China Censors Winnie-the-Pooh on Social Media

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BEIJING — The Chinese government routinely censors discussion of weighty issues like Tibet, Taiwan and human rights abuses.

Now it is being accused of going after a far softer target: Winnie-the-Pooh.

Internet users in China have in recent days reported problems posting references to the warmhearted bear of A.A. Milne’s children’s books on social media sites. The apparent reason? Some commenters are using images of Winnie-the-Pooh to suggest that he shows a resemblance to President Xi Jinping.

The Communist Party bristles at even the slightest hint of criticism, and censors are especially sensitive to any mockery involving Mr. Xi, the most powerful Chinese leader in decades.

The party has shown particular disdain for comparisons of Mr. Xi and Winnie-the-Pooh.

The government’s army of censors has been battling the meme since at least 2013, when Mr. Xi met President Barack Obama at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, Calif. At the time, internet users posted pictures of Mr. Xi and Mr. Obama alongside an image showing Winnie-the-Pooh and his smiling companion, Tigger.

The recent blackout does not appear to be uniform. On Weibo, a Twitterlike site, it was still possible on Monday to write posts and upload images related to Winnie-the-Pooh. But posting comments on existing posts that included the term Winnie the Pooh, who is known in Chinese as xiao xiong wei ni (or “Winnie the Little Bear”), was more problematic, returning an error message.

After a fresh round of news reports about the censorship on Monday, including on the front page of the Financial Times, Chinese internet users took to social media sites to test the ban. Some seemed to be mocking the foreign news media, taking pride in being able to freely post pictures of the honey-loving bear.

“He’s so cute, who could he have offended?” wrote one Weibo user.

“Winnie-the-Pooh is also banned?” another asked. “Should everything related to Winnie-the-Pooh in Shanghai Disneyland be removed too?”

Censors have been on high alert since the death last week of Liu Xiaobo, a jailed pro-democracy activist and Nobel laureate who had been battling liver cancer, which prompted an outcry.

Winnie-the-Pooh has endured previous periods of censorship in China.

Images of Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger alongside Mr. Xi and Mr. Obama after their meeting in 2013 were quickly deleted.

And in 2014, censors took action when Winnie-the-Pooh comparisons resurfaced after an awkward handshake between Mr. Xi and Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe. Internet users memorialized the encounter with an image of the yellow bear shaking hands with a gloomy-eyed and uncomfortable Eeyore.

Research by King-wa Fu at the University of Hong Kong showed that an image of Winnie-the-Pooh was one of the most consistently censored items on Chinese social media sites in 2015. The image depicted Winnie-the-Pooh in a toy truck, apparently meant to mock widely circulated images and video of Mr. Xi inspecting troops from a black limousine at a parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.