Digital Journalism Review

Chinese netizens turn to metaphors to condemn, evade censorship

Living in a country with harsh online censorship, you need to understand Chinese metaphors or you won't understand the country.

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 January, 2013, 4:39pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 January, 2013, 11:37pm

If you think an ability to read Chinese is the prime skill required to understand China, you are wrong. Living in a country with harsh online censorship, you also need to understand Chinese metaphors.

For example, Kai-Fu Lee, former president of Google China who has more than 25 million followers on Sina Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like social media platform, posted online comments on Wednesday saying that “from now on, I will only talk about east, west and north, as well as Monday through to Friday”.

He also uploaded a photo online, showing a bottle of black tea and a tea set.

What on earth did Lee really mean? The answer is in the words he intentionally missed out in the post: “south” and “weekend”. And the photo suggests he was invited to tea - meaning he was warned by the authorities - another open secret to Chinese netizens.

Lee was one of China’s online celebrities who openly expressed support for the Southern Weekend, also known as Southern Weekly, an outspoken Guangzhou-based newspaper.

After Guangdong’s propaganda department ordered the paper to change its new year edition, journalists at the paper went on strike. Others threatened to join them if the propaganda authorities kept trying to censor them.

Their actions gained considerable support online and sparked demonstrations, by both paper’s supporters and protesters believed to be hired by the government. The media storm even spread to Beijing on Tuesday night. The publisher of The Beijing News offered his verbal resignation after capital’s propaganda officials ordered his paper to run an editorial piece by the government-backed Global Times, criticising the Southern Weekend.

Mainland authorities launched a crackdown on Chinese Weibos, run by portals such as Sina and Tencent. All posts with words “Southern Weekend” or “The Beijing News” were deleted. They also censored reports by journalists supporting the two papers.

Use of metaphors, therefore, became the safest way people could express their support for press freedom.

The Beijing News even ran a story to show their support for the Southern Weekend on Wednesday in its lifestyle section, entitled “The South-style Gruel”.

The pronunciation of “Gruel” and “Week” are the same in Mandarin.

The most popular metaphor in the past few days was created by the Southern Metropolis Daily (SMD), a sister newspaper of the Southern Weekend. One of its photo galleries uploaded online on Wednesday was named “The amazing moment of global frisbee dogs”, which included a set of photos showing dogs catching frisbees.

This was applauded by netizens before it was withdrawn from SMD’s website. This photo gallery, again, was to  express the journalists’ support for the Southern Weekend and The Beijing News and their anger at the Global Times chief editor Hu Xijin.

Chinese netizens have been calling Hu and his paper “frisbee dogs” for a long time. They say every time the authorities restrict press freedom and try to control the news, Hu and his staff “catch the frisbees thrown by their owners”.

It is a little bit hard to learn Chinese, isn't it?