CHAPTER EIGHT of “Commie Wage Slave,” in which I learn about the language of dissent in China
An image of the mythical Grass-Mud Horse, symbol of Chinese resistance to censorship
Since Americans were thought to be universally rich, our explanations about being in China because we couldn’t get a job back home probably didn’t sound believable to our co-workers, which must have bolstered their suspicion that we were spies.
Never mind the fact that most of us spoke little or no Mandarin. Plus, it’s hard to imagine what kind of secret information anyone thought we could glean from editing news-like propaganda that was controlled and censored by state authorities.
But their assumptions about us have been shaped by generations of distortion and very limited access to information. The Internet doesn’t appear to have changed that yet.
As it has elsewhere, the digital age has created countless jobs in China. Unfortunately, many of them involve maintaining the Great Firewall. Untold thousands monitor websites, email and even text messages for forbidden content. Some write pro-government messages for bulletin boards and social sites.
At China Daily, expats ran into the Great Firewall all the time. It includes bans on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, limits on content for websites and authorized search engines, plus constantly changing and secret lists of forbidden search terms. All Internet traffic into and out of China is closely watched.
Since authorities never publicize which words are forbidden, it’s easy to run afoul of their censors. Our Internet connections would disappear for a few minutes the first time we used a forbidden word in a search. If it happened again, we’d lose access for up to a half hour.
If the website we were trying to access contained a forbidden term, we’d get a “site not found” error message.
Sometimes you could guess which words might trigger this. When the Arab Spring started in Tunisia, for example, the word “jasmine” became a forbidden search term because of the phrase, jasmine revolution. Too bad if you were just searching for a local place to buy jasmine tea.
The Great Firewall so limited access to information from outside (and even inside) China that it wasn’t unusual to learn about events in Beijing from international news outlets – which, of course, could only be accessed with the aid of a proxy server that was outside the country. Expats equipped their own computers with these services. Thus, when Google threatened to leave China rather than censor its searches, we found out by reading the New York Times online that Chinese were leaving flowers, stuffed animals and notes of support in front of the company’s Beijing office. No word of this reached Chinese media.
For a few hours during this tussle, it was possible for Chinese to access anything on a Google search, a novel and brief experience. The term “Tiananmen,” for example, brought forth the haunting photograph of the nameless Chinese man who confronted a line of tanks on their way to threaten thousands of demonstrators in central Beijing. It’s one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century. Most Chinese have probably never seen it.
We wondered, of course, whether there might be tiny cameras or listening devices hidden in our apartments. I never heard of anyone looking for them, much less finding one. But there’s no question that our computers at work were examined. It wasn’t unusual to sit down at the start of a shift, boot up the computer and discover that files were missing or rearranged, put in new places. No effort was made to hide this; making it blatant was most likely a deliberate part of the intimidation factor.
The longer we were in China, the more paranoid we became. The very atmosphere of the place made it inevitable. Thus, when democracy activist Liu Xiabo won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize after I had already left China, Renee emailed me from Beijing. There was only a subject line: “Did you see who won?”
She feared that if she had mentioned the Nobel Peace Prize or Liu Xiabo, her email might not have gone through. Or, someone at China Daily might have detected it and alerted the powers-that-be about the need to monitor her communications (if they weren’t already). Maybe someone in the IT department or one of the countless monitors paid by the government to spy on communications, looking to curry favor, would report it to higher-ups. We don’t know how realistic these fears were when applied to foreigners, but they were raised by living in a place where advocating freedom of speech is prosecuted as subversion and even a word in a text message can lead to punishment. The possibility of unpleasant repercussions seemed plausible.
Nonetheless, Chinese netizens have found a way to use the Internet for robust debate, criticism and mockery of their government. Their solution is to use code words based on homonyms.
Thus, when they want to refer to the government or the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), they use the term “grass-mud horse.” In Mandarin, this sounds almost like the phrase, “fuck your mother.” Once you know that the CCP calls itself the mother of the people, the meaning of this code word is clear.
The grass-mud horse first appeared in 2009 and became a huge hit. Videos quickly appeared of the grass-mud horse battling the river crab, a code word that sounds like the propaganda euphemism, “harmony.” When censors have scrubbed forbidden content from a Chinese website, netizens say it has been harmonized.
Other code words are less obscure. June 4, for example, refers to the day Chinese tanks and troops attacked unarmed democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
For a thorough look at how Chinese netizens and dissenters use code words, check out the Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon at the website, China Digital Times, by clicking on this link – http://chinadigitaltimes.net/space/Category:Grass-Mud_Horse_Lexicon.
Also interesting is this video about the Grass-Mud Horse. If you watch to the end, it’s easier to understand. The language is foul, but indicates the level of frustration. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3D2eh4xehc4
Coming next: Leaving China