China

Why the New Winnie the Pooh Movie Is Banned in China

A story of censorship in the age of memes

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Disney's new Christopher Robin movie has been banned in China. That's because, as far as one can tell through a haze of doubletalk and official obfuscation, it's basically illegal to make Pooh jokes in the Middle Kingdom.

Technically, the film's exclusion falls under the quota China has imposed on foreign films. Only 34 are allowed in theaters each year, which allows the government to retain some amount of formal control over what movies the population sees. But a more likely truth is that the film was singled out because the innocent-looking bear in A. A. Milne's story is actually considered subversive.

Rumors of China banning Winnie the Pooh are not new. In July 2017, it was widely reported in the Western media that China had been censoring internet memes in which the endearing bear was compared to the Chinese President Xi Jinping. While some reports do note that these memes carry concealed subversive messages in a particularly sensitive period—the advent of Xi's power grab—one may still have a hard time figuring out just where exactly lies the disguised innocence in the memes which only consist of mere juxtaposed images of Xi and Pooh.

Wong/Weibo
Wong

Mainstream media on the Chinese mainland have said almost nothing about the prohibition of Christopher Robin and the Xi-Pooh "screen-block," the term Chinese netizens use to describe internet content controls. After all, the act of censoring itself is too taboo for the public to discuss openly, and the state does not usually offer any official justification for its decisions. To further complicate things, there are no guidelines on what is or will be banned by the state censorship board. This creates a speculative rumor mill about what type of material is "sensitive." Understanding the Pooh Dilemma, then, requires some sleuthing.

One of the more explicitly sensitive Xi-Pooh comparisons appeared on Weibo—a Twitter-like platform—earlier this year. On February 25, Xinhua, the official press agency in China, reported that Xi Jinping would announce the annulment of the term limit for the Chinese president. Since then, an avalanche of keywords seems to have been banned on Weibo and other platforms, including "Xi Jinping," "enthronement," "I disagree," and "objections." The announcement of an illiberal policy coupled with a crackdown on dissenting language led Chinese netizens to express their opinions in a creative way: many flocked to the official Disney Weibo page to comment on a Weibo post from September 2, 2013, featuring an image of Pooh hugging a gigantic pot of honey and a classic quote from A.A. Milne's original story: "Find the thing you love and stick with it."

Some of the comments include:

"Shock!"

"Witnessing history."

"Prophecy from God."

"Winnie the Prophet."

"Screen captured. Good luck!"

Chinese netizens flocked to comment on and share a Weibo post from the official account of Disney China dated September 2, 2013. (Screenshot via Wong)
Wong
On February 24, 2018, waves of new comments were posted under a 2013 Winnie the Pooh Weibo post on Disney China's Weibo account. (Screenshot via Wong)
Wong
On February 24, 2018, waves of new comments were posted under a 2013 Winnie the Pooh Weibo post on Disney China's Weibo account. (Screenshot via Wong)
Wong

No comment mentioned any of the sensitive keywords; yet the timing, tone, and volume of the comments reveal them to be a response to Xi's decision to abolish his own term limit.

Within a day, this post, together with all the comments, disappeared. It remains unclear whether the state censorship board screen-blocked the content, or if Disney China deleted the post to preserve the company's access to the Chinese market.

The incident illustrates the transformation of Winnie the Pooh memes in Chinese cyberspace, from light joke to potential civic activism. Even when they are unable to use the traditional language of dissent, Chinese netizens inside the firewall have found ways to coordinate and criticize the political regime.

Xi-Pooh humor also shows how online subculture, especially memes, can serve as vehicles of subversion in a country where the public sphere is heavily policed by an unaccountable government. The circulation of the Xi-Pooh memes is not meaningless, nor is it a form of slacktivism or a "feel-good" mechanism; rather, these memes are an adaptive response to an existential threat. Sharing pictures of Pooh allows Chinese netizens to engage in civic discussion and participation, despite the best efforts of government censors.

If there is a weakness in the Pooh approach to dissent, it's that the government never seems to formally acknowledge it as dissent. The Pooh movie will not show in China, but the government will not say why and the media will not demand answers. That nearly every cultural product associated with Winnie the Pooh—including the film, the memes, and commentaries like John Oliver's segment on Last Week Tonight—are still subject to censorship in China certainly suggests a censorious state crackdown on seemingly innocuous Xi-Pooh humor.

The ban on even humorous forms of criticism is yet another red flag for freedom of speech in China: If the people of China can't criticize their government, and they can't laugh at its efforts to silence them, what exactly will the government allow them to say and do?

NEXT: After China Complains, Apple Removes Thousands of 'Illegal' Gambling Apps

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  1. So…Yu No Pooh?

    1. Why be afraid of You-Know-Who?

      When you should be afraid of You-No-Poo–

      The Constipation Sensation that’s Sweeping the Nation!

  2. Pooh into toilet while high on pot.

  3. Chinese leader’s Pooh different than Winnie’s.

  4. Commie leader Xi and Winnie the Pooh- same same

  5. Spots on the wall by Who Flung Pooh.

    1. It’s like they said, “Hey, guys, this really bothers us so don’t poke at it, kay?”

      And expected folks to not giggle and say, “This spot? *poke* Right here? *pokepoke*”

  6. I think that the general attitude of the authors is that we’re, like, totally turning China capitalist and any day now they’ll, like, totally stop being communist and icky and stuff.

    After all, they’ve totes got like a few hundred people in a nation of a few billion that post some adorable little internet meme things right? That’s just like being capitalist, only better!

    And who really cares if your trade with a nation is diverted into weapons testing, armaments, and human rights abuses? Who’s going to make my cheap ass flat screen TV is what I want to know!

    /’Murica

    1. This is weapons-grade stupid.

      1. There are strict military protocols for handling this level of stupid.

      2. I knew I should have used the /sarc tag instead.

  7. Confucius say: “Man who wipe butt with bear fur have pooh on fingers.”

    1. And “children who go to bed with itchy butts wake up with smelly fingers”

      1. Confucious say: “Man who speak in pidgin English say ‘Ass-eater freak who have girlfriend with itchy butt wake-up with fudge smile’ and not care what girlfriend say.”

    2. Confucius say: “He who farts in temple sits in his own pew!”

    3. Confucius say, “who is this other Confucius people keep quoting, he has a weird sense of humor, whoever he is.”

  8. “It remains unclear whether the state censorship board screen-blocked the content, or if Disney China deleted the post to preserve the company’s access to the Chinese market.”

    The dividing line between these two scenarios is not particularly clear-cut, is it?

    See also (albeit to a lesser extent) Twitter preserving its access to European and US markets.

    1. CNN preserving it’s access to Baghdad. Or has it been memory-holed that CNN is selective about which powers it’s willing to speak truth to?

  9. Ooh,this touches on some sensitive matters:

    “I’m not lost for I know where I am. But however, where I am may be lost.”

    _______

    “People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.”

    _______

    “Pooh,” said Rabbit kindly, “you haven’t any brain.”

    “I know,” said Pooh humbly.”

    1. “I wonder what Piglet is doing,” thought Pooh. “I wish I were there to be doing it, too.”

      Bow chicka bow-wow…

  10. I wonder how many Chinese citizens who giggle at Pooh memes would suit up and join a “War Against American Aggression” if called on to do so.

    1. That is the Heffalump in the room.

      1. Since dissidents are often smeared as foreign cats-paws, they will have an extra incentive to “prove their patriotism” by helping fight the country’s wars.

        The good news is that this may be moot if a Sino-US war is fought simply with nukes, in which case there will be no worries about whether people would join the Chinese army to invade a radioactive U. S.

    2. How many tanks have you stared down?

      How many of your family or neighbors have just vanished without a trace?

      Giggling at ‘Pooh memes’ has very different consequences there.

      1. Wow, such hostility, but the question remains – will the dissidents try to “prove their patriotism” by showing that they “oppose only the government, not the country.” Look, they patriotically fight the country’s enemies!

    3. If you’ve got the choice between maybe dying in a war and certainly dying by a QSZ-92, most people would choose the former, I guess.

      Then again, the Chinese government is a pretty rational actor with pretty little ideological incentive to start an all-out war with a great power.

  11. Think of the black market potential in rogue Winnie the Pooh DVDs and flash drives.

  12. I’ve always thought it nuts (for decades) that any company or individual would have anything to do with China – which was and remains a totalitarian communist regime with no guarantee of anyone’s (person or company) rights or property. Kinda coming home to roost, isn’t it?

    1. There are lots of reasons to do business with China. 1.3 billion of them. That is one billion more people than the US.

      They are also not allergic to money. Sure they cheat and are still communist central control.

      That is a big upside to risk because if you do not even try and get a piece of that someone else will.

  13. Has anyone ever asked why Winnie (that little shit from Winnipeg) wears ONLY A RED TOP and no bottoms?

  14. Not even Deng Xiaoping would go this far. There are actually honest to God Maoists in America. I remember asking my compsci lecturer who was from China about Maoism and communism and the temperature just plummeted in the room.

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