply ascribe the dramatic changes in language usage to rampant, wild punning for the purpose of confusing the ubiquitous censors.
Creative manipulation of lexical and grammatical constructions is another way to express ideas that are not permitted under the harsh social controls imposed by the government. This is evident from the fact that the "character of the year" in China for 2009 is bèi 被.
What is so great and powerful about this unprepossessing character bèi 被? As a noun bèi can mean "quilt" or "cover." As a jiècí 介詞 ("preposition"), bèi is used in a passive sentence to introduce the doer of the action: tā bèi quántǐ dǎngyuán píngxǔan wéi zhǔxí 他被全體黨員評選為主席 ("He was elected by all of the party members as chairman.") Before verbs, bèi is used to indicate passive voice: bèi yāpò 被壓迫 ("be oppressed").
Lately, it has become fashionable to use the passive voice with verbs that don't normally allow it and in situations that seem ludicrous. One of the most celebrated examples is bèi zìshā 被自殺 ("be suicided"), with the implication that someone was beaten to death, but the authorities made it look as though he had committed suicide. Once coined, bèi zìshā spread like wildfire, so that it wasn't long before it merited its own entry in online dictionaries and encyclopedias.
This novel application of the adversative passive is quite versatile. Here are some other common, but telling, examples (English translations only):
1. employmented: turned into a false employment statistic
2. represented: misrepresented without consent
3. invited to tea: questioned by police, usually on political matters
4. high-speed railroaded: forced to buy expensive high-speed rail tickets because ordinary train tickets are not available
5. harmonized: censored (this must be particularly galling to the party elders, since héxié 和諧 ["harmoniousness"], with all of its clarion Confucian resonances, is President-Chairman-General Secretary Hu Jintao's pet platitude)
6. volunteered: forced to volunteer
The adversative passive is a prominent areal feature of Southeast Asian languages, but I wonder whether it has been used anywhere else in the world in such a systematic manner to express resistance against government policies as it has come to be in present-day China.
In closing, it is worth noting that the English word of the year for 2009 is "unfriend." Like the ironic adversative passive in Chinese, it was generated by powerful Internet forces, just as were the other runners-up for English word of the year: "netbook" and "sexting."
Unfortunately, Chinese netizens cannot experience the thrill of "unfriending" someone, since Facebook and other similar social networking services are blocked in the PRC. Still, with Google moving to a freer Hong Kong, and with the abundant linguistic capabilities of Chinese netizens themselves, we can be sure that there will be new ways to circumvent the Great Chinese Firewall, which, after all, is only a paper tiger.
A tip of the hat to Richard Cook.