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Winnie-the-Pooh Politics: The Ingenuity of Chinese Memes

In the five days leading up to September 3, China’s state television channels showed nothing but anti-Japanese war dramas. The sky over Beijing was blue and clear: factories had been closed for weeks to limit air pollution, and specially trained monkeys and falcons had cleared away the birds. September 3 marked the 70th anniversary of China’s World War II victory over Japan. Beijing was set to host a massive military parade in Tiananmen Square to commemorate this victory, and nothing was going to detract from this tremendous show of force. The parade itself featured more than 12,000 troops, cutting edge pieces of new military technology, and important guests including Russian president Vladimir Putin. Military helicopters formed the number 70, and jets flew in a V-formation, trailing colorful smoke.

To preserve this image of China’s extreme power, Internet censorship was at a high. The China Digital Times has since leaked the instructions given to censors before the parade: the state required them to “actively promote positive, sunny netizen commentary.” That meant ensuring  that all posts “are positive and not offensive to the PLA or the military parade; that they do not attack the Party, the PRC, or the political system; and do not attack national leaders.” These regulations are not unusual for Chinese censors, but their high level of enforcement is. In fact, when human rights activist Wen YunChao posted a photo to his Twitter feed of the set-up before the parade started, he captioned it, “an image of the parade rehearsal that I risked my life to take.”

Following the parade, memes comparing Xi Jinping’s appearance to Winnie-the-Pooh popped up around the Internet, but were quickly censored. Using memes to make political statements actually stemmed from this culture of censorship. Professor Marcella Szablewicz of Pace University explained to The Politic, “Politics in China, you often have to mask it in a sort of playfulness. If you can make something funny, if you can make something humorous, maybe there’s a chance that it gets around the censors, maybe that it won’t be as harshly cracked down upon.”

Writer and social media artist An Xiao Mina agreed, telling The Politic: “Overt political dialogue and critiques of the government can be limited by human or algorithmic sensors…Activists, or people who just wanted to discuss something political, their strategy was, ok, let’s actually embed our political statement into an actual meme. So you’ll see memes pop up around a lot of political issues.”

The Winnie the Pooh memes tie into larger critiques of Xi Jinping’s leadership. Professor Ang Peng Hwa of New York University in Singapore explained the offensive nature of the memes to The Politic: “In China, there’s sense of hierarchy, so it is not proper to make fun of your elders…There’s a sense of the bigger the person, the bigger the reputation to protect… If you were a censor, then you’re expected to protect your master.” He continued, “By making fun of the president, you are undermining ultimate law and order because you are undermining authority.”

Mina saw similarly subversive messages in the seemingly innocent meme: “Of course it was meant to be funny, but … so much of popular media about powerful people is often centrally controlled, so … the very fact of challenging those depictions by making them seem harmless or poking fun at them can become a very powerful act in and of itself, because it breaks what is intended to be a hermitic media environment.”

Szablewicz, the Pace professor, seemed to agree. “Why would the Chinese government censor this? It has to be because it makes him look foolish, and they don’t want him to look foolish,” she said.  “But there are other times that they’ve cultivated cartoons that try to make him look more loveable so it’s also about who gets to say these things.” She explained that, in the past, the Chinese government itself had released official cartoons of Xi Jinping that made him seem more approachable—rather like Winnie the Pooh. These naïve depictions don’t fit with Xi Jinping’s actual power and actions, because “in reality, you’re faced with someone who’s incredibly politically savvy and has held the reigns of power very tightly.” In this way, memes become more than funny pictures, but a preview to an important dialogue about power and safety in China.

Citizens’ experiences with this censorship vary greatly. Mina, Szablewicz, and Hwa all agree that, particularly in urban areas, most people are aware of the so-called Great Firewall, and that it is possible to get around for those with the technical know-how and the resources.

Hwa pointed to censorship’s strategic value, which allows for Chinese Internet companies to grow without being overpowered by American companies. Szablewicz sees the youth’s general contentment with this: “They ask themselves ‘Why would I use Google? Why would I support an American company rather than a Chinese company?’ So even nationalism comes into that.” However, the youth can also take Internet censorship quite lightly in some ways. Szablewicz laughed as she explained, “I’ve met a few people who do it simply to play a video game, because they want to play an Internet game that is only available on a network in, say, South Korea.”

However, Yunchao experienced a more serious side of this crackdown personally. In an email, he explained “My WeChat account have been [sic] limited functions because of the Tianjin explosion…I live in New York and I use Twitter, I believe I’m safe here.” (In August of this year, a series of explosions occurred at a container store at the port of Tianjin, killing over 100 people. Criticism of the government’s handling of the event was rampant and heavily censored.)

In this light, the military parade and censorship surrounding it seem less significant on their own. Indeed in Yunchao’s words, “I didn’t care about the Parade, just a funny show.” However, for the Western viewer, it’s an entry into the weightier human rights violations that China tends to keep tightly under wraps.