Evading the censors with a bit of math – Yakexi
May 35th. It may look like a typo to you, but it is a real thing on the Chinese internet. It is one among a long list of code words used by netizens referring to June 4th 1989, when the Chinese government brutally cracked down the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. Nearly 30 years later, people use courage, creativity and a bit of math skills to commemorate this tragedy.
China is home to nearly 800 million internet users and an ever more powerful censorship machine, locked in a linguistic game of cat-and-mouse. May 35th (wǔ yuè sānshíwǔ rì 五月三十五日) originated in the early days of Chinese social media. Like many sayings and memes on the internet, the exact origin of May 35th is difficult to trace. But it has been around for at least over a decade. Even before the launch of Weibo in 2009 filled the Twitter-shaped hole in Chinese digital life, May 35th was used on various blogs, forums, and on Renren, a Facebook-like social networking site once popular among high school and college students.
Besides May 35th, there are many other code words for June 4th. Some play a simple math game with the number 64, which itself refers to the date (6/4):
and so on. Others look or sound like the you-know-what:
bā jiǔ liù sì 捌玖陆肆 – the formal numerals for eight, nine, six and four (as in 1989, June 4)
bā jiǔ 扒韭 – reads “pull chives,” sounds like “89”
píng bǎn liù sì 平板64 – literally “6.4-inch tablet,” sounds almost the same as píng fǎn liù sì 平反六四 (“redress June 4th”)
All of these code words keep June 4th alive in China’s collective memory, even after 29 years of hush-hush efforts by the government. The internet provides space for discussions that could never happen in traditional media outlets.
Chinese novelist Yu Hua describes “May 35th freedom” as an “art form.” In an essay published in the New York Times in 2011, he wrote:
To evade censorship when expressing their opinions on the Internet, Chinese people give full rein to the rhetorical functions of language, elevating to a sublime level both innuendo and metaphor, parody and hyperbole, conveying sarcasm and scorn through veiled gibes and wily indirection.
But the political ambivalence of China’s internet is disappearing quickly. Ten years ago people might have been able to post “May 35th” on their Renren page without immediately being detected by the censors, but today human censors and opaque algorithms work hand-in-hand to identify and delete information they deem “harmful.” Math games like “May 35” and “63+1” no longer get by the censors on Weibo. A search for either of these code words will return an error message: “Sorry, no results have been found.” Users who attempt to post these words may have their accounts disabled. “Inappropriate” discussions of politics in general, even in private group chats on the messaging platform WeChat, could land you in jail.
In the face of this evolving censorship machine, some people refrain from discussing politics on social media (or altogether). Others keep trying other means to get their message out there. In 2013, someone took a photo of Rubber Duck, the popular floating sculpture by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman that had come to roost in Hong Kong’s harbor, and Photoshopped it into the famous Tank Man photo from the Tiananmen protests. The posts were quickly deleted and the phrase “big yellow duck” was banned on Weibo.
Then there are the really stubborn netizens who just won’t give up. Type your words, take a screenshot and post the picture instead of the text. Did the Weibo “secretary” bots catch you? Retype the text in italics, rotate the image or turn it upside down and see if you can fool the censors this way. Nope? Not to worry. There is always a more oblique reference or more creative method of getting your messages posted.
Yet when your messages become too hard to decipher, your fellow netizens will get lost or miss the message. And if too many people have no idea what you are talking about, the censors win.
“Cyberspace is not beyond the rule of law” is a motto of the Xi Jinping regime. The game of cat-and-mouse is still on, but gone are the days when netizens could openly remember May 35th. ∎
Header image: Weibo.