Did North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un visit Beijing in his first official state visit outside of the country this week? Speculation was running wild on Chinese social media, but we still don't know for sure. One thing we do know for sure: People in China get creative when they're trying to bypass the country's internet censors.
The name "North Korea" was banned entirely on the social media service Weibo - China's version of Twitter - earlier this week. And as Reuters reports, some of the names being used on WeChat were almost certainly coded terms for Kim Jong Un. A few were fairly obvious, such as "fatty on the train" and "the obese patient". Others, such as "the sibling next door", were a tad more obscure.
China's mainstream media outlets were even banned from talking about North Korea at all. But it's incredibly hard to suppress information in the age of social media. That doesn't mean China won't try.
Censorship on Chinese social media is nothing new. The country has an army of online censors who comb through all the messages that are sent around the clock, blocking everything from terms such as Brave New World (the classic dystopian novel) to names such as Winnie the Pooh (Chinese President Xi Jinping became a Pooh meme back in 2013).
The mysterious train returned to Pyongyang this week, so whoever was on it (some suggested it might just be Kim Jong Un's sister, Kim Jo-Yong) they're back in the isolated country.
Individual users in China regularly deploy coded language to talk about sensitive subjects, even in their private text messages, but censors are also quick to adapt. When people started using the term "Disney" instead of Pooh, censors just banned the term Disney. But the American entertainment company can't be too happy with that. The Mouse House has two theme parks in China and is increasingly dependent on the country for overseas movie revenue.
Many Americans, including President Donald Trump, see China as the lynchpin in getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. But with Trump's recent hire of ultra-hawk John Bolton as national security advisor, it may be too late for compromise. Bolton has written numerous opinion articles rationalising a military invasion against North Korea, including one published just last month in the Wall Street Journal titled, "The Legal Case For Striking North Korea First".
From the WSJ:
Pre-emption opponents argue that action is not justified because Pyongyang does not constitute an "imminent threat." They are wrong. The threat is imminent, and the case against pre-emption rests on the misinterpretation of a standard that derives from prenuclear, pre-ballistic-missile times. Given the gaps in US intelligence about North Korea, we should not wait until the very last minute. That would risk striking after the North has deliverable nuclear weapons, a much more dangerous situation.
If war does break out on the Korean peninsula, it will certainly be interesting to see what kind of words are censored on Chinese social media. But the bigger concern is obviously what China will do if the US launches a pre-emptive war. China has said that if the US strikes first, it will defend North Korea. That creates a dynamic where we have a shooting war between the world's only superpower (America) and the world's only emerging superpower (China). There's no other word for that but World War III.
Gizmodo could not confirm by press time whether the term "World War III" is being censored on Chinese social media. But may God have mercy on our souls either way.