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.

Courtesy of Reuters
A meme using parodied KFC graphic elements, but with a slogan to free blind activist Chen Guangcheng, is seen in this image.

Chen Guangcheng’s escape from house arrest has caught the attention of China’s vast Internet community, despite his name being blocked by the “Great Firewall of China,” the nation’s Internet censors.  The vehicle that sidesteps the censorship?  The Internet meme.

“Internet meme” is a term that defies easy definition. Generally speaking, it is an idea or concept that rapidly spreads through the Internet’s population, often fueled by a kind of ironic humor.  From “lolcats” – cat pictures juxtaposed with misspelled text – to Rickrolling, hundreds of memes exist, with more being created daily by the denizens of the Internet.  Indeed, an entire website has been devoted to documenting individual memes’ rise and fall.

But the Western English-speaking world does not hold a monopoly on Internet memes; every online sphere has its own collection of memes, including China.  And some memes have an added function in China’s heavily censored Internet: vehicle for political critique.  Design strategist and meme researcher An Xiao Mina, speaking this past weekend at ROFLcon, a convention about Internet memes at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., called them “the street art of the social web.”

Guerrilla activism

Overt political criticism remains out-of-bounds for most online Chinese, as automated Internet filtering and alert human censors work to purge sensitive references.  But memes allow Chinese Web users to express themselves by using a kind of guerrilla activism – avoiding the keywords that flag the automated filters and disguising political messages such that human censors cannot distinguish them from the overwhelming volume of innocuous online speech.

Take Chen’s captivity and subsequent escape, which have been inspiration for a number of Chinese memes.  One of the simplest is the “Dark Glasses Portrait,” a phenomenon started in China, where Chen supporters take pictures of themselves wearing sunglasses in reference to the blind activist’s eyewear.  In isolation, each photo does not trip the sensors of the “Great Firewall” – the photos are simply photos, the sunglasses simply sunglasses.  But in the aggregate, the hundreds of photos send a loud message.

Other memes are more complex, using visual codes, parodies, and satire.  An artist supporter of Chen created a satirical KFC ad, featuring a cartoon version of Chen in place of the Colonel, and the slogan “Free CGC.” The similarity to KFC ads, which can be found all over China, provides a loose disguise, enabling Chen’s supporters to post the image – say, as a bumper sticker – despite its political message. 

A small but potent community

This is not to say that China’s “memeosphere” is rife with political activity, Ms. Mina points out.  

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.”

Viral survival

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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