Tea Leaf Nation

Bo Xilai in Chains, Spurned Mistresses, and the Communist Party as a Sex Wolf

Six images China's censors don't want you to see.


China-watchers often call Sina Weibo "China's Twitter" because of the two websites' superficial similarities: Both social media platforms allow users to post up to 140 characters at a time, for example, although that's enough for a small essay in Chinese. But unlike Twitter, Weibo is crawling with censors. Both the Internet company Sina, which owns and operates the best-known Weibo platform, as well as the Chinese government, employ an unknown number of censors who carefully prune social media for "illegal content" such as posts that "incite illegal gatherings" or "harm the nation's reputation or interests."

Certain keywords, issues, and images are forbidden, although Weibo does not make clear exactly what's off limits, or why. One May 2013 Harvard study showed that censors targeted posts with "collective action potential" --  the possibility that they might inspire a protest or other coordinated, offline action. Weibo's censorship team works with the government to determine what topics have this potential, then scrutinizes, and often deletes, related content.

In order to explore how censors decide what to quash, the non-profit media organization ProPublica published a gallery of deleted Weibo posts on Nov. 14. The editors at FP reviewed the 524 deleted posts and curated six particularly arresting examples of what, exactly, incenses Chinese censors.

1. Bo Xilai in chains. The caption (not visible here) reads, "Is the show over?" Bo was the Communist Party chief in Chongqing, an inland megalopolis of almost 30 million, until a series of scandals, prompted by an aide's attempted defection into the U.S. embassy in February 2012, derailed his career. He was tried in August for corruption, embezzlement, and abuse of power. But to many watching in China, the proceedings looked like a show trial, in which Bo had no more agency than an actor in a play. In the picture above, Bo seems to be taking part in a Chinese model opera -- a morality play in which every detail, from costumes to lighting, has symbolic significance. His white shirt, for example, likely indicates his innocence. Censors probably deleted this image because it challenged the legitimacy of Bo's trial.

2. Xu Zhiyong. Bo was not the only figure jailed in 2013 whom authorities feared could become a martyr. Xu co-founded China's New Citizens' Movement, an alliance that campaigns for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, among other civil rights, in June 2012. Authorities have detained Xu on a number of occasions, most recently on Aug. 23; he remains in prison. The words in the picture above read "Citizens are in trouble," referencing the broad spectrum of rights violations that his movement aims to address. This image, drawn in the style of party propaganda, valorizes Xu and his mission. Censors probably deleted this post to prevent Xu's example from inspiring others to challenge the government.

3. A wolf who "serves the people." It's not just flesh-and-blood dissidents that worry China's censors: sometimes cartoon characters can also raise their hackles. Wolves are often the villains in Chinese children's stories (including the popular animated television show Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf), and the wolf in this picture represents China's Communist Party. The text in the background is the well-worn Communist phrase "serve the people," while the badge around his neck reads sex wolf, slang for "pervert." The wolf's three blinged-out wristwatches symbolize corruption -- Chinese netizens often presume that officials photographed wearing expensive timepieces are on the take. For example, in Aug. 2012, Shaanxi provincial official Yang Dacai appeared in photographs wearing Rolex and Omega watches. The pictures went viral on Weibo; Yang was later removed from his post and jailed. Harsh critiques of the Communist Party rarely survive on Weibo.

4. Fan Yue and Ji Yingnan. The depiction of the Communist Party as a "sex wolf" stems in part from real-world examples of lurid official conduct. In this picture, posted July 23, then mid-level bureaucrat Fan drapes his arms around his lover, television hostess Ji. After the married Fan dumped 25-year-old Ji, the spurned mistress posted pictures of the couple's happier days on Weibo, revealing the lavish lifestyle she enjoyed under Fan's patronage. These images proved especially sensitive because mistresses are another symbol of official corruption in China; in popular imagination, only dishonest government workers can afford to keep mistresses clothed in brand-name apparel and driving luxury automobiles. (One survey conducted by Renmin University in Beijing found that 95 percent of corrupt officials kept mistresses.) Censors who scrubbed this image were likely aware that proof of official wrongdoing -- as opposed to speculation -- is especially provocative.

5. Massive protest in Guangzhou. This photograph shows people gathered in the streets of the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou to protest the planned opening of a polluting trash incineration plant. According to the BBC, on July 15, the crowd of protesters stretched for more than a mile. It is unknown whether the protests were successful: An Oct. 22 article in the party-line People's Daily Online quoted the vice mayor of Guangzhou emphasizing the need to accelerate the construction of five trash incineration plants in the city -- but he refused say whether one of these five was this plant. In China, authorities usually censor images of "mass incidents" such as this one to prevent copycat protests elsewhere.

6. Wu Hongfei. Copycat protests happen online too. Wu, the Beijing-based singer and journalist pictured above, was arrested for her social media posts. In July, shortly after a man named Ji Zhongxing detonated a bomb at Beijing International Airport, Wu commented on Weibo that there were several government offices that she would like to blow up. Detained for 11 days and then released, Wu insisted her post was a joke, while supporters maintained that the arrest was a violation of her right to free speech -- constitutionally granted, but often denied in practice.

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Tea Leaf Nation

Benedict Cumberbatch Is a Gay Erotic God in China

Why is the Chinese Internet obsessed with writing gay Sherlock Holmes fanfiction?

In one story published on MTSlash.com, a Chinese Internet forum, "sexual desire coursed through Sherlock's chest as his heart beat wildly." In another, Dr. John Watson is a part-time porn star; in the first chapter, Sherlock Holmes deduces that his sidekick-to-be became an adult film actor to pay off his student loans from medical school. "You've only known me for five minutes," the indignant Watson protests. "That's long enough for me to come to a conclusion," Sherlock responds.

Since 2010, when the BBC television series Sherlock first aired, a fascination with Benedict Cumberbatch, the show's star, has inspired a new wave of gay romance literature on the Chinese Internet. It's perhaps not surprising that Sherlock, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective stories, is popular in China -- it has received over 24 million views since it first became available on the Chinese video site Sohu TV in March 2011. But in certain corners of the Chinese Internet, Cumberbatch's Sherlock is just as likely to ravage his loyal sidekick Watson, played by Britain's Martin Freeman, as he is to solve mysteries. "Sherlock's tongue was like an all-powerful key," wrote one author of a story told from Watson's point of view, "Unlocking all the doors of my heart."

China loves Cumberbatch. According to an Oct. 29 article on the Chinese news site Caijing, the 37-year-old Cumberbatch, whom the Chinese call Curly Fu, "is the reason a new wave of Chinese viewers have turned to British television." (‘Curly' describes the star's hairstyle, while 'Fu' is a shortened Chinese transliteration of 'Holmes.') The Caijing article attributes the recent spike in the popularity of British television in China to "the Sherlock effect," and Cumberbatch's rising star isn't limited to the small screen. One journalist with the Beijing-based newspaper Jinghua Times surveying viewers of the 2013 blockbuster sci-fi movie Star Trek Into Darkness found that most had gone to see Curly Fu, a villain they declared "impossible to hate" because they had "never seen a bad guy so handsome before."

The enthusiasm is most avid on the Internet, where Cumberbatch is an erotic god. In the Baidu Curly Fu Bar, an Internet forum devoted to the star, fans said they loved his hair, voice, height, eyes, physique, poise, nose, the speed at which he talks, and a certain ineffable charisma. (One viewer compared him favorably to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, whom he plays in the recent film Fifth Estatewriting that Cumberbatch was "much more handsome.") Some fans cataloguing his good traits also listed his "cute wife" Watson, whom they call ‘Peanut,' because the Chinese phoneticization of Watson, huasheng, is a homonym for the legume. Amateur cartoon adaptations of Sherlock and Watson holding hands and photo-shopped images of Cumberbatch and Freeman kissing are available on Chinese websites. On Youku, China's YouTube, a music video that set clips of Cumberbatch's Holmes and Freeman's Watson sharing knowing looks to a Chinese love song has received over 70,000 views.

The Chinese Internet is home to a wealth of slash fiction -- danmei in Chinese -- a genre that imagines existing fictional characters in romantic same-sex relationships, and a body of work in which Cumberbatch's Sherlock features prominently. Stories range from the explicit "He Is My Bitch," about Sherlock and Watson's sadomasochistic sex life, to the more romantic "I Write You This Letter from a Foreign Land," in which Watson describes his inner feelings for Sherlock in a diary. There are even novels, like the 39-chapter tome It's Alright, I'm Here, Sherlock, which describes in great detail the lovers' long and convoluted path to couplehood.

The Cumberbatch crush isn't just a Chinese quirk; in October The Atlantic Wire wrote that the actor "holds a strange sway over certain parts of the Internet," while slash itself is a global phenomenon that traces its modern roots to the 1970s, when Star Trek fans began to circulate fanfiction pairing the two male leads, Captain Kirk and Mister Spock. Just as Cumberbatch's English-speaking fans follow the actor's work closely and identify themselves as "Cumberbitches," his Chinese-speaking fans also share information about his new projects and appearances.

What makes his Chinese fans special, though, is that some are risking jail to write him into slash fiction. In early 2011, authorities in China's inland Henan province arrested Wang Chaoju, the webmaster of the slash fiction website Danmei Novels Online, and charged him with "disseminating obscene content" after finding about 1,200 sexually explicit danmei stories among the tens of thousands on the site. Later that year, Justice Online, a legal news website, labeled slash a "harmful trend," quoting a psychologist who said the literature "could lead to a deviation of sexual orientation, difficulty interacting in social situations, and even criminal activity." To avoid punishment, writers and readers of explicit slash often exchange content over email, ensuring the work remains invisible to the wider Internet.

LGBTQ individuals in China still encounter discrimination in the workplace, and the country boasts few openly gay public figures. In China, however, many writers and readers of slash are heterosexual women, who identify themselves as funu -- 'rotten women.' Why young, often heterosexual women love slash is a rabbit hole of epic proportions, but it's safe to say that many female Chinese fans of Cumberbatch's Sherlock find it more enjoyable to imagine him riding off into the sunset with his trusted companion Watson than a female acquaintance.

To be sure, it's not only Cumberbatch who features in the erotic dreams of China's slash community: Chris Hemsworth's Thor -- whom Chinese call "Brother Hammer" -- and Tom Hiddleston's Loki play gay lovers in thousands of Chinese love stories. And since the 2008 blockbuster Ironman came to the Middle Kingdom, slash writers have had a heyday imagining the protagonist, played by Robert Downey Jr., romancing Captain America. Although Downey played Sherlock as well, it's Cumberbatch's detective who has a special place in their hearts. "Curly Fu, Hiddleston, the Ironman, and Brother Hammer are all great," wrote one user of Weibo, China's Twitter, "But I've made up my mind to always support Curly Fu."

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