In a front-page story published online July 16, the Financial Times reported that the Xi-Winnie picture has become “too politically sensitive to be mentioned on Chinese social media.” Soon after, stories about Winnie's woes flooded major news outlets. “Winnie the Pooh is the latest victim of censorship in China,” read one headline.
“Has Winnie the Pooh done something to anger China's censors?” asked Agence France-Presse.
The answer is yes, sort of. But not the way you might imagine.
This week's rush of stories made it seem like the political winds had changed, causing China's censors to suddenly scrub the Xi-Pooh meme from the Web. But the data suggests it wasn't that simple. And that shows us something about how Chinese censorship works — and how Chinese censorship is covered by the press.
China's censorship apparatus is vast and complex. The so-called Great Firewall blocks Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube and — as of this week, it seems — certain functions on WhatsApp.
The system can be fearsomely efficient. When China's first Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, died in state custody on July 13, it was nearly impossible to post about it.
In the wake of his death, the candle emoji was blocked on several social networks to stop people from publicly expressing grief. Censors managed to pull pictures from one-to-one chats, according to a Citizen Lab report. In short: The death was all but erased.
As that played out, attention shifted to the woes of a cartoon bear, which despite talk of “bans,” “blocks” and “blacklists” was easy to find on the Web.
We checked how often three Winnie-related Chinese terms showed up in posts on Weibo, China's answer to Twitter. The terms were: Winnie Bear (维尼熊), Little Bear Winnie (小熊维尼), Winnie (维尼).
As you can see below, the number of posts using these three terms rose, rather than fell, suggesting many people were trying to post about Winnie — and tens of thousands were able to do so.
It's not that there was not censorship — as the reporting correctly asserts, there was. But it was not a “block” in the literal sense of the word. Winnie was out there.
The surge in interest in Winnie raises the question of what drove the story. Did censors, for political reasons, suddenly decide Xi couldn't take a joke?
It is certainly true that the government lacks a sense of humor when it comes to the Xi-Pooh joke.
But a screenshot that circulated on Chinese social media last week offers another possible explanation.
The screenshot, which claimed to cite a government document, predicted that Winnie the Pooh cartoons would be censored because “the main character looks like the leader of the country.” It is not clear whether the notice was real or fake, but it spread widely nonetheless.
Taiwan's Liberty Times Net reported July 14 that Winnie the Pooh was blocked on Weibo for his resemblance to the Chinese president. The same day, searches for the three keywords above surged on both Weibo and Baidu, a Chinese search engine.
What that could suggest — and, again, it is a theory — is that rumors of a Winnie crackdown triggered a surge in interest and then an actual crackdown, said Charlie Smith, the pseudonymous co-founder of GreatFire.org, a website that monitors China's Internet filtering and maintains an app to help Internet users get past the restrictions.
“When the Chinese authorities decide to censor something, they end up generating interest in a topic,” he said.
Smith was surprised to see the Pooh censorship story start to overshadow the death of China's most prominent dissident and the frenzy of censorship that followed. “His imprisonment, his cancer, his transfer, his death, his funeral, the spreading of his ashes, the homages paid to him — each aspect of the Liu Xiaobo [story] is more important,” he said.
To Smith, the episode “just signifies how the rest of the world looks at the Chinese censorship apparatus as being ridiculous, childish even,” when, in reality, it is anything but.