Online Political Satire in China as Symbolic Protest
Guobin Yang and Min Jiang
China’s popular video-sharing web site Yyets.com and subtitles translation web site shooter.cn were both closed in late November 2014. For fans of these online communities, the closing of these web sites turned an otherwise cultural and entertainment issue into a political one. For many others who care only about an open internet culture, these closures come across as just another government effort to tighten internet control. On the popular microblogging platform Sina Weibo, people’s responses were a mixture of sad memories and playful satire. One person remarked: “Even if you don’t care about politics, sooner or later politics will come to care about you.” Another posted: “There were four waves of building walls in history. The first was the building of the great wall in Qin Dynasty. The second was the building of the great wall in Han Dynasty. The third was the building of the great wall in Ming Dynasty. The fourth is, well, you know what I mean” (quoted in Xian, 2014).
What is meant by the poster is the construction and maintenance of the Great Firewall in today’s China as a means of controlling its internet. “You know what I mean” is one of the numerous memes in Chinese cyberspace that makes a political statement without exactly saying anything. And yet regular Chinese internet users, often called netizens, will have no difficulty in understanding the political statement contained in a non-statement like “you know what I mean.” This online practice is reminiscent of a political joke in the Soviet Union before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The joke goes as follows:
When several people were arrested by the police for handing out leaflets on the Red Square, they argued: “These leaflets are all blank.” The police responded: “Yeah, but everybody knows what the leaflets were going to say, right?”
On the Chinese internet today, jokes are a distinct genre and a common practice. They are also everywhere -- people read them in online forums, on Weibo, and on mobile apps. But jokes are not just for personal entertainment. Many jokes are shared with friends, colleagues, and classmates on smartphones and through such instant messaging and group chat services as Tencent’s popular WeChat. The reading and sharing of online jokes have become such an important part of Chinese internet culture that some web sites hire joke writers in order to have a steady supply of new jokes to keep and grow their readership.
Online political satire in China takes multiple forms. One form is called duanzi, or jokes. As it is short and easy to spread, duanzi is routinely shared via texting, online forums and microblogs. The contents of duanzi fall into several colorful categories. “Red” jokes convey positive messages aligned with mainstream politics and moralities. “Grey” jokes, which include political satire, convey critical views about politics and society. “Yellow” jokes are sex jokes. Duanzi is so popular with Chinese internet users that an online survey (People’s Tribute Survey Center, 2010) conducted in 2010 with about nine thousand internet users leads the researchers to conclude that “Everybody in China does duanzi.” For instance, at the height of SARS crisis in 2003, Chinese leaders were busy promoting the official ideology of “three represents,” which stipulates that the Chinese Communist Party must always represent:
the requirements for developing China’s advanced productive forces;
the orientation of China’s advanced culture; and
the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people.
Angered by the government’s slow response to SARS, people circulated many duanzi online to satirize the “three represents” theory. A study conducted by the media scholar Haiqing Yu contains the following example:
SARS represents the demand of a special virus for development;
SARS represents the advancement of a culture of terror; and
SARS represents the basic interests of the broad masses of wild animals (Yu, 2007, p.47).
Another form of online political satire is national sentence-making. The Chinese phrase for national sentence-making (全民造句) literally means “all people make sentences.” It refers to the online practice of remaking and circulating popular phrases and sayings in response to social issues of common concern, such as a case of social injustice or government corruption. Because this phenomenon became popular only with the diffusion of the internet, it is sometimes called “internet sentence-making” (网络造句).
The best-known example is “My father is Li Gang!” This top catchphrase of 2010 came from a hit-and-run incident where the 22-year-old perpetrator Li Qiming yelled at security guards upon interception: “Sue me if you dare. My father is Li Gang!” It turns out that Li Gang was the local deputy police chief. The phrase took flight online, with many outraged by the imperious behavior of ‘officiallings’ (i.e., children of government officials). A few popular online forums alone produced more than 300,000 remade sentences (Netease, 2010). Netizens remade poems and sayings to satirize officiallings and the rich and powerful they represent. For example, the second line of a famous poem by the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai “Bright moonlight near my bed / White frost on the ground” is replaced with ‘My father is Li Gang,” because “Gang” rhymes with “shuang,” the Chinese word for frost. Russian poet Pushkin’s verse is turned into ‘If by life you were deceived, don't be dismal, your father is Li Gang!” The insertion of “My father is Li Gang” in sentence-making is dubbed the “Li Gang Form” (李刚体).
National sentence-making thus entails the modification and appropriation of texts. Borrowed from ancient poems, famous sayings, or other popular expressions, the remade text is appropriated with almost unlimited possibilities. Memorable texts, such a famous poem, can enhance the circulation of political satire. The multiple versions of remade sentences are linked together as if into a semantic network, drawing their meanings from the new expressions and gaining symbolic power from one another. Through online forums, hashtags and retweets, users weave a complex web of meaning around each new cultural expression.
How to understand the meaning and significance of online political satire in China? On the one hand, online political satire is a form of symbolic protest. It spreads a culture of skepticism, dissension, and critique about power and authority and does so with humor and without directly confronting the apparatus of power. Online political satire can be a form of individual expression and resistance, but it also has a collective character, because it is a networked practice of sharing and circulation. It is because of their potentially collective character that many practices of online political satire can become radical enough to incur the repression of the state.
On the other hand, online political satire is an everyday social practice whose meaning cannot be fully captured within the framework of political resistance or dissent. The sharing of online political jokes is also about building communities and inter-personal relationships. And yet just because satire serves social and ritual functions does not mean it is non-political. Rituals have an interpretative openness that allows them to be appropriated in multiple ways, including the appropriation by activists as expressions of dissent. The 2009 meme “Jia Junpeng, your mother wants you to go home to eat” was born out of the online banter in a popular gaming community. Yet very soon, activists transformed the phrase into a slogan for political mobilization, in one case sending postcards with the phrase ‘your mother wants to go home to eat’ to a police station to demand the release of a detained blogger (Latham, 2013).
Internet censorship shapes the particular forms of online political satire in China. Censorship cannot put an end to political expression, but only channels it into specific forms such as the prevalent use of coded language and hidden allusions. In contrast to the strategies of state power, the everyday practices of playful resistance have a tactical character (de Certeau, 1984. While it is vital to recognize the strategies of Chinese censorship agencies, it is also necessary not to over-emphasize it. The Chinese censorship system, like the Chinese state, is not monolithic but multi-layered. Multiple parties are involved in the business of censorship, not just the government, but also civil society and Internet firms. All this may limit the coherence of the strategies of censorship and create opportunities for symbolic and networked transgression (Yang, 2012).
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