The Chinese short message service Sina Weibo wants to step up action against the use of homophones and intentionally misspelled words, which users have been using for years to counter strict censorship in the country. In order to “maintain a civil and healthy social ecosystem” online, the illegal use of homophonic characters, word variants and other “misspelled words” to spread harmful content is now being more strictly controlled, according to the What’s on Weibo portal. The online community is called upon to exchange points of view in a civilized manner using standardized characters. Anyone who sees violations should report them.
“eye field” instead of “freedom”
Even if Sina Weibo’s blog entry makes it look like it, the procedure announced in this way is by no means new, “What’s on Weibo” still classifies the step. Faced with the People’s Republic of China’s strict and all-encompassing censorship machinery, the Chinese Internet has long been known for the creative ways in which citizens exploit the idiosyncrasies of the Chinese language, among other things, to talk about prohibited topics. An example is the legendary “grass-mud-horse” (草泥馬), which in Mandarin is pronounced the same as a vulgar insult to the other person’s mother (肏你媽). Another method is evident in “eye-field” (目田), which is written similar to the characters for “freedom” (自由) except for a few details, Internet Monitor explains.
A recent example of such circumvention of the censorship machine is the use of the Chinese term for the Netherlands (“Helan”) when actually talking about protests in Henan Province, explains the South China Morning Post. Discussions about the financial problems of a bank there and the protests of people who cannot withdraw money are strictly prohibited, which is why people ask, for example, “What is the current situation in the bank in Amsterdam, the Netherlands?” Based on past experience, it is doubtful whether the tougher action now announced by Sina Weibo will be successful. Researchers in the USA had already determined in 2015 that algorithms can even automatically identify homophones that are understandable to Chinese speakers and are not blocked by content controls.
According to the report, Sina Weibo’s announcement has now received some critical comments. “It’s getting less and less funny here” was one comment and “What else do we have to say”. Some would worry about the great tradition of Chinese code words. But others have already announced resistance: “Simply because my level of education is so low and I don’t know all the right characters.”