Social Media Street Art: Censorship, China’s Political Memes and the Cute Cat Theory

Ethan Zuckerman just published an interesting post about the importance of studying Sina Weibo, the popular microblogging tool in China.  He references WeiboScope, a very useful and informative tool put out by the University of Hong Kong to help visualize the popular trending topics on Sina Weibo, one of China’s leading microblog services (there are multiple weibo, or microblogs, in China, and Sina’s is the most familiar to Western users).  It would have made a fabulous supplement for the now defunct trending topics report published by Charles Custer at The World of Chinese.

Zuckerman makes a great point about the knowledge gap with most Americans and Western audiences who’ve never personally experienced the Great Firewall or who have not engaged extensively with China’s Internet environment [my emphasis added]:

I sometimes wonder whether English-speaking scholars pay insufficient attention to Chinese social media due to an assumption that Chinese media has been censored to the point of sterility. I often speak about internet censorship, and American audiences in particular are quick to share their knowledge of the “great firewall”, the “fifty cent party” and other aspects of Chinese internet censorship. Because Chinese censorship has been widely reported in American media, I suspect many Americans know more about what’s not on the Chinese internet than what’s present.

Raise up the truth! — An image flying around Sina Weibo attacking assumed censorship of facts surrounding the Wenzhou high speed rail collision.

I thought I might write a short post to help bridge the knowledeg gap a little bit.  I entered China with the same expectations of a sterile, heavily-censored Internet.  I assumed the only colorful critical dialogue happening within China was on Twitter, as citizens developed tools to write  But as I witnessed and reported with the infamous Wenzhou high speed rail collison on July 23, 2011, the Chinese Internet is far from sterile.  It is indeed censored–sometimes my posts have been deleted, and I know people whose accounts have been silenced for a week or two after they’ve posted too many critical messages.

I soon found that China’s Internet is rife with political commentary if you just know how to look for it and who to follow.  And it’s not just the example Zuckerman cites–that of dairy CEO Niu Gensheng–there’s plenty of direct political commentary, including references to some of the country’s most sensitive topics, like human rights abuses and secret detentions.

A viral, credited comic in response to trumped up charges of pornography around Ai Weiwei.  The Chinese reads: "Today the fat guy will teach you how to appreciate art about the human body."  The full comic can be found on my report on Hyperallergic.

The trick, of course, is how to get past the censors.  As censorship is managed by a mixture of algorithms and actual human beings, there are a number of ways, and they tend to go hand in hand.

First, use code words and homophones. The Chinese language is notoriously homophone heavy.  A word like hexie means harmony, but if you change the tones, it means river crab.  Thus, Chinese users often use "river crab" to talk about how the Internet has been harmonized, or censored by government officials.  Don’t think Chinese users were talking about what was happening in Wukan recently?  They were, and they used the codeword "WK" (in Roman letters) to do so.  Code words and homophones like this occur frequently and spread like wildfire until the censors catch on.

Second, use images as much as possible.   As Chinese Internet users prefer rich multimedia environments, microblog services like Sina Weibo are image heavy.  However, images are on the one hand difficult for censors to search for and on the other hand move too quickly to be ignored.  So these images contain a mixture of satirical content like the Niu Gensheng cow in Zuckerman’s post or, simply, a screenshot of a censored news item.  This is a boon for people who don’t speak Chinese or, like me, have difficulty skimming quickly through Chinese characters, as it means it’s easy to browse a Weibo feed quickly by just glancing at images (it also makes tools like Weiboscope meaningfully useful for non Chinese speakers).

Third, make it viral. Make it catchy and interesting.  While algorithms can quickly catch and censor politically sensitive writing, and human beings can identify images and work around code words, neither can move quickly enough to stop a viral message.  Strong messages are retweeted thousands of times and reposted and retweeted again, by multiple users around the country. 

What’s the result of this?  What does it look like in real life?  Political criticism and commentary can be very dangerous in China.  Public assemblies are dispersed as quickly as possible, and perceived leaders of movements can be disappeared.  Criticism online can lead to your posts being deleted, or even to being sent to labor camp.  The government has tried to control every possible way for citizens to express any stirring discontent.

An image of Ai Weiwei’s head placed atop a grass mud horse, a punning symbol of defiance against Internet censorship.  You can see more of those in my report on Hyperallergic.

I think, then, to Zuckerman’s Cute Cat Theory, which goes a little like this:

With web 2.0, we’ve embraced the idea that people are going to share pictures of their cats, and now we build sophisticated tools to make that easier to do. as a result, we’re creating a wealth of tech that’s extremely helpful for activists. There are twin revolutions going on – the ease of creating content and the ease of sharing it with local and global audiences.

In my post on the Wenzhou train collision memes, I propose that Chinese political memes are unlike most memes–Chinese memes are, in fact, social media street art.  Like the street art I grew up seeing in my native Los Angeles, they have characteristic styles and messages.  They’re funny and rich in imagery, and some of the best memes artists have made a name for themselves.  They dialogue with each other. And they’re edgy and treated as (if not officially) illegal. The Internet police go after a few, but more and more just keep popping up.

If I understand Zuckerman’s Cute Cat Theory correctly, he creates a dichotomy between people who share pictures of their cats and people who engage in political activism.  In other words, cute cats and activist messages leverage the same tools, but they’re fundamentally different.  But with Chinese political memes, the cute cats are the activist message.  Those who take the time to study the fascinating links and workarounds will find themselves enmeshed in a rich, hilarious and politically insightful social media environment.

(Psst: a quick self-promo: we write a good deal about culture and design issues related to the Chinese Internet at 88 Bar, a group blog with me, Tricia Wang, Jason Li, Jin Ge and Lyn Jeffery)