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China Declares War on Puns

Chinese citizens have been using microblogging sites to get around government censorship, and the Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng affairs have increased the frequency of covert, critical conversation. Users evade the authorities by discussing politics in code, playing with homonyms and puns. Wen Jiabao, for instance, has been dubbed ‘Teletubby”; ‘Tomato” is often associated with Bo Xilai.

But as the New York Times reports, even these words can now get users banned. Sina Weibo, one of the largest microblogging sites in China, has announced new rules designed to crack down further on the expression of political opinions. According to the Times, users will start with a “bank” of 80 points:

Points can be deducted for online comments that are judged to be offensive. When a blogger reaches zero, the service stated, a user’s account will be canceled. Users who suffer lesser penalties can restore their 80 points by avoiding violations for two months.

Deductions will cover a wide range of sins, including spreading rumors, calling for protests, promoting cults or superstitions and impugning China’s honor, the service stated.

Most notably, the contracts also will punish time-honored tactics that bloggers have used to avoid censorship, like disguising comments on censored topics by using homonyms (where two different Chinese characters have nearly identical sounds), puns and other dodges.

While microblogging sites in the United States like Twitter have grown increasingly popular, they are not as widely used as their Chinese counterparts. This partly reflects the lack of outlets for dissent in China, but it’s also a function of language: 140 Chinese characters can convey more information than 140 English letters. In English, a tweet is a sentence; in Chinese, a tweet is a blog post. And while the new regulations might prove effective in the short term, the authorities may eventually wind up looking like clumsy Elmer Fudds hunting the clever and elusive Bugs Bunny.

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  • Walter Sobchak

    They are going to PUNish people by sending them to the PUNitentiary.

  • Mrs. Davis

    This may seem like a dumb question, but how many bits are there in a Twitter character?

  • Harry Allan

    This “point system” looks familiar. Shouldn’t the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles claim theft of intellectual property?

  • Corlyss

    Tyrants universally lack an appreciation of irony.

  • Luke Lea

    Time for allegories.

    Allegory. From Greek allos meaning “other” and agora meaning gathering place (especially the marketplace). In times past, it was common to do one’s chatting at the marketplace. Some of the topics discussed were clandestine in nature and when people spoke about them, for fear of being punished, they would speak indirectly. That is to say, they would speak about one thing in such a way as to intimate the actual information to the listener. Thus, the persons discussing clandestine matters were said to be speaking of “other things” in the marketplace. Eventually the words joined and became associated with the act of speaking about one thing while meaning another.

  • Luke Lea

    FWIW I think the Adam and Eve story was an allegory at first.

  • gracepmc

    Not to be outdone, although not of the level of Chinese scrutiny, our very own DHS has analysts checking for “bad words”. See If you go to the document it is interesting to note that there are formatting directions as well detailing when to bold and when to double space.

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