The emergence of online platforms has given Chinese citizens “an unprecedented capacity for self-publishing and communication,” write Xiao Qiang and Perry Link:
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. …..
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).
The ruling Communist party is cracking down on independently-minded media and on-line voices, blatantly censoring one reputable newspaper and demanding that Internet users reveal their real identities when registering. But many netizens are managing to circumvent official controls by using irreverent codes, say Xiao and Link, chief editor of China Digital Times and Chair for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California, Riverside, respectively;
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 [see dissident artist Ai Weiwei's crab installation, above]. 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). ….Guiguo has 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.
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? ….
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.
China Digital Times is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.