China in Pictures

by Translation Guy on February 1, 2013

Just how much is a picture worth in China? If a picture is worth a 1000 words in English, I’d figure 1200 Chinese glyphs. But words are priced differently in China where speech is not free.

It’s a wonder, really, with the Chinese communications industry exploding like a string of firecrackers that only 30,000 propaganda police can keep a lid on the God-given right of free expression of  a billion Chinese.  That’s a lot of fingers to be stuck in a lot of leaks in the Great Firewall of China to protect the masses from themselves.  Meanwhile a billion work to get around it, more or less.

“It’s really hard for the government to censor things when they don’t understand the made-up words or meaning behind the imagery,” said Kevin Lee, COO of China Youthology, at the DLD conference in Munich recently.

Since the Chinese government has the technologies to censor what people write, Chinese surfers must look for other ways to get their message across without government interference. “The people there aren’t even relying on text anymore.  It’s audio, visual, photos. All the young people are creating their own languages,” says Lee.

Lee mentions a recent Mini-Cooper advertisement in China that featured a shot of the car with a large Band-Aid on its bumper and nothing else – no text at all. Meaning: Even brands like Mini Cooper are upset by state censorship.

Pretty subtle. Too subtle for me, that’s for sure.  I’ll bet that most of the people that saw that ad didn’t get it either. Perhaps to digital hipsters like Lee it’s so obvious, but that seems pretty obscure to me. An ad agency boss once told me that “average” was the same as “mom,” meaning if your Mom wouldn’t get it instantly, no one else would either.

In China, your average censor is an average guy too. If he doesn’t get the Band-Aid trick and lets it slide, doesn’t that mean that others will have the same problem and will miss the message too? Not very viral.

But maybe perhaps the censors are in on the joke, and let it through anyway, letting creatives squander their message in veiled obscurities, a weaker variant to inoculation against more dangerous viral ideas. Cut the transmission rate and virus will burn itself out. The party can go on.

Some online images are less acceptable to the government.   The picture of Chinese leaders getting down Gangnam-style got pulled in within hours of posting. “The images of Chinese leaders are carefully managed by propaganda leaders, and the suggestion that they would dance in formation and shake their hips is certainly unwelcome,” says CMP in Gangnam Style with Chinese Characteristics. The censors know that’s the kind of thing the boss notices.

Journalist Max Fisher says, “The potential capriciousness of the censors is itself important for understanding the Chinese web.” The uncertainty encourages writers and editors to censor themselves so that censors don’t have to stay late at the office.

On top of that guys like Lee who have the power to move millions with their communication talents are maneuvered into putting their considerable energies into peripheral channels like band-aided automobile ads.  So maybe that’s how it happens, around the edges, until the center cannot hold.

More knowledgeable readers please let me know if I am missing something on this Band-Aid story.

Bonus Link:  check if your favorite website is banned in China. Click here.


  1. Ali Davidson says:

    I’m not sure I understand the Band-Aid thing either…

  2. Sally says:

    30000 can do the job largely because of fear, it is addressed later in the article, people begin to censor themselves

  3. Tom R. says:

    Considering the average income of Chinese youth, is it even smart for Mini to be marketing to them, as well as risking the anger of the CCP with what I’m to assume is a subversive message in that ad.

  4. Pat says:

    The creation of youth language that is not reliant on text, but visual aspects is certainly nothing new. Graffiti, the peace symbol, comics, avante-garde art, etc. have sought to convey subversive messages for decades.

  5. There will always be a disconnect between generations, which will allow a subversive message to grow within the younger generations communication.

  6. Willem says:

    “Average” will always mean Mom to advertisers, because mom’s do the buying. Unless it’s beer and pizza, then average means dad.

  7. Chris says:

    If I were the Chinese communist party, I’d censor that Gangnam style photoshopp job too, that song is just ridiculously annoying. Still waiting for its 15 minutes of fame to be up.

  8. Jeff says:

    Not looking to get any business from the Chinese communist party one could assume?

  9. Some strange websites banned in China: Sony Music, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Yahoo (but not CNN), IMDB, the Norwegian Vroadcasting Network and a very few select porn sites.

  10. Kalaal says:

    I’ve asked a few of my Chinese friends about this band aid thing, and the meaning escapes them as well

    • Ken says:

      Mission accomplished, right? Thanks for checking!

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