China censors online skeletons

China’s drive to impose social and political “harmony” on the internet has claimed a new set of victims: undead skeletons.

Chinese players of World of Warcraft, a hugely popular online role-playing game, have expressed outrage after their “undead skeleton” characters were suddenly clad in new flesh, apparently in order to comply with a secret government ban on bare bones.

The surprise crackdown on the desiccated dead underscores the scope of the internet controls and censorship imposed in China by the cultural commissars of the ruling Communist party.

Hu Jintao, Chinese president, has called for action to “purify” the internet of anything that might affect “national cultural information security” or undermine his attempt to promote a “harmonious society”.

But many players of WoW are angry about the decision to remove skeletons from the game as part of an upgrade implemented by The9, a Nasdaq-listed company that licenses WoW from US developer Blizzard Entertainment.

As well as changing undead skeletons into fully fleshed zombies, the upgrade has replaced the bare-boned corpses of dead characters with neat graves.

“This modification to undead characters is due to the requirements of Chinese national conditions and policies,” The9 said. “These small modifications promote a healthy and harmonious online game environment and will not affect players’ enjoyment.”

However, in postings to online discussion boards, WoW players denounced The9 and Beijing’s ministry of culture for what they said was an unreasonable interference in a game enjoyed by millions around the world. “I reckon bones are an expression of the individual character of the undead,” wrote one commentator on internet portal Sohu.com. “These bumptious fellows have completely destroyed the character of the undead – and anyway, how can a reanimated corpse be much more harmonious than a skeleton?”

Such objections reflect growing dissatisfaction in some quarters at government attempts to tighten controls on the internet and traditional media publishing.

The internet is China’s least controlled public space, but officials already censor online content, block access to websites overseas, monitor online communications and jail or harass journalists and online authors they consider too outspoken.

Beijing has sought to target censorship more carefully, recently allowing access to the English-version of the open-source encyclopaedia website Wikipedia, but continuing to block its Chinese version. Officials of the culture ministry and The9 declined to comment on why the WoW skeletons – which also feature in other online games in China – had been singled out.

However, regulators have targeted bare bones in the past, forcing changes to skeleton images from playing cards sold in China by Wizards of the Coast, a subsidiary of US games company Hasbro, with artists adding “flesh and muscle to cover their exposed bones”.

Some WoW players said officials should focus more on inharmonious social issues such as a recent scandal involving the use of forced labour by hundreds of brick factories.

“Is it social harmony when you can’t even buy a house while others are extravagantly corrupt?” wrote another commentator on the Sohu blog. “Will changing a game model bring you harmony? Chinese leaders are truly laughably naive!”

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