Lessons from China for the World
Rebecca MacKinnon (Global Voices)
A Dirty Pun Tweaks China’s Online Censors
BEIJING — Since its first unheralded appearance in January on a Chinese Web page, the grass-mud horse has become nothing less than a phenomenon.A YouTube children’s song about the beast has drawn nearly 1.4 million viewers. A grass-mud horse cartoon has logged a quarter million more views. A nature documentary on its habits attracted 180,000 more. Stores are selling grass-mud horse dolls. Chinese intellectuals are writing treatises on the grass-mud horse’s social importance. The story of the grass-mud horse’s struggle against the evil river crab has spread far and wide across the Chinese online community.Not bad for a mythical creature whose name, in Chinese, sounds very much like an especially vile obscenity. Which is precisely the point.The grass-mud horse is an example of something that, in China’s authoritarian system, passes as subversive behavior. Conceived as an impish protest against censorship, the foul-named little horse has not merely made government censors look ridiculous, although it has surely done that.It has also raised real questions about China’s ability to stanch the flow of information over the Internet — a project on which the Chinese government already has expended untold riches, and written countless software algorithms to weed deviant thought from the world’s largest cyber-community.Government computers scan Chinese cyberspace constantly, hunting for words and phrases that censors have dubbed inflammatory or seditious. When they find one, the offending blog or chat can be blocked within minutes.Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, who oversees a project that monitors Chinese Web sites, said in an e-mail message that the grass-mud horse “has become an icon of resistance to censorship.”
It features video of alpacas while child sings about the grass mud horse, but the difference in tones between “Grass mud horse” and “Fuck your mother” is just a subtle tonal change.
Since song tones override speaking tones in Chinese, it’s a sweet choir of children singing “Fuck your mother.” They sound very sweet. The alpacas are fluffy, but slightly creepy.
Definitely best misheard lyrics since “wrapped up like a douche bag in the middle of the night”.
This video is coming to represent the fight against censorship. If you type in obscene or politically sensitive words often the software or the server will bounce you to an error message, so people use puns and slight changes in language to defeat the software, but everyone knows what you’re really talking about. This is very like how people got around filtering in Napster oh so long ago now.
There’s another older meme about a River crab wearing three watches.
(River crab (Chinese: 河蟹; pinyin: héxiè) and harmonious/harmonize/harmonization (Chinese: 和谐; pinyin: héxié) are Internet slang terms created by Chinese netizens in reference to Internet censorship or the other censorship of China. In Chinese Mandarin, the word "river crab" (河蟹), which originally means Chinese mitten crab, sounds similar to "harmonious/harmonize/harmonization" (Chinese: 和谐) in the word "harmonious society" (和谐社会), ex-Chinese leader Hu Jintao's signature ideology.)
It’s another homonym pun. It’s a play on two government mottoes: the “harmonious society” and the “three represents.”
Harmonious becomes a River crab wearing three watches, three represents three watches. A River crab wearing three watches seems to be a bit about going along with the government plans.
So now there’s an intellectual discussion going on about River crabs versus alpacas.
Rebecca shows a video for a song about the fight. The song goes between folk and rap, and talks about the River crab invading the alpaca’s territory and making it hard for the alpaca to live.
This is how the Chinese are talking:
indirectly through these videos and essays.It’s a mistake to think that this is a question of Government vs. Internet. The Chinese government is learning how to use the internet well to promote itself and clarify things, and even solicit speech.
The prime minister had a two-hour show answering questions – sometimes very human, personal ones. The public response was positive, the government figures became more relatable. The Chinese media claim that China is using the internet to become more democratic.
There’s more e-government web stuff available: they even recently took policy suggestions online.
There were comments on a government run website on how to fight corruption, and even a conversation about ending the one child policy in the forums.
But don’t mistake this for Chinese internet glasnost:
Rebecca points out several activists in jail for trying to organize or speak on the Internet. The government isn’t willing to take it the whole way. Instead this is “authoritarian deliberation,” where there’s a lot of public discussion about policy, but there’s no real recourse to power or protections for the people.
China also has a strong cyber-nationalism. Last year there was a big backlash against western coverage of a Chinese crackdown on Tibet–Chinese students protesting what they saw as slanted western coverage.
There’s a huge argument going on between China, kind of a conversational civil war online about where China should be going.
The web and IT world is creating an opaque layer between the government and the people that favors the government. There’s the Great Firewall of China, and self-censoring companies. Self-censorship takes many forms–Google.cn shows you Tienanmen square and the Nanjing massacre of WWII if you google Tienanmen massacre, whereas Baidu shows you nothing at all.
While we think of this with China, in fact this layer of companies and technologies with excessive government influence is actually global. The globalnetworkinitiative.org is an initiative of ideas on what companies should do to be a transparent layer between people and governments.
To tie it back to the history of dead white guys: the Hamiltonians vs Jeffersonians–this is the same debate we’re having between control and freedom all over the world.
Do we lock up the internet for our safety or keep is free for civil liberties?
Which side are you helping? The River crab or the alpaca?