Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Global21 Network: The Fall of the Great Firewall

Written by on . Published in Africa's mobile future

Alice Xu investigates the implications of the politically motivated standardisation of language and attempts at censorship of the internet in China:

The day that President Barack Obama was inaugurated marked a turning point in the movement towards change. Even my grandfather, who closely followed Obama’s progress in the elections from China, was excited to the point of tears. He called on the night of Inauguration Day to ask us to mail him a hard copy of Obama’s inaugural address, which we printed directly off a Google search – apparently, Obama’s brief reference to the targeting of fascism and communism was too much for CCTV, China’s central broadcasting network. Chunks of his speech were censored even as he was making the address. Afterwards, all copies of Obama’s inaugural speech were censored on, China’s largest online news portal, as well as on many other websites. I came to realize that what initially seemed like a peculiar request on my grandfather’s part only seemed so because, as a U.S. resident, I took my uninhibited access to content on the web for granted.

The dramatic popularity of a YouTube cartoon with obscene undertones would seem unmerited in the U.S., but in China, the appeal of the cartoon figure known as the “grass-mud horse” is more understandable.  The “grass-mud horse” evokes the image of an alpaca-like cartoon character and would at first seem like a typical run-of-the-mill animation. What sets this simple figure apart from the rest, however, is the double entendre of the Chinese characters. Although they mean literally “grass-mud horse,” they can pass for a foul profanity when spoken. Since its first appearance in early 2010, the YouTube video has garnered millions of viewers – and Michael Wines of the NY Times writes that the grass-mud horse is “conceived as an impish protest against censorship” that raised real questions about China’s ability to “stanch the flow of information over the Internet”.

Government computers in China rummage the net for words and phrases that are considered seditious. This explains why the grass-mud horse is revered by the Chinese public as a laudable icon of dissent against censorship. Ever since its establishment in October 1949, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has taken great pains to ingrain certain Communist principles via language manipulation and censorship. Shortly after coming into power, it published a new standard of Chinese orthography that proposed a total of 515 simplified characters and 54 simplified radicals. Since China has 55 ethnic groups and over 400 dialects, the CPC hoped standardizing written language would facilitate progress. While advocates of simplification claim the new standard makes learning how to read and write Chinese much easier, decreasing the illiteracy rate in the country, this might not be the CPC’s only motive.

Scholars like linguist Kam-Yee Law have argued that this simplification is a political strategy aimed at replacing traditional Chinese principles with Communist ones. For example, the CPC’s removal of the character for heart (?) from the word love (?), creating the new ‘heartless’ love character (?), clashes with traditional Confucianism’s emphasis on filial piety and humanity of the individual. Such manipulation of the language could be understood as marking the start of a shift away from the individual and the family towards that of the nation as a whole, in particular given that achieving a sense of collectivism has been a part of the CPC’s agenda ever since the days of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward. Indeed, censored bloggers often say their posts have been ‘harmonized’, a term directly derived from President Hu Jintao’s professed goal of creating a ‘harmonious society’.

The strive for collectivism is also evident in the CPC’s recent attempts to curtail the variety in Chinese characters allowed for naming newborns. “Chinese parents’ desire to give their children a spark of individuality is colliding head-on with the Chinese bureaucracy’s desire for order,” writes American journalist Sharon LaFraniere. Many of the 60 million Chinese individuals with obscure characters in their names are coerced into changing their names if a character is not found in the government’s new, computerized database of names. “Government officials,” LaFraniere writes, “suggest that names have gotten out of hand, with too many parents picking the most obscure characters they can find or even making up characters, like linguistic fashion accessories”. By drastically cutting the number of characters in the current database of Chinese characters for ‘everyday use’, the CPC is thus essentially subsuming all outliers in the name game.

The CPC’s vision of order and assimilation is causing a continuously expanding cloud that has grown to encompass the regulation of the internet. Since 2001, the number of internet users in China has more than quintupled to nearly 400 million in 2010, and for Chinese leaders, “the internet is a doubled-edged sword, a rapidly evolving medium that brings economic opportunity but remains beyond complete control”, writes Jennifer Lee of the NY Times. Chinese web users’ exposure to the principles and mentality of those from democratic nations does not sit well with Chinese government leaders.

Numerous topics—Falun Gong, Taiwan, Tibet, Tiananmen Square protests, and democracy, to name just a few—are considered taboo by the CPC. But seemingly it continues to fail to realise how such censorship can backfire. Censorship creates the impression that there is something worth veiling from the public. It calls attention to the specific words and ideas that the government considers “dangerous” and makes them even more powerful.

It seems, however, that the flexibility of both the written and spoken forms of the Chinese language make censorship unfeasible. Chinese calligraphy is distinguished by the large variety that individual radical and stroke combinations allow – and the many possible tonal alterations of spoken Chinese resulted in the glorious success of the ‘grass-mud horse’.

Before long, the CPC will have to come to terms with the impracticality of censorship on the Internet. As China continues to strive for modernisation, the exposure of its citizens to the differing political, cultural and civil principles of other nations and people is unavoidable. China’s ambitions for a position in the international community that reflects its economic clout will also require it to embrace this greater openness.

As Barack Obama stated in his inaugural address: “to those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”. If China holds any hopes of improving its image among the international community, it will need to unclench its fist and trust its people. If the CPC aspires to make any great leaps forward, it will need to rethink its practice of censorship. The definition of progress calls for change, so if China wants progress, it will need to search its pockets for better policies.

This piece was originally published in The Oxonian Globalist and on The Perspectivist in February 2011.

Tags: , , ,