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How cleverly subversive nicknames for China’s president fuel dissent

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On March 10, 2023, Xi Jinping was unanimously elected president of the People’s Republic of China. With this third mandate, the most ever for a Chinese president, he now occupies a similar standing in history to Chairman Mao, who ruled for 27 years.

To outsiders, Xi’s reign may look uncontested, but there are signs of growing resistance within China. In just the last six months, there were anti-Xi banners hung over a major Beijing thoroughfare and a series of highly-impactful street marches against Xi’s zero-COVID policy.

Even before these recent outbursts, Chinese people have found ways to express their dissatisfaction with Xi. To avoid government censorship and imprisonment — or worse — dissidents in China developed a creative tactic: They began using nicknames to refer to, and critique their president. According to the censorship log leaked by the social media app Xiaohongshu in 2020, 564 words were considered “sensitive” by the Chinese government when referring to Xi.

These nicknames are cleverly subversive variations of Xi’s name, oftentimes pointing to his appearance, actions or history — and going against the image that he wants for himself. The efforts to suppress their usage reveal the extreme lengths the government is willing to go to in order to preserve its hegemony. Just as importantly, though, the nicknames serve as inspiration for further dissent, exemplifying the Chinese people’s unwavering pursuit of free participation in politics and their resistance to oppression.

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1. Diao Jinping (刁近平)

Xi got his first well-known nickname even before he was elected president. In an article published on Nov. 20, 2010 by the state broadcaster China Central Television, or CCTV, Xi Jinping (习近平) is erroneously called Diao Jinping (刁近平), a supposed “mistake” that any careful reader could find and spread.

Most likely, this “error” was an intentional jab by Xi’s political enemies, as it carries a hidden meaning. The character Diao (刁) is quite similar to the surname Xi (习) with a dot removed. Diao (刁) means “cunning, overly picky eaters,” and it is very often paired with other words, such as Diaomin (刁民), which means “unruly people,” or Diaonan (刁难), “making things difficult.” In essence, by calling him Diaomin, the article was lowering him from the upper class to the underclass. Being seen as unruly was not something Xi — then the country’s vice president — wanted attached to his image.

If Xi’s political enemies did plant the nickname in CCTV, it wasn’t their only “mistake.” Later they misnamed Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝) as Wen Jiashi (温家室), which means “Wen family,” seemingly to point out that he owed his position to his family’s influence. Knowing CCTV’s rigor when reporting on Chinese officials, it’s difficult to accept this as a simple error. Ultimately, this small ploy in the partisan struggle shows that Xi’s ascension to the presidency was not frictionless. From the start, people have opposed him and even continue to use the nickname — even though CCTV has stopped.

2. Xi Winnie

In 2013, President Xi was nicknamed Xi Winnie on social media because some believe he looked like the character Winnie the Pooh. Back then, the new president’s politics and personal character were not fully known by most Chinese — so there was no hatred or malice behind the nickname. Winnie the Pooh was popular and widely considered cute. The use of the nickname was meant to show the people’s cordial and friendly attitudes toward Xi.

However, in July 2017, the authorities in China decided to delete everything about Winnie the Pooh. Then, in April 2020, someone on, a social media site that has been banned in mainland China, wrote that, “Xi Winnie is a man who wants to be an emperor. Being compared to the cute Pooh may have a great advantage in becoming a president, but it has become a huge stain on a man who hopes to rule the world forever.” It was then that some people who previously held him in high esteem — and who were not too politically minded — first began to realize how controlling Xi could be, how he wanted to project his own perfect image without challenge, and how little respect he had for free speech. While other nicknames are now preferred over Xi Winnie in China, it has become the most common nickname associated with Xi in Western countries — thanks in part to mentions in media like “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”

In 2013, during a appearance among everyday people, Xi ordered a popular type of steamed stuffed bun.

3. Xi Baozi (习包子)

Like many politicians with unstable political positions, Xi Jinping also wanted to establish a friendly image to increase the support of the people. In an article on Dec. 28, 2013, CCTV reported, “Xi Jinping Queued up to Buy Baozi (包子) and Chatted With the Citizens While Eating.” Baozi (包子) are cheap steamed stuffed buns that are preferred by the general public. So his decision to eat Baozi could be seen as a photo-op, helping him win the favor of the masses.

The only articles still available where he is shown caring for the elderly and living a simple life were published between late 2012 to mid-2014. After 2014, there is practically no record of him eating ordinary meals — perhaps because he no longer needed such reporting to connect with everyday people.

By the end of 2013, after the baozi stunt, there were in fact people questioning, as the BBC reported, whether Xi’s friendly approach to the people was just a deliberate show. They became skeptical, and out of that came the new nickname, Xi Baozi. Baozi is also a common folk saying, referring to people who “swallow their voices,” who are gutless and will not fight back when they are bullied. This nickname essentially calls Xi a coward.

Then came the related derivative word, Baozilouxian (包子露馅). It refers to the leaky stuffing inside the bun. This nickname came about after the Panama Papers leak in 2016 revealed the assets hidden overseas by politicians and the rich and powerful, including Xi’s brother-in-law Deng Jiagui.

Two years later, another way of saying it had emerged, Baozilouxian (包子露宪). It has the same pronunciation as the earlier one, but more than just “leaked secrets,” it means the constitution has been exposed and broken. This was in March 2018, when representatives to the National People’s Congress almost unanimously voted on a constitutional amendment to remove term limits for the president, opening the way for Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely.

These two incidents were enough to make more people less enthusiastic about Xi and the Chinese Communist Party. But due to strict government censorship, people were prevented from effectively voicing their dissatisfaction or fully grasping the meaning of such an amendment. As a result, mass uprising in China were impossible at that time. However, a portion of those who knew the truth continued to use Xi Baozi, while others chose to invent new nicknames to voice their dissatisfaction in online conversations, carefully avoiding censorship.

4. Xi Dada (习大大)

Shortly after the nickname Xi Baozi appeared, and before the Panama Papers were leaked, Xi earned a nickname he was very happy with, Xi Dada (习大大). It appeared on Sept. 9, 2014, when a teacher asked him, while visiting a classroom, “May I call you Xi Dada?” to which President Xi answered, “Yes!” Unlike the other nicknames, he embraced this one.

Dada (大大) mimics the babbling of a baby and is translated to Papa/Papi. The teacher’s asking to call him dada was a sign of the people-friendly image he created by using the Chinese media to win over many people. Like a father he positions himself to be a protector for the oppressed through his aggressive anti-corruption drive, although some saw it as a selective campaign to weed out political opponents.

With the approval and promotion by the government, Xi Dada was the most widely used nickname both in official media and social media for a long time. But it all went sour when the Panama Papers leaked and the National People’s Congress amended the constitution. The nickname fell out of popularity. Xi in turn avoided using it, so as to not arouse the people’s disgust. Or, maybe, he no longer needed to project a caring father image.

Quan Ping’s selfie wearing the Xitler T-shirt he created.

5. Xitler

On Oct. 1, 2016, a citizen, Quan Ping, was arrested and charged with inciting subversion of state power. The court cited his Facebook and Twitter posts as evidence, along with a photo of him wearing a T-shirt that included several nicknames, including the earlier-cited Xi Baozi and two others: Da Sabi (大撒逼) and Xitler. The former means “big idiot,” while the latter is of course an allusion to Hitler. It’s a straight up insult.

Since the evidence cited at the trial is sealed as a private court document, it cannot be confirmed. Therefore, the T-shirt might not have been the direct reason for Quan’s arrest and the 18-month sentence he received. What is certain is that Chinese officials acknowledged the nicknames’ existence while also making it clear that using them is a punishable offense.

6. Xi Jinping (习禁评)

The Chinese Communist Party has become more extreme in its control of speech during Xi’s presidency. The monitoring of online speech, the flagging of sensitive words, and the erasure of comments on online forums happen frequently. In response to this crackdown, social media users came up with a new nickname, Xi Jinping (习禁评). It sounds exactly like Xi’s full name, but there is a difference in the characters that gives it an ironic meaning. The characters Jinping (禁评) in this nickname mean “to prohibit comments,” so Xi Jinping (习禁评) is “Xi prohibits comments.”

7. Xi (席)

Another contextual nickname is simply Xi (席). The pronunciation of this character is exactly the same as that of the president’s surname, Xi. However, Xi (席) means a Chinese bamboo mat, seat or a position. Some use the nickname Xi (席) as an object and analogy to express personal opinions.

The following is a comment posted on Xiaohongshu: “My mat (Xi-席) is old, of poor quality and has been on the bed for over 10 years, but it is not completely broken. I really want to cut the mat and get a new one.” In this passage, many key words indicate that the commenter’s target is President Xi. “Poor quality” and “I really want to cut the mat and get a new one,” indicate dissatisfaction with his reign. “Old” and “has been on the bed for over 10 years” refers to the time that Xi has been in power.

In China, “Cut the mat” is a historical allusion to draw a line with someone. Therefore, the last sentence also signals that Xi is at fault for the deep chasm such separation will cause.

8. Exi (恶习)

Maobing Yangcheng Exi (毛病养成恶习), meaning “Defect create vice,” first appeared online in 2014. Mao (毛) is Chairman Mao’s surname, and Bing (病) literally means disease, E (恶) means evil, and Xi (习) is president Xi’s surname. There is also a progressive relationship between these two words: Maobing (毛病, defect) comes first, and Exi (恶习, vice) follows. Therefore, Maobing Yangcheng Exi can be interpreted as “the disease of Mao creates the evil of Xi.”

A similar sentence Maobing Bugai, Exi Nanchu (毛病不改,恶习难除) means “it is hard to eliminate the evil of Xi without rectifying the disease of Mao.” This nickname serves as a warning, revealing that without limiting Xi’s power, China will suffer as it did during Chairman Mao’s dictatorship.

One can easily understand why such sentences are popular. There are lots of similarities between Mao and Xi. For example, much like Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Xi’s draconian zero-Covid strategy was sold as something that would benefit the Chinese people. Yet, as the Urumqi fire protests showed, many had their doubts about the positive effects of barricaded gates and large-scale centralized quarantines. Some believed it was a ploy to control the people and to avoid any mass gathering that might pose a threat to President Xi as he was sought his third controversial re-election at the end of 2022.

Beijing’s Sitong Bridge draped with banners telling Chinese people to “go on strike.” (Twitter)

Sitong Bridge protest and Urumqi marches

China’s heavy-handed censorship system makes it difficult to consistently discuss a topic or unite with people who have similar views online. This is in part why some outsiders might be pessimistic when it comes to the possibility of change. However, the constant stream of new nicknames — and their complex, coded meanings — is proof for hope.

What’s more, the internet is not the only battlefield. Even with the possibility of harsh repression, there are still brave citizens who are engaging daily in the fight against totalitarianism. By using the nicknames to voice their opposition and seeing the wide responses from others, some social media users have come to see that they are not alone, and indeed they form a large community. This recognition is encouraging and galvanizing enough to give them the confidence to move their protests from online to the streets.

Three days before the Chinese Communist Party convened its 20th congress, a Chinese man, Peng Lifa, draped Beijing’s Sitong Bridge with protest banners bearing messages that were visible from one of the city’s busiest transportation routes. It expressed dissatisfaction with the government and called for students and workers to strike and remove the “dictator and state traitor Xi Jinping.”

A month later, on Nov. 24, 2022, a fire broke out in a quarantined residential building in Urumqi, Xinjiang, killing 10 people. Heartbroken and angry citizens questioned the official death toll and whether the lockdown led to the victims’ deaths. Subsequent indifferent official responses and their irresponsible attitude further aroused people’s anger. Eventually, the citizens spontaneously gathered and rushed to Urumqi City Hall. Students and citizens in different cities also launched marches. The protests spread to 207 universities and 24 cities within China and were later dubbed the White Paper movement because people were holding up blank white paper, representing what they wanted to say but couldn’t.

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The move from online dissidence to the streets took tremendous courage — and the togetherness emboldened people further, as some marchers even chanted, “Xi Jinping, step down!” Although remarkable in its brazenness, such escalation seems only natural. After deploying clever rhetorical and language skills to devise nicknames for President Xi, the most powerful and natural conclusion of such efforts was to call him by his full name, Xi Jinping. This showed a complete opposition to the government and disregard of censorship.

Ultimately, the government caved in — at least partially. Many city officials immediately lifted their zero-COVID policies. The government blamed the protesters for the surge of COVID infections and called them actors influenced by foreign states. All the while, the police were arresting the leaders of the movement.

Yet, despite the ongoing repression — and Xi’s continued, unremitting dominance on the global stage — it would be a mistake to think of China as a hopeless case. The Chinese people have seen the power of their creativity and courage, and there’s no telling what that might inspire next.

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