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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This next story takes us to China where the Chinese New Year will be marked on the 18th of February. It will be the Year of the Pig, which raises the question of why China state-run broadcaster banned ads that feature pigs. That ban is now surrounded by confusion. If you sort out the confusion, you may learn something about the world's most populous country.

So NPR's Louisa Lim started with the creature at the center of the controversy.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking Foreign Language)

LOUISA LIM: A pig dressed as Elvis in a white jumpsuit appears on a chat show waggling his piggy butt, and urging shoppers to sample the latest sausage snack. As the Year of the Pig nears, this cartoon seemed to promote many positive messages, says Ngu yen(ph). She's the brand manager of Tin Hua San(ph), who developed this ad.

Ms. NGU YEN (Ad Developer): (Through translator) Both adults and children believed pigs are a lucky symbol, which bring fortune and wealth. Their plumpness means prosperity.

LIM: This pudgy porker was hardly seems subversive, but he and his kin were the subject to the Chinese censors' latest ban. The state-run broadcaster CCTV ordered major advertising agencies not to use pig images, pig cartoons, or pig slogans, quote, "to avoid conflicts with ethnic minorities."

That's a reference to China's 20 million Muslims who make up about two percent of the population.

(Soundbite of chant)

Here at a popular mosque in Shanghai there's general approval of the ban given the Muslim taboo on pigs, these believers say seeing pig images on TV would make them feel very uncomfortable. The mosque's Imam Hassan Byron Chang, speaks for them.

Mr. HASSAN BYRON CHANG (Imam): (Through translator) China's building a harmonious society with their decision like this in the context of creating a harmonious society between Han Chinese and the ethnic minority groups.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

LIM: Even big multinationals are aware of the sensitivity. This Coca-Cola ad features a Babe-like piglet braving the mean city streets to get home for Chinese New Year. But the company shot a second version, using pandas to show in Muslim areas.

For those who didn't take such measures, economic losses beckoned.

Mr. PAUL FRENCH (Access Asia China Representative): A couple of weeks before the big Chinese New Year, telling us that we can't put pigs - it's the Year of the Pig coming up - in adverts, is really messing with people's commercial activities.

LIM: Paul French is Access Asia's China representative. He says he's received the edict, but to confuse matters further not everyone's been given the same orders.

Mr. FRENCH: Some people are told no live pigs but you can have animated or cartoon pigs. And some people say no pigs whatsoever. And so half of us already had images of pigs up and about anyway. Now the order is, well, do we have to take those down? Can we leave those ones up? Are those pigs okay and these pigs not okay? So it's all very vague and very confusing.

LIM: Whatever the situation, the thinking behind the ban is telling.

Mr. TOM DOCTOROFF(ph) (China CEO, JWT): The underlying reason goes to the very core of what it is that the Chinese government views as its patriarchal responsibility to maintain the harmony of the entire society.

LIM: Tom Doctoroff is China's CEO for the advertising agency JWT. He says it can be difficult to predict what might fall foul of the censors.

Mr. DOCTOROFF: We one time had a Pizza Hut ad where we had this kid standing up on a desk, you know, extolling in fulsome tones, you know, the glory of this pizza and then attracting a crowd of other kids. This ad did get centered because the child, the student, the eight-year-old was viewed as an alternative center of authority.

LIM: Other no-nos include using religious figures. For example, Buddhist or Taoist monks. And national icons, like the Great Wall, should be treated with caution. Paul French says edicts, like one issue last year about dragons, should be viewed against the backdrop of China's rising power.

Mr. FRENCH: The government suddenly decided that the dragon was a sacred symbol for China. And in a rather odd wording, to do anything that abused a dragon in an advert was blasphemy. And this came after there was one particular advert where a cartoon dragon was kicked, and this was seen as insulting China.

LIM: These orders perhaps mirror how the Chinese government would like to see itself - as the protector of minority groups, the guardian of national icons, and the ultimate arbiter of harmony. But that world may no longer be possible.

(Soundbite of song, "The Pig Song")

LIM: And this tune shows why. Called "The Pig Song," it's devoted to describing the pig's dripping snout, its curly tail and its big ears. It was posted on the Internet two years ago and became a surprise hit, downloaded a billion times by some accounts. Even if Beijing had wanted to ban it, modern technology in the form of the Internet would have made that impossible.

From the outside, China's government might appear monolithic, but the saga of the pig ban shows how it's struggling with multiculturalism, riddled with insecurity, and beholden to commercial measures as perhaps never before.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

(Soundbite of song, "The Pig Song")

INSKEEP: This can only be MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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