I think a lot of us picture China as a place where the people are completely ignorant of the outside world due to heavy censorship (yesterday’s post on the topic). Coming to China often does little to change this perception, as people will smile politely and tell you that everything has always been fine in Tibet, or that Tiananmen Square’s only remarkable feature is that it is the largest public square in the world.
That is why I take so much pleasure in learning about the subversive corners of the Chinese internet, where the feelings people hide in public come pouring out for the world to read.
Some simply ignore the danger of upsetting the government. Little is known about the exact methodology used to patrol the internet, and there are relatively few stories of people being arrested for what they have said online.
Also the government is always concerned with upsetting netizens by blocking too many sites, so if a story becomes popular quickly enough it becomes very difficult to keep it from spreading (like this collection of photos of wasteful government buildings or this post about poisonous food in China).
Scaling the wall
There is a way to get past the wall with a VPN or proxy server, which makes it seem to the internet that you are not actually in China at all.
This is how Chinese activists reach sites like twitter and youtube to spread their message, but it is also how Chinese netizens get access to basic news and information. Without a VPN it is hard to use the internet for gathering information, just this morning a friend who knows I regularly scale the wall, asked me to fetch him some information about Libya.
I can’t provide you with exact numbers of how many people use these kinds of services, but their existence seems to be common knowledge for Chinese people my age. When some of the VPNs were targeted recently by the censors, even middle school students were complaining that it was hard to do research without scaling the wall.
Puns and Internet Creatures
A more creative approach enables people to post on Chinese owned sites without tipping off the censors.This method involves using puns to talk around sensitive key words.
Puns in Chinese are made incredibly easily since it is a sound poor language (more on that here), virtually any name or issue is easily punned. Government spokespeople are regularly given somewhat vulgar names since their real names are not allowed to be used. For example Qin Gang from the Foreign Ministry sounds the same as “bird anus”, she earned this name after famously saying, “The Internet in China is fully open.”
This method really took off in early 2009 with the birth of the internet’s first legendary creature, “Grass Mud Horse”. The Chinese censors had blocked profanity, and so CaoNiMa (grass-mud-horse) was used to mock this attempt, since it’s name sounds identical to “F#*k your mother”.
There was even a popular song and video (not for children) for this first magical creature, and the use of special internet puns exploded. Popular creatures now include the river crab (sounds like “harmony” and mocks the government’s over use of the word), the monkey-snake (sounds like “mouthpiece”), and the valley dove (sounds like “Google”) which is always attacked by the river crab. Each creature has an entire back story, and people have even made several “documentaries” about these magnificent creatures.
What I am hoping you take away from this post is that Chinese people know far more than they are willing to show in public, and that even with huge amounts of government spending, the internet is not such an easy thing to control. The Chinese have found a way to mock the system that would leave most foreigners pulling their hair out.