Chinese authorities have effectively banned Winnie the Pooh from the internet.
Well, sort of. It’s complicated.
On Monday, a website called the Financial Times reported that the nation’s Communist party was banning images of the famous bear from Sina Weibo, a social media site similar to Twitter. Attempts to post to the site with the Chinese characters representing Winnie the Pooh returned a message warning about illegal content.
The site also featured Winnie the Pooh emojis—up until the latest round of censorship. Several news outlets accessed Sina Weibo and confirmed that the site has scrubbed out all traces of the lovable yellow bear.
By Tuesday night, however, the ban appeared to have been lifted, according to a report from CNN.
What’s so dangerous or revolutionary about a honey-loving children’s character?
Apparently, the censorship stems from a meme. Sina Weibo users compared Pooh Bear to President Xi Jinping. That’s a big no-no in China, where even mild criticism of prominent government figures can prompt online censorship.
The first use of the meme stems back to when President Jinping met with then-President Barack Obama in 2013. Online commenters quickly drew the comparison between the photo and an illustration from a Winnie the Pooh storybook.
The photo seemed critical of Jinping since Winnie the Pooh is characteristically naive. Social media users later made additional memes using the Winnie the Pooh theme, comparing other world leaders to characters like Eeyore.
Eventually, the meme became large enough to prompt government intervention.
Nobel Peace Prize–winning Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was recently pictured holding a Winnie the Pooh mug, which may have been the final straw for Chinese authorities.
China carefully controls its citizens’ access to the internet via a country-wide censorship system colloquially known as the Great Firewall of China. The country outright bans many Western websites, including Google, Facebook, and YouTube.
“Historically, two things have been not allowed: political
Western news sources criticized the censorship, and China seems to have quickly backed off of the Winnie the Pooh prohibition, perhaps due to the widespread ridicule.
There’s another reason that China might have changed course.
In many cases, attempting to ban an image or meme can propel that content’s popularity. That phenomenon is known as the Streisand effect, a reference to singer Barbra Streisand. In 2003, Streisand attempted to prevent tabloids from publishing photos of her Malibu house, which lead to the widespread publication of those same photos. Chinese authorities might realize that by banning Winnie the Pooh, they could turn the A.A. Milne character into a symbol for anti-government activists.
In any case, China probably won’t issue any type of official statement. For the time being, at least, Chinese internet users are free to post as many Winnie the Pooh pics as they’d like—Tigger must be ecstatic.