Typos as a means for circumventing censorship

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Article in China Digital Times (CDT):

"List of Derogatory Nicknames for Xi Leaked Amid Crackdown on 'Typos'”, by Joseph Brouwer (7/20/22)

In all of my many years of following China's censorship saga, I have never seen the government so determined to expunge even the slightest expression of dissent or disapproval on the part of citizens.  The reason is fairly simple:  at the 20th Party Congress to be convened this fall, Chairman / President / General Secretary Xi Jinping is going to attempt something unprecedented in the history of the People's Republic of China (PRC) since the time of its founder, Mao Zedong:, viz., to make himself Paramount Leader for life (no term limits!).  Since not everybody — including members of other factions in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — is pleased with this proposed arrangement, tensions are running high, to put it mildly.

A crackdown on “typos” used to spread “illegal and harmful information,” and the censorship of an unpublished draft novel, have illustrated the further narrowing of online speech in China ahead of the upcoming 20th Party Congress expected this fall

Chinese netizens have long employed a rich range of homophones, variant characters, and “typos” to evade the grasp of the censors and automatic filtering for designated sensitive words. In mid-July, Weibo and Bilibili announced a crackdown on “typos” used to spread “illegal and harmful information.” CDT has archived and translated a plethora of such “typos” in our Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon. (“Grass-Mud Horse” is itself homophonous internet slang for “F*ck Your Mother.”) Despite attempts to quash it, the language used to evade censorship  is still developing, as a leaked trove of censorship documents from social media platform Xiaohongshu reveals. The site’s content moderators discovered 546 nicknames, or “typos,” for Xi Jinping over a two-month period. Xi’s name generally triggers automatic censorship of social media posts. Some machine translation apps have also recently begun refusing to render his name. Even innocent misprints of Xi’s name are no small matter—one in the West Strait Morning Post in 2013 resulted in an order from the Xiamen Municipal Propaganda Department demanding all papers containing the error be removed from shelves and those responsible “severely punished.” Deeply obscure nicknames for Xi are also censored: a recent example saw a group of students convinced they’d discovered a WeChat “bug” that was, in fact, automatic censorship triggered by an insult for Xi Jinping unknown to them. CDT has translated a portion of the Xiaohongshu list of nicknames for Xi, many of which play on long-established jokes that Xi resembles Winnie the Pooh, is a new-era emperor, or is accelerating China’s demise

The Driving-in-Reverse Emperor” (倒车帝): Xi’s critics have tagged him the accelerator-in-chief, an accusation that his attempt to drag China back into its totalitarian past is hastening the Communist Party’s demise. This name plays on the perception that China is going backwards. As put by one Shanghai resident during the city’s long lockdown: “We’ve put the car in reverse and we’re giving it gas.” 

Xissolini” (习索里尼): comparison to the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. 

Swim 1000 Meters a Day” (一天游泳一千米): A sarcastic comment on Xi’s swimming habits as described by state-media outlet Xinhua. Mao often used swimming as a political symbol to convey coming change. He famously swam the Yangtze right before formally launching the Cultural Revolution. 

Foreskin Xi” (习包皮): Likely a play on Steamed Bun Xi, a nickname bestowed after he made a trip to a humble Beijing restaurant in 2013. “Baopi” (包皮) has a variety of meanings including “foreskin,” as well as the “skin” around the filling of a steamed bun. Homophonous variants include “Wash the Foreskin” (洗包皮) , “Foreskin Show” (戏包皮), “Breathe in the Foreskin” (吸包皮),” “Delight in the Foreskin” (喜包皮), “Tie the Foreskin” (系包皮), “Cherish the Foreskin” (惜包皮), “Play with the Foreskin” (嬉包皮), “Raid the Foreskin” (袭包皮), “Know the Foreskin” (悉包皮), and “Giggle at the Foreskin” (嘻包皮).

Tsinghua Graduate” (清华毕业): A snide reference to Xi’s academic credentials, which are stellar but which some critics claim were unearned.  

The Devil Mao Incarnate” (毛魔转世): As with the Mussolini-inspired one above, this nickname imagines Xi as the reincarnation of one of the 20th century’s greatest dictators, in this case Mao Zedong. [Chinese]

Another unwelcome development in the China censorship wars is locking authors out of their word processing storage programs, even when they are being careful not to say anything critical about the CCP.

Earlier this month, the author of a serialized online novel [VHM:  a Ms. Gu, with the online handle "Mitu"] discovered that she had been locked out of her unpublished draft (stored in WPS, a widely-used word processing software program) because her manuscript allegedly violated China’s strict censorship guidelines. Outraged over the potential loss of a million-plus-word draft, she took to the internet to accuse Kingsoft, a producer of office software, of spying on her work. Her accusation rocketed to the top of Weibo’s trending list, as tens of thousands expressed shock over her situation and fears that even private writing is now under surveillance. At The Wall Street Journal, Wenxin Fan reported on the author’s discovery that her work had been “frozen,” and the plight of similar authors across China….

Ms. Gu's case has broad implications for the integrity of the Chinese internet, which is already in tatters and barely functional as it is.


Selected readings


[Thanks to Don Keyser]

1 Comment

  1. Peter Grubtal said,

    July 23, 2022 @ 1:33 am

    Ms. Gu's problems with her software has terrifying implications, in these times when scarcely anyone puts a pencil to paper anymore. It outdoes even what Orwell described in "1984" for totalitarian control.

    If I may be allowed a plug (albeit non-commercial) for FOSS: the use of Linux based systems and open-source programs one's PC should make it impervious to this sort of intrusion.
    With hand-held devices, it must be admitted, FOSS has not achieved much penetration, but there's scope there for development.

    The role of MS, google & Co. in this ought to be examined, and if they are abetting this sort of thing, they ought to suffer consequences in the West.

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