Behind the Great Firewall

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.

tank man

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 –

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.

Coming next: Leaving China

A harmonious and stable society


CHAPTER THREE of “Commie wage slave,” in which Mao is regarded as a Party crasher





My arrival in Beijing that September coincided with the sixtieth anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s 1949 victory in the decades-long civil war with Chiang Kai-Shek’s American-backed Nationalists. Every building in Beijing flew the country’s red flag bedecked with gold stars, and the city was plastered with posters in Chinese red depicting the Great Hall of the People at Tiananman Square with golden fireworks bursting overhead. Right in the middle of these giant posters, if you looked very, very closely, you could just make out a miniscule portrait of Mao Tse-Tung.

This was, literally, a graphic illustration of Mao’s reduced status among his countrymen. His embalmed body still can be viewed in a huge mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, but his infamous Little Red Book, once required reading for citizens and cadres alike, can be found in flea markets.

Publicly, nobody would admit that the megalomaniac Mao’s political purges and screwy development schemes had killed an estimated 70 million Chinese – during peacetime, no less. The current official line, that Mao had been 70 percent right, 30 percent wrong, was as far as anyone would go on the record within China.

Overseas Chinese, however, have penned enough memoirs and novels about living under Mao to comprise a genre known as “scar literature.”

According to readings from that genre, there probably isn’t a family in China that doesn’t have a horror story from Mao’s era. Everybody is likely to have an older relative who suffered persecution, arrest, torture, imprisonment, hunger, execution or starvation, or who survived by collaboration, betrayal, compromise or corruption. Here, briefly, is a small sample of what Chinese citizens endured under Mao:

-The Hundred Flowers campaign in 1957 purported to show that Party members with many different opinions could still be good Communists, and they were encouraged to speak up about its shortcomings. After fierce criticism and mass protests about official corruption, those who spoke up were labeled “poisonous weeds” and a violent purge began.

-The Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1960 was supposed to catapult China to First World status in steel production. Instead of creating big companies to run giant mills, Chinese citizens were ordered to build back-yard foundries and forge their kitchen woks and farming implements into steel. Almost all other labor ceased to keep these miniature foundries going 24 hours a day. While this consumed every scrap of metal in the country and produced an unusable product of inferior quality, neglected crops died, farming ceased and millions starved.

-The Cultural Revolution, 1966 to 1976, was Mao’s most destructive campaign. His purported goal was to reinvigorate revolutionary fervor. To this end, he encouraged college students and their younger brothers and sisters to fight the “Four Olds” – old ideas, old customs, old habits and old culture. Any thing or person suspected of promoting bourgeois, foreign or pre-Communist ideas (such as respect for elders and the value of education) was to be destroyed. Millions of young people organized into Red Guards and beat their teachers, ransacked libraries, universities and museums, invaded private homes to confiscate art and books, and rampaged through the cities until exasperated older cadres forced all urban youths into the countryside to labor for the peasants. Schools and universities closed, much of traditional Chinese culture and its artifacts were weakened or destroyed, family ties were decimated and a “lost generation” still suffers from those years of government-induced chaos.

Naturally, none of this was mentioned during the anniversary celebrations, which included the standard Communist Party display of military might marching past Party leaders in a gigantic parade of soldiers and weaponry down Beijing’s main boulevard, Chang ‘An. Average Chinese weren’t allowed within a mile of the event; they had to watch it on TV, but it’s questionable whether many did.

Most Chinese were celebrating the annual Autumn Festival, not the Communist Party anniversary. Along with the Spring Festival, it’s one of two national, two-week holidays when everyone in the country tries to go home to be with family. So twice a year, hundreds of millions of people swamp trains and buses for horrendous trips that constitute the largest human mass migrations on Earth. Jammed into aisles and shoved through windows to get on board, millions travel for many hours standing or squatting on their haunches, since there isn’t room to stretch out one’s legs. Many travelers don adult diapers rather than try to fight their way to overwhelmed toilets, which even under less crowded conditions are such that they’re used only as a last, desperate measure.

China Daily’s newer expats watched the televised parade out of curiosity. Two features stood out. One was the shock of seeing tanks and guns so brazenly displayed in the very location where they had last been used – against an unarmed population clamoring for democracy. (Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989). Expats concluded the whole point of the exercise was to remind Chinese citizens of why it behooved them to stifle any displays of discontent.

The other striking and slightly creepy feature, to Western eyes, were the countless rows of marching soldiers who appeared to be exactly the same height and weight. In other countries, this kind of precision can only be achieved with toy soldiers or as an illusion created by computer. But in China, with such a huge pool of possible recruits, it’s not that hard to find tens of thousands with the same measurements. They looked completely interchangeable, with no individuality.

That might be standard and desirable in any military. But such treatment also was extended to civilians, and it was oppressive. The expectation of being an interchangeable and quietly obedient cog with no individual rights was a very uncomfortable fit for Western sensibilities. China Daily’s expats, coddled as we were by Chinese standards, chafed against it.

So do many Chinese, such as nail heads, netizens and dissenters.  Others, such as migrants, ant tribes and princelings, epitomize the fate of the masses, are caught in it or have the means to escape it.

Expats were free agents in this game, called onto the playing field as needed and expected to move on when their contracts end. We weren’t really part of the team and weren’t expected to care deeply about our jobs. This, too, made for some uncomfortable moments among those who cared about ethics and standards in the practice of journalism.

Coming next: Making a home in Beijing