A few months ago, people were posting a lot about the Netherlands on Chinese social media platform Weibo. “Wake up, sleeping people of the Netherlands!” said one post. Others lamented that the people of Amsterdam wanted their tulips back.
These Chinese social media users aren’t expressing a nascent interest in all things Dutch. They’re talking about recent protests over frozen bank deposits in the province of Henan. Ordinarily, discussions about a controversial topic like this would be censored on Chinese social media, and posts containing the word “Henan” could be blocked or deleted. But “Henan” (河南) sounds a lot like “Helan” (荷兰), the Mandarin word for the Netherlands. By swapping the names around, people were able to get past the censors and keep the conversation going.
I love this article. The use of homonyms and puns to work around online censorship by Chinese citizens is as innovative and heartwarming as its necessity is horrifying and tragic. If you’re wondering exactly how similar 河南 (“Henan”, the name of the Chinese province in which authorities abused social distancing laws and used violence to prevent rural bank customers from withdrawing their own money) and 荷兰 (“Helan”, The Netherlands) sound, have a listen for yourself:
Unless you speak Mandarin already, you’ll might struggle to even pinpoint which is which in that recording.
This clever and imaginative use of language to try to sidestep surviellance feels like a modern adaptation of cryptolects like Polari or rhyming slang as used in the UK for the same purpose. But writing in Han characters online seems to provide an amazingly diverse way to encode meaning that an in-the-know human can parse, but an automated machine or an uninformed human censor can not. The story about the use of the word for “paratrooper” on Chinese social media, touched upon in the article linked above and expanded elsewhere, is particularly enjoyable.
Anyway, after you’ve read the article and you’re ready for a whole new rabbit whole to explore, I’d like to kickstart you by introducing you to Totoiana, a Pig Latin-like (second-syllable onwards, then first syllable) dialect spoken with fluency exclusively in a single Romanian village, and nobody knows why.
Earlier this week, the Spanish government raided the Barcelona office of the PuntCat Foundation, the company that administers the .cat domain, and arrested one of its senior executives.
PuntCat means “dot cat” in Catalan, the language spoken in the Catalonian region of Spain as well as places in France, Andorra, and Italy. The office was raided because Catalonia hopes to hold a referendum on October 1 to decide if it should secede from Spain, and in an effort to quash the referendum, the government of Spain ordered puntCat to “block all .cat domain names that may contain any kind of information about the forthcoming independence referendum,” according to a press release from the foundation.
This is an astonishing attempt at censorship by a member of the E.U. but, unfortunately, that aspect is going largely uncovered because the media is idiotically obsessed with cats…
The thinking is, according to the Internet Watch Foundation, that the cover of the 1976 album constitues child pornography and therefore we all need to be protected from it. It’s all a little controversial, though, because they’re not suggesting that Amazon US be blocked, for example.
But the worst of it is the amount of news exposure it’s generating is actually drawing traffic to the banned content. I wouldn’t ever have seen the album cover if it weren’t for the ban, for example, after which I realised how trivial it is to see the offending Wikipedia page. And that without the offending content appearing in a Wikinews article about the ban!
It’s hard to justify this kind of policing. In accordance with Wikipedia’s own policies, it is not a creator of content so much as a distributor: it takes content that is already “out there” and, in theory at least, legal, and disseminates it in an approachable form.
After a bit of a battle between Information Services at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and I, resulting in the semipermanent blocking of the Unversity’s right to see www.penbryn-hall.co.uk, and the temporary blocking of AvAngel.com (Woohoo! I’m officially censored by the University), access to the site from the University’s network is now re-opened. Thanks to everybody who gave me the support I needed to go and tell them where to shove it…