Netizens React to Censors

A subtly subversive online spoof in China prompts an apparent backlash, and netizens are angry.
2009-03-24
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Caonima Character 200
A spoof Chinese character proliferating on the Internet slyly refers to a punning satire on a government anti-pornography campaign.
Image: RFA

HONG KONG—Chinese netizens are reacting angrily to reported attempts by government censors to stamp out a humorous form of protest against a recent Web clean-up campaign.

Apparent government directives widely posted on forums, chatrooms and on instant update services such as Twitter are now ordering Internet service providers to clamp down on spoof items about the “grass-mud horse,” a fictional alpaca-like creature dreamed up by netizens in response to a recent anti-porn campaign.

Campaigns against online pornography are common in China, and frequently target content that the government wants removed for political reasons, as well as that considered inappropriately violent or indecent.

Why not just pull the plug on the whole Internet and be done with it?"

Chinese Internet user

The name of the grass-mud horse, or caonima, is a pun on an often-heard and offensive epithet concerning the recipient’s mother.

In the YouTube video and related spoofs that have proliferated in recent weeks, the caonima must battle againt an invasion of river crabs, a punning reference to the government’s buzzword, “a harmonious society.”

‘River crabs’ fight back

“According to a request by the provincial propaganda department, keywords related to ‘caonima’ ... must be removed from the entire Internet,” a statement dated March 20 and purportedly signed by the Communications Bureau of Deyang city said.

The statement, posted on a number of forums within China, called for special attention to be paid to forums and blogs where such words might be concealed, and for a record to be kept of the cleanup operation.

Online comments appeared to take the directive as genuine.

“We’re not even allowed to do that,” said one, while another said wryly, “Here we go again.”

Many comments were critical of the government, remarking that “the river crabs are invading again.”

“This just goes to show that our dynasty [the Chinese Communist Party] is just like the first Qin Emperor,” one said, referring to the despotic Qin Shihuang who unified China in 256 BC.

Overseas media ‘exaggerate’

Another added: “Why not just pull the plug on the whole Internet and be done with it. It would save all this hassle.”

“It’s so tedious that they would take something so tedious so seriously,” said one, while another replied: “They have to take it seriously! It’s directed against the river crabs.”

Another directive reportedly accused the overseas media of blowing the caonima spoof out of proportion, in presenting it as a form of protest against the government.

Netizens, while criticizing their own government freely, hit back at advocates of free speech who refer to Western countries as a model, however.

“Our system is no different from the system they have in the West,” one commenter wrote. “It’s all about the law of the jungle and the survival of the fittest.”

Another linked his comment to a recent confrontation with a U.S. naval surveillance ship in the South China Sea.

Naval standoff

“This government of ours can’t get anything right: property prices, education, health care. And the foreigners are causing problems in the South China Sea,” he said, drawing parallels between today’s administration and the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911), when foreign powers took control of large chunks of Chinese territory to protect their trade interests.

On a separate forum discussing military affairs, commenters appeared angry at the lack of a military response to the standoff with the USNS Impeccable earlier this month.

“Our national dignity is more important than anything. National sovereignty should mean that we can’t have our territory invaded,” one wrote.

Another said: “What are they afraid of? Someone is attacking you right on your home territory and you still don’t do anything. Do we have the status of human beings or not?”

Charter 08

Some bloggers mentioned the inclusion of the authors of Charter 08, a document published online in January calling for democratic change, in Time Magazine’s poll to find the most influential people of 2009. But there was scant discussion of the Charter on the Chinese Internet.

Instead, official media and some forum posts focused on the inclusion of U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao in the poll’s line-up.

“Charter 08” has already joined the list of banned, filtered keywords for Chinese Web sites, and some posts mentioning the document which showed up in search results were no longer available.

Netizens are now referring in blog posts and Twitter-style updates to “The 08 county governor,” a rough pun on the characters for “charter.”

And in a recent kick against further censoring of the caonima spoofs, bloggers were busy discussing a newly invented Chinese character, which combines elements of “grass,” “mud,” and “horse.”

Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.