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Posted on: The Economist | March 11th, 2017



ACCORDING to a programme on China Central Television, a state-run broadcaster, the following are the names of traitors: Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. Well, sort of. The broadcaster itself was clearly not claiming the president of that name, or his prime minister, or their immediate predecessors, were enemies of the people. Rather, it aired a historical drama called “The Qin Empire” and someone slipped the names into the latest episode. Their extraordinary, if fleeting, appearance was a glimpse of the dissent that still lurks in China, and that can sometimes outwit its army of censors.
The Qin was the first unified Chinese state (and gave China its name). Its founder was buried with an army of terracotta warriors. In the episode an earlier Qin leader, who is fighting a rival state, discovers he has been betrayed. An underling is shown reading the traitors’ names, inscribed on a bamboo scroll in an ancient script (see picture). The scene lasted only a second or two but that was long enough for eagle-eyed viewers to read the names. The censors were equally quick, deleting screen shots, blocking online versions of the episode and leaving behind comments on what would happen to the show’s producer (“He is going to be so dead,” wrote one blogger).‎

‎There is a second, coded layer of dissent involved. The state the Qin is fighting is called the Zhao, and the “Zhao family” is internet code for the Communist elite. The epithet derives from a short story of the early 20th century in which an aristocrat called Zhao humiliates a sort of Chinese Everyman. So Xi Jinping, a spy for the hated Zhao family, is a traitor to the first Chinese state.

‎To call the president a traitor, even obliquely, is shocking in China. The harshest recent criticism seems to have been an anonymous letter of mock concern, published online last March, urging Mr. Xi to step down for his own safety. The timing of the latest gesture—just before an annual meeting of the legislature—adds to its potency. Loyalty to Mr.  Xi is a theme of the gathering: at the opening session, the Wall Street Journal counted eight mentions of Mr. Xi in the prime minister’s state-of-the-nation speech, the most references to a leader by name in such an oration since Mao’s time.

Officials are always on high alert to prevent shows of political discord during parliamentary meetings. Yet this time a small act of lèse-majesté slipped through. The more effective the censorship, it seems, the more inventive the dissent.




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