How Memes Help Chinese Dissidents and Chen Guangcheng Supporters Evade Censorship


Thanks to the proliferation of websites like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Instagram memes are an endless source of entertainment for netizens. These symbols of expression can be a photograph, a video, a picture with captions, or just about anything that encapsulates cultural commentary. The term is derived from "mimeme," coined by Richard Dawkins, as an analogue for genes adapting and responding to selective pressures.  

Recently, memes have not only been a vehicle for humor, but a veil for social and political criticism. The potency of this emerging form of commentary can be seen in the "Dark Glasses, Portrait" meme, which is an aggregate of photos of everyday Chinese men wearing dark glasses to show their implicit support for the dissident Chen Guangcheng. Similar socially-motivated commentary that lashes out against perceived injustices are found in the memes of Trayvon Martin and the Syrian uprising.  

Political memes like these are particularly powerful in China because they can circumvent government censors. Instead of explicitly stating the issue, memes are artwork that contain images and metaphors that appeal to people who have general knowledge of the context surrounding the message. Chinese political dissidents and activists, such as Ai Weiwei, have used this to their advantage in raising the awareness of netizens by disseminating art, photographs, and video clips through social media platforms such as Sina's Weibo, the Chinese counterpart of Twitter.

Internationally renowned for his installation of 100 million sunflower seeds in London's Tate Modern, Ai Weiwei is one of the most outspoken advocates of human rights and democracy in China. His widely distributed photograph of the "Grass Mud Horse" meme was seen as a direct affront to the Chinese Communist Party, which may have lead to his subsequent disappearance in 2011. 

Using veiled allusions in the media as a veneer over serious criticism is not new. In fact, this is simply the modern iteration of a practice that is rooted in Chinese tradition. During periods of oppression, Chinese painters and poets would use metaphors or homophonic puns in their work to criticize their rulers. This was especially effective in circumventing the scrutiny of foreign rulers, such as the Mongols or the Manchu, who were not knowledgeable about Chinese literature and history, which constituted a vast resource for intellectuals to draw from. Just as those who are attuned to social media and Chinese news knew that the sunflower seed spray-painted in a Beijing alleyway was an allusion to Weiwei, only those who understood Chinese imagery and metaphors were "in the know."

Han Han, a popular critic of the Chinese government, has made great use of the social media landscape to articulate his opinions to the younger generation. The 29 year old ascended to fame as the author of a novel that portrays the life of a Chinese high school student whose life centers around having to perform well on endless exams to gain his parents' approval. Han Han's incisive criticism of Chinese education and his depiction of the restless teenage condition, was considered a refreshing, realistic satire to his readers. Moreover, Han Han's nonchalance and air of defiance on Chinese television made him the potent, youthful antithesis of the orthodox intellectual; some think his "rebelliousness might contribute to social instability." Han Han's eventual turn to blogging took a jab at more serious issues such as party corruption, censorship, and societal problems stemming from China's rapid economic growth.  

Evan Osnos of The New Yorker writes of Han Han, "It was as if Stephanie Meyer had abandoned the 'Twilight' series and started directing fans' attention to the misuse of public funds." Compared to more mature Chinese critics, Han Han is the voice of discontented Chinese youth who feel suffocated by the diminishing opportunities for social advancement, and the increasing number of millenials who live at home with their parents because they can't find a well-paying job or afford their own housing.  

Government censors are still very powerful in China.  A majority of the Chinese (especially those who are not tech-savvy) are oblivious to the Chen Guangcheng issue and other unflattering news such as the Bo Xilai scandal. Often Chinese people abroad, and the international community know more about acts of subversion than those who reside in China. Chen Guangcheng may be an international figure, but in China he is not as widely known, which attests to the effectiveness of the Great Firewall. Even if there were a relaxation of the censors, many Chinese are not interested in politics. Instead, they are focused on improving their financial statuses at a time of economic growth in the country. But advocates of change have never been a large group in history; they have generally been considered progressives or extremists who swam against the tide of conformity. 

Memes by themselves cannot supersede collective action --  that requires organization and people willing to act on their convictions. The artwork can serve as a spark for discussion, but will only remain as artistic expression without the incorporation of proper elements to bring about concrete action.  Thus, the Chen Guangcheng memes may not represent a staunch movement for change in the governing system, but at least they show that there are numerous Chinese who are aware of, and willing to, express their discontent of societal inequities; even while the Chinese government tries to paint a picture of perfect harmony.