A win for netizens and red faces for the censors

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 March, 2009, 12:00am

What started off as an apparently harmless column discussing the historical origin of a trendy phrase turned into a huge embarrassment for censors last week, when it drew public attention to the phrase's politically incorrect meaning and permitted a rare win for mainland netizens.

Two weeks ago, Jiefang Daily, a newspaper owned and run by the Shanghai Municipal Communist Party Committee, published a question-and-answer article, explaining the meaning of wocao - literally 'lying in a stable' - in the context of the financial downturn.

Wocao originally came from a checkmate move in Chinese chess involving the horse piece and has also been used in recent years as the antonym for the term tiaocao - jumping from one stable to another. Both terms refer to decisions by employees to switch jobs or stay put, depending on the market situation.

But wocao has taken on an added layer of meaning since the central government launched its latest internet cleanup campaign in which a handful of liberal blogs and discussion groups were among the thousands closed down for carrying 'vulgar' content.

Put in front of the term nima (mud horse), the phrase 'mud horse lying in a stable' resembles a crude phrase in Putonghua, as does caonima, or grass-mud horse. The use of the phrases in internet postings in recent months has come to be understood as a subtle symbol of rebellion against the content campaign.

Whether Jiefang Daily knew of wocao's freedom of speech connotations when it published the column is difficult to determine, but reality had certainly caught up with the paper by Thursday afternoon when the page was no longer accessible online, nearly a fortnight after the article was first published.

The article's disappearance came a day after a Wikipedia-style history column on Netease revealed that part of the explanation in Jiefang Daily, submitted by a doctoral student Duan Fan from East China University of Science and Technology, was copied from a hoax answer created by Chinese netizens to further poke fun at officials. Mr Duan wrote that wocaonima had its origins in the historical text Strategies of the Warring States, and referred to 'a person who boasts about how good he is, but when he is given a top post, he cannot handle the responsibility because he is all appearance and no substance'.

But netizens pored over the historical text and found no corresponding paragraph.

Mr Duan issued an apology on his blog on Thursday, admitting that he had not checked his sources thoroughly enough and sought forgiveness from readers and Jiefang Daily.

The damage has already been done to Jiefang Daily and the country's omnipresent propaganda machine. From day one of its publication, the article created a buzz on the internet - some netizens laughed at the ignorance of the state media in allowing this politically incorrect story to leak out, others wondered if the editor did it on purpose, and some expressed worries about the careers of the editor and Mr Duan.