Why is China censoring a fake photo of its leaders doing ‘Gangnam Style’?

November 20, 2012

A fake image of China's leaders doing Gangnam Style. Left to right: new President Xi Jinping, previous President Hu Jintao, Prime Minister Web Jiabao. (Via 太公云會報)

Here's the timeline: On November 8, the first day that Chinese leaders gathered for their once-in-a-decade Party Congress to announce the next generation of leaders, a Chinese-language Facebook page posted a clearly doctored photo of the party's top officials doing the dance from South Korean pop hit Gangnam Style. On November 13, popular China blog Beijing Cream picked it up. The congress ended two days later, and on the 17th, a widely followed user on China's popular Twitter-like service, Weibo, posted the image with a banal message about the song's popularity. Censors pulled it down almost immediately.

Why? It would be easy to read too much into the decision of one censor, though the potential capriciousness of the censors is itself important for understanding the Chinese web. Still, giving the censors the benefit of the doubt that they operate consistently, the explanation might have to do with the extreme care that the country gives in cultivating the images of its leaders. It's nowhere near the days of Mao Zedong -- officials are deeply conscious of the lessons of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, a disaster closely associated in China with Mao's cult of personality -- but the government is clearly concerned about the perceived legitimacy of its leaders and thus the single-party system they command.

As the China Media Report puts it, in language so dry it's hard to tell whether or not it's supposed to be funny, "The images of Chinese leaders are carefully managed by propaganda leaders, and the suggestion that they would dance in formation and shake their hips is certainly unwelcome." In other words, censors are so sensitive to any unapproved and apparently undermining material on top leaders that even this seemingly meaningless photo is perceived as too risky to let through. Given that Chinese online political commentators often adopt banal-seeming themes to subtly criticize the government -- see Ai Weiwei's "grass mud horse" obsession -- the censors would not be entirely crazy to worry about subversive messages in such an image, though there don't actually appear to be any.

Beijing Cream seems to think the real logic is a little less rational and a little more bureaucratic: "I know the answer, of course. Because censorship. Because censorship." Neither explanation, of course, is particularly flattering for the Chinese censorship system. In this instance, as is often the risk, overstepping censors seem to have risked drawing more attention to what they were trying to keep quiet. As Chinese web use grows, as does the flow of ideas and images between China's semi-closed Internet and the rest of the world, it's hard to see this challenge getting any easier for the Chinese government.

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Max Fisher | November 20, 2012