One of the stranger nicknames Chinese Internet users have given to Zhou is “Master Kang” (Kang Shifu 康师傅). Kang Shifu is a ubiquitous brand of instant noodles. It also shares one character in common with Zhou’s first name, Yongkang (康). In late March 2012, search results for “Kang Shifu” were blocked on Weibo. Eventually, even “instant noodles” (fangbian mian 方便面) was blocked.
User Generated, Censor-Chosen Keywords on China’s Weibo
“Sensitive words” are those terms which are liable to be blocked on the Chinese Internet. Often they are words or phrases invented by Internet users to skirt censorship. China Digital Times tracks words that have been blocked from the search results of Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform, and other online forums. Instead of deleting millions of posts, Weibo simply shields from view posts containing offending terms. For instance, if you search for “Dalai Lama” (达赖喇嘛), you will get nothing but the message, “According to the relevant laws and regulations, search results for ‘Dalai Lama’ cannot be displayed.” These words may be unblocked (and reblocked) at any time.
THE ZHOU YONGKANG DRAGNET
Soon after he took office, Chinese president Xi Jinping vowed that he would catch both “tigers and flies” in his fight against official corruption. No cadre, from the lowly village chief to the leader at the top, would be spared. He now seems to be going after a particularly ferocious tiger, former Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member and “security czar” Zhou Yongkang. Zhou is reportedly under house arrest while he undergoes a corruption investigation, although the central authorities have issued no public statement on the matter. Meanwhile, keywords blocked from Weibo search results point to a widening circle of suspects implicated through their association with Zhou.
Before he arrived in Beijing, Zhou built his career in energy. An engineer by training, Zhou began working in the oil industry at the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. He became the general manager of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), a state-owned enterprise, in the mid-1990s, then took the helm at the Ministry of Land and Resources towards the end of the decade. He served as Minister of Public Security from 2002 to 2007, overseeing the country’s police and national security apparatus, including the outgoing system of re-education through labor.
As a member of the PBSC from 2007 to 2012, Zhou was one of China’s most powerful politicians. Censors frequently try to curtail online discussion of a leader of his rank. China Digital Times first found his name (Zhou Yongkang 周永康) blocked from Weibo search results in April 2011--not because he was implicated in any sort of scandal at that point, but simply because of his rank.
It was Bo Xilai who really made Zhou a “sensitive” person. The charismatic Party secretary of Chongqing, Bo was detained in March 2012 after his police chief fled to the US consulate in Chengdu, armed with the knowledge that Bo’s wife Gu Kailai had murdered British businessman Neil Heywood. Bo is currently serving a life sentence for embezzlement, bribery, and abuse of power.
After Bo’s detention, Zhou appeared to be the only high official who still supported him. Rumor quickly spread online that Zhou and Bo were plotting a coup d’état. China’s two biggest microblogging platforms, Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, were forced to suspend their services’ comment function for three days at the end of March 2012, apparently as punishment for letting the rumor fly and as a desperate effort to stifle its spread.
REFERENCES BLOCKED ON WEIBO
Since then, references to Zhou have been blocked and unblocked from Weibo search results. Zhou’s full name was blocked at the end of March 2012. It was blocked again at the beginning of October 2013, around the time Harvard professor Tony Saich said Zhou was “clearly in trouble.” His name is still blocked as of January 8. Sly allusions to Zhou have also been censored: “security czar” (anquan shahuang 安全沙皇) was blocked in October, and while that keyword is now searchable, it only returns eight results, the latest from September. About 100 million posts appear on Weibo every day. It is almost certain that massive numbers of posts have been deleted.
One of the stranger nicknames Chinese Internet users have given to Zhou is “Master Kang” (Kang Shifu 康师傅). Kang Shifu is a ubiquitous brand of instant noodles. It also shares one character in common with Zhou’s first name, Yongkang (康). In late March 2012, search results for “Kang Shifu” were blocked on Weibo. Eventually, even “instant noodles” (fangbian mian 方便面) was blocked. Both of these keywords are searchable once again, but Zhou Yongkang and instant noodles are still linked in the world of Chinese Internet memes. Since at least January 9, Boolean searches for “instant noodles +arrested” (fangbian mian +bei bu 方便面＋被捕) and “instant noodles +caught” (fangbian mian +bei zhua 方便面＋被抓) have been blocked.
A widening circle of family and former associates seem to be getting dragged into the investigation. “Kang Shifu +son” (Kang Shifu +erzi 康师傅＋儿子) has been blocked since October, after reports emerged that Zhou’s son Zhou Bin was under house arrest. Another blocked Boolean search is “Zhou +Li Dongsheng” (周＋李东生). Li, one of Zhou’s trusted allies, was removed from his post at the Ministry of Public Security on Christmas Day.
If Zhou is formally charged with corruption or other misconduct, the constellation of unsearchable words connected to his name will surely grow. In the meantime, the censors are trying to keep Xi’s political slogans from the taint of online banter. Also blocked on January 9: “Xi +tiger” (Xi +laohu 习＋老虎).
Blocked Weibo Searches Related to Zhou Yongkang (retested Jan. 9): This list is not comprehensive, but gives a sense of what types of terms surrounding Zhou are being censored.
- Kang Shifu+CNPC (康师傅＋中石油)
- Kang Shifu+son (康师傅＋儿子)
- Zhou Bo (周薄): Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai.
As of December 17: Chinese netizens use nicknames and use characters homophonous with those in Zhou’s full name (Zhou Yongkang 周永康) to continue the conversation, but the censors are catching up with many of these alternate “spellings.”
In the blocked keywords listed below, homophonous characters are translated to show their place in Zhou’s name. They are used purely for sound.
- Zhou Brave-kang (周勇康)
- Zhou Yong-bran (周永糠)
- State Yongkang (州永康)
- Continent Yongkang (洲永康)
- Congee Yongkang (粥永康)
- Congee Yong-bran (粥永糠)
- Congee Gush-kang (粥涌康)
- Boat Yongkang (舟永康)
- Chant-kang (咏康)
- Chant-bran (咏糠)
- Gush-kang (涌康)
- Gush-bran (涌糠)
- Swollen-kang (臃康)
- Li Dongsheng+Tang Can (李东生＋汤灿): People’s Liberation Army singer Tang Can is rumored to have slept with Li Dongsheng, among other officials. In 2012, Tang was alleged to have received a 15-year prison sentence for espionage and corruption.
- Li Dongsheng+Zhou (李东生＋周)
- Tiger Zhou (周老虎)
- Politburo Zhou (周政法)
- instant noodles +step down (方便面＋下台)
- instant noodles+something happened (方便面＋出事)
- instant noodles+caught (方便面＋被抓)
- instant noodles+arrested (方便面＋被捕)
- Xi +tiger (习＋老虎)
You can browse over 2,000 sensitive words, collected by China Digital Times since 2011, on their bilingual Google spreadsheet.