March 27, 2018
It’s clear why China is banning references to Animal Farm. It’s less clear why they’re banning references to the letter n.
by Ian Dreiblatt
We’ve written a lot recently about unfortunate goings-on in China, where President Xi Jinping has been busily consolidating his power for the past several years. As we wrote in November:
When the CCP held its Nineteenth National Congress last month, it rewrote its constitution to include Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era (which, reportedly, sounds zippier in the original). Journalists around the world promptly began shitting themselves in a frantic effort to describe the (ahem, nearly) unrivaled power this gave the Chinese president.
More recently, the nation has abolished presidential term limits, leading many to speculate that Xi intends to remain in office for life.
A wave of intense repression has underscored Xi’s tightening grip on power. We’ve written extensively on the plight of Gui Minhai, the Swedish bookseller apparently abducted by Chinese state forces in 2015, who remains in custody and appears to be being denied crucial medical care. More recently, we wrote on several writers’ invitations to a literary festival in Macau being rescinded after officials suggested they might not be allowed to enter the country.
Now for the Independent, Maya Oppenheim reports on new, repressive measures in China — some very easy to understand, and some very hard.
Easy to understand: Beijing has revealed a new slate of language banned from use on Weibo, China’s main social media site. Included, reportedly, are “Xi Zedong” (a mashup of Xi’s name with that of China’s last president for life, Mao Zedong), searches for terms like “disagree,” “lifelong,” “shameless,” and “personality cult,” and reference to George Orwell’s novels Animal Farm and 1984. The reasoning on this last restriction is clear: Orwell’s books make savage attacks on authoritarianism, the surveillance state, propaganda for phony political dogma, and repressive governments. It’s an obvious mark of his success as a writer that the Chinese government wants to stop people from mentioning his books online.
Harder to understand: one of the banned terms is not so straightforward. As Oppenheim writes, “It was not immediately obvious why the ostensibly harmless letter ‘N’ had been banned, but some speculated it may either be being used or interpreted as a sign of dissent.” That, in fairness, hardly even counts as speculation — “Reporters don’t know why visitors have been spraying the Lincoln Memorial with a firehouse, but some speculate it may be thirsty.” What’s clear, though, is that, for the time being, one should not post about George Orwell or the letter n on Chinese social media. Do’t eve thik about it.
Meantime, for those stateside who may be interested in some updated riffing on the ideas and characters in Animal Farm: a modest proposal — and one that the Orwell estate was, in the immortal words of the New York Times’ Dinitia Smith, “not happy about.”
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.