Images of the children’s fictional story character, Winnie the Pooh, have been deemed too politically sensitive by the Chinese government and are now illegal on all Chinese social media platforms. The ban follows the emergence of several satirical pictures mocking Chinese president Xi Jinping. A national crackdown this week sought to remove all images and animated gifs of the honey-loving bear from public media. This included the microblogging platform, Sina Weibo — China’s equivalent to Twitter — as well as the country’s most popular instant messaging app, Tencent WeChat and its free image gallery. Written Chinese references to the cartoon bear are also banned from searches, public posts and comments. Any attempts to use them will elicit the message: “Content is illegal.”
The Chinese government has so far given no reason for blacklisting the famous AA Milne character. However, Beijing is known for its strict censorship laws. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are all blocked in mainland China, which prevents citizens from viewing politically sensitive material or from publicly criticizing the ruling Communist Party.
Memes comparing Chinese President Xi Jinping to Winnie the Pooh first surfaced in 2013. A photo of the leader and former president Barack Obama was posted alongside a drawing of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, a cartoon tiger also from the children’s novels.
In 2014, President Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were portrayed as Pooh and Eeyore, the melancholy donkey.
In September 2015, a photo of Xi Jinping protruding through the sunroof of his car was posted alongside a plastic Winnie the Pooh model. The picture was shared more than 65,000 times within an hour before it was blocked by the Chinese government on social media. It eventually became the most censored image of 2015.
The Communist Party typically lacks a sense of humor on this type of issue. Comparisons of the physical characteristics of Xi Jinping with pot-bellied Winnie the Pooh, a clumsy and blundering cartoon character, are regarded as disrespectful to the Chinese leader. They are also seen to undermine the authority of his administration. Government sensitivity and censorship activity tend to increase around the time of the National Congress of the Communist Party — a meeting to appoint key political figures held every five years — of which the 19th session is scheduled for this fall.
The Chinese government is usually quick to crack down upon ridicule of Mr Xi or his credibility, even in the form of satirical memes. New vocabulary is often added to blacklists during important political events. Chinese language searches for former General Secretary Jiang Zemin were blocked in 2014, after an image surfaced comparing him to a giant bespectacled frog. Last week, the government went to great effort to censor online reports of the death of outspoken Communist Party critic, activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo.
China has no equivalent to the First Amendment, and online crackdowns have increased significantly since Xi became president in 2013. State media outlets are heavily censored and the government routinely monitors social media platforms for dissent. Citizens are required to provide their national ID and phone number to register for the most popular online services, which prevents anonymous posting and allows for swift crackdowns on any politically sensitive material.
Tucker is a foreign correspondent and media analyst for Not Liberal.