[lg policy] Watch Your Language! (In China, They Really Do)

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Mar 14 14:49:20 UTC 2012

Watch Your Language! (In China, They Really Do)
| March 13, 2012, 1:43 am

HONG KONG -- Scaling the wall. Buying soy sauce. Fifty cents. A mild
collision. May 35. Mayor Lymph. River crab.

These words -- mild, silly, inoffensive -- are part of the subversive
lexicon being used by Chinese bloggers to ridicule the government,
poke fun at Communist Party leaders and circumvent the heavily
censored Internet in China. A popular blog that tracks online
political vocabulary, China Digital Times, calls them part of the
"resistance discourse" on the mainland.

Internet usage in China, of course, is massive. A single microblogging
site, Sina Weibo, has more than 300 million users. Nationwide there
are some 460 million users of the Internet, and more than 300 million
Chinese can access it on their cellphones. No need to mention the
numbers on Twitter and Facebook: They're blocked by the Chinese

Internet traffic is examined with a thoroughness and ruthlessness that
is almost admirable in its scope. The term "Great Firewall" is
appropriate and descriptive -- and also banned by the censors. The
government prefers its own name for its Internet surveillance program
-- the Golden Shield Project. The system ferrets out pornography and
commercial scams, but it also blocks certain search terms. Its
algorithms sniff out words or names it considers politically odorous.
It sometimes deletes offending messages altogether.

More than 16 percent of all messages in China get deleted, according
to a study by the Language Technologies Institute at Carnegie Mellon
University in Pittsburgh. The survey, published in the online journal
First Monday, analyzed 70 million messages sent last summer, mostly on
Sina Weibo. "Weibo users -- whose numbers recently surpassed 300
million -- realize the days of unfettered, anonymous criticism may be
drawing to a close," writes Andrew Jacobs, a colleague in the Beijing
bureau of The New York Times. "Beginning on March 16, new government
regulations will require real-name registration."

In short, no more anonymity. "Another rule will require Sina Weibo to
review the posts of those who have more than 100,000 followers," Mr.
Jacobs says. "Those 'harmful' to national interests, according to the
rules, must be summarily deleted within five minutes." The Carnegie
Mellon team found "295 terms with a high probability of being
censored." China Digital Space has compiled its own impressive
dictionary of political slang and terminology, along with etymologies
and back stories.

So good luck searching for terms like Tibet, immolation, the Dalai
Lama, Falun Gong, democracy movement, Sheng Xue (dissident writer), Ai
Weiwei (outspoken artist), Liu Xiaobo (imprisoned Nobel laureate),
June 4 (date of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989), and Playboy
(the magazine).

>>From time to time over the past year, the words jasmine, Egypt, Jon
Huntsman (the former American ambassador) and Occupy Beijing also have
been banned.

And after the Fukushima nuclear disaster last March, online searches
for the term "iodized salt'' were blocked, presumably to quash the
rumor racing across China that eating large quantities of salt would
prevent radiation poisoning.

Two of the most pointed online jabs are "grass-mud horse" and "river crab."

Another colleague in Beijing, Michael Wines, has explicated the origin
of grass-mud horse, describing the horse as "a mythical creature whose
name, in Chinese, sounds very much like an especially vile obscenity."

(Interested readers can scale our own well-mannered firewall and find
a fuller description of the terminology here.)

"Conceived as an impish protest against censorship," Mr. Wines writes,
"the foul-named little horse has not merely made government censors
look ridiculous, although it has surely done that. It has also raised
real questions about China's ability to stanch the flow of information
over the Internet -- a project on which the Chinese government already
has expended untold riches, and written countless software algorithms
to weed deviant thought from the world's largest cyber-community.''

A subtitled video of the gamboling horse (草泥马) is here -- they're
actually alpacas -- and Ai Weiwei singing the equine anthem in Chinese
is here.

Perry Link, the author of "Liu Xiaobo's Empty Chair," described the
use of code words and Aesopian allegory by Mr. Liu and other popular
bloggers like Han Han: "Harmony, for example, is a key word used in
the government's rhetoric, and Internet writers use hexie, or river
crab, which is a near-homonym (河蟹 ) of the Chinese word for harmony,
to mean repression.''

To be harmonized, these days, is to be censored.

"Officials are aware, of course, of its barbed meaning on the
Internet," said the Chinese writer Yu Ha in an essay in the IHT
Magazine, "but they can hardly ban it, because to do so would outlaw
the 'harmonious society' they are plugging. Harmony has been hijacked
by the public."

A handful of the underground terms we mentioned earlier, with
characters from China Digital Times:

* Getting soy sauce. "A humorous way for netizens to distance
themselves from a sensitive or political topic." The etymology derives
from an on-the-street TV interview about a celebrity scandal. A man
interviewed at random, according to China Digital Times, issues a
profanity and says he has no connection to the matter, proclaiming, "I
was just out buying some soy sauce." (打酱油)

* Scale the wall. Bo Xilai, the powerful head of the Communist Party
in the megacity of Chongqing, has been entangled in a mysterious
political scandal in recent weeks. So his temporary absence from a
session of the National People's Congress last week sent rumors flying
online. Many bloggers reported that they were gathering information
"over the wall" or were "scaling the wall'' -- that is, going beyond
the Internet firewall, using a tunnel or proxy. At one point, there
were mentions of big doings (出大事了) in "the tomato," (西红市), which in
Mandarin sounds like "western red city," a new online euphemism for
Chongqing. To scale the wall: 翻墙.

* Mayor Lymph. China Digital Times calls this "a code word for its
near homophone, Charter 08," the democracy manifesto that enraged the
government and turned up its paranoia dial to 11. Mr. Liu, the
principal author of Charter 08, remains in prison. (淋巴县长)

* Mild collision. A subway crash in Shanghai last fall injured
hundreds of passengers, and the accident occurred shortly after a
high-speed rail crash that killed dozens and injured nearly 200. The
rail incident outraged many Chinese, and the authorities were on alert
for mass protests.

"The evening after the accident, CCTV, Xinhua and a Shanghai
television station all reported that 'a mild collision' occurred on
Shanghai's Metro Line 10,' '' according to China Digital Times. "The
claim that this was a mild accident elicited the derision of netizens
who felt that the reporting was more intended to dampen fears about
China's train system than report what actually occurred. The phrase
'mild collision' instantly became an Internet buzzword.'' (轻度追尾)

* Fifty cents. "Netizens first coined the term 'Fifty Cent Party' to
refer to undercover Internet commentators who were paid by the
government to sway public opinion'' by posting pro-Beijing statements,
reputedly for 50 cents a shot, according to China Digital Times. (五毛党)

"Now, however, the term is used to describe anyone who actively and
publicly posts opinions online that defend or support government
policy. As such, the so-called Fifty Cent Party has become the object
of much scorn for many netizens.''

* May 35. In other words, June 4. Also on the censors' blacklist are
any consecutive combinations of the numbers 6, 4 and 89. (五月三十五日)


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