China's War on Words Show Xi Jinping Is A Dictator For Life

This article first appeared on the Language Log at the University of Pennsylvania.

Since the announcement by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that the President of China would no longer be limited to two five-year terms in office on Sunday (February 25), as had been the case since the days when Chairman Mao ruled, there has been much turmoil and trepidation among China watchers and Chinese citizens. 

Essentially, it means that Xi Jinping has become dictator for life, which is not what people had been hoping for since Richard Nixon went to China 46 years and five days ago. What everyone had expected was that China would "reform and open up" (gǎigé kāifàng 改革開放), which became an official policy as of December, 1978. 

Instead, all indications from the first five years of Xi's regime and the newly announced policy changes regarding Xi Jinping thought and governance are that China has jumped right back to the 1950s in terms of policies and procedures.

Naturally, many people are deeply dismayed by this unwelcome turn of events. Indeed, for as long as I've been studying China and observing Chinese affairs, I've never witnessed so much opposition to the CCP as what I've been seeing and hearing during the last few days—except for the months leading up to the Tiananmen Massacre of June 4, 1989.

The difference between 2018 and 1989, however, is that now people have the internet through which to express their discontent. Although the internet in China is heavily censored and blocked, determined and clever netizens can always come up with ingenious ways to criticize the government and its representatives. Readers of Language Log are thoroughly familiar with the elaborate use of puns, satire, irony, and indirection to deplore and denounce the actions of the authorities, since we have so often documented.

GettyImages-866097736 Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks at the Great Hall of the People on October 25, 2017 in Beijing, China. Getty Images

No sooner had the CCP made public its intention to eliminate the two-term limit on the presidency than the internet was flooded with complaints against it. Naturally, the censors took quick, drastic action against direct disapproval and overt references, so they immediately blocked all such posts on social media. 

Equally naturally, the netizens were prepared for the heavy handed deletions of the internet police and immediately shifted gears to more subtle, but even more effective, means to counter the government's proposed changes.

For example, since the Roman alphabet is part of the Chinese writing system, it's only fair for letters to be subject to censorship the way Sinographs are. Comments like this Twitter thread show the letter N being censored on Weibo (a microblogging website that is one of the most popular social media platforms in China). This is probably out of fear on the part of the government that "N" = "nterms in office," where possibly n > 2; as in "liánrèn n jiè 连任n届" ("n successive terms in office"), which would be forbidden anyway because of the liánrèn 连任 ("continue in office") part.

Another interesting case of an expression that was swiftly blocked yesterday is dēngjī 登机 ("board a plane") because it is perfectly homophonous with dēngjī 登基 ("ascend the throne"). This ties in with the words for "migration," "emigration," and "immigration," since everybody seems to be talking about getting out of China as fast as possible, which would surely lead to mass panic, so the censors have blocked these words in an effort to squelch talk of fleeing the People's Republic.

"Winnie the Pooh" is blocked because netizens use this appellation for Xi Jinping inasmuch as he is often compared to that adorable, pudgy bruin. Nor is it permissible to talk about bāozi 包子 ("steamed, stuffed buns"), since Xi is also often associated with them. Until the censors catch on, the netizens might refer to their President/Secretary General/Chairman/Core Leader as Xisar or Second Emperor of Qina.

This is certain to be a ba**er year for ba**i*g communications on the internet in China. 

Victor H. Mair is a Professor in Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania