China Meme Report

The (Un)Life of Pig: Shanghai River Filled with Pig Bodies

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Editor’s note: This article has been reposted with permission from The Civic Beat: World Report.
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SHANGHAI– Thousands of pig carcasses, nearly 16,000 as of last count, have been found in Huangpu River, one of the many that supply Shanghai, the bustling, rising megacity and center of commerce for China. The body count, still rising, came from the upriver Jiaxing city, which supplies much of the pork in the country (USA Today). Was it illness that killed the pigs? Bad weather? Poor facilities? The facts are still emerging.

It’s a touchy issue for China, which has faced a number of pollution challenges this year. According to The Guardian, access to clean water is one of the country’s top health hazards. A recent report from UNICEF that they cite notes that nearly 120 million people lack access to clean drinking water.

Looking at dead pigs in the water is understandably not appealing, but how best to keep the story and imagery alive?  True to form, China’s meme makers have responded with dark humor to tell the story.

(Un)Life of Pig

With the soaring popularity of Life of Pi–it’s grossed more in China than in the U.S. (LA Times)–, “Life of Pig” inevitably became a meme.

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The meme-scape around the world is filled with Angry Birds references, and China is no different.  Angry Pigs made a natural fit to express outrage at the situation.

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Kim Jong Un looking at a pig?

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A stunning illustration juxtaposed alongside the original poster.

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Pigs and Pigs

Like many animals online, pigs became a meme for a while, where the simple mention of a pig was enough to recall the situation.  It got remixed into a number of images:

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Pig fish found in the river…

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Artist Meng Changsheng asked if the pigs are a reflection of China, a mirror to the country’s social and environmental woes.

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And lucky for Sina Weibo users, a pig icon already exists, allowing anyone to simply post it as a way of drawing attention to the issue and keeping count.  A simple search of [猪头] (“pig head”) reveals many of these messages, buried amidst messages that don’t refer to the incident.

This story is still evolving, and we’re grateful to China Digital Times readers and the China Media Project for collecting some of these images.  What else is out there?  What else have you seen? Contribute your own findings at our Tumblr.

Note from The Civic Beat: While we make every effort to source images, we inevitably fall short. Did you create any of the images above? Please get in touch so we can cite your name with your creation.

Four Thoughts on Ai Weiwei’s Gangnam Style: Meme-ing as Activism

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Until recently, I hadn’t seen Ai Weiwei’s Gangnam Style remix, but I definitely heard about it.  Everyone on my social media feeds has been talking about, and people have emailed it to me.  I’ve seen hilarious-looking pictures and read the commentary. But I’ve just not been able to sit down and watch it.

Why is that?  It’s not for lack of effort.  Rather, I’ve been doing fieldwork in Uganda these past few weeks, and I don’t have regular access to the internet.  And when I do get online, the connection is rarely fast enough for me to actually download the video.  And that got me thinking about meme’ing as activism.  A few randomly hashed together thoughts that I’ve thrown together in my brief moments with internet access:

1. Even before I saw the Ai Weiwei version, I knew enough about the Gangnam Style phenomenon to appreciate why it’s funny.  I know that the video has been parodied and remixed countless times, so I generally have a sense of how it goes.  I know Ai is probably doing the horse dance and the cowboy dance.  I know he’s probably leaning back in a chair in the opening scene.  I figure there’s a group of people dancing with him.  I know it’s been remixed for political purposes, like in Puerto Rico.  I assume it’ll make me laugh, or at least smile.

The video isn’t actively blocked here in Uganda, but it may as well be.  And if I were in China, I’d have more or less the same experience.  It would be pretty hard (but not impossible) to find the Ai Weiwei video.  On the other hand, Gangnam Style has taken off in China just as it has around the world (including Uganda!).  If you do a short Weibo search for “江南Style”, the Chinese word for “Gangnam Style”, you’ll see remixes and commentary posted every few minutes.  PSY’s music and video are enormously popular, so much so that there’s even a Red Army edition.  And so it doesn’t matter if you can actually see the Ai Weiwei version; you just need to know that it exists, and you can probably guess how it goes. So why is that important?  Because it means you’re probably talking about Ai Weiwei again, which gets me to my second point…

2. Utilizing internet memes, whether creating them yourself or piggybacking off an existing one, is a particularly effective technique against censorship.  Sure, it’s easy to read Ai’s antics as mere attention-getting, but attention is precisely what the Chinese government doesn’t want him to get.  In the past, when the government wanted to silence someone, it could simply his or her name from the news media.  In the age of the internet, they try to do the same thing with keyword search algorithms and active human censors.  It seems like it should work, until, in some cases, it leads to exactly the kind of backfire that the Streisand Effect predicts.

To be sure, the video has been blocked on certain channels.  But as of writing this post, I’ve found that it is still viewable within the Chinese web (as pictured above). And yet even if every single instance of the video could be successfully blocked (not too hard: videos aren’t uploaded quite as quickly as Weibo posts), you’d still see pictures floating around, or, at the very least, quips and commentary.  Indeed, drawing from Ethan Zuckerman’s Cute Cat Theory, it would be difficult to block searches for and posts about Ai Weiwei’s Gangnam Style video without also blocking other Gangnam Style videos and therefore upsetting the apolitical social media users who are simply posting innocuous videos.  And so Ai Weiwei’s parody video–and stories about the video–live on.

Memes are the antithesis of censorship and silence.  Despite the government’s best efforts to delete Ai Weiwei’s name within China, all you have to do is think about him wearing sunglasses and doing the horse dance, and suddenly he’s back in your consciousness.  This is something I’ve written about previously: memes are loud, unforgettable and viral, and they’re effective in both censored and free speech contexts.

3. Some have commented on how overly simple the video is, but in my view, the simplicity makes it accessible. After seeing the video, I have to agree with Molly Sauter (as quoted in Ethan Zuckerman’s post) that it has a twinge of sadness.  Short clips of Ai and fellow artist-activist Zuoxiao Zuzhou in handcuffs and a brief appearance by Zhao Zhao, who’s also been subject to scrutiny, add a measure of gravity.  But surely Ai Weiwei and his studio with all its resources and talents could have created a video with more of a narrative arc, with more production value, something a little more jocular.  And yet they didn’t.

The way I see it, the simplicity of the video sends a message to viewers: you can do this too.  And that’s important. In the aftermath of Ai’s arrest, we saw how his deceptively simple works–the Studies in Perspective, the obscene jumping Grass Mud Horse pun, and the sunflower seeds–became repurposed and owned by a variety of netizens.  The Chinese web and beyond were filled with middle fingers, grass mud horses and sunflower seeds as an act of online memetic protest.  Ai’s other works require vast teams of artisans and administrators to execute and a handful of jargon-loving curators and writers to interpret.  But the Gangnam Style video?  Nothing that’s too far out of reach: all you need is a basic video camera, some editing software, and a few friends who want to dance.

4. But I’m also seeing that many internet memes have another important feature helpful for activists: they’re absurd.  In a recent blog post about the Ai Weiwei remix, Ethan Zuckerman wrote: “As Freud once said, sometimes a grown man doing a horsie dance is just a grown man doing a horsie dance.”  It’s an absurd image, but in the face of an absurd, totalitarian system that would disappear a man for 81 days, never officially acknowledge it upon his release, and then subject him to trumped up charges, travel restrictions and constant surveillance… absurdity is sometimes the only response.

But this is a random assemblage of thoughts in the midst of fieldwork in other areas (including looking at Ugandan memes!).  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  What do you think?  Am I reading too much into this, or is there something to the meme’ing of activism that Ai Weiwei (and Pussy Riot and Daniel Maree and others) is pushing forward?

Hong Kong Citizens’ Online, Memetic Protest

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Like pretty much anyone else paying attention to the story, I was stunned to see the images of protests in Hong Kong, with people of all ages donning black to rail against Beijing’s plan to enact national education.  Hong Kongers deemed it brainwashing, a paternalistic move from Beijing to inculcate the special territory into its ways.  The sheer scale of the protests led to Beijing agreeing not to mandate national education.

But while citizens took to the streets, they also took to the web.  “Brainwash” may have been blocked on Sina Weibo, but “wear black” wasn’t, nor was “oppose national education.”  And if you searched for these terms and others, you’d find images like this:

These are pretty normal scenes of protest, but they have a strong online component too:

And in addition to crossing arms, the simple act of wearing black has become a visual strategy in itself, as protesters have encouraged each other to wear black to oppose national education.

The graphic refers specifically to “brainwashing”.

But like any good meme, this one also has more comic/cartoonish manifestations.  Here are a few favorites:

“Oppose brainwashing”

As soon as I heard it, I knew the “wear black” strategy made some sense: like wearing blue jeans to support gay rights, wearing black is a normally-apolitical gesture imbued with new meaning that forces dialogue (Hong Kong-based designer See-Ming Lee suggested to me that it might resemble Disney Gay Day more). This is particularly true in fashionable Hong Kong, where the smart set prefer chic black, just like New Yorkers.  But the symbol and imagery of black continued to grow till it was a sea of black shirts and black pants.  Add to that the gesture of crossing one’s arms, and you have the perfect political meme: a simple, personal gesture with easy-to-find materials.  It works as much in grand gatherings as it does in casual snaps posted onto Weibo.

Faux subway stickers that show the role of graphic design in both offline and online world contexts. The red image on the right takes subway design vernacular and says “Be careful of brainwashing”. The blue/white image on the left says: “Beware of pickpocketing”. The “thief” is stealing the word “freedom.” Photo by Jason Li.

Online and Offline

The big question is, why such an online flurry?  In mainland China, the memetic spread of images of discontent/dissent makes sense: lacking the freer speech and public assembly opportunities of more democratic nations, citizens take to the internet to express their concerns.  Since both mainlanders and Hong Kong citizens use Sina Weibo, the culture of memes in the Chinese-speaking internet hops across political/regional boundaries.  This explains why I’ve seen the crossing arms gesture amongst users in the mainland, and why sunflower seeds, the symbol originating from a Beijing artist, also has resonance in Hong Kong.  In other words, the Chinese-speaking internet loves its memes.

But the broader point to understand here is that the “meme’ing” of protest/dissent reflects just how intertwined internet life and offline life have become.  While public assembly on the streets of the city is often crucial–just look at the sheer scale of the crowd–, so is public assembly on the streets of our online city.  And in the Chinese-speaking internet, the city of cities is Sina Weibo, where netizens gather at every hour of the day to converse, share and debate in a national public forum. As I explored in my recent look at the Trayvon Martin and Chen Guangcheng memes, the particular form of public assembly on the internet is much more visual and reliant on basic art and design skills.  This is how you show scale in an online environment–text alone is rarely enough–, and it’s a trend we’ve seen now in Hong Kong (Anti-Brainwash), Moscow (Pussy Riot), New York (Travyon Martin), Beijing (Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng) and elsewhere.  As we see more protests involving the internet generation in the Chinese-speaking world and beyond, we should expect to see more and more of this.

China’s “Fat Police Officer” Terrorizes Everything [TLN]

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Today we’re pleased to announce a new partnership with Tea Leaf Nation, a new web site dedicated to pulling insights from China’s lively microblogsphere.  Their team, scattered around the world, have shared some amazing insights, offering translations, context and images, all with a touch of quirky humor.  I had the pleasure of working with TLN’s founder, David Wertime, at the Personal Democracy Forum, where we presented on a panel together.  Given our common research interests, we thought it would be great to join forces.

So what can you expect?  We’ll be cross posting each others’ work on occasion, as relevant for our readership.  Behind the scenes, we’ll also be more actively sharing news and data with each other, to keep each other abreast of our findings in China’s vast internet.    And we’ll be linking much more often to each other’s content.

That said, I’m pleased to launch this partnership with a guest post from Tea Leaf Nation’s Liz Carter, who looked at the Shifang cop, who got memed into the most unexpected places….

Remember the Pepper-Spray Cop meme? Now, China’s got its own version.

Liu Bo terrorizes protesters in Shifang

Police and protesters faced off in Shifang earlier this week, and pictures taken by locals caught many of the police in the act of beating people. One police officer in particular has become the subject of a “human flesh search”–the Chinese term for a coordinated effort by netizens to discover as much information as possible about someone. His name is Liu Bo, but netizens have taken to calling him the fat police officer.

 

Barely a week has since passed, but Liu has already been spotted in Chinese social media chasing after Olympic sprinter Liu Xiang, practicing kung fu in a Jackie Chan movie, and showing off his moves on a soccer field. We can only guess where he may turn up next. Thanks to Weibo user @半杯浓茶 for collecting the below images.

In Defense of Memes Defending Themselves

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My talk at the Personal Democracy Forum at NYU’s Kimmel Center


My talk at ROFLCon III at MIT

Political memes have been on my mind as of late. It started with ROFLCon at MIT and moved on to more discussions, Skype chats and journal entries. And I’ve just returned from the Personal Democracy Forum at NYU. Been a bit of a whirlwind as I travel around the country but seeing as I’ve lived on the east coast for so long, it was really nice to catch up with friends and see that side of the country again.

These two conferences couldn’t seem more different, looking from the outside. Just look at their respective web sites. ROFLCon, i.e., Rolling-On-the-Floor-Laughing Convention, is well known for being wacky and fun, even amidst the hallowed halls of academia. I met meme superstars like Antoine Dodson of “Hide Yo Wife” fame and Bear of “Double Rainbow” fame. By contrast, the Personal Democracy Forum’s superstar attendees included senator Ron Wyden and Todd Park, the Chief Technology Officer of the United States.

But in reality, both two-day conferences shared a deep concern with safeguarding and securing the future of the free internet, a concern that I think has come more and more to the fore in the past year. After living in China, I saw firsthand the consequences of a not-free internet. My co-panelist at the Personal Democracy Forum, Michael Anti, became famous after his blog was deleted. And blog deletion is just one technique to keep the internet under control.


The Grass Mud Horse Song, one of the most sophisticated political memes in China

I’ve obviously discussed China’s internet quite a bit these past few months, and I blog about it regularly, but during a lunch with the Tumblr Fellows at the Personal Democracy Forum, I was asked something new: Now that I’ve been observing meme culture in both China and the US, what’s the memescape like stateside? And that’s when I started to realized what it is about memes that makes them important.

I may be shooting myself in the foot here (I’m just waiting for someone to come up with an ancient Roman analogy), but creatures like the LOLCat and the Grass Mud Horse are born on the internet. We could even say they’re of the internet. I recently stumbled across a Victorian artist’s rendition of the year 2000, and he pretty much nailed it–video chat, email, voicemail. That’s because much of the internet has analogues in the, er, analog world that are reflected in their names. E-mail, internet forums, the world wide web, web log. Tom Standage wrote a brilliant exploration the very blog-like virality of Martin Luther’s 99 Theses.


Image via sadanduseless.com

But what Villemard, that Victorian artist, didn’t predict was the noble LOLCat. How could he? Certainly, America’s Funniest Home Videos presaged the rise of YouTube’s mockery and self-mockery, and I often call memes the street of the censored web. The idea of a meme isn’t a new one, either. But who could honestly have predicted, before the internet took root, that a llama would stand as a symbol for internet freedom, or that a wacky video of a man raving about two rainbows could get over 30 million views?

And so it seems fitting to me that meme culture has become one of the most powerful tools against internet censorship in China (and, as I’m starting to note, around the world). Meme culture is the least understood by those who don’t use the internet. But culture is the right word here–like any cultural practice, the practice of sharing, remixing and laughing at memes seems completely odd to outsiders but totally natural to insiders.


The library destruction scene in Agora


Emperor Qin’s attack on a calligraphy-loving culture–and how calligraphy became a defense.

And as that culture is threatened, so do its proponents fight to preserve it. I think about that scene from Agora, about Hypatia and the Library of Alexandria. And then there’s the famous calligraphy scene from Hero, about Emperor Qin’s takeover of the rest of China. These scenes were no doubt dramatized, but part of what made them effective beyond simple depictions of destruction is that they show how people strive desperately to preserve their culture.

The good news? While scrolls and calligraphy can hardly do battle with knives and arrows, memes pack a little more punch. The relentlessness and breadth of China’s internet censorship techniques is well known. But so is the relentlessness and breadth of meme culture. The stickiness of memes, the way they inspire remixes and co-creation, their utter refusal to die–that’s a powerful tool against censorship. As I’ve witnessed in China, once a political meme sets hold in netizens’ minds, it just won’t go away. It will surface and resurface and resurface again, with dark humor that makes the serious issues a little easier to discuss.

I wish I had the prescience of that Victorian artist. I’m not good at predicting the future, but I suspect that the freedom fighters of cyberspace will come galloping in on LOLCats and grass mud horses, ready to defend our right to share silly pictures online.

And, as a bonus, here’s my interview with Nick Clark Judd at TechPresident on some of the mechanics of Chinese meme culture and language. Want to read more about Chinese memes? Be sure to follow the China Meme Report here at 88 Bar and check out my writing page for more of my writing on China’s political and social memescape.

Chinese Weibos: The Meme Behind the Titanic 3D Censorship Hoax

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Titanic 3D is out.  Yes, we all know this, the world over.  The film is expected to make hundreds of millions in China alone.

But it will be missing the nudity scene.  I remember watching the Colbert Report and seeing James Cameron report that the reason it was cut was because censors feared that Chinese men might reach out their hands and disturb viewers in front of them.  Here’s the report from Offbeat China, and the message they translated:

“Considering the vivid 3D effects, we fear that viewers may reach out their hands for a touch and thus interrupt other people’s viewing. To avoid potential conflicts between viewers and out of consideration of building a harmonious ethical social environment, we’ve decided to cut off the nudity scenes,” according to an official at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.

It seemed absurd, but I accepted it as fact.  I’ve certainly heard stranger pronouncements from Chinese officials.  And yet, I saw in the Global Times that this might be a hoax:

Analysts Monday called on authorities to create the Chinese mainland’s own film-rating system, after an online joke concerning the removal of nude scenes in Titanic 3D entertained many fans, critics and media outlets.

“It is fake, and it is a joke from a student who is going to graduate,” the original poster of the message explained Saturday on his Sina blog.

The message claimed the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT) had cut nude scenes from Titanic 3D for fear that the viewers would reach out and disturb other viewers.

I dismissed this briefly, as the story was coming from Chinese state media–of course they would deny something that’s embarrassing to a state agency.  In general, if a fact is denied, that’s a good sign that it might be true.

Discovering the Hoax

But then I saw the story repeated in other sources, like the Hong Kong-based Weibo Today:

And Western media finally caught the hoax too, with reports from The Hollywood Reporter and Gawker, though not till after the false report had already been disseminated.  The original story had always been intended and understood as a hoax, until it started spreading without the crucial “fake news” hashtag the original poster claims to have placed.  Offbeat China offered a good analysis of the joke turned into fact.  Their insight is particularly helpful, as their original post played a role in launching the story into the English-speaking world.

The joke was made so popular that I, myself, find it hard to believe that it was fabricated. But fake is fake, truth is truth. It is fake and it is from an evil joke by a lonely loser who soon will graduate from college.

The idea of fabricating fake news as satire and entertainment came from an American satire news organization The Onion. If you want to get a quick idea of their style, I recommend you to watch a 2008 movie The Onion Movie. Personally, I became familiar with such culture thanks to a non-popular Web figure “Huang Bo Ma” (his Renren, Douban and Weibo). Here are also some of his fake news works, many of which used to be very popular on the Internet (one, two, three).

People will notice that all fake news works are tagged as #Monologue# to distinguish from authentic news.  When I wrote the “fear of touch” joke, considering people’s unfamiliarity with the culture of The Onion, I changed the tag into #fake news# so that it won’t be seen as true. I posted the joke on my Renren album and my Sina Weibo account. Due to my small number of fans on Sina Weibo, the joke was soon buried. But the screenshot on Renren became viral. The iron[y] was, the joke became a hit exactly because the #fake news# tag was lost in people’s constant re-posting.

Losing Context: When Satirical Humor Crosses Cultures

It reminds me of when Beijing Evening News reported an Onion story as fact.  They misunderstood the context, and though everyone in the West knows “Onion” means satire, a casual viewer might not.

This is the power of a meme.  It picks up, it spreads, it’s remixed.  But then the original context is lost.  As the original blogger noted, his “fake news” hashtag disappeared after a while, and it was just an out of context story.  And although those who create the meme are in on the joke, those standing outside have no clue.  Indeed, anyone who knows anything about China’s social media sphere knows that everything has to be taken with a grain of salt; this SARFT joke was a way of poking fun at an opaque government agency that censored material without stating why.

The “truth” amplifies.  And in this case, like Chinese whispers (or Chinese Weibos, as it were), it travels through the grapevine and becomes something else.  The story also happened to fit stereotypes of China–that the men are sexually repressed, that the government is heavyhanded and nonsensical–, so it flew around Western media.  It seemed true enough (sound familiar?).  The next thing we know, the director himself is stating a joke as fact on national television.

Translation: (top) What women remember from Titanic (bottom) What men remember from Titanic.

The Meme (Inadvertently) Became a Form of Advocacy

But the more remarkable thing is what the Global Times says we should learn from this.  Remember that the Times is a state newspaper:

Raymond Zhou, a film critic, told the Global Times that many viewers have been used to unexplained deletions by SARFT, so it is no wonder that quite a number of people believed the fake information on Titanic 3D.

“SARFT is treating all the viewers as children when evaluating the content of movies,” Zhou said, adding that “subjective” evaluation standards had in fact led to unnecessary cuts of some scenes, as well as leaving in some scenes inappropriate for minors.

“We need objective and transparent standards, which should be specific on what scenes could be kept or not for viewers of different ages,” he said.

Ironically, the satirical representation of government transparency might just turn into a real demand.

Real Name Registration One Month Later

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Translation: (left) Real name registration (right) Weibo

Real name registration has come and gone.  The article Tricia and I penned for Wired noted some of the dangers behind the requirements to register one’s real name (it’s quite rigorous – you have to include your identification card):

In a move to exert greater control on citizen speech online, the government is requiring that Sina Weibo and China’s other microblogs register the real names and identification cards of users in several cities. Those who do not register this week in many major cities like Beijing will not be allowed to share or forward posts; after a period of testing, the policy will go into effect nationwide.

Indeed, many of our fears came true.  In a major crackdown a few weeks ago, the Chinese government flexed its muscles by shutting down comments posts.  Then they shut down web sites and conducted a number of arrests.  It’s quite clear the government wanted to send a signal in no uncertain terms that it’s serious about quelling internet commentary. (Whether or not that’s ultimately possible is another story.)

Today, the word “real name registration” (实名制) is blocked.  In its place is at least one code word, “315″, which is short for March 15, the day real name registration kicked in across microblogs, as well as a few code words that are puns off of the original Chinese.

One friend told me that real name registration has turned Sina Weibo into LinkedIn, meaning it’s solely for professional purposes. I’m already seeing evidence that users are toning down their language and saving more critical commentary for other channels.  In China, you have to learn to read between the silent moments, and the silence here is deafening..

One month later, I thought I would share some of the memes I found online as users vented their fears of the coming “shimingzhi”–real name registration–a few weeks before it officially kicked in. The most common image? That of being silenced by a face mask, an already loaded image in a post-SARS China. But you can talk behind a face mask, and I have no doubt netizens will find a way to keep the conversation going.

Rough translation: "Bloggers aren't yet required to register their real name but are already sealed."

A photo of an actual identification card in front of a web site that references the coming real name registration highlights the anxieties of this requirement: your name *and* your official identity are tied in with what you're saying.

"Everyday 315 real name registration is more solid. / 3.15 We demand rights!" The image of a shield references the Great Firewall's official name, The Golden Shield Project.

"Everyday 315 real name registration is more solid. / 3.15 We demand rights!" The image of a shield references the Great Firewall's official name, The Golden Shield Project.

"Real name registraiton... fuck you!"

"Weibo. We will not be silenced."

The two smileys show what you can and can't do with real name registration. The one up top is registered, the one below is not.

There were a few posters repurposed to reflect anxieties about being silenced.

How Memes and Infographics Are Driving the Push for Clean Air

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One netizen's photo post showed the air at different times of the day and week.

One netizen's photo post showed the air at different times of the day and week.

Any foreigner who’s visited a Chinese city notices it right away.  It’s one of the most dominant memories of the main cityscapes I’ve witnessed across China, from Hong Kong to Chonqging to Shanghai to Beijing.  Smog.  And lots of smog.  Smog, smog everywhere and all of it coming into our lungs and in our hair and catching onto our clothes and tongues.  During my time in Beijing, I developed a nasty cough that didn’t go away until I returned to the US.  And I grew up in Los Angeles and Manila, two cities notorious for their smog.

I was shocked to hear many of my Chinese friends dismiss it.  “You’ll get used to it,” they said.  “It’s not so bad,” they’d reassure me.  Meanwhile, my cough kept getting worse, and the apocalyptic skies showed no signs of stopping.  And some just dismissed it all as “fog”, not even realizing that the acrid taste in the air couldn’t possibly be fog.  Those in the know seemed to accept smog as a basic fact of life (just as I had learned to accept smog as a fact of life growing up in Los Angeles).  Others just didn’t seem to be aware it was smog at all.

An infographic explaining the air quality and trends.

An infographic explaining the air quality and trends.

But the tide (or winds, as it were) may be changing, and all for the better.  As the Guardian Environment Network has reported, Beijingers are demanding more than ever for cleaner skies.  Why now?  Part of this is because pollution has been particularly bad, even leading to flight cancellations. But part of it is–you guessed it–Weibo.  So says writer and researcher Ma Jun:

Today people have access to different sources of information and better means to spread it quickly. We can see how fast the public was able to educate themselves about air pollution. Within several months, “PM 2.5” [my link] went from sounding like strange jargon to becoming a household phrase. Through Weibo, people spread information about air pollution, like a chain reaction. Eventually, I think the government decided to respond to this public uproar — it did not want to let anger simply grow.

How did citizens get the data?  Official government statistics typically paint a rosy picture. But the US Embassy has been behind @BeijingAir on Twitter, an alternative report that shows a much grimmer picture.  Since Twitter is blocked in China, though, and the feed is in English, it took a new iPhone app (with share to Weibo function) and the opening of a @BeijingAir Weibo account to get the data into the hands of average Chinese users.  As far as I’m able to glean, these were critical in alerting citizens to the poor quality of their air.

A chart showing air quality across the world, allowing Chinese to see that, compared to the world, their country just isn't safe or healthy in terms of air quality.

A chart showing air quality across the world, allowing Chinese to see that, compared to the world, their country just isn't safe or healthy in terms of air quality.

And so a meme was born.  Not a funny one, but a viral, remixed, and forwarded meme nonetheless.  There are two factors here.  First, is the presence of data and infographics.  Lots of data.  And data organized in a very crisp, unambiguous way.  With the release of clear visual infographics, Chinese citizens could see plainly that the air they’re breathing can’t be dismissed as fog.  You can’t just get used to this stuff.  It’s dangerous and unhealthy.

But what’s also important is that the data set a context that allowed everyone to participate with pictures.  With that context, when users started posting more and more images of pollution in their cities, they started to see their cities again with new eyes.  It’s something that comes naturally to foreigners – most Americans and Europeans, after all, have never seen smog like there is in China – but it’s not something you can necessarily catch if all you’ve known is dirty, polluted skies.  Even now, I don’t notice the smog in LA unless an out-of-towner points it out to me.

And so, with mounting pressure, even Chinese media reported on the smog, and now the government is seeking feedback on how to improve.  Weibo played a role, and so did infographics and photos.

The caption here reads: "Brown Layer," suggesting a layer of pollution and trash just beneath the surface.

The caption here reads: "Brown Layer," suggesting a layer of pollution and trash just beneath the surface.

A screenshot of the Beijing Air iPhone app at work. Users posted screenshots such as this to their Weibo feeds, thus spreading the data around to their networks.

A screenshot of the Beijing Air iPhone app at work. Users posted screenshots such as this to their Weibo feeds, thus spreading the data around to their networks.

A listing of iPhone apps folks can download to get access to Beijing Air data.

Killer apps: a listing of iPhone apps folks can download to get access to Beijing Air data.

Photos such as this help netizens vent their concerns about air quality--and open everyone else's eyes to the air around them.

Photos such as this help netizens vent their concerns about air quality--and open everyone else's eyes to the air around them.

More infographics and data.

More infographics and data, with strong recommendations to don a face mask and not walk outside.

This infographic shows the interactions between city dwellers, farmers and pollution dumping in rivers.

This infographic shows the interactions between city dwellers, farmers and pollution dumping in rivers.

Learn from Lei Feng — The Meme

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One of the original Lei Feng propaganda posters. Image via Wikimedia.

One of the original Lei Feng propaganda posters. Image via Wikimedia.

Lei Feng.  He’s like a 20th century, Chinese Cincinnatus (minus the part about being an emperor), a humble servant of the people.  An early member of the Communist youth corps, Lei joined the People’s Liberation Army and died in his early 20′s when a telephone pole hit him on the head.  It was the 1960′s, in the midst of the Mao era and the launch of the Great Leap Forward, and the propaganda machine picked him up as a self-sacrificing man of the revolution and the party urged citizens to “Learn from Lei Feng.”

In 2011, the party has been trying to revive Lei Feng.  A recent article in the Irish Times looks at the revival:

Now, faced with a moral vacuum left by years of breakneck economic growth at all cost, the Chinese government is keen to mobilise the spirit of Lei Feng to help give a moral dimension to the country’s rise.

“As our society has developed we’ve seen the loss of good faith and distortions in our values,” Luo Shugang of the propaganda department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee told local media.

“To solve these issues, we must look to Lei Feng,” he said.

Naturally, it’s the internet age, and while many are earnestly trying to learn from Lei Feng’s examples, many are not, and they’re quite vocal about it.  Before social media, it would have been difficult to find these voices amidst pro-party posters and slogans. Memes and jokes have spread throughout Sina Weibo mocking Lei Feng and the propaganda machine.  The New York Times has a good overview of the cynicism that can be found on Sina Weibo:

But the party’s efforts to resuscitate the spirit of Lei Feng on the 50th anniversary of his death have exposed the limits of old school propaganda in the age of the Internet. The campaign, which culminated Monday with the annual “Learn From Lei Feng Day,” has provoked a fresh round of public cynicism about a ruling party that is struggling to cultivate a sense of legitimacy.

The familiar lessons about Lei Feng’s feats and thoughtfulness that have inundated newspapers and television have been met by snickers, expressed through essays, cartoons and blog postings that highlight the government’s failure to practice the idealized morality it seeks to propagate.

Lei Feng’s face has been remixed as part of this cynicism. I’m sprinkling in a few images I’ve culled together, but one joke in particular has been circulating pretty widely: “Just call me Lei Feng” (就叫我雷锋吧).  The story of Lei Feng’s selfless devotion and anonymity has been turned into a joke about a one night stand:

She opens her eyes.  Yesterday night she was drunk. She slept on her own bed at her own house.  The man who she met has already put on his clothes and is opening the door to go. She is suddenly sad and she says, “I still don’t know your name.” The man turns his head and laughs softly, “Just call me Lei Feng!”

—The whole country once again rises up to learn the Lei Feng chorus!

她睁开眼,昨夜的醉意已经褪去,床是自己的,家是自己的…陌生男人已经穿好衣服正要开门而去。 她突然有些忧伤,即脱口而出:我还不知道你的名字呢。 男人回头,温柔笑道:就叫我雷锋吧! ——全国再次掀起学雷锋高潮!

“Rising up” is an obvious euphemism, and “chorus” can also mean “orgasm.” And so “Lei Feng” became a joke about a one night stand. Users have been reposting the joke, including any number of just barely safe for work images.   Hence:

And many many others that are certainly not safe for work.

But it’s important to note that the propaganda has been in many successful, as I’ve also encountered a number of sincere-sounding posts about Lei Feng.  This is a good example of a political meme that goes both ways, promoted by the party and then remixed by cynics and supporters alike.  I don’t understand all the jokes or the cultural nuances, but here are just a few:

Lei Feng re-imagined as the logo for Sina Weibo.

Lei Feng re-imagined as the logo for Sina Weibo.

 

A small animated GIF bouncing around (literally).

A small animated GIF bouncing around (literally).

The super hero theme emerged as well, re-envisioning Lei Feng as a superman-like character flying around:

The words say that Lei Feng is China's first hero.

The words say that Lei Feng is China's first hero.

And of course, not all images are critical in and of themselves:

"Study Lei Feng's good example."

"Study Lei Feng's good example."

Locusts and Pandas and Bears… 哦麦 (o mai)!

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Those of us following China have noticed the increasing tensions between Hong Kong and mainlanders.  More and more mainland women have been crossing the border into Hong Kong to have babies, where their children can expect to receive better healthcare and a coveted Hong Kong passport, which offers more freedoms and privileges.  Hong Kong citizens on the other hand are protesting vociferously that mainlanders are taking jobs and resources without contributing their fair share.

“Locusts,” they’re calling them.  It’s a slur meant to conjure up the image of buzzing, swarming locusts coming in and eating up everyone’s resources.  Sound familiar?  As a Californian, I can’t help but notice the striking resemblance to issues of immigration in the United States, as states like Arizona and Alabama enact stricter rules against illegal immigration.

It ain’t easy being a memeologist, especially when working in a medium that’s not my native tongue.  On Twitter, I can easily scan through dozens of tweets in a few seconds but on different Chinese social media, I have to be more strategic.  Part of my strategy is knowing when memes will pop up.   As soon as I heard about the locusts incident, I knew it would be a meme.  What tipped me off?

  • It was sparking strong emotions across the country. No doubt, calling an entire group of people “locusts” will provoke anger and frustration.  And since a site like Sina Weibo often serves as a space for letting off steam,
  • But there are lots of issues people get frustrated about. What this issue has is very strong imagery.  From the protests in Hong Kong to the image of pregnant mainland women shuffling across the border to locusts, it’s rich with imagery.
  • The most important part, however, is that there’s an animal involved. Locusts. We all know what they look like, and they can easily be turned into a meme.  I’ll talk more about this later.

And so, of course, I knew a meme was afoot.  What did I find?  Locusts, and lots of them.  A full page ad, shown above, appeared in Apple Daily, one of Hong Kong’s newspapers, and it began circulating on the internet.  Here’s the translation from the Wall St. Journal: “Hong Kong people, we have endured enough in silence. Are you willing for Hong Kong to spend one million Hong Kong dollars every 18 minutes to raise children born to mainland parents?”

The ad, according to the Journal, was the work of one man who organized an online campaign to raise 100,000 Hong Kong dollars (12,900 USD).  It was a watershed moment in a series of anxiety-ridden images that began popping up in papers and online.

I first noticed this, showing a swarm of “mainland pregnant women” crossing Luohu Bridge, which connects Hong Kong with the mainland city of Shenzhen:

And then this:

And this, showing a man dropping a temporary residency permit and proudly brandishing a permanent residency permit:

These comics reflect the fears of Hong Kong residents, who perceive mainlanders as swarming their land and taking money and passports with them while giving birth to their locust children.  We don’t often see such baldly racist or classist comics in the US anymore, but a recent one comes to mind.  In Michigan, congressional candidate Pete Hoekstra gained notoriety for airing a baldly racist ad in the Superbowl with a pan-Asian woman in a bad accent claiming she’s stealing American jobs.  Sites like Funny or Die panned it immediately, with one parody featuring actress Ali Wong giggling like Chun Li in Street Fighter.

Likewise, mainlanders took the classist, fear-mongering advertisement into their own hands.  They took the original ad and distributed a blank version:

It was quickly remixed.  A lot.  I came across dozens and dozens of hacked, remixed ads, some being retweeted almost 100,000 times.  Here are a few.

This one advocates for poor Big Big Wolf, who hasn’t had a chance to eat the sheep after some 600 episodes of Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf, China’s most popular homegrown cartoon.  Like Wile E. Coyote, the wolf never eats the goat, and the advertisement says he’s endured enough.  “The wolf also deserves the dignity of being a wolf!” it proclaims:

Most of the memes are more serious and they reflect deep-seated fears.  This one asks: “Do you intend for your city to always be neglected? Yangjiang people have endured enough!”  Yangjiang is a district in Guangdong province, the province adjacent to Hong Kong.  It makes claims like “Because you always think about a life in Hong Kong, you’ve neglected the benefits of welfare policies for raising children in Yangjiang” and “Because you always say culture is reviving, you neglect the extensive knowledge and deep scholarship of Yangjiang.”  Time to let go of mother’s breast and give Yangjiang a chance.  Interestingly, one little sentence in English says, “Never give up, City Yangjiang.”

Or this: “Do you intend to let your children study medicine?”  It advocates for a 5-10 fold increase in wages for doctors and a cap of 40 work hours per week:

“I’ve had enough of the counterattack from Hong Kong’s pregnant women!”:

“Do you intend for 90% of China’s officials children and families to migrate abroad?” this one explains.  It calls for officials to announce the properties they hold:

This one calls for residents of Jiangmen in Guangdong to advocate for bootleg-free television:

This one worries over the difficulty of finding “Old Friend Noodles,” a delicacy in Nanning that appears to be harder to find on the streets:

This one advocates for tourists to Zhanjiang to respect the city’s natural graces.  Zhanjiang has recently become a tourist boon for seafood and ocean viewing, being just across from Hainan, which China is trying to turn into its own version of Hawaii:

This one expresses concern over the invasion of outsiders into Foshan:

There are so many many more, with cultural references I don’t necessarily understand but which clearly struck a nerve with locals.  The locusts meme reveals a host of cultural and regional identities and anxieties, especially in southern provinces with close cultural and economic ties to Hong Kong.  It became a perfect tool for venting, and so many reflect the changing dynamics of different cities and provinces as China urbanizes.

But the locusts also reveal a universal truth about memes: animals are catchy.  I wrote about the Grass Mud Horse meme.  Bear bile has become a hot topic, as Jin Ge explored in a past post, and bear imagery has popped up in protests.  I’ll be writing more about the Pandaman meme that Global Voices explored so well.  And then, of course, we have locusts.

Just like lolcats and lolruses, advice dog and o rly owl, animals make amazing meme material.  In the west, animals are funny and cute.  In a place like China, cutesy, non-political animal memes certainly exist.  But as  the internet is the one place people have to publicly discuss political topics, animals often come with an extra bite.  In my next Meme Report, I’ll look at the Pandaman phenomenon and what it suggests about memes in China.