The People’s Republic of China has become an authoritarian superpower that uses its technological superiority to crush dissent. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), fearful of an uprising of its own citizenry, has managed to achieve obedience through social engineering. From 2014 onwards, the Party began introducing a complex Social Credit system that ranks people based upon their everyday behaviors. From late bill payments to simple traffic violations, the most minor of transgressions can see a person’s social score tank. Once this score falls below a certain threshold, the wrongdoer is then denied access to basic services such as public transportation.
The Chinese are micromanaged using an arsenal of cameras, spies, and algorithms. CCTV cameras use facial recognition technology to automatically detect jaywalkers and slap them with fines. Government apps allow snitches to report social deviants to the authorities. And an army of internet censors monitor social networks for posts critical of the communist regime.
President Xi Jinping, who recently abolished term limits to become president for life, has purged the Party of his political enemies. The career politician has built a cult of personality, both within and outside of the CCP. Those who resist the whims of “Papa Xi” run the risk of spending time in the re-education camps. To live in China is to never know whether you are doing something wrong. Laws are in a constant state of flux. Objects, words, and ideas are banned on a dime. And people start to disappear from public life.
10 Ghosts & Time Travel
In recent times, state-controlled regulators have taken a somewhat robust approach to protecting the CCP. The Party fears anything that could undermine its own position of strength and authority, including religious iconography or material of a supernatural nature. It is for this reason that films featuring depictions of “terror, ghosts and the supernatural” are banned. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Crimson Peak, and Ghostbusters (2016) have all fallen foul of the country’s anti-ghost rules.
Sony Pictures pulled out all the stops to get Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters remake into Chinese theaters. Pre-empting trouble, Sony changed the name of the Chinese version of the film from “Ghost Catcher Dare Die Team” to “Super Power Dare Die Team.” The studio’s efforts to appease the censors – including the removal of entire scenes – ended in the film getting banned anyway.
Back in 2011, China memory-holed time travel movies and TV shows, just in time for the 90th anniversary of the CCP’s founding. “Producers and writers are treating serious history in a frivolous way, which should by no means be encouraged anymore,” argued the state’s media regulator. In reality, the Party did not want filmmakers challenging its own version of historical events.
9 Strange Company Names
In 2017, the State Administration for Industry and Commerce announced that it would no longer tolerate company names deemed strange, offensive, or excessively long. Newly registered businesses would also no longer be able to adopt “politically insensitive” names. For example, all references to the Falun Gong – a religious group that has undergone intense persecution at the hands of the communist state – are strictly forbidden.
A condom maker, “There is a Group of Young People With Dreams, Who Believe They Can Create Wonders of Life Under Uncle Niu’s Leadership Internet Technology,” was one of the first companies forced to shorten its name. Businesses that feature broken Chinese, or “Chinglish,” are similarly banned.
Following the government crackdown, social media users started drawing attention to businesses with unusual names. It was speculated that “Hangzhou No Trouble Looking For Trouble Internet Technology” and “Beijing Afraid of Wife Technology” would soon disappear.
8 Harrison Ford
Today, Hollywood’s global box office success is closely linked to China – and given that China has a population of over one billion people, it’s not hard to see why. This is something movie producers know all too well, most of whom refrain from making movies that might offend Chinese sensibilities. MGM’s remake of Red Dawn, for example, was originally set to show China invading the United States. When China got wind of the project, the studio spent millions in post-production costs to make North Korea the bad guys instead.
Likewise, actors with controversial political opinions face the wrath of the CCP. Harrison Ford is currently banned from entering China because of his advocacy for Tibetan independence. In 1951, China invaded and annexed Tibet, before forcing its leader, the Dalai Lama, to sign away his homeland’s sovereignty. Tibet remains a sensitive issue to this day, with Chinese officials accusing Tibet’s exiled government of stirring civil unrest.
Harrison Ford’s political views were heavily influenced by his ex-wife, Melissa Mathison. The late screenwriter worked on the 1997 Disney film Kundun. The film, which follows the monastic upbringing of the 14th Dalai Lama, was badly received in China. Both Mathison and the film’s director, Martin Scorsese, were soon banned from entering the country. Disney quickly backtracked and apologized for insulting its “friends,” after the communist dictatorship started banning its products.
7 Open Taxi Windows, Pigeons & Ping Pong Balls
In 2012, pictures started circulating of Chinese taxi cabs with missing window handles. The CCP had instructed taxi firms to remove the handles in the run-up to the country’s 18th National Congress in Beijing. Customers were also forced to sign written agreements which forbade them from opening taxi windows or doors at “important venues.” The move was designed to prevent public dissent during congress. Taxi drivers were also warned to be on the lookout for balloons and ping pong balls tagged with anti-CCP messages. But there was more.
Deadly weapons, including kitchen knives and pencil sharpeners, were banned from stores citywide. Pigeon owners were told they could no longer let their winged companions fly free for fear they could be used to spread seditious leaflets. For the same reason, citizens were forced to show the authorities identification before buying remote-controlled planes.
6 A Plague Simulation Game
At the height of the coronavirus outbreak, a mobile game called Plague Inc became a smash hit in both China and the United States. First released back in 2012, Ndemic Creation’s game tasks players with spreading a deadly pathogen around the world. This objective is achieved by tweaking the properties of the disease to increase its infectivity and lethality.
The game’s success soon caught the attention of Chinese censors, who ordered its removal from the country’s biggest digital distribution platforms, including Steam and the China App Store. After eight years of availability, the Cyberspace Administration of China suddenly argued that the game contained “content that is illegal in China.” Although no further explanation was given, the ban came in the wake of a government clampdown on information related to the covid outbreak. The CCP has been accused of underreporting the number of covid-related deaths during the early phase of the pandemic. It has spent the last year stalling an international investigation into the origins of the virus. And Citizen journalists have faced arrest after accusing the CCP of orchestrating a cover-up.
In light of the covid crisis, the game’s creators have now released a new mode for the game, which involves trying to resolve a viral pandemic – not create one. The team has also donated over $250,000 to fund vaccine research efforts.
5 South Park
Everybody knows that Winnie the Pooh is now banned in China. It all began in 2013, after a photo of President Xi Jinping and Barack Obama started doing the rounds on Chinese social media. Memesters began comparing Jinping’s portly stature to that of A.A. Milne’s honey-obsessed bear, Winnie the Pooh. Naturally, the censors got to work and expunged all traces of the character from the Chinese internet. Images of Pooh were scrubbed from Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter), and Christopher Robin was denied its theatrical release.
Cue the creators of South Park, who recently took the opportunity to mock the Middle Kingdom’s autocratic leadership. During an episode called “Band in China,” one of South Park’s characters is detained for attempting to sell marijuana in China. He is then sent to one of the country’s “re-education” camps, where he meets his fellow inmates Pooh and Piglet. “Some people said Pooh looked like the Chinese president,” explains Piglet. “So we’re illegal in China now.”
In 2019, all episodes of South Park were removed from video streaming sites in China. Discussions about South Park were banned on Chinese social media, and search engines no longer generate new results for the show. The show’s creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, took to Twitter to issue a mock apology: “Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts. We too love money more than freedom and democracy. Xi doesn’t look just like Winnie the Pooh at all… Long live the Great Communist Party of China!”
4 Christmas Gatherings
Christmas in China is a highly commercialized affair. Department stores often use the holiday to hold promotional events, Christmas decorations adorn market stalls, and e-cards are sent over WeChat. A more unusual tradition involves giving Peace Apples, which are thought to bring peace and goodwill to those who eat them. But the holiday has been stripped of its religious affiliations in recent years. This is by design.
Only a handful of religions are officially sanctioned in China, most of which are kept on a tight leash. The state has rewritten religious texts, imprisoned religious leaders on trumped up charges of inciting subversion, and demolished places of worship. The Chinese Communist Party, in emulating Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, seeks to create an entirely atheist state in which citizens worship only its communist leaders.
So it should come as no surprise that the CCP has sought to regulate Christmas. In 2018, the education bureau instructed schools to avoid celebrating Western holidays. Teachers were warned not to put up Christmas decorations, attend Christmas parties, or exchange Peace Apples. A number of cities have also banned stores from selling Christmas products and decorations.
Churches that fail to register with the state are routinely punished. In many regions, Christians are not allowed to attend Christmas gatherings, forcing the practice underground. The police, at the behest of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, have been tasked with shutting down Christmas services. In 2019, one church-goer in Nanyang City explained the lengths his congregation must go to evade the authorities: “We hold Christmas in small [household] gatherings, meeting early and in secret.”
3 Images of Umbrellas and Jasmine
China does not like symbols of resistance. It has already banned any discussion surrounding the Tiananmen Square Incident of 1989, even going so far as to remove the date of the massacre from online search results. To achieve this, China employs millions of censors to purge the internet of sensitive information.
As part of the nation’s “Great Firewall,” details relating to the Jasmine Revolution are also heavily censored. The Jasmine Revolution of 2011 saw the people of Tunisia overthrow their corrupt government. In response, pro-democracy activists in China organized their own protests across a dozen cities. The CCP responded with brutality, beating and arresting protesters. All references to the Jasmine Revolution, including images of the flower itself, were blocked from the Chinese internet. Songs about jasmine suddenly disappeared from streaming sites. The cops banned the sale of jasmine flowers at local stalls in Beijing, tanking market prices. And the China International Jasmine Cultural Festival was canceled that year.
Similar censorship measures were deployed against images of the humble umbrella – a symbol of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement. In 2014, President Xi Jinping visited Macau in South China, just west of Hong Kong. Journalists attending the event were told that umbrellas were strictly off-limits and were given raincoats instead. “They said you couldn’t open umbrellas at the airport because it would affect the flights,” said one bewildered attendee.
Much to the disgust of the CCP, Chinese citizens are using wordplay to get around internet censorship measures. The word for “Grass Mud Horse” (Caonima), which sounds similar to “f**k your mother” (cao ni ma) in Mandarin, has become a slogan of resistance to internet censorship. The Grass Mud Horse – a mythical species of alpaca – quickly spread across the Chinese internet like wildfire. Alpaca-themed memes, blog posts, music videos, stuffed toys, and clothing lines started to take root. It wasn’t long before Grass Mud Horse Day took off, sharing its date with the CCP’s own Party Day.
The story of the fabled creature came from a satirical encyclopedic entry on Baidu Baike in 2009. It is said the Grass Mud Horse lives in the “Male Gebi” desert (readers can look that one up for themselves). One day, an army of river crabs showed up and attacked the Grass Mud Horse. In Chinese, the word for river crab (hexie) sounds like “harmony.” Censored internet posts are often described as being “harmonized” – a sly reference to the CCP’s repeated calls for a harmonious society. Baidu’s tale has a happy ending, and the river crabs are defeated in battle.
In the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television blacklisted content that could trigger social unrest. The Great Firewall started cleansing the internet of anti-censorship puns and memes, including references to Mud Horses and river crabs. Officially, the Party claims the ban is designed to protect the sanctity of Chinese culture and language.
1 Erotic Banana Eating
While the production and distribution of pornography is already illegal in China, carrying a potential life sentence, the Red Dragon recently went a step further. In 2016, China’s Ministry of Culture condemned live-streaming services for their role in spreading pornographic and violent broadcasts. It also discovered that nearly four-fifths of stream watchers are male, many of whom view female entertainers. Regulation soon followed. Streamers were banned from wearing miniskirts, stockings, and suspenders. According to state broadcaster CCTV, erotic banana eating was also outlawed. The ministry believes that these streams represent a danger to the nation’s “social morality.”
China now requires all major streaming companies to monitor their broadcasts around the clock. Anyone hosting a live-streaming session must register their real name with the government and undergo facial recognition scans (likewise for fans donating money). The regulator says streams must “actively spread positive energy [and] demonstrate truth, goodness and beauty.”