The letter * has bee* ba**ed in Chi*a

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Since the announcement by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) yesterday that the President of China would no longer be limited to two five-year terms in office, as had been the case since the days when Chairman Mao ruled, there has been much turmoil and trepidation among China watchers and Chinese citizens.  Essentially, it means that Xi Jinping has become dictator for life, which is not what people had been hoping for since Richard Nixon went to China 46 years and 5 days ago.  What everyone had expected was that China would "reform and open up" (gǎigé kāifàng 改革開放), which became an official policy as of December, 1978.  Instead, all indications from the first five years of Xi's regime and the newly announced policy changes regarding Xi Jinping thought and governance are that China has jumped right back to the 1950s in terms of policies and procedures.

Naturally, many people are deeply dismayed by this unwelcome turn of events.  Indeed, for as long as I've been studying China and observing Chinese affairs, I've never witnessed so much opposition to the CCP as what I've been seeing and hearing during the last couple of days — except for the months leading up to the Tiananmen Massacre of June 4, 1989.

The difference between 2018 and 1989, however, is that now people have the internet through which to express their discontent.  Although the internet in China is heavily censored and blocked, determined and clever netizens can always come up with ingenious ways to criticize the government and its representatives.  Readers of Language Log are thoroughly familiar with the elaborate use of puns, satire, irony, and indirection to deplore and denounce the actions of the authorities, since we have so often documented them here.

No sooner had the CCP made public its intention to eliminate the two-term limit on the presidency than the internet was flooded with complaints against it.  Naturally, the censors took quick, drastic action against direct disapproval and overt references, so they immediately blocked all such posts on social media.  Equally naturally, the netizens were prepared for the heavy handed deletions of the internet police and immediately shifted gears to more subtle, but even more effective, means to counter the government's proposed changes.

For example, since the Roman alphabet is part of the Chinese writing system*, it's only fair for letters to be subject to censorship the way Sinographs are.  Comments like this Twitter thread show the letter N being censored on Weibo (a microblogging website that is one of the most popular social media platforms in China).  This is probably out of fear on the part of the government that "N" = "n terms in office", where possibly n > 2; as in "liánrèn n jiè 连任n届" ("n successive terms in office"), which would be forbidden anyway because of the liánrèn 连任 ("continue in office") part.


Mark Hansell "The Sino-Alphabet: The Assimilation of Roman Letters into the Chinese Writing System," Sino-Platonic Papers, 45 (May, 1994), 1-28

"Zhao C: a Man Who Lost His Name" (2/27/09)

Another interesting case of an expression that was swiftly blocked yesterday is dēngjī 登机 ("board a plane") because it is perfectly homophonous with dēngjī 登基 ("ascend the throne"). This ties in with the words for "migration", "emigration", and "immigration", since everybody seems to be talking about getting out of China as fast as possible, which would surely lead to mass panic, so the censors have blocked these words in an effort to squelch talk of fleeing the People's Republic.

"Winnie the Pooh" is blocked because netizens use this appellation for Xi Jinping inasmuch as he is often compared to that adorable, pudgy bruin (see here and here). Nor is it permissible to talk about bāozi 包子 ("steamed, stuffed buns"), since Xi is also often associated with them (see also here).  Until the censors catch on, the netizens might refer to their President / Secretary General / Chairman / Core Leader as Xisar or Second Emperor of Qina.

This is certain to be a ba**er year for ba**i*g communications on the internet in China.

[Thanks to Jichang Lulu]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    February 26, 2018 @ 9:50 pm

    "China removes online criticism of plan to extend Xi's rule"

    Fox News – February 26, 2018

    BEIJING – Chinese censors are acting quickly to remove satirical comments about the ruling Communist Party's move to enable President Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely, while political observers are examining the possibility that China will return to an era of one-man rule….

  2. maidhc said,

    February 27, 2018 @ 3:48 am

    So are restaurants now forbidden to serve bāozi, or do they have to use a different name for them?

  3. cliff arroyo said,

    February 27, 2018 @ 3:56 am

    Some years ago I heard a presentation on proscribed language in the Chinese internet and the ingenious ways Chinese people try to get around it and the not so elegant ways it gets squashed.

    Is internet censorship a jobs creation program? It must take a lot of people (ever more) to micromanage so much content.

    "not what people had been hoping for …. What everyone had expected was that China would "reform and open up""

    What possible precedent could they have been relying on?

  4. richardelguru said,

    February 27, 2018 @ 7:11 am

    Wishful thinking???

  5. Rodger C said,

    February 27, 2018 @ 7:54 am

    So are restaurants now forbidden to serve bāozi, or do they have to use a different name for them?

    Freedom buns.

  6. Yuval said,

    February 27, 2018 @ 9:39 am

    Has bee* ba**ed where?

  7. Victor Mair said,

    February 27, 2018 @ 10:55 am

    In Chi*a.

    [Fixed in title now. Feb 27, 2018 @ 3:50 p.m.]

  8. Jonathan said,

    February 27, 2018 @ 11:15 am

    Freedom Bu*s, more likely.

  9. Louis Xun said,

    February 27, 2018 @ 12:20 pm

    Readers may be interested to know that Language Log, including this post on banned words, is freely accessible on the internet in China. In fact, I am reading it from there now. The same, despite the myth of almost complete internet censorship, is true of most western media, including the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Financial Times, and NPR, all of which have reported critically on the elimination of Chinese presidential term limits.

  10. GALESL said,

    February 27, 2018 @ 2:40 pm

    Does one 登 the Freedom Bu*s?

  11. Victor Mair said,

    February 27, 2018 @ 3:51 pm

    "'I disagree’ banned from China internet as fears grow of looming Xi dictatorship"


    Financial Times 2/26/18

    China’s censors have gone into overdrive to silence displeasure over the Communist party’s plans to scrap the presidential two-term limit, even blocking the phrase “I disagree” on social media.

    China’s system of online curbs — operated through government departments as well as internet companies’ self-censorship — blocked dozens of new terms on social media to silence criticism of a proposal that many fear will allow President Xi Jinping to effectively become a dictator for life.

    On Monday, phrases including “I disagree”, “migration” and “boarding a plane” were blocked from posts by regular users of Weibo, China’s top microblogging site, yielding the error: “Sorry, the content violates the relevant laws and regulations or Weibo’s terms of service.”

    The phrase “boarding a plane” is a homophone for “ascending the throne” in Chinese.

    Other terms censored on Weibo include “life-long rule”, “long live the emperor” and the title of George Orwell’s dystopian novel Animal Farm.

    “Censored terms are the best evidence for what people are talking a lot about,” said Xiao Qiang, founder of censorship-watching organisation China Digital Times, which is based in California.

    “The banned keywords are precisely expressions that are ringing true, as public concerns rise over Xi Jinping's authoritarian tendencies putting China back politically at least 30 years,” Mr Xiao added.

    China’s search engine giant Baidu, which pushes news notifications to smartphone users, was also affected. An employee of Baidu’s news unit who wished to remain anonymous said it, along with at least 13 other internet news companies, had received edicts from authorities to prioritise articles supportive of the proposed constitutional change. Such articles had to be placed in the top slot of the landing page of the news apps.

    Winnie the Pooh, a cartoon character who has attracted comparisons with Xi Jinping, has been depicted online hugging a pot of honey with the caption: 'Find the thing you love and stick with it'

    Chinese netizens shared more oblique memes to sidestep censors, such as a cartoon featuring Winnie the Pooh — the rotund bear who has drawn comparisons with Mr Xi — hugging a pot of honey with the caption: “Find the thing you love and stick with it.”

    Condom manufacturer Durex issued two statements on its official Weibo account asking readers to “clearly distinguish between what was real and fake” after netizens shared its old advert sporting the slogan: “Doing it twice is not enough”.

    Some Chinese netizens tried to vote with their feet. Web searches for “migration” rose four hours after the term limit proposals were announced. The Baidu Index score for the term, which measures the popularity of searches on the search engine, shot up from 30 to more than 4,200. Searches for the term on Baidu Index were blocked on Monday.

    Other people drew historical parallels. Some referred to Yuan Shikai, a general who amended the constitution to make himself “emperor for life” during the early days of the Chinese republic. Others spoke of Zhang Xun, a contemporary of Yuan who tried to restore the Qing emperor.

    Both those names were banned from Weibo, as well as from Weibo searches and Baidu Index searches, as of Monday morning.

    “Internet censorship will aim to manage the narrative that this is reform and not a fall back to one-man rule,” said Michael Davis, senior fellow at the Centre for Comparative and Public Law at Hong Kong University.

    “Many Chinese people, with some collective memory of what one-man rule was like under Mao [Zedong], might justifiably be sceptical,” he added.

    Additional reporting by Emily Feng and Hudson Lockett

    See also:

    "On China’s Weibo, It’s Forbidden to Disagree With President Xi Jinping’s Plan to Rule Forever

    By Christina Zhao Newsweek On 2/27/18 at 9:41 AM

    "Why China banned a ton of words: It’s all about President Xi Jinping’s power grab."

    By Ricky Zipp Vox Feb 27, 2018, 1:10pm EST

  12. Victor Mair said,

    February 27, 2018 @ 6:56 pm


    From someone who has been living in China for many years and is extremely savvy about the internet there:

    "Am optimistic on the future (impossibility) of information censorship in China. Blockchain tech will make it impossible."

    VHM: I had never heard of blockchain before and still don't understand how it works and how it will make it impossible for the CCP to censor information flow, but I'm intensely interested. Here's the beginning of the Wikipedia article on the subject:


    A blockchain,[1][2][3] originally block chain,[4][5] is a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography.[1][6] Each block typically contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block,[6] a timestamp and transaction data.[7] By design, a blockchain is inherently resistant to modification of the data. It is "an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way".[8] For use as a distributed ledger, a blockchain is typically managed by a peer-to-peer network collectively adhering to a protocol for validating new blocks. Once recorded, the data in any given block cannot be altered retroactively without the alteration of all subsequent blocks, which requires collusion of the network majority.

    Blockchains are secure by design and exemplify a distributed computing system with high Byzantine fault tolerance. Decentralized consensus has therefore been achieved with a blockchain.[9] This makes blockchains potentially suitable for the recording of events, medical records,[10][11] and other records management activities, such as identity management,[12][13][14] transaction processing, documenting provenance, food traceability[15] or voting.[16]

    Blockchain was invented by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008 for use in the cryptocurrency bitcoin, as its public transaction ledger.[1] The invention of the blockchain for bitcoin made it the first digital currency to solve the double spending problem without the need of a trusted authority or central server. The bitcoin design has been the inspiration for other applications.[1][3]


    In any event, blockchain as a means for opening up the internet in China is something for the future. It is not currently operational for general flow of information purposes. Meanwhile, the internet in China remains heavily censored, making it difficult and dangerous for citizens to exchange information on matters of great importance to them.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    February 27, 2018 @ 8:09 pm

    No one has said that there is "almost complete internet censorship" in the PRC. But the censorship in place is sufficiently drastic and the internet speeds are so agonizingly slow that they make it impossible for me to function there as the kind of researcher and writer that I want to be.

    More important than what IS accessible in the PRC is what's NOT accessible, and I think we are well aware of what essential research tools are missing in China.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    February 27, 2018 @ 8:11 pm

    From a colleague who has been living in China for decades and who is deeply familiar with the workings of the internet there:

    What's NOT accessible in China is any platform, website or tool that enables users to freely form Internet special interest groups, clubs, coalitions or cyber-clusters of like-minded individuals, on a global boundary-free basis. As long as the server for this kind of platform is outside the PRC, they usually ban it. They are less concerned about raw information per se (and it's impossible to police it all, as attested by Louis Xun) than they are about groups organizing and distributing information inside and outside the Great Firewall. There are many books and articles that describe this dynamic, I'll send some along.

  15. Sven said,

    February 28, 2018 @ 1:04 am

    The Guardian has coverage that appears to be mainly based on this posting.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    February 28, 2018 @ 11:28 am



    BY VICTOR H. MAIR ON 2/28/18 AT 11:22 AM

  17. James Unger said,

    February 28, 2018 @ 2:13 pm

    Yes, Sven, I was just going to mention the Guardian article. Congratulations, Victor! Do you think they will let you back in for archaeology? If so, will they let you out later?

  18. Andrew D. said,

    February 28, 2018 @ 3:31 pm

    "since everybody seems to be talking about getting out of China as fast as possible, which would surely lead to mass panic, so the censors have blocked these words in an effort to squelch talk of fleeing the People's Republic."

    This seems like a totally balanced and reasonable take.

  19. Edward J Cunningham said,

    February 28, 2018 @ 8:09 pm

    This may be overly-optimistic on my part, but I think a better comparison for netizens to make of Xi Jinping would not be the Second Emperor of Qina, but Charles X, the last King of France.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    February 28, 2018 @ 10:20 pm

    "China’s Censors Ban Winnie the Pooh and the Letter ‘N’ After Xi’s Power Grab"


    By JAVIER C. HERNÁNDEZ FEB. 28, 2018

  21. liuyao said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 2:17 pm

    Now that the New York Times has quoted the ban on N, I had to see it. Was it only temporary or on certain sites? There doesn't seem to be any problem on weibo.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 2:34 pm

    The evidence for banning "n" is in the o.p.

    Bans like this come and go (and come) quickly. If netizens start to complain about "N terms" of the presidency, it'll get banned again — fast.

  23. liuyao said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 4:17 pm

    I'm not trying to defend them, but in this case it could have been a general ban on this person's account, for having entered multiple banned words. It's ok to speculate it on twitter, and to report it here; but to get picked up by New York Times (and as of now, still in the headline of the front page of is a little serious. I hope they did fact-check it.

  24. Eidolon said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 7:08 pm

    Whether it is a general ban or not, Chinese censors have figured out that the best way to diffuse public anger over new developments is to control the timing and reach of criticism, rather than to ban discussion permanently. As long as the population can't get worked up about it enough to organize a mass protest, it doesn't matter, and with attention spans being limited, this strategy often works as people move onto the next news topic.

    That said, this isn't like most transient matters, like a case of incompetent disaster relief, diplomatic blunder, or crack down on activist groups. The influence of this constitutional change will be felt by all Chinese, through all the years of Xi's rule, and beyond. Thus, this topic will come back again and again, and you can be sure that the censors will have to come up with a long term strategy for how to deal with it.

  25. Jichang Lulu said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 8:17 pm

    The tweets about n being getting blocked on Weibo are by Sandra F Severdia, senior Chinese editor at China Digital Times. CDT keeps track of blocked items and posts the results as lists (which I think have been referenced on LL). Here's their ever-expanding Sensitive Word Database (敏感词库). The tweet thread linked in the OP leads to this one that has a list of blocked words that day, apparently as they were being found.

    Blocking is known to depend on the user and the time; I don't know how they control for the possibility of the experimenter being fully blocked, but I'd assume they do. They have been doing this for quite some time. As for 'N', I think all was claimed is that it was blocked for the person who tried on Feb 25, not that it was a general block for all users. But you can find at least another report on that day, by a Douban user in Chengdu (see the comments as well). So assuming no one is making stuff up, there seem to be at least two sources of evidence of censored n on Feb 25.

    This CDT post in English says it was no longer banned on Feb 26. This spreadsheet includes two tests for each of several recent sensitive words, showing blocking eased off between the 26th and 28th.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 10:19 pm

    When it comes to banning and blocking on the Chinese internet, CDT are the experts. They've been in the business for a long time, and they are very professional and conscientious in the way they go about it.

    One of my former students, Anne Henochowicz, worked at CDT as one of their top translators and editors for years, so I learned quite a bit about their operations from her.

    CDT's work is highly systematic and greatly respected. We've often quoted it on Language Log, e.g., here:

    "Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon Classics" (8/30/13)

    Sandra Severdia (recently changed her surname from Fu) is a senior editor at CDT, so she has a great deal of experience in checking for false positives. When she entered "N" at 02-25 06:28 just before entering yímín 移民 ("immigration") — which everyone agrees was widely blocked after the announcement of the abolition of term limits for the presidency (see the comment by Andrew D. above; the government was really worried that panic would set in as countless people started to talk about getting out of China as quickly as possible — I personally heard this from many people in China) — in a series of other sensitive terms, it is evident that she was systematically entering terms that had been reported blocked and was checking to see if they were still blocked at that particular moment.

    As I and many others have noted, the censors selectively block and unblock and then block again terms that they deem to be adversarial to the Party. What they aim to do is to prevent the spread of a movement. The CCP is terrified of the formation of groups united around ideas in opposition to policies of the government (e.g., in this case, unlimited terms for Xi Jinping, about which I have heard endless complaints and denunciations from Chinese acquaintances).

    David Moser puts it this way:


    What's NOT accessible in China is any platform, website or tool that enables users to freely form Internet special interest groups, clubs, coalitions or cyber-clusters of like-minded individuals, on a global boundary-free basis. As long as the server for this kind of platform is outside the PRC, they usually ban it. They are less concerned about raw information per se (and it's impossible to police it all, as attested by Louis Xun [see above]) than they are about groups organizing and distributing information inside and outside the Great Firewall. There are many books and articles that describe this dynamic,


    It wasn't just Severdia who reported that "N" was banned. "N was also reported banned from China fifteen hours later on that day at 02-25 21:57:

  27. liuyao said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 11:21 pm

    Thanks for the clarification on the twitter user's identity, as well as multiple independent confirmations on douban. (It's interesting that no one there seems to have any clue why N was banned.)

  28. Victor Mair said,

    March 2, 2018 @ 12:57 am

    From one of my students:

    I was scrolling through 9GAG and found a post with you in it…..take a look. Apparently you made a comment about censoring the N letter in China and now it’s viral-ish on the internet:

    9GAG is an entertainment site for millennials, it’s kind of a big deal among people I went to school with. I’m sure you are the first Sinologist to enter mainstream millennial internet culture. Congrats!

    VHM: Before this I had never heard of 9GAG.

  29. Andrew D. said,

    March 2, 2018 @ 8:02 am

    I find this post hilarious given Mair's tendency of deleting any comment even mildly critical of his stance on China. I completely expect this one to be deleted in short order.

  30. Victor Mair said,

    March 2, 2018 @ 8:46 am

    @Andrew D.

    I don't know what you're talking about. In my decade and more of writing for Language Log, I've deleted only a small handful of comments that were obscene or patently trollish (like yours, and I'm not even going to delete it). There are still hundreds, if not thousands, of comments critical of my views on Chinese language issues up in the comments on Language Log posts. If someone is deleting comments you've written for Language Log, it must be others at LL headquarters who are doing it.

    Another problem is that, even for those who support my views, their comments sometimes get swallowed up by the scam blocking apparatus of WordPress.

  31. Jichang Lulu said,

    March 2, 2018 @ 3:36 pm

    The Gray Lady, The Garudian, Newsweek, 9GAG, CNN (who unfortunately call the inequality n > 2 an "equation"), and now Riga-based Russian media Meduza.

    Самым странным примером цензуры можно считать блокировку латинской буквы N — некоторое время ее нельзя было запостить в Weibo. В китайском языке латинская N может использоваться для обозначения числа — по аналогии со словом «энный» в русском. Виктор Майр из Пенсильванского университета предположил, что букву заблокировали, чтобы ее нельзя было вписать в конструкции вроде «занимает должность N сроков подряд».

    Off-the-cuff translation, with all due apologies:

    "What can be seen as the strangest example of censorship is the blocking of the Latin letter 'N': for some time, it was impossible to post it on Weibo. In Chinese, a Latin 'N' can be used to designate a number, analogously to Russian word энный (nth). Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania hypothesised that the letter was blocked so that it couldn't be used in such constructions as 'stay in office for N terms in a row'."

    (Based on my experience, n is just as common a choice for an integer variable in China as in Russia and the English-speaking world.)

    Not saying it's incorrect, but Виктор Майр Viktor Majr is an unusual transcription; I think Victor is generally known as Виктор Мэйр Viktor Mèjr in Russian.

    I can confirm that comments often fail to make it through the WordPress filter. It has happened to me and to other commenters as well.

  32. Allen Thrasher said,

    March 3, 2018 @ 5:17 pm

    At the end of the initial post of this thread, Victor said that the Chinese might could call Xi their Xisar or Second Emperor of China. Should Xisar be pronounced in English like classical Latin Caesar as in Julius and Augustus?

  33. Victor Mair said,

    March 3, 2018 @ 9:40 pm

    "The Nones of March"


    On Xi as Dict[ator] perpetuo (‘dictator in perpetuity’).

  34. James Wimberley said,

    March 5, 2018 @ 6:49 am

    But the reeducation camps in Xi's Beautiful China will be enclosed not by barbed wire but fast-growing rose hedges.

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