In China, when the going gets tough for Internet dissidents, the tough get creative.
Direct political discourse online is typically difficult in China thanks to the country's Golden Shield Project -- a.k.a. "The Great Firewall of China." The Chinese government uses sophisticated filtering and surveillance software to block access to Websites it claims "could cause social instability and harm national security." Other Websites are subject to de facto censorship, purposely throttled for slow loading times.
China also employs more than 50,000 Internet censors (roughly one censor for every 10,000 Internet users in China) to vigilantly monitor the Internet and remove content. Complementing the censors are what some Chinese Internet users collectively call the "Fifty Cent Party" -- hundreds of thousands of Internet propagandists allegedly paid 50 cents for each pro-Chinese government post. The Chinese government also heavily leans on social networks to dispel "rumors" and staunch the spread of "harmful information."
It's all in the name of Chinese President Hu Jintao's goal of "constructing a harmonious society." The irony is not lost on China's Internet community, where "harmony" has become synonymous with "censorship." Chinese bloggers who find their content removed bitterly complain of their posts having been "harmonized." More chillingly, Chinese dissidents have a habit of becoming harmonized themselves.
Accordingly, Internet users in China have had to get innovative about making sure their voices are heard.
Often, this involves code. For example, "June 4" -- the date of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 -- is censored in Chinese cyberspace. Chinese Internet users have taken to referring to that date as "May 35."
The code can involve wordplay. On the anniversary of Mao Zedong's death in 2009, blogger-activist Wen Yunchao called on his followers to engage in a "de-Maoification" campaign. Criticism of Chairman Mao in China is extremely dangerous, but in this case, Wen couched his motives behind the fact that "Mao" is also the Chinese word for "hair." As part of the de-Maoification campaign, Wen persuaded hundreds of Chinese to show themselves "getting rid of mao" by shaving various body parts and sharing before-and-after pictures. Wen himself shared a picture of his belly hair shaved in the shape of the "t" in Twitter's logo.
Perhaps the best known example is a Chinese meme known as the "grass-mud horse." In 2009, videos appeared online with songs telling the tale of alpaca-like creatures known as grass-mud horses trying to protect their grassland homes in the Ma-Le Desert from the evil "river crabs" who eat the grass. As silly as the videos may appear, the songs are veiled protests against Chinese censorship, making liberal use of near-homophones. In Chinese, "river crab" sounds like "harmony" (a.k.a. "censorship"), "grass" and "grassland" sound like "freedom," and both "grass-mud horse" and "Ma-Le Desert" sound like very vulgar phrases regarding one's mother.
Similar allegories have gone viral in China. Chinese animator Pi San's Internet cartoon series about a mischievous schoolboy named Kuang Kuang mercilessly satirizes China's sociopolitical scene. While most of the series is a reflection of Pi San's own experiences of the oppressive schoolhouse environment he experienced as a boy, some of the cartoons more blatantly criticize contemporary Chinese government.
In his New Year's animated greeting card for the Year of the Rabbit, tigers (representing the outgoing year) visit numerous horrors -- in the name of "harmony" -- upon a group of rabbits, mirroring real-life atrocities perpetrated by Chinese government officials. Eventually, the angry rabbits rise up and kill the tigers. Although Pi San cheekily insists that the cartoon is just a "fairy tale," the video ends with the text, "The year of the rabbit has come. Even rabbits bite when they’re pushed."
These aren't the first examples in history of oppressed groups creatively working around censorship to communicate forbidden messages -- and they won't be the last.
The censors do catch on to this kind of thing sometimes, but these messages generally need only contain enough plausible deniability to go viral before being noticed -- helping keep savvy dissidents one step ahead of censors.
— Joe Stanganelli is a writer, attorney, and communications consultant. He is also principal and founding attorney of Beacon Hill Law in Boston. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeStanganelli.