Thursday, March 01, 2018

China gets sick of "N" words

You gotta read it to believe it: China temporarily bans the Roman letter "N," along with Orwell's books 1984 and Animal Farm.

It is the 14th letter in the English alphabet and, in Scrabble, the springboard for more than 600 8-letter words. But for the Communist party of China, it is also a subversive and intolerable character that was this week banished from the internet as Chinese censors battled to silence criticism of Xi Jinping’s bid to set himself up as ruler for life.

The contravening consonant was perhaps the most unusual victim of a crackdown targeting words, phrases, and even solitary letters censors feared might be used to attack Beijing’s controversial decision to abolish constitutional term limits for China’s president.

The Communist party has painted the move—which experts say paves the way for Xi to become a dictator for life—as an expression of overwhelming popular support for China’s strongman leader. However, there has been widespread online push-back in China since it was announced on Sunday on the eve of an annual political congress in Beijing. In a blog post, Victor Mair, a University of Pennsylvania China expert, said censors had taken “quick, drastic action” after “the internet was flooded with complaints.”

According to a list compiled by the China Digital Times website, search terms blocked on Weibo, China’s Twitter, included:

- ‘Ten thousand years’ (万岁), which is China’s way of saying: ‘Long live!’ or ‘Viva!’

- ‘Disagree’ (不同意)

- ‘Xi Zedong’ (习泽东), a hybrid of the names of Xi and Chairman Mao Zedong

- ‘Shameless’ (不要脸)

- ‘Lifelong’ (终身)

- ‘Personality cult’ (个人崇拜)

- ‘Emigrate (移民)

- ‘Immortality’ (长生不老)

The name Yuan Shikai, a Qing dynasty warlord who unsuccessfully tried to restore monarch to China, was also banned as were the titles of two George Orwell books, 1984 and Animal Farm.

Less clear is why censors took issue with the letter ‘N’. Mair speculated it was “probably out of fear on the part of the government that ‘N’ = ‘n terms in office’, where possibly n > 2.”

Charlie Smith, the alias of the co-founder of, a group that helps users track and bypass Chinese censorship, said he found that explanation plausible. “[Censors] probably determined it was sensitive and then moved to add that content to the blacklist so others would not be able to post something similar,” he said, noting that the seditious symbol had now been emancipated. I doubt that they actually put that much thought into it so sadly, the letter ‘N’ was a temporary victim of this rash decision.”

Read the rest. Note that the "N" ban was temporary. A few reactions:

1. Google has been complicit in helping China build and maintain its Great Firewall, so I expect the company—whose motto is, ironically, "Don't Be Evil"—to help China in any way possible with this current wave of oppression.

2. I guess the leader's name was "Xi Ji Pig" for a time. Rapper name: G.G. Pig!

3. Victor Mair is a big China/India scholar; it's good to see him quoted, albeit briefly.

4. Regarding Xi's attempt to become a lifelong maximum leader: "All who gain power are afraid to lose it." (Chancellor Palpatine)

5. "Sesame Street" muppets must be running amok and screaming in fear about now: there are now only 25 letters of the alphabet that can sponsor the show.

6. I expect there to be something of a Streisand Effect regarding Orwell's books. When you ban Orwell, especially when you're specifically banning 1984 and Animal Farm, it's pretty transparent what you're doing.

7. It's amazing how the Chinese censors are able to anticipate which words/concepts will be trending. They must be closely in touch with the popular mood. It seem ironic to be so empathetic with one's own people, then to turn around and betray those same people.

8. In terms of damage, selecting "N" isn't bad: the five most frequently used letters in English are E, T, A, O, and N (reference: Herbert S. Zim).

9. No "N"s for Xi? What a fuckig cut that guy is.

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