Xi Jinping has been given numerous online nicknames, some of which have been censored. This makes him one of the most nicknamed leaders in modern Chinese history. In order to avoid censorship, Chinese internet users often use similar sounding words, different characters, and purposely make typos when mentioning the country’s “core” leader.
As the difficulty of bypassing online censorship has increased, the use of obscure nicknames has also become more common. For example, a recent joke comparing a man’s wish to a Soviet-style regime went viral. The first part of the joke, consisting of three nonsense syllables, was interpreted by many as referring to “Xi Jinping.” The second part was thought to mean something along the lines of “hurry up and die” or “step down soon.” Despite the vagueness of the joke, any mentions of it were swiftly censored on social media. The original poster, @怪以德服人猫, had their account deleted from Weibo for allegedly violating platform policy.
The use of tonal symbols in Xi Jinping’s name (习近平, Xí Jìnpíng) has become a common way to refer to him on the internet. In May 2023, Chinese social media was buzzing about a series of three arrows ↗↘↗ that were said to represent the three tones (second/rising tone, fourth/falling tone, and second/rising tone, respectively) in Xi Jinping’s name. This trend started with a screenshot from QQ, showing a post that stated: “It’s depressing when random internet users are more skilled and competent than you.” A user in the comments section responded by saying, “Those keyboard warriors are more competent than ↗↘↗.” Many people were shocked and amused that they were able to correctly interpret the three arrows as a reference to Xi Jinping. Some had to ask for an explanation, while others commented: “I understood that!” “How did I manage to read that? Help!” “I’ve been pronouncing it →↘→ this whole time, I guess my Mandarin isn’t that good,” and “I got it right away. Does this mean I’m going to hell?”
This specific combination of tones can also represent other names, such as Peng Liyuan, the Chinese soprano and wife of Xi Jinping; Wang Huning, a political theorist and current chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference; or even Voldemort, the antagonist in the Harry Potter novels. However, it is widely believed that ↗↘↗ and its variations “2-4-2” (meaning “second tone, fourth tone, second tone”) and “N” (which is thought to resemble the three lines of ↗↘↗) all refer to the top leader of China. Another nickname for Xi is “n-butane,” which is based on its chemical line-angle formula that resembles the three tonal marks or an elongated “N.”
Old online nicknames, such as Winnie the Pooh, Steamed Bun Xi, Foreskin Xi, and Xissolini, that were once creatively amusing are now being censored and forgotten. In their place, more obscure symbols and references are being used. The trend of creating Xi nicknames still persists, with new variations constantly emerging. Some joke that eventually these nicknames will become blank spaces, similar to the empty sheets of paper used by protesters during the 2022 White Paper Protests. However, as long as Xi Jinping remains in control, the market for alternative Xi nicknames will likely continue to thrive.