Grass Mud Horse Seal
China has the largest Internet market and the largest number of broadband users in the world with almost all subscribers accessing Internet through mobile devices. The market is driven through government-allied investment and a fast-developing data center market. The Internet country code is .cn. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2022]

Internet service in China is cheap and accessible. In many cities you don’t need to sign up with an Internet provider or pay monthly fees. The Chinese government aims to provide universal and affordable broadband coverage through market competition and private investment in state-controlled enterprises. 3G and LTE subscribers are expected to migrate to 5G aiming for 2 million 5G base stations by the end of 2022.

China kind of skipped over the computer revolution — even the mass retailing revolution — and went straight to the mobile phone revolution. Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: “In China, what is sometimes called “the shift to mobile” never happened — hasn’t needed to happen — because the country’s wealth is too recent for people to have been swept up in the PC revolution, the way Americans were. Instead, they went straight to phones, an example of a phenomenon known as leapfrogging, in which non-participation in an older technology spurs early adoption of whatever innovation comes next. Jack Ma, of Alibaba, has argued that the entire e-commerce sector in China exemplifies this pattern: people happily shop online because there haven’t been Walmarts everywhere. In the U.S., “e-commerce is a dessert, ” he said. “In China, it’s become the main course.” [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, July 23, 2018]

In her book: “The Evolution of the Chinese Internet: Creative Visibility in the Digital Public”, Shaohua Guo argues that Chinese Internet culture displays a uniquely sophisticated interplay between multiple extremes, and that its vibrancy is dependent on these complex negotiations.She examines the driving mechanisms that grant visibility to particular kinds of user-generated content and offers a systematic account of how and why an ingenious Internet culture has been able to thrive, Guo highlights the pivotal roles that media institutions, technological platforms, and creative practices of Chinese netizens have played in shaping culture on- and offline.

China is strengthening its policies related to the Internet of Things (IoT, sensors, processing tools, software, and other technologies that connect and exchange data with other devices and systems over the Internet or other communications networks) to boost economic growth. The Chinese government controls gateways to global Internet through censorship, surveillance, and shut-downs. It is major exporter of broadcasting equipment world-wide (2022).

Books: Book “The Evolution of the Chinese Internet: Creative Visibility in the Digital Public by Shaohua Guo, Associate Professor of Chinese at Carleton College(Stanford University Press, 2020); “After the Internet, Before Democracy” by Johan Lagerqvist. “The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online” by Guobin Yang; “Consent of the Networked” by Rebecca McKinnon. “Marketing Dictatorship” by Anne-Marie Brady and “Treason by the Book” by Jonathan Spence

Internet Users in China

A) Internet users: total: 987 million (2020 est.); percent of population: 70 percent (2020 est.); B) Broadband - fixed subscriptions: total: 483,549,500 (2021); subscriptions per 100 inhabitants: 33.6 (2021). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2022]

In August 2018, the number of Internet users in China reached 800 million, according to a report by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), compared to around 300 million in the U.S. The Chinese figure brought the Internet penetration rate to 57.7 percent, with 788 million people — 98 percent — being mobile internet users. [Source: Jon Russell, The Crunch, August 21, 2018]

The Crunch reported the CNNIC data revealed: A) 21 percent of China’s internet users are also online banking users; B) 71 percent used online payments or e-commerce services; C) 74.1 percent used short video applications, which include Douyin (TikTok); D) 30.6 percent used bike sharing apps; E) 43.2 percent used taxi-booking apps; and F) 37.3 percent used the internet to reserve buses and trains

China had 731 million internet users, with 95 percent accessing from their phones, in December 2016. This was double the number of Interent users in 2009. According to Tech in Asia: There were “469 million mobile wallet users, up 31.2 percent in the past year, as more people than ever turn to WeChat, Alipay, Apple Pay, and several other services for online and in-store payments. 168 million people used ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Didi. WeChat remained the most used app, with 80 percent of netizens frequenting the social network. [Source: Tech in Asia, January 22, 2017]

Growth of the Internet in China

Internet usage has grown very fast in China. Private citizens were granted access to the Internet only in 1995. At that time only 2,000 Chinese were plugged into it. In 1998, there were around 1 million Internet subscribers, compared to 25 million in the United States. In 1999, China had three Internet service providers (ISPs). In 2001, there were 30 million Internet users, with about 20 percent of them gaining access through China’s 60,000 or so Internet cafes. By 2003 there were 80 million Internet users, a 35 percent increase from the previous year. The number reached 160 million in June 2007.

In 2003, 63 of every 1,000 people in China had access to the Internet. There were 293 secure Internet servers in the country in 2004. In 2005, 72 of every 1,000 people had access to the Internet, compared to 630 per 1,000 people in the United States, 538 per 1,000 people in high -income countries and 28 per 1,000 people in low -income countries In 2007, China surpassed the United States as the No.1 Internet user, with 220 million people in China using it compared to 216 million in the U.S. But at that time only 17 percent of the population in China used the Internet, compared to 71 percent in the U.S. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007; Library of Congress, 2006]

As of 2010, there were 9 million domain names registered under “.cn” compared to 1.1 million in 2006. The Chinese Academy of Sciences has estimated that the total amount of information stored on Chinese websites increased by 40 percent between 2005 and 2010. According to The Guardian the Internet "is the only place in China where the public can express views with near-freedom — although they are rapidly cut off by an army of state censors if they stray into territory that attracts official disapproval."

In the 2000s, if you had a modem and wanted Internet service all you needed to do was call one of several numbers reserved for the Internet and you were charged at a rate of around 35 cents an hour on your phone bill. Many Internet users in China at this time complained about slow Internet service. This was the result of the limited amount of broadband service and the use of government of filters. The Chinese government encouraged Internet use for education and business. It invested $138 billion in telecommunications networks between 2000 and 2005. At that time Cisco provided China with much of its Internet infrastructure including devices that blocked access to certain websites.

Broadband use increasing over the years. In 2007, China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest broadband user with more than 66.46 million residents subscribing to broadband services compared to 60.52 million in the United States. There was also an increase of Internet users over the years.

The number of Internet users in China reached about 253 million in June 2008, putting it ahead of the United States as the world’s biggest Internet market. More than 90 million new users were added in the previous year. There were an estimated 513 million users at the end of 2011, the most of any country, according to a government-sanctioned industry group, the China Internet Network Information Center. The number of Internet users in China reached about 300 million, or 23 percent of the population, in January 2009 and reached 384 million Internet users (about 30 percent of the population) in January 2010. In November 2010, the number of Internet users reached 450 million, over a third of China’s population.

Yasheung Huang, a professor of political economics at MIT, wrote in the Washington Post in 2010, “Anyone who has spent time online in China can testify that the Internet community there is easily one of the most dynamic and vibrant in Earth. One any issue, there are passionate debates and opinions across the ideological spectrum. Maoists, Hayekians and Confucians trade barbs and insults. Blogs by serious intellectuals attract audiences unimaginable in the West. China‘s market for ideas is enormous.” Some argued that Internet community in China at this time was so large and growing so fast that more stuff was getting past the censors than ever before.

Internet Users in China in the 2000s

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mud grass toy

According to a survey in 2002, 85 percent of Chinese Internet users at that time were males and half were under the age 24. These users tended to be more interested in online games than e-commerce or research. Many were school children spending most of their free time online. Explaining the appeal of the Internet, one university student told the Los Angeles Times, “It’s a great way to kill time and fill emptiness. Most of us can’t afford to travel or do other things for fun. I don’t know about the girls, but for the guys, it’s our No. 1 recreational activity.”

One survey in the early 2000s found that 63 percent of Internet users said they had home access and 41 percent used Internet cafes. Only three percent had direct access to broadband but many gained access to it through Internet cafes. A survey in 2005 found that 63 percent of users used e-mail, 30 percent participated in blogs, 27 percent used Google, 49 percent downloaded music, and 17 percent used the Net for online shopping. Downloading music, movies and other copyrighted material for free was considered normal. Few Chinese had any qualms about doing it. Almost a third of the traffic on some search engines was searches for free music for MP3 players.

By the late 2000s Chinese in their 20s were spending more time on the Internet than their American counterparts. A study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group found that people in China are far more connected than Americans, and that globally only the Japanese spend more time on the Web. A survey in 2008, found that 70 percent of Internet users in China were 30 or younger and high school students made up the fastest-growing sector of new users.

Li Yufei, a typical 18-year-old college student, was interviewed by the New York Times in 2010. He wrote a blog, downloaded Korean television shows, managed two Web sites devoted to music and played an online game called Rongguang Hospital at “I started doing a lot of this when I was about 11 years old,” he said. “Now, I spend most of my leisure time on the Interne...There’s nowhere else to go.” Li, a Shanghai Maritime University student, said he surfs the Web to find or build his own community. A shy person with no siblings, he said he had 300 online friends and said he turned to the Web to find what he could not find elsewhere, particularly on state-run TV,which banned the Korean shows he liked. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, April 18, 2010]

In the 2000s, Chinese were very fond of chat lines. Some online discussions seemed as of they would never end. Many Chinese got their news from such sources. A survey in 2006 found China’s Internet users had an average of seven chat room accounts. More than 40 percent of the online chat room users used instant messenger service for work purposes, 80 percent liked voice chatting and 40 percent liked real time conferencing. At teh same time research found that Chinese were not that big on e-mail, voice messaging and phone machines messages because they were not big on leaving messages period because they found that kind of interaction to be socially awkward. They preferred real time communications and tended to favor cell phones and text messaging over laptops and PCs. Those that regularly used their computer preferred instant messaging to e-mail. One survey found that 70 percent on Chinese online users used instant messaging while 56 percent used e-mail. In the United States in the 2000s only 39 percent of online users used instant messaging while 91 percent used e-mail

A lot of Internet attention was focused on trivial and inane matters. For example, when U.S. President Obama visited China in late 2009, a big deal was made about the “Obama girl,” an attractive young woman in a black dress and red coat that happened to be sitting behind him during a town hall forum in Shanghai. A week after Obama left China a Google search of “Obama girl in red coat” turned up nearly 7 million results. The woman, a student named Wang Zefei, found the attention unwanted, “I don’t want to be popular in this way, she said in her blog, I thought it would soon be quiet if I kept mum about it...I turns out that my silence brings more suspicion.”

Internet Communication in China in the 2000s

In the 2000s, Internet users proved to be very effective at spreading the word on everything from student protests to the latest shopping bargains. The Webs was used by people of all political persuasions. Cybernationalists seize on anything seen as anti-Chinese and attacked those who were perceived of instigating it. At the same time dissidents posted petitions and open letters that criticized the government and farmers posted videos of demonstrations in YouTube. Both nationalist and human rights concerns were largely driven by exchanges on Internet bulletin boards, text messages and e-mail.

Many young people spent their time communicating with their peers in online forums and instant messages the way American young teenagers hung out at the mall and went to the movies. On these forums there was a high use of code words, word play and puns not only to make jokes and be clever but also to make serious comments that elude government minders.

Many Chinese who come in contact with foreigners liked to be called by their Internet names. Jonathan Franzen wrote in The New Yorker that he traveled with Chinese birdwatchers who asked by to be called Stinky and Shadow, their Internet names. Stinky was quite an attractive young woman. When asked if she really wanted to be called Stinky she said yes.

YouTube-style sites were popular. One of the most watched videos on the Internet in late 2007 was a clip from an Olympics promotion event to rebrand the CCTV sports channel as the “Olympics Channel” in which the wife of a popular anchor on the channel crashed the event, grabbed the microphone and accused the anchor of sleeping with another woman. In January 2008, a Chinese couple sued a subway operator after a security video at a subway station showing them necking on a subway platform was downloaded on YouTube and received thousands of hits.

Numbers and Chinese URLS

Numbers are very common in Chinese URLs (addresses for web pages). Christopher Beam wrote in the New Republic: “In the U.S., you really only have to remember two long numbers, ever: Your phone number and your Social Security number. In China, you’re constantly barraged by digits: QQ numbers (QQ is China’s most popular chat service), email addresses, and even URLs. For example, the massive online retailer Jingdong Mall is at or, if that takes too long to type, Check out to see one of China’s first and largest online gaming websites. Buy and sell used cars at Want to purchase train tickets? It’s as easy as [Source: Christopher Beam New Republic, May 1, 2014]

“Why the preference for digits over letters? It mostly has to do with ease of memorization. To a native English-speaker, remembering a long string of digits might seem harder than memorizing a word. But that’s if you understand the word. For many Chinese, numbers are easier to remember than Latin characters. Sure, Chinese children learn the pinyin system that uses the Roman alphabet to spell out Mandarin words (for example, the word for “Internet,”, is spelled wangluo in pinyin). And yes, Arabic numerals (1-2-3) are technically just as much a foreign import as the Roman alphabet (A-B-C). But most Chinese are more familiar with numbers than letters, especially those who didn’t go to college. To many, “” might as well be Cyrillic.

“The digits in a domain name usually aren’t random. The Internet company NetEase uses the web address — a throwback to the days of dial-up when Chinese Internet users had to enter 163 to get online. The phone companies China Telecom and China Unicom simply reappropriated their well-known customer service numbers as domain names, and, respectively.

“Digits are even more convenient when you consider that the words for numbers are homophones for other words. The URL for the massive e-commerce site Alibaba, for example, is, pronounced “yow-leeyoh-ba-ba” — close enough! Those digits can just as often have individual meanings. The video sharing site works because the word for “six” is a near-homophone for the word “to stream.” The number five is pronounced wu, which sounds like wo, which means “I.” The number one is pronounced yao, which with a different tone means “want.” So the job-hunting site sounds a lot like “I want a job.” Likewise, to order McDonalds’ delivery online, just go to, the “517” of which sounds a bit like “I want to eat.” (An English equivalent might be the old radio jingle, “How many cookies did Andrew eat? Andrew 8-8000.”)

“This kind of number-language has become an infinitely malleable shorthand among Chinese web users: 1 means “want,” 2 means “love,” 4 means “dead” or “world” or “is,” 5 means “I,” 7 means “wife” or “eat,” 8 means “get rich” or “not,” and 9 means “long time” or “alcohol.” The numbers 5201314, for example, mean ?,or “I will love you forever”; 0748 means “go die”; and 687 means “I’m sorry.” Chinese has plenty of other number-based slang, such as erbaiwu, or “250,” which means “idiot,” or “38,” pronounced sanba, which means “bitch.” And of course there’s the association of certain numbers with good or bad luck, and the subsequent demand for addresses and phone numbers with lots of 8s (“get rich”) and minimal 4s (“die”). Back in 2003, a Chinese airline paid$280,000 for the phone number 88888888.

“Why don’t Chinese web addresses just use Mandarin characters? Because that’s a pain, too. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which sets the rules for web addresses globally, has periodically hyped the expansion of domain names toinclude non-Latinate scripts, but Chinese web sites have yet to take full advantage. Some devices require a special plug-in to type in Chinese URLs, and even then it takes longer to type or write out characters than toinput a few digits. Plus, for web sites that want to expand internationally but don’t want to alienate foreign audiences with unfamiliar characters, numbers are a decent compromise.

Internet Entertainment in China in the 2000s

The Internet was arguably China’s prime entertainment service by the end of the 2000s. David Barboza wrote in the New York Times, “Frustrated with media censorship, bland programming on state-run television and limits on the number of foreign films allowed to be shown in China each year, young people are logging onto the Web and downloading alternatives. Homegrown Web sites like Baidu, Tencent and have captured millions of Chinese youths obsessed with online games, pirated movies and music, the raising of virtual vegetables, microblogging and instant messaging.” A lot of young people complain that there is not much else to do.[Source: David Barboza, New York Times, April 18, 2010]

One of the more remarkable developments in the Internet in the 2000s was the creation of informal networks of young people who volunteered to produce Chinese subtitles for popular American television series like Prison Break and Gossip Girl. The Chinese subtitled were often translated within hours of the program’s showing in the United States, and then attached to the video and made freely available on Chinese file-sharing sites.

“The Web is really a reflection of real life, Gary Wang,” founder and chief executive of Tudou, one of China’s biggest video-sharing sites told the New York Times. “What people do in real life is they go to karaoke rooms, they go to bars, they get together with friends and they shop. And that’s what they do online.”

In the late 2000s, it seemed like every Chinese Internet company was building its own online conglomerate to offer online games, shopping, blogs and bulletin boards. Few companies wanted to specialize.

Blogs in China in the 2000s

There are around 30 million active blogs in China in the late 2000s. It was very easy to start a blog in China at that time — all it took was a few minutes and required no proof of identify. It was possible to create blogs about Tiananmen Square, Falun Gong and even ones that criticized government leaders and posted “Let’s overthrow the Communist Party!” They weren't censored until they got a certain number of readers.

The blog of actress Xu Jinglei attracted more than 174 million hits as of July 2008. At that time 10 other bloggers had attracted more than 100 million hits. Xu, an actress turned director, became the world’s most widely read blogger in 2007 after her site recorded it 100 millionth page view within a 600 day period. Xu started her blog in October 2005 and published a book of here blogged articles in March 2006. Known for her intellect and beauty, Xu won a best director award for her film "Letter From an Unknown Woman" at a film festival in Spain. Her blog was about her cats, her favorite television shows, daily life and her work.

There were scores of beggar blogs in which people ran sites that say things like “Please donate one yuan, it will help me be rich!” Users could click 1 yuan, 5 yuan or 10 yuan buttons and pay using an online payment system that sent money to a bank card number. A typical beggar didn't do very well, making around $40 a year. A young woman with severe muscular dystrophy used a bog to campaign for right to die. In doing so she generated some interest in a topic normally ignored

Suicide Rabbit was a popular Internet comic that lampooned the frustrations and abuses that occur in everyday life in corrupt and feckless China. In one strip the eager-to-help rabbit grabs a fire extinguisher to put out a small fire then is burnt to a crisp because the extinguisher contains chemicals that catch on fire rather than put the fire out. In another the rabbit is scolded by a low-level Beijing official who wants people to spit so he can make money by imposing fines on spitters. Its creator Liu Gang was very careful not to cross the line of what was acceptable but got away with making fun of China’s leaders.

One of the most popular sites in 2005 was a blog launched by a young woman known as Sister Lotus. It began as a quest to get advise on which university she should attend and expanded into an effort to find a boyfriend. She provided a few suggestive but not obscene photos of herself in various poses. The site drew millions of hits and started a phenomena that generated in own websites and blogs as well as magazine and newspaper articles. Sister Lotus perhaps could be regarded as China’s first influencer.

Wordpress and all the blogs and websites it were blocked because of the presence of offensive keywords. Wordpress, owners and founder Matt Mullenweg, who was 25 in 2009, refused to kowtow to Beijing’s censors and did not removed the offensive keywords or make any other alterations that would allow the blogs and sites to pass through China's Great Firewall.

Internet Memes in China

In the summer of 2009 someone anonymously posted a message on computer gaming forum that went: “Jia Junpeng, your Mom is calling you to come home and eat.” For some reason the posting captured the imagination of the Chinese Internet world and became a source of jokes and messages and was even used by car dealerships and restaurants in their advertisements. A couple of guys in the marketing and advertising fields claimed credit for coming up with the phrase. A high school student in Nanjing named Jia Junpeg said he had nothing to it and said he wished people would leave him alone. The expression “I’m just here to buy soy sauce” became an expression meaning “it has nothing to do with me” after it was used by a passerby when he was asked what he thought about Hong Kong star’s sex scandal.

Popular Internet phrases in 2011 included Wo- hun — literally“snail marriage” — referring to young couples that divorce but remain living together for financial reasons. Among the other popular memes from 2011 were 1) sha-ng bù qi (Too delicate to bear a blow); 2) tu cáo (To call someone out on something). 3) you mù you (To have/not have, same as); 4) mài méng (Purposefully try to appear adorable); 5) hù fen (mutual fans); 6). fanzhèng wo xìnle (Regardless, I believe it); 7) yi- pa-n (1,000 yuan per square meter).

The English-Chinese compound “Hold zhù” was very popular in 2011, with“hold” indicating “hold fast” or “hold your ground,” and the expression meaning to be in command of a situation with self-confidence and conviction. When said to someone else, it can have an encouraging (jia-yóu) meaning of “Come on! You got this!” It can also take the negative form “hold — to mean cannot go on, as in: “We can’t do it without you.” Its origin is not exactly clear, though general consensus suggests that it was coined in Hong Kong in the last 20 years, entering the Cantonese slang vernacular before making its way to the mainland. The expression was popularized in August 2011 by Miss Lin, a 21-year-old actress now known as “sister hold”. On a Taiwanese entertainment show. she played a fresh-from-France fashionista, overflowing with eccentric style tips. She told a story of how she once showed up in a bikini to a beach-themed party to discover that the theme was in fact Qing Dynasty. No sweat, she said, “hold” — “I had the whole scene under control” — and then put the bikini on her head and fashioned it into Qing princess headdress. [Source:]

Sile jiù bùyòng xie zuòyè (I don’t have to do homework if I’m dead) was another popular meme in 2011. In September of that year, three 10-year-old girls in Jiangxi Province skipped school one day because they hadn’t completed their homework. When after a whole day of work they still hadn’t finished their assignments, one of the girls had the drastic idea to commit suicide. The three girls climbed up to the top of a house and, holding hands, leapt off. The girls survived the fall, and the incident attracted national attention for their alarming response to a universal student chore. “I was scared to jump,” one of the girls recalled, “but I was also scared of being punished for not finishing my homework — I don’t have to do homework if I’m dead.” It was this last sentence that became famous, ranking number six on the year’s list of terms.

The hashtag “High-Speed Tyrant Woman” received a staggering 450 million views on Weibo in a single day in September 2018. It referred to a video rude behavior of a a female passenger on a train. It was a take off on “High-Speed Train Tyrant” ( gāotiě bà zuò nán) — the tag for a video from a month earlier showing the man freaking out and pretending he could not get up from a seat he stole on a train and needed a wheelchair — although he did not need one when boarding the train. [Source: Manya Koetse, What's On Weibo, September 20, 2018]

Grass-Mud Horse

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another mud grass toy
When Chinese censors cracked down on the Internet in the late 2000s Internet users responded with the posting a of fictional llama-like animal called the grass-mud horse that in Chinese lore defeated the invading river crabs. It turns out the pronunciations of the horse is almost the same as an obscene expression and river crabs became symbols of the censors. The creature appeared on T-shirts and stuffed toys.

“Since its first unheralded appearance on a Chinese Web page, the grass-mud horse has become nothing less than a phenomenon, “Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “A YouTube children’s song about the beast has drawn nearly 1.4 million viewers. A grass-mud horse cartoon has logged a quarter million more views. A nature documentary on its habits attracted 180,000 more. Stores are selling grass-mud horse dolls. Chinese intellectuals are writing treatises on the grass-mud horse’s social importance. The story of the grass-mud horse’s struggle against the evil river crab has spread far and wide across the Chinese online community.” [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, March 11, 2009]

China Digital Times reported: “In early 2009, a creature named the “Grass-Mud Horse” appeared in an online video which became an immediate viral hit. The term grass-mud horse, which sounds nearly the same in Chinese as “f*** your mother”, was originally created as a way to get around, and also poke fun at, government censorship of vulgar content. After netizens created an online video depicting the grass-mud horse at war with and eventually defeating the river crab, a homonym for “harmony,” a propaganda catchword, the idea caught fire instantly and the symbolic meaning of this term has been completely transformed. Within weeks, the “grass-mud horse” became the de facto mascot of netizens in China fighting for free expression, inspiring poetry, photos and videos, artwork, lines of clothing, and more. As one Chinese blogger explained, “The grass-mud horse represents information and opinions that cannot be accepted by the mainstream discourse, and — the Song of the Grass-Mud Horse — has become a metaphor of the power struggle over Internet expression? [Source:China Digital Times, December 7, 2010]

"The grass-mud horse was particularly suited to the contested space of the Chinese Internet. The government’s pervasive and intrusive censorship system has generated equally massive resentment among Chinese netizens. As a result, new forms of social resistance and demands for greater freedom of information and expression are often expressed in coded language and implicit metaphors, which allow them to avoid outright censorship. The Internet has became a quasi-public space where the CCP’s dominance is being constantly exposed, ridiculed, and criticized, often in the form of political satire,jokes, videos, songs, popular poetry, jingles, fiction, Sci-Fi, code words, mockery, and euphemisms.

Over years, Chinese netizens have shown they possess boundless creativity and ingenuity in finding such ways to express themselves despite stifling government restrictions on online speech. To the uninitiated, even those who can read Chinese, their coded language can be confounding. But to Chinese Internet users, the terms often resonate deeply by expressing feelings about shared experiences that millions of people can immediately relate to. Despite their subversive beginnings, many of the terms have already become mainstream in Chinese society; a few were even added to the Oxford Chinese dictionary this year.

Wang Xiaofeng, a journalist and blogger based in Beijing, told the New York Times that the little animal neatly illustrates the futility of censorship. When people have emotions or feelings they want to express,they need a space or channel, he said. It is like a water flow — if you block one direction, it flows to other directions, or overflows. There’s got to be an outlet.

Popular Memes in China in 2012

“We’ve Had Enough” (Locust Ads) was one of the most debated memes of 2012: According to the Wall Street Journal: 2012 “was year people in Hong Kong and mainland China stopped even trying to disguise their disdain for each other. After a series of unfortunate confrontations, firebrand Peking University professor Kong Qingdong went on Chinese TV to dismiss Hong Kong residents as dogs and thieves Hong Kongers responded by increasingly comparing mainland Chinese visitors to locusts descending from north of the border to consume the city. The anger culminated on Feb. 1 with the publication in the Apple Daily of a full-page ad depicting a giant locust standing menacingly on a cliff overlooking the Hong Kong skyline with words “Hong Kong People Have Had Enough!” emblazoned underneath. The ad made a lot of Chinese people angry. But it also sparked a series of biting parodies that quickly became a form of collective catharsis as people across the Chinese Internet vented their frustrations with all manner of groups. Altered versions of the ad poked fun at Chinese immigrants in the U.S. (“Americans Have Had Enough!”), incompetent government officials (“Chinese People Have Had Enough!”), people who talk on their mobile phones during concerts (“Real Music Lovers Have Had Enough!”) and many many others. [Source: Wall Street Journal, December 19, 2012]

“Dressing Nudes”: Just because Chinese people don’t like CCTV doesn’t mean the state broadcaster doesn’t provide the people with entertainment. On July 9, CCTV’s news channel ran a segment on an exhibition of Italian art at the National Museum in Beijing during which it blurred out the nether regions of Michelangelo’s “David.” In response to “David Gate” Internet users did their best to help China censor other potentially offensive works of art, forcing Adam to wear a long tie to mask his nakedness on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, using a soccer jersey to cover Eve’s breasts in Gustav Klimt’s portrait of the original couple and even putting a pair of boxer shorts on the Rem Koolhaas-designed headquarters of CCTV itself.

“Brother Watch” refers to Yang Dacai, former head of Shaanxi province’s work-safety bureau, who was fired for disciplinary violations after Internet users dug up photos of him sporting a collection of luxury watches that would strain the wallet of a Wall Street executive. Since then Internet users have gone on to expose a variety of abuses, financial and otherwise by local officials in a trend that even state-run media have hailed.

“Are you happy?” gets name from a national day holiday “news” feature in which CCTV reporters in various parts of the country went around asking people if they felt good about their lives. While the premise alone was bound to get the story mocked online, it was the execution that really sold it as meme material. Rather than direct the question at happy-looking people — as one would expect a state-run TV station eager to promote the idea of a happy China to do — several of the reporters decided instead to put their microphones in front of some of the country’s have-nots. Among them: a 73-year-old scrap collector, later proclaimed a hero by social media users, who mocked the question bypretending not to be able to hear the reporter.

“Aircraft carrier style” : On November 25, a year and a half after China’s first aircraft carrier began sea trials, CCTV broadcast footage showing a Chinese fighter jet landing on and taking off from the carrier for the first time. Included in the footage was a shot of two “shooters” giving the same launch signal — squatting on one leg, right arm extended — made famous by the film “Top Gun.” In a meme named after Gangnam style but more reminiscent of planking , inspired Internet users promptly flooded social media sites with photos of themselves mimicking the shooter signal — some dressed to look like the launch officers

Popular Internet Memes in 2016

“'Sichuan Trump”: in 2015 Donald Trump was known as "bed-breaker"-a Chinese homonym for his name. In 2016 he "chuanpu", one of two spellings of his name commonly used by mainstream media outlets. According to the BBC: “Some have joked about his connection to Sichuan, whose name shares the same Chinese character. But the weirdest riff of all happened when some speculated that he was actually from the southwest province best known for its pandas and spicy food. “The conspiracy theory, spread on social networks Weibo and WeChat, is that Trump was born in 1946 in Sichuan when his father set up a business in China after World War Two. It's nonsense of course, but that hasn't stopped some locals from claiming him as "the pride of Sichuan"-despite his recent verbal attacks against China. [Source: Tessa Wong, BBC News, December 27, 2016]

“'Meteorological disaster”: “As several Chinese cities choke in the annual winter smog, the Beijing authorities have come up with one novel way to address the problem-by calling it something else. In December municipal lawmakers said they were considering classifying smog as a meteorological disaster or "tianzai", arguing that the smog was caused not only by pollution but also weather conditions. “The move drew mockery online from fed-up citizens with even state media publishing rare criticism. People's Daily quoted one professor saying that the plan "not only goes against science, it will also create an excuse for polluters to escape their culpability." The smog has also spawned other terms-such as "Smog Solstice", cropped up in a reference to the winter solstice.

“Skinny blue mushroom”: “One man's misfortune in love turned out to be a goldmine for netizens, when a man from Guangxi province uploaded a video of himself talking about his loneliness while his girlfriend was away. “Unbearable, I want to cry," he moaned-but thanks to his heavy accent, it ended up sounding more like "skinny blue mushroom". "Lanshouxianggu" was swiftly shared more widely and took off as a meme, mostly as a way to mock the southern Guangxi accent. But it was the forlorn lover who got the last laugh-identified as scooter salesman Wei Yong, he has since become a celebrity in China's lucrative online live-streaming industry.

“Melon-eating masses”: ““A term whose closest equivalent is possibly "popcorn gallery", its fullest expression is "the melon-eating masses who don't know what's really going on". Its origin is unclear, but netizens often use this-sometimes derogatorily-to describe a passive group of bystanders at a major incident or event.

'Zhao”: “Netizens are eternally playing cat-and-mouse with China's internet censors, and one of their latest tactics is the use of the word "zhao". It's most commonly used to criticise the rich and powerful-as one of China's most common surnames, it's difficult to censor all posts with that word. It's all part of a rich Chinese tradition of using oblique accusations to express opinions when it would otherwise be impossible-and dangerous-to directly criticise those in authority.

Fart People and Coded Online Dissent in China

Xiao Qiang and Perry Link wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “The rise of online platforms in China has given the Chinese people an unprecedented capacity for self-publishing and communication. Because they speak in a heavily monitored environment, however, these "netizens" must often voice their demands for greater freedom in coded language and metaphors that allow them to avoid outright censorship. Chinese cyberspace has given rise to a surprising number of new terms for exposing, criticizing and ridiculing the Communist Party. Largely invented by young gadflies, this lively discourse has begun to spread widely. [Source: Xiao Qiang and Perry Link, Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2013]

“Some of the new terms grow from temporary code words used in order to evade word filters. The term zhengfu (government), for example, counts as "sensitive," and efforts to skirt it have given rise to a number of new terms. One of these is tianchao (heavenly dynasty), which, besides avoiding filters, delivers the mischievous suggestion that the government is hardly modern. In a nod to George Orwell, the Party's Department of Propaganda is referred to as the zhenlibu (Ministry of Truth).

“Another widespread term is hexie, which means "river crab" but is a near-homonym of the word for "harmony." The regime of recently retired PRC President Hu Jintao, in its public rhetoric, put great stress on the idea of a hexie shehui or "harmonious society." By recasting this official phrase to turn "harmonious society" into "river-crab society," netizens are evoking Chinese folklore, in which the crab appears as a bully known for scuttling sideways. Netizens use hexie as a verb as well as a noun. When a website is shut down or a computer screen goes blank, the victims might say "We have been river-crabbed!" or, in other words, "harmonized" into silence.

“A few years ago, a netizen with a sly sense of humor began using the terms guidang (your [honorable] party) and guiguo (your [honorable] state). Gui literally means "noble" or "expensive" and has long been placed before nouns as a polite way of saying "your": Thus guixing means "your honorable surname," and so on. Guiguo has also, for a long time, been an established way of saying "your country" when people from different countries are talking to each other in a formal way.

“But now, in some circles on the Internet, guiguo has taken on the sarcastic meaning of "your state" — in other words, the state that belongs to you rulers, not to me. The question "What is guiguo?" has popped up in Internet chat rooms. In one of these, in October 2010, a netizen wrote: "It turns out that this guo is not our guo, but the guo of a certain dang [that is, the Communist Party]. This fact makes the terms guiguo and guidang appropriate."

“But if netizens are putting ironic distance between themselves and "your state," the question arises of what they do identify with at the national level. What is it, in the new day, to be Chinese? This is a big question, and the answers that are beginning to appear are only tentative.

“Consider pimin or "fart people," a playful tag that has come to stand in opposition to guiguo. The pimin usage comes from a notorious incident that took place on Oct. 29, 2008, when Lin Jiaxiang, a 58-year-old Communist Party official, was eating at a seafood restaurant in Shenzhen City. He asked an 11-year-old girl for directions to the men's room, and she led him there. According to a police report, he grabbed her near the entrance; she escaped and ran to her parents. Her father confronted Mr. Lin, and an argument ensued, during which the official pointed at the father and yelled, "I was sent here by the Ministry of Transportation! My rank is the same as your mayor's! I did grab her neck and so what? You people are farts to me! You wanna take me on? You wanna test what I can do to you?"

“Unfortunately for Mr. Lin, the episode was captured by a security camera and leaked to the Internet, where it went viral. Mr. Lin eventually was fired and "fart people" became a standard term. Gradually it morphed into a term of pride. Fart people came to mean "us" netizens and ordinary people, the ones on the receiving end of abuse, the ones who have no vote, the ones who empathize and identify with one another — the ones who, in short, form the polar opposite of guiguo.

Impact of the Internet on China

George Yeo and Eric X. Li wrote in Global Viewpoint in 2012: In the early 2000s, “when China’s Internet was in its infancy with a few million users, the government made it clear that it would exercise political oversight on the nascent cyberspace while allowing it to grow. Many experts then predicted that such efforts were doomed to fail. The Internet, they said, was to be a brave new world that could not be controlled. There were only two possible outcomes: A freely expanding Internet beyond the reach of political authority and subverting it, or an Internet stifled by government control and unable to realize its social and economic benefits. Rupert Murdoch famously proclaimed that advances in communications technology posed an “unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere.” [Source: George Yeo and Eric X. Li, Global Viewpoint, January 20, 2012. George Yeo is a former Foreign Minister of Singapore and Eric X. Li is a venture capitalist in Shanghai]

Confounding these experts, neither has happened in China. By any standard, the Chinese Internet is one of the most vibrant economic and social cyberspaces in the world. Four hundred fifty million users communicate, transact, and entertain in it. Entrepreneurial companies have created tens of billions of dollars in economic value. China’s search engine, e-commerce and online video businesses are among the world’s leading companies. On Taobao, China’s eBay, millions of mom-and-pop shops are conducting billions of dollars of transactions per month. On QQ and Sina, the two largest Weibo services, 200 million users are active — expressing their views on anything and everything from sex to official corruption.

Concurrently, a massive government-directed monitoring system combined with self-regulation by hosting companies makes China’s Internet highly controlled by political authority. Facebook and Twitter are banned while their domestic versions flourish. In a well-publicized spat with the government, Google’s search presence was curtailed while its other businesses have continued. When social crises occur, key-word barriers are erected to prevent amplifications that threaten stability. China’s size and its centralized governance have enabled the creation of a parallel Internet universe connected to and separate from the one outside. There are leaks and many VPNs are available. Minor leaks are ignored. When leaks become important, they are plugged and sometimes bluntly.

The approach of the Chinese government is similar to that of Chinese medicine. The emphasis is on the Internet being an organic part of the body politic. Too much intervention is as bad as too little. Constant monitoring is necessary so that one knows when and how much to intervene. The word in Chinese is tiao, which means continuous tuning of a complex system. Social media has enabled the Chinese government to overcome an age-old problem of poor feedback of ground problems to the centre because of too many layers in between risking explosions due to over-suppression. Social media brings such problems to the attention of China’s leaders. The train accident in Wenzhou in 2011 was a good example. Like a Chinese physician feeling the pulse of a patient, China’s leaders were alerted to a serious imbalance and reacted comprehensively. The result will be a better and safer high-speed rail. Social media provides a safety valve alerting the government to problems that can get out of control.

The current health of China’s cyber universe is not bad. Economically and socially the Internet is flourishing. Politically it is being used to help maintain social stability despite rapid change. Never before in history have such a large number of people undergone such rapid change. Old values have been undermined before new values develop, leading to crass materialism. Regulations have not kept up with the new realities, causing frequent problems of public safety. Social and economic divisions have widened considerably.

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2022

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