Let me be honest, I haven’t been following the Internet scene in China for quite a while. I don’t have a good excuse other than too much Web 2.0 can get your priorities off track. So, I took a visit to Rebecca MacKinnon’s blog last week. I found out she presented at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society of Harvard University earlier this month. I stayed up late to watch the video of her presentation and it was totally worth it.

Here are the presentation slides:

MacKinnon proposed many different ways to look at the Internet in China. For a detailed analysis of the presentation, check out Ethan Zuckerman’s blog post. One major point that stood out to me is she separated the world into two groups: democratic and authoritarian countries. This is the first time I heard this distinction. More than 50 years ago, communism was the threat to western democracies. Nowadays, not all repressive countries are communist. “Authoritarian countries” is a more fitting term for this day and age. In the case of China, discussion about the government is happening online but under tight control. Yongnian Zheng calls this “authoritarian deliberation” in his book, Technological Empowerment: The Internet, State, and Society in China.

The most entertaining part of MacKinnon’s presentation is about how Chinese netizens manipulate language and photos to express their dismay of censorship. For example, Internet users in China often say they are being “harmonized” in reference to the disappearance (and nonappearance) of content they post online. “Harmonized” is referred to President Hu Jintao’s urging for a harmonious society. Therefore, “harmonized” means getting censored and it carries a sarcastic meaning which in turn becomes a sensitive phrase for the censors. Internet users began writing the Chinese characters for river crab to signify harmonized because the two phrases sound similar in Chinese. This snowballed into posting photos of river crabs online. The joke went even further with river crab wearing three watches (“three watches” is another sarcastic phrase). For a more detailed explanation, check out this post from MacKinnon’s blog.

The latest hype in sarcasm on the Internet in China involves alpaca sheep. It is another extension of the river crab. Someone must have gotten too bored or too angry at the river crabs, s/he picked up a video of alpaca sheep from the Oxfam Unwrapped campaign in the UK two years ago and repackaged it into a Chinese music video taking jabs at the crabs. The video is called “The Song of the Grass Mud Horse” (Warning: This video contains adult language). In Chinese, “grass mud horse” sounds similar to “f*ck your mother.” The lyrics of the song describe the grass mud horse as fun loving creatures and they were forced to protect their land by defeating the river crabs. Make sense? If you are completely confused, check out the CNN video about this.

There isn’t a real animal called grass mud horse and the translation of alpaca sheep is nowhere close to the made-up phrase. However, pairing the two together became great entertainment for Chinese netizens and it turned viral. Alpaca sheep cartoons, toys and T-shirts started to appear online. Other variation of music videos are going around. The whole thing might sound kind of ridiculous but homonym is common place in China as a way to get around the Internet police.

This cat and mouse game will probably never end as long as the Chinese government enforces censorship online. When the grass mud horse phenomenon fades away, a new creature or another digitally enhanced photo will take its place. Luckily, there are so many Chinese characters. The possibilities are endless!

In addition to the presentation, MacKinnon was also interviewed by Radio Berkman at Harvard. Click the audio player below to listen to the interview.