In China, Staying a Step Ahead of the Censors

An image from Pi San's "Crack Sunflower Seeds," believed to be a commentary on the detainment of artist Ai Weiwei (see below).

The People's Republic of China is considered to have the most advanced system of Internet censorship in the world, one that prevents nearly all direct criticisms of the ruling Communist Party. As a result, Chinese social critics have had to devise increasingly creative ways to make political statements in defiance of Beijing's wishes.

Their efforts have flown into the face of increasing suppression. Defying theories that increased economic growth would lead to greater media liberalization in China, the Chinese firewall has, if anything, become even stricter in recent years. Signs indicate that this trend will only continue, even with the release of the well-known dissident artist (and social media user) Ai Weiwei earlier this year.  

In an excellent new feature piece, the New York Times Magazine profiles animator Pi San (real name Wei Bo) and journalist Wen Yunchao, two Chinese whose trenchant criticisms of Communist Party rule have turned them into Internet folk heroes — and targets of the state. Wen, a native of Guangzhou, skillfully manipulates language in order to evade detection, relying on visual gags such as empty chairs and shaved beards to convey subtle messages to his many readers. The Beijing-based Pi, meanwhile, attracted widespread attention earlier this year with a clever animation lampooning the often ham-handed methods China uses to police its media.

In this passage from the Times Magazine article, Wen explains the efficacy of satire and humor in promoting ideas:

Satire is sometimes a safety valve that government might grudgingly permit. Better a virtual laugh, after all, than a real protest. But being laughed at, as Orwell found during his stint as a colonial police officer in Burma, can also be a ruler's greatest fear. And the Chinese government, which last year sentenced a woman to a year of hard labor for a sarcastic three-word tweet, appears to suffer from an acute case of humor deficiency. "Jokes that mock the abuse of power do more than let off steam; they mobilize people's emotions," says Wen Yunchao, an outspoken blogger who often mounts sardonic Internet campaigns in defense of free speech. "Every time a joke takes off," Wen says, "it chips away at the so-called authority of an authoritarian regime."

In this post from April, Asia Society posted a video clip of Pi San's notorious animation followed by commentary from Jeremy Goldkorn, a Beijing-based expert on China's media and the founder of Watch the clip below (4 min., 45 sec.):

For readers of Chinese, Wen Yunchao can be followed on Twitter here.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Matt Schiavenza

Matt Schiavenza is the Senior Content Manager at Asia Society. Previously, he worked as an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he helped launch and then oversee the China Channel.