China's internet censors appeared on Monday to have banned social media tweets containing a reference to Winnie the Pooh, after a satirical image drawing parallels between the cuddly bear and President Xi Jinping circulated online.
The image in question showed the Disney version of Pooh and Tigger alongside a photograph of Xi and former U.S. President Barack Obama during their "shirtsleeves summit" in June 2013.
"This photo has already been banned on Tencent," user @Fantasy326_ tweeted on the Twitter-like platform Sina Weibo on Friday. "It won't send, no matter how you use screenshots."
User @cha_mi said keywords linked to "Winnie the Pooh" had also been banned on Sina, but "Winnie the Pooh was banned" remained a top search query and hashtag on the platform on Friday.
Commentators appeared to have no doubts over the cause of the ban, however.
"Winnie the Pooh has been banned from the Chinese internet because President Xi Jinping has been compared to him on a number of occasions," user@ñzan commented. "It is now a banned word."
"The number of sensitive words in China just keeps on multiplying and becoming more diverse."
The Financial Times said posts including the Chinese name of Winnie the Pooh were censored on Sina Weibo over the weekend, while a collection of animated gifs featuring the bear were removed from social messaging app WeChat.
The meme wouldn't be the first time ruling Chinese Communist Party has moved to crack down on any satire targeting the president.
Kwon Pyong, an ethnic Korean from the northeastern province of Jilin, stood trial on Feb. 15 for subversion after he wore a T-shirt emblazoned with satirical nicknames for President Xi Jinping, including "Xitler."
19th Party Congress
Commentators said censors are clamping down on any whiff of online dissent ahead of the 19th Party Congress later in the year, during which Xi will be looking to cement his status as a "core" party leader for the next five years of government.
Veteran media commentator Zhu Xinxin said Xi seems far more concerned about eradicating the slightest whiff of dissent or criticism than previous generations of leaders.
"There is no humor here, just an obsession with preserving a totally idealized version of the highest-ranking leaders," Zhu said. "This sort of dictatorial culture elevates national leaders to the status of gods."
But Zhu said Xi's sensitivity seems to be a symptom of his fear that he hasn't yet won an ongoing power struggle in the corridors of Zhongnanhai.
"He is terrified of that things might get out of hand, and that it could be open season for satirizing various party leaders," he said. "That's why nobody is allowed to say anything to undermine his power and authority."
Xi's administration has stepped up a campaign against dissenting opinions both online and in the country's tightly controlled state media in recent months, warning officials in January to stay on message when using the social media app WeChat.
Party and government officials have been warned not to use the internet, social media, radio, television, newspapers, books, lectures, forums, reports, seminars and other means "to make off-message comments about central government policy and undermine party unity."
Cadres are also banned from posting about government business to either official and personal social media accounts without authorization.
The new code of conduct banning "off-message" statements was likely approved by the last plenary session of the 18th Party Congress last October, which was held behind closed doors, political observers said.
That meeting also formally endorsed President Xi Jinping as a "core" leader of the ruling party at the current plenum, potentially putting him on a par with former paramount leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, whose authority must never be challenged.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.