Dictators hate a challenge to their rule. That’s why China uses its vast policing and advanced technological resources both to arrest individuals and to disappear from public view any protest words, phrases, images or symbols that might be seen as threatening the state. The kinds of things that, if unchecked, can potentially overthrow a regime.
One of the high-priority targets of China’s security systems today? Winnie the Pooh.
Yes, Pooh Bear is a danger to the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese state, and, most importantly, President Xi Jinping.
Xi should be feeling pretty confident these days, as China prepares to change its constitution to rid it of presidential term limits. Not since Chairman Mao Zedong will China have had a more powerful and unchallenged leader. But the power of Pooh must not be underestimated.
Why Pooh and his media parent company, Disney? Popular protest in countries where speech is controlled often finds expression in seemingly innocent ways as well as through symbols loaded with hidden or ironic meaning. From blue Smurfs in Poland in the late 1980s to yellow rubber duckies in contemporary Russia, Serbia, and Brazil.
The absurd directly challenges the entrenched.
In China, an inspired citizen saw a resemblance between Xi Jinping and the cuddly, befuddled Pooh and posted it on Weibo — a Chinese version of Twitter. The picture of an oversized Pooh benevolently sitting in a car instantly ricocheted around People’s Republic of China social media. It was quickly interpreted by the Chinese public as mocking an official image of Xi Jinping in a car reviewing a People’s Liberation Army formation.
The Chinese state, communist party and President Xi — China’s “core” leader — are now seen as the PRC’s holy trinity. They must be considered one single solitary and infallible unit with perfectly aligned interests. Any attack or mockery of Xi is thus also considered an attack against the party and the state. Therefore, it is potentially punishable by all the tools and methods available to the state.
It’s not officially declared policy that Pooh — or any Disney character — is an anti-China agitator. But the reality is that the Chinese state actively censors subversive words from being searched on the carefully controlled and firewall-protected internet. The China Digital Times dynamically crowdsources phrases that are blocked online, an ever-changing list that recently included the following:
- Long live the emperor
- Personality cult
- The wheel of history
- Xi Zedong
- Incapable ruler
- Rule the world
- Great men sent from heaven
Information sovereignty is China’s goal. That means being able to decide and control what its population reads or sees. Chinese authorities have been astute students of the Soviet Union’s demise and collapse. They have understood that free-flowing information and state counter-narratives are powerful and effective at undermining a state’s legitimacy.
It may seem simplistic and naïve today, but in the pre-internet era, radio broadcasts with jazz music and alternative, credible news programming could infect the minds of an otherwise programmed people with visions of liberation and dreams of democratic governance. That’s why the Soviets put so much effort and expense into jamming shortwave radio signals and programming — the kind I also once produced for Radio Sweden International in the 1980s.
Total information control proved impossible. The populations of Eastern Europe and the USSR knew that there was an alternative to their political oppression and economic suffering. It took a good 74 years before the Soviet Union dissolved, but the slow-drip of truth eventually helped corrode the Iron Curtain.
China is on an economic tear, boasting an astronomical annual growth rate with high future financial growth targets. It has successfully lifted hundreds of thousands of its people out of poverty, in part, as Donald Trump has rightly argued, thanks to huge American and European trade deficits. As long as the country stays economically viable and financially underwritten by the West, the only thing the communist party and Xi need to stay in power is to control regime-challenging democratic messages and ideas.
The 21st century gives any state sophisticated tools for filtering information and finding malcontents. Monitoring IP addresses and social media accounts allows the Chinese state to track and control its population. Managing the message, and the messengers, prevents subversives from spreading revolutionary ideas or organizing anti-state protest. “The Great Firewall of China” effectively keeps out news, information, and ideas that challenge the State-Party-Xi triumvirate. While Americans protest for net neutrality to keep an anarchic flow of information moving freely within the USA, the Chinese state is practicing and preaching net neutering of its citizens to insure China’s domestic tranquility and maintain the state’s legitimacy.
President Trump has broken ranks with his predecessors and America’s traditional values as he enviably looks at totalitarian states’ control of media, message, and manipulation. His benevolent attitude towards China’s blind pursuit of its own interests makes it more difficult for China’s global critics to pressure President Xi’s regime.