Pho noodles and pandas: How China’s social media users created a new language to beat government censorship on COVID-19

To fully appreciate conversations on China’s social media platforms, merely knowing Chinese is not enough. To evade the most extensive internet censorship system in the world, netizens have no option but to create their own vocabulary to discuss “sensitive issues”. This language keeps evolving as the government constantly adds new topics and terms that are prohibited.

And there’s no better example of this linguistic cat-and-mouse game between China’s social media users and the country’s legions of online censors than the current COVID-19 epidemic.

Coronavirus outbreak sparks new censorship crackdown

The government’s handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak has fuelled criticism of the government, including the initial cover-up of the epidemic and restrictions on information that is clearly in the public’s interest. In response to the swell in online criticism, a host of new terms have become “sensitive”.

In January, users of the Chinese social media platform Weibo complained that the words “Wuhan” and “Hubei”—where the epidemic originated—were being restricted. Only a small proportion of users could see posts containing those words, and criticisms of the authorities in those areas were stifled.­­

On WeChat, another popular social media platform, combinations such as “Xi Jinping goes to Wuhan” and “Wuhan + CCP + Crisis + Beijing” were systematically being censored, a recent report from research group Citizen Lab confirmed.

Netizens began to use “wh” and “hb”, the initials of Wuhan and Hubei, as replacement terms. That’s fairly simple. But it gets more complicated.

Since China’s National Red Cross and its ability to distribute supplies has been questioned, netizens anticipated ‘Red Cross’ would be censored and replaced it with “red ten” (the Chinese character for ten “十 Shí” resembles a cross). When people express suspicions that supplies had been mishandled by the national Red Cross society, hashtags such as “supplies are reded” began trending.

Another example is the use of “F4”. Initially a Taiwanese boy band that attained popularity across the region in the early 2000s, it now refers to four regional politicians: the governor of Hubei province; the secretary of Hubei’s Communist Party Committee; the mayor of Wuhan; and the party secretary of Wuhan. Many hold these four men most responsible for the massive outbreak.

Innocuous sentences can also hold a deeper meaning, such as excerpts from the leaked police statement that Dr Li Wenliang, who had warned about the virus outbreak in December, had to give to the public security bureau:

“Can you do this?” the 3 January police statement reads, referring to the police’s demand that he “stop illegal activities” related to the virus.

“Can,” he confirms.

“Do you understand?” it continues.

“Understand,” Li responds.

Social media users began posting the exchange as a sentence – “Can you do this? Can. Do you understand? Understand.” – and the phrase went viral.

These posts were deleted, but netizens then revived and adapted the statement with more rebellious content. “I cannot and do not understand.”

The same night, the hashtag “I want freedom of speech” trended on Weibo. Once detected, it was removed, with those using it blocked.

The new Chinese dictionary

Amid the heightened censorship of the coronavirus outbreak, new words are being censored on a daily basis. But Chinese netizens are used to substituting “sensitive words” for alternatives.

The most common example is “zf”, which is the abbreviation for the Chinese word “government”; “jc” stands for the “police”; “guobao” (national treasure) or panda images represent the domestic security bureau; and “Ministry of Truth” (from the George Orwell novel 1984) is substituted for the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department.

To access overseas websites blocked in China (such as Facebook and Twitter) netizens need to use VPNs—software that give users the possibility to “climb over the Great Firewall”.

“Ladder” (for climbing) and “Vietnamese pho noodles” (which sounds like “climbing over the wall”) are two terms that are routinely used to refer to VPNs.

Meanwhile June 4th, the infamous day of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, and one of the most censored terms on the Chinese internet, becomes “35 May”, “65 April” or “eight squared”, to name but a few examples.

Lyrical genius, or wasted creativity?

Often, netizens are forced to get creative with their posts to a degree which borders on the absurd. The removal of a post on ZhiHu (China’s version of Quora) asking “how to wash narrow neck bottles thoroughly” may be baffling at first glance. But the Chinese pronunciation of “narrow neck bottle” is similar to that of president Xi Jinping – a fact that did not escape the censors.

Similarly, a parent’s complaint on Weibo about his child being “bad at learning” was instantly removed. Why? Because in Chinese, the President’s surname means “learning”. In this context, to say “learning is bad” must be censored.

China’s censorship system is perplexing. The list of “sensitive” words is constantly changing, and is never publicly revealed. There are some words that certain users cannot write, but other users can. As a result, people are always self-censoring in an attempt to beat the system.

There is a certain genius at work as netizens – among them talented journalists, students, scholars and activists – develop a rapidly expanding alternative dictionary.

Yet this never-ending dance also drains their energy. Not least because when their accounts are removed, netizens are forced to create new ones and start again the process of connecting with their followers.

This leaves a lingering sense that such wisdom and imagination could be better spent on something more productive than fighting a constant battle to be heard.