Chinese internet users like to make fun of Kim Jong-un. When it was revealed that he was in a Beijing on a secretive diplomatic trip, they started posting references to him using names like “Kim Pig,” “Third fat kid,” and their favorite, “Kim Fatty.”
This set in motion the elaborate cat-and-mouse game between China’s internet censors and its online jokesters and political commentators. The former were trying to tone down the fat-shaming of their distinguished guest. The latter were trying to speak their minds.
The obviously offensive term “Kim Fatty” was quickly wiped from the web, spurring posters to invent more creative—and subtle—ways of poking fun at Kim. That led to “Third fat kid,” a reference to his being the third in a line of Kim leaders. Eventually this was banned, too. And so on.
There was a time when the brilliant—and seemingly endless—linguistic inventions of Chinese internet posters seemed to stump government censors. For instance, there was a period when people could openly describe something as having been “river crabbed”—a homophone with “harmonized,” itself a euphemism for “censored” in Mandarin.
As the Kim trip shows, however, the cat is now winning handily.
Terms like “river crab,” which are multiple steps removed from their original meaning—and themselves innocuous—are no longer enough to skirt censors. Internet posters on the social-media site Weibo started employing mundane words like “neighbor,” “northeast neighbor,” and “visitor from the northeast” to refer to Kim. But these comments also were scrubbed (link in Chinese) in many contexts.
Even more elaborate linguistic gymnastics aren’t enough. Here’s an example that plays on the structure of written Chinese itself: The term 金三肥 (jin san fei)—which translates literally to “Kim + Three + Fat”—became popular, and was banned. The last character there, though, is actually made up of two component characters, a common feature of Chinese writing. (The first component, 月, imbues the combined character with the meaning of fatness, while the second, 巴, hints at its pronunciation.) So people started separating them out, producing the phrase 金三月巴 (jin san yue ba), or “Kim + Three + Moon + Ba.”
Yet even as confusing as that is, it was blocked, too.
This effective censorship has largely made Weibo irrelevant as a channel for political discussion or criticism. But thanks to the ubiquity of the messaging app WeChat, the government also bans words in private group chats—even those containing just a couple dozen people.
So critical commenters in China are running out of online options—clever language tricks and private channels are no longer good enough. They can go further underground, but that makes it harder for their ideas to reach the mainstream. Kim Fatty’s trip is just the latest example.