It's a dynamic familiar to fans of the Harry Potter franchise: a villain so powerful that ordinary people fear to even mutter his name aloud. In Harry Potter world, characters use phrases like "You Know Who" to reference the series arch-villain, Voldemort. But in China (where Harry Potter is, unsurprisingly, banned), ordinary citizens (even those who genuinely support the CCP) are afraid to utter the name of President Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader since Chairman Mao.
An interesting piece published in the latest issue of the Economist pointed to the dynamic:
Open criticism of the most important man in China is taboo. Last year Ren Zhiqiang, a retired property tycoon and vocal critic of the government, published an essay about a speech by Mr Xi in which Mr Ren said he was not an “emperor” showing off his new clothes but a naked “clown”. Shortly afterwards, Mr Ren was sentenced to 18 years in prison for corruption.
Chinese citizens' euphemisms for President Xi - which include, most notoriously, comparing the leader to "Winnie the Pooh" - are evolving so fast by necessity that China's online censors are having trouble keeping up.
Earlier this month, Meituan CEO Wang Xing posted a classic ninth-century poem mocking an ancient Chinese emperor. While Wang insisted the poem was an oblique jab at the company's competitors, too many people interpreted it as a jab at China's leadership. Meituan's stock subsequently slumped, wiping $2.5 billion off Wang's net worth. The company, China's largest food-delivery app, has since been caught up in the CCP's anti-trust crackdown.
Even at pro-Beijing media outlets and private gatherings of pro-government diplomats and executives, people take excessive precautions as soon as discussions veer toward the politically sensitive. In conversation, Chinese citizens use phrases like "you know who," "big number one" and our "eldest brother" or "big uncle" to reference Xi.
Others insist on turning off their mobile phones when the subject of Chinese politics arises.
Such is the current climate that even those who broadly support the government are sometimes nervous about mentioning Mr Xi’s name. Some employees at a state-run media group have taken to substituting the word “Trump” for Mr Xi in chat groups. At small social gatherings, people frequently stop short of uttering the name, even in the most benign contexts. They use instead phrases such as “you-know-who”, “big number one”, “the eldest brother” or “our big uncle".
When, at a recent private gathering that included diplomats, executives and bankers, the talk turned to Chinese politics, it was suggested that all switch off their mobile phones. No one thought it likely that government snoops were really listening in and no one had anything particularly controversial to say. But all agreed it was better to be safe.
Electronic eavesdropping isn't the only tactic employed by China's censors and secret police. Beijing is once again popularizing a tactic used during theCultural Revolution and Stalin's Red Terror: encouraging people to snitch on their friends and neighbors.
Electronic eavesdropping is not the only concern. The old-fashioned sort is also encouraged. Last month, the government launched a new system, with a website and hotline, for citizens to snitch on one another for making “harmful” political commentary. This can include “denying the excellent traditional Chinese culture, revolution culture and advanced socialist culture” as well as attacks on political leaders or their policies.
If this trend continues, pretty soon, ordinary Chinese citizens will risk jail time just for mentioning Harry Potter, or Winnie the Pooh, or Xinjiang.