Did China block Winnie the Pooh on Weibo? It’s more complicated than you think

(By  Luna Lin)

It has been a long time since Winnie the Pooh made global headlines, but in the past few days the lovable bear created by AA Milne once again became the talk of the town. And this time, it’s for all the wrong reasons – media reports claim that the “bear of very little brain” has been blocked on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, because of its resemblance to the country’s president Xi Jinping.

Citing a picture showing Chinese president Xi Jinping walking alongside then US president Barak Obama and the chubby bear walking alongside his skinny friend Tigger, the Financial Times, which first broke the story among the mainstream English media, concluded that the bear “has become too politically sensitive to be mentioned on Chinese social media”.

Others were quick to follow. By the end of Monday, stories of the misfortune of this orange beast had flooded major news outlets.

“Has Winnie the Pooh done something to anger China’s censors?” asked the AFP.

The answer is yes.

The bear does bear some resemblance of President Xi Jinping, arguably China’s most powerful leader since Chairman Mao. A picture of Xi standing up through the roof of a parade car paired with an image of a Winnie the Pooh toy car was once described by Global Risk Insights “China’s most censored photo”.

(Source: EMIPCS)

But has this comparison between the bear and the president angered the censor so much this time that it should be blocked on social media? The answer is not so straightforward.

In fact, while banning a cartoon character because of its resemblance to the president sounds totally possible in a country where some of the world’s most popular websites, such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube, are blocked and freedom of expression restricted, it’s not necessarily the case this time.

Data published by Weibo, which are openly accessible, show that the three Chinese names of Winnie the Pooh (维尼熊,小熊维尼 and 维尼) have all got much more mentions over the weekend. Mentions of the three key words all began to surge on July 14th 2017 and the heat kept running through the next day. It was only after the Financial Times published a story about Winnie the Pooh being censored on Weibo that the mentions began to wind down on Sunday.

FreeWeibo, a website that salvages Weibo posts deleted by the platform, recorded 4 deleted posts with the keyword Winnie the Pooh over the weekend. Though it’s not clear how FreeWeibo detects the deleted posts and hence difficult to determine what the actual number of deleted posts would have been, the relatively small number of deletion detected would at least suggest there wasn’t a large scale crackdown on the keywords.

We might never find out why there was suddenly increased interest of the portly bear on Chinese social media last week,  but it is quite possible that it was triggered by a new round of rumor. Prior to the alleged “block” of Winnie, a screenshot began to circulate among social media users.

The screenshot, which purported to be citing a notice from the government, said Winnie the Pooh cartoon series would be banned because “the main character looks like the leader of the country” and hence could be defamatory.

On July 14th 2017, Taiwanese media Liberty Times Net reported that Winnie the Pooh was blocked on Weibo for its resemblance to the Chinese president Xi Jinping. The same day, we began to see huge surges of searches for the three keywords on both Weibo and Baidu.

At the same time, a censorship of unimaginable scale was determined to erase every trace of the just deceased Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo from the internet. Liu was put in jail by the Chinese government in 2008 and died of terminal liver cancer on July 13th 2017. While the 61-year-old dissident’s name had long been blocked on social media, a recent Citizen Lab report found that this time even pictures related to Liu had been made disappeared from private chats on popular instant messaging app WeChat.

Thanks to the reports of the “block” of Winnie the Pooh, short-lived attentions of the public and global media were successfully diverted to the woes of the bear, leaving the death, the sea burial and the fate of the wife of a much deserving dissident in the cold.

The “block”, “ban” and “blacklist” of the bear may or may not exist in the first place, but by pushing it ahead of the stories of Liu Xiaobo the media have managed to help the authority achieve a goal they always want – it’s now seen a silly fool that makes decisions which backfire rather than a cold-blooded murder that kills a dissident.

Why it’s a viral story given the timing? It’s beyond me.