There is a not-so-secret club in China. Members find each other in traffic by honking their horn – one long honk, followed by two short ones. Others identify each other by completing nonsensical couplets: “The son of heaven covers the tiger” – to which the correct response is “chicken stew with mushrooms”.
They call themselves duanyou after the app Neihan Duanzi, or “implied jokes”, where until recently some 30 million users could watch short videos, comedy sketches and follow dirty jokes and memes. Fans also organise offline meet-ups. At one gathering in Hunan province earlier this month, a group posed in a parking lot with little red flags and a sign describing themselves as the “duanyoucoalition”.
China’s media regulator on 10 April ordered Neihan Duanzi’s parent company and one of the country’s fastest-growing internet companies, Bytedance, to shut down the app because of its “vulgar” content. It was one of several news apps to be removed from online stores or shuttered this month.
The group’s unofficial song, On Earth, a ballad about life’s struggles, has been censored. Cities from Shanghai to Changde in Hunan province have placed restrictions on honking. Authorities have advised news outlets not to report on fan gatherings. The founder and CEO of Toutiao, the news platform where Neihan Duanzi was first hosted, issued a public apology for failing to “promote positive energy and grasp correct guidance of public opinion”.
The app’s closure and subsequent restrictions offer more evidence of how China’s censorship is moving beyond politically sensitive topics to seemingly benign content like entertainment and humour. It is also a campaign more likely to cause backlash among the general public, observers say.
In a country where topics from human rights to Winnie the Pooh, a nickname for the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, are routinely censored, it is the closure of a joke app that has riled citizens most in years.
“[The platform] is a channel for people’s emotions … to have some private space and share their experiences. It’s kind of a utopian place. Here they can share their happiness, their sadness,” said Chen Qin, a researcher who completed her doctorate on Chinese media at Ohio State University.
For some Duanzi fans, the app doesn’t just provide an escape from the tedium of daily life but a sense of belonging. Users quip back and forth, referencing inside jokes and phrases only other duanyou would know. The code phrase “the son of heaven covers the tiger” is a saying used by bandits in a popular Chinese novel from the 1950s.
“Through [this], a new type of social bond or affinity was built, first only within the cyberspace, then in reality,” Chen said.
In real life, duanyou groups get together for dinners, go rafting, hold barbecues, sing karaoke, or just hang out by their cars. Some get involved in local causes, raising money. In a post on a Duanzi forum this week, one user asked other duanyou to drive their cars to his wedding in order to beep and cheer him on.
“Neihan Duanzi contains normal people’s happiness … Duanyou make fun of each other … but if you meet another offline, he will give you a cigarette. Strangers can have a meal together like old friends,” a journalist wrote on the Chinese tech news site PingWest last year.
Now, some duanyou are moving underground. They’ve started chat groups on platforms like Telegram, which can only be used via VPN in China. They complain about the Duanzi ban and talk openly about politics and tightening controls over Chinese society. Others are in private WeChat or QQ groups for duanyou. Duanzi videos are still circulating online.
“I’ve been a Neihan Duanzi user for two years and never even thought of putting a sticker on my car. Occasionally I’d honk at a duanyou’s car. But when Duanzi was censored, I felt a certain pain in my heart, like someone had taken my child from me,” one user wrote on 12 April in a Duanzi Telegram group that has more than 2,000 members.
China’s new broadcaster, China Media Group, a combination of the country’s state radio and television broadcasters, was inaugurated this week. Duanzi users posted on a state news report of the event, “give Neihan Duanzi back”. Another wrote: “Duanzi has been blocked but duanyou will always be together.”
By shutting down Neihan Duanzi, authorities may have targeted a segment of Chinese society for whom this app is especially important. While the app’s appeal is broad, it seems especially popular among those with less education, from China’s less-developed cities. Teng Wei, a cultural studies scholar based in Guangzhou, calls them China’s “new poor”, a group defined not by their income so much as by what they don’t or cannot buy.
According to Teng, they are often young people born in rural areas who have relocated to larger cities and who, in between the village and the city, lack a sense of identity outside of virtual spaces like Duanzi. Videos on the app, filmed and uploaded from all over the country, often feature scenarios and skits in China’s poorer second- and third-tier cities.
In one popular Duanzi video, a man in an unbuttoned shirt with long hair pulled into a messy pony tail comes across his girlfriend walking with another man, much more smartly dressed. His girlfriend proceeds to break up with him because her new beau, she says, “pays more attention” and has bought her a BMW and an iPhone X.
“Being poor no longer means you don’t have property or a job; it simply means you are not consuming,” Teng wrote in a 2016 essay about fans of another video app, Kuaishou, whose following she believes is similar to that of Duanzi. That app was also singled out this month for inappropriate content.
By censoring this group, Beijing also risks losing a support base: young people known as “little pink” for their sympathies with China’s ruling Communist party, whose official colour is red. Videos and content on the app are often more nationalistically skewed.
“Overall, they seemed to be aligned with the government and now they face this situation,” said Zhou Fengsuo, a Chinese human rights activist who was a leader in China’s 1989 democracy protests and is now based in the US. “This is a pretty common pattern in China where people keep going with their regular life until suddenly one day you are the victim of arbitrary rules.”
Observers say it will be difficult to fully disband these communities, who are still looking for an outlet. “Soon another app will come out,” Teng said. “Consumers are always looking for something new.”