In the midst of last week’s summit between the presidents of the U.S. and China, users of Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo noticed an uncanny resemblance between a photo of the two leaders and an image of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh and Tigger (Disney version). A side-by-side comparison was soon winging its way virally through the Weibo ether — until it was stopped short by censors, who apparently did not appreciate the comparison of President Xi Jinping to the rotund Bear of Very Little Brain.
In their constant quest to silence any hint of online dissent, Chinese censors often block seemingly innocuous words and phrases — including the word “today” on the June 4 anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Cunning Weibo users circumvent the censorship with code words such as “May 35” for June 4, but those are soon quashed as well. As it turns out, though, the censors seem to have more difficulty keeping a lid on memes and other images. For instance, a version of the infamous “Tank Man” photo, in which the tanks were replaced by a line of giant rubber ducks, recently gained enough traction online that censors were then obliged to block the phrase “big yellow duck.” Other creative re-imaginings of the original photo followed, along with sly references to the date 89-6-4.
Viewed in light of this constant struggle between censors and dissenters, the disappearance of Pooh and Tigger from Weibo makes all too much sense. While many outside of China might see the juxtaposition as nothing more than a funny picture, inside the country it serves as a potent visual code, which briefly allowed citizens to obliquely reference their president without attracting the attention of authorities. Although the spread of this particular image has been stymied for now, it is certain that users on Weibo and other Chinese sites will continue to find ingenious means to circumvent government censorship and express themselves. For in-depth analysis of blocked terms (and occasional images), check out Blocked on Weibo and GreatFire.org, where you can test a specific keyword or URL to see if it’s currently blocked in China.
Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.