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Opinion: The autocrat threatened by Winnie the Pooh

Pro-democracy activists tear a placard of Winnie-the-pooh that represents Chinese President Xi Jinping during a protest against a proposed new security law outside the Chinese Liaison Office in Hong Kong on May 24, 2020.
ISAAC LAWRENCE
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AFP via Getty Images
Pro-democracy activists tear a placard of Winnie-the-pooh that represents Chinese President Xi Jinping during a protest against a proposed new security law outside the Chinese Liaison Office in Hong Kong on May 24, 2020.

Authoritarian rulers can't take a joke. And they see jokes...everywhere.

The film Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey has been pulled from theaters in Hong Kong and Macau for "technical reasons." But the film has reportedly already been shown on thousands of cinema screens around the world without any "technical problems" like those mentioned by Chinese officials.

Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey takes A. A. Milne's endearing storybook characters and turns them into murderous revenge-fiends. The filmmakers can do this because the book's copyright expired and it's now in the public domain.

I don't think I'd want to see this film if it was the only one being shown on a 19-hour flight, and all I had to read was the air sickness bag. But China-watchers speculate the film isn't being suppressed over matters of taste; it's political censorship.

According to reports, some in China thought President Xi Jinping resembled Winnie the Pooh in a 2013 photo of him walking alongside President Barack Obama. President Obama was supposed to be Tigger.

I think I can see it - though that might be just the power of suggestion. The next year, a photo of Xi shaking hands with Japan's Prime Minister evoked an image of Pooh and Eeyore, the eternally-glum donkey. Memes flew again.

The Chinese authorities' response was to ban most images of Pooh. This made the silly old bear into a resistance icon.

Americans can freely imitate, mock, and ridicule public figures, on Twitter, television, TikTok, online, onstage, and in Times Square, if they want. But in tyrannies protesters have to keep their symbols cryptic, for their own survival. As Winnie the Pooh himself once observed, "When you go after honey...the great thing is not to let the bees know you're coming."

Some protesters in Russia have gathered waving toilet brushes. What's subversive about a toilet brush? The upraised scrubbers might remind Russians of the ones in the bathrooms of Vladimir Putin's Black Sea palazzo - which reportedly cost $619 apiece. It's a way of saying, "Vladimir Putin spends almost as much on a toilet brush as most of us earn in a month."

Protesters in China have held aloft blank sheets of paper to decry government lockdowns and censorship. It's as if to taunt authorities, "Are you really going to arrest someone for saying nothing?"

But despots don't see the joke in blank sheets of paper, toilet brushes, or Bears of Very Little Brain. Tyrants see only threats to their power.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.