Seeking Chen Guangcheng's freedom in China via 'Internet meme'
Supporters of the activist lawyer have kept the torch burning for his release using Internet memes: online pieces of content that spread their message without rousing China's infamous censors.
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A small but potent community
This is not to say that China’s “memeosphere” is rife with political activity, Ms. Mina points out.Skip to next paragraph
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The memeosphere is huge, and most of China’s meme culture is as apolitical as the English version: Cat pictures and visual jokes far outnumber political memes. Though ascertaining the size of the political meme community is difficult, Mina guesses that it numbers in the hundreds at least. She also gathers from the avatars that the community uses that it tends to be made up of youths born in the 1980s and ‘90s. That may help it avoid the censors, she says, as their online “language” flies over the heads of older people – like party officials and censors. The meme community’s size is also small enough that it can survive in the Chinese Web’s censored environment, by hiding in the background noise of the larger Internet.
Still, she adds, “it’s a small number, but large enough to garner attention from Western media and local [Chinese] officials,” she says. It’s also large enough to keep the fire burning for activists like Chen who might otherwise disappear from public view. The “Dark Glasses Portrait” meme began a year ago, while Chen was still in captivity. But Mina thinks that the meme helped keep him in the public consciousness during an absence in which he could easily have been forgotten.
“The staying power of the Chen Guangcheng memes seems to me like the staying power of Occupy Wall Street.” she says. “Just the fact that the meme and its metamemes has endured over the past year is a statement in itself.”
But even the Internet’s natural underbrush isn’t enough to hide the highest-profile, most sensitive memes like those about Chen. In those cases, Mina says, the memes have to evolve to stay one step ahead of the censors. “They are viral in a basic sense, in that they mutate and evolve,” says Mina.
For example, memes about Chen’s escape started attached to simple hashtags and keywords, which the censors quickly blocked. So the memeosphere took a queue from a picture created by anonymous activist cartoonist “Crazy Crab,” which depicted Chen’s escape as a mashup of Angry Birds and the Shawshank Redemption, and began using Shawshank as the tag for Chen memes. For example, his supporters created variations of the Shawshank Redemption poster, referencing Chen by putting sunglasses on the image of Tim Robbins’s character.
When the censors caught up again, the meme once again evolved, this time to use quotes from the movie in English to fool the authorities. As of writing, appropriate quotes from the film like "Some birds aren't meant to be caged, their feathers are just too bright,” are still searchable on the Chinese Internet.
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