23 July 2019
"Zhao" (inset) seems now to be one of many words censored from the popular Sina Weibo platform. Photo: HKEJ, Rebel Pepper
"Zhao" (inset) seems now to be one of many words censored from the popular Sina Weibo platform. Photo: HKEJ, Rebel Pepper

Latest code word to get around Chinese web censors: Zhao

It’s one of the most common surnames in China — so why do the country’s internet censors suddenly have a problem with the word “Zhao (趙 / 赵)”?

About a year ago, hundreds of social media users began using the sarcastic phrase “ni guo (你國)”, meaning “your country”, to express their distance from the views of the Chinese government, BBC News reported.

It was a clever play on words: “my country (我國)” had become a common nationalist phrase used by state media organs.

Because the words “your” and “country” are so commonly used, it was difficult for government censors to filter social media posts containing the phrase, and it got popular.

At the end of last year, and now in early 2016, a new word — the surname “Zhao” — has started being used for the same reason, replacing “your country” as one of the most popular terms of criticism against those who are rich and powerful.

A “Zhao family member (趙家人)” is someone with a vested interest, someone who holds actual power.

“Zhao in spirit (精神趙家人)” is someone who thinks they can benefit by association with those in power.

“Zhao in spirit”, in particular, pokes fun at those who get excited about the military, “who gaze at the flag with tears in their eyes”.

Zhao is actually one of the most common surnames in China.

It was the family name of premier Zhao Ziyang, who died in 2005.

On the online forum Zhihu, people discussed its origins as a political term, and most seemed to agree that its adoption on social media is a reference to a character in early 20th century writer Lu Xun’s acclaimed novel The True Story of Ah Q.

In the book, Zhao is a landlord from a prestigious clan who beats Ah Q, a peasant who bullies those less fortunate than him, in a fight.

Because Zhao is such a common name, its new usage was not immediately picked up by Chinese state censors.

Vincent Ni of the BBC Chinese Service said the way social media users are using “Zhao” is in line with a Chinese linguistic tradition that predates the internet.

“Chinese people have long used what are known as ‘oblique accusations’, which enable them to express their opinion when it would not be possible to make a direct criticism of those in authority,” Ni said.

Since the end of December and following a number of articles pointing to the growing popularity of “Zhao”, the censors have started to cotton on to its increased usage.

Free Weibo, a website that captures censored Weibo posts, shows that “family Zhao (趙家)” and “people of the family Zhao” have been frequently censored in the past few days.

On Sunday, a Weibo user named Lelige posted an image of what appeared to be guidelines from a government official on acceptable terminology on social networks.

“Please can all journalists pay attention, and ensure that there are no messages on Weibo, WeChat etc. that contain ‘excellent Zhao (精趙)’, ‘honored Zhao (貴趙)’, ‘family Zhao’, ‘Zhao kingdom (趙國)’,” it said.

Whether the message is authentic or not, “Zhao” seems now to be one of many words censored from the popular Sina Weibo platform.

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