Teletubbies, instant noodles and tomatoes might not sound like the stuff of high political intrigue, but this motley grouping has allowed microbloggers in China to evade censorship and speculate on trouble at the top of government.
With facts in short supply since leadership contender Bo Xilai was dismissed as party chief of Chongqing last week, the online rumour mill has been in overdrive – fuelled by the opaque nature of Chinese politics and the knowledge that a power transition is fast approaching.
Internet users disguise their references by using nicknames for the leaders they cannot mention.
“[A few] days ago, Beijing was hosting an innovative tug-of-war for the elderly; this game has nine contestants in all,” wrote one internet user on Thursday, in a thinly veiled reference to the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s top political body.
“The first round of the contest is still intense … The teletubby team noticeably has the advantage and, relatively, the Master Kong team is obviously falling short.”
“Teletubby” is code for Wen Jiabao, who chided Bo publicly before his ousting – the Chinese for the children’s show, tianxianbaobao, shares a character with the premier’s name. The popular instant noodle brand Master Kong is known as Kang Shifu in Chinese and stands in for Zhou Yongkang, who is reportedly supportive of Bo.
“Tomato has retreated; what flavour will Master Kong still have?” asked another user.
In keeping with the food theme, the former Chongqing party boss has been dubbed “tomato” or “xihongshi”.
“It’s the classic way that people have evaded keyword filtering: using puns, homonyms, abbreviations or English acronyms of Chinese names,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Danwei, a website on Chinese media.
“Some are pretty standard, like zhengfu [government] becoming ZF. But a lot of the ones in the last few days are new. With this last round – like Master Kong – you would have to be following internet chatter [regularly] to really get them.”
Many of the messages are bewildering or downright bizarre to casual readers. Even the well informed struggle to decode some of the more cryptic references.
But Offbeat China, a blog that spotted the spate of references, said at one point “Master Kong” was the seventh most searched-for term on Sina’s popular Weibo service.
Strikingly, Bo Xilai’s name was searchable on microblogs for days after he was toppled, even when his wife’s name was blocked. Such searches now seem to be blocked and a leading leftist website was reportedly told to remove all articles about Chongqing, where Bo promoted a “red culture” campaign.
At one point the wildest microblog rumours stretched to claims of an attempted coup. But circulated photographs of army vehicles on the streets dated from a military parade in 2009. Much of the chatter seemed to have been prompted by the presence of reporters outside the state guesthouse in Beijing; they were waiting for the North Korean nuclear negotiator.
Steve Tsang, an expert on elite politics at Nottingham University, said that “not remotely credible” rumours appeared to have circulated because people knew there was tension in the leadership but did not know what was going on. In some cases people were “almost certainly ill-wishers with axes to grind; in other cases probably people just having fun,” he said.
He suggested that the speculation would end if Bo were removed from the 25-seat Politburo as well as his Chongqing position.
“The fact nothing is decided means the leadership is not yet in full agreement about how this needs to be handled,” Tsang added. He said that this probably reflected the increased difficulties of handling the situation so close to the leadership transition, as people were trying to position themselves and their protegés.
Some of the coded messages were deleted within a few hours on Thursday, while others remained. Searches for the phrases “Teletubby” and “Master Kong” together brought the warning that results could not be displayed in accordance with relevant laws and regulations.
Those wanting to read more of the gossip may also have to wade through irrelevant postings.
“Kang Shifu is actually discussed quite a lot anyway on microblogs. It’s one of the most discussed brands because typical netizens eat a lot of instant noodles,” Goldkorn pointed out.
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