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May 8, 2012, 11 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Chen Guangcheng has a posse and Ai Weiwei is everywhere: Memes as dissent in China

Los Angeles artist and designer An Xiao Mina says memes are often the only way to talk about sensitive political issues in China.

Artwork supporting the release of Chen Guangcheng

Memes are “the street art of the social web,” says An Xiao Mina, a designer and artist in Los Angeles. But in China, a country that represses speech and the press, the lulz can turn deadly serious.

“Memes are a way of circumventing all the controls out there on the Chinese web,” she told me this weekend. “Not only do they remix fast, they’re very obscure.”

Mina got the attention of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in 2011, when she helped create a community-powered Twitter feed that translates his tweets into English. Ai invited Mina to spend a year working with him.

On the day she arrived, Jan. 12, Chinese authorities had demolished Ai’s Shanghai studio. On April 3, Ai was arrested at the Beijing airport, detained for more than two months without charge.

“Obviously, it was a very scary time. I watched as his name was slowly being stamped out of the Internet,” Mina said, referring to the work of China’s invisible censors. “But soon after that I found myself laughing. It was a very dark humor.”

She stumbled upon “Crack Sunflower Seeds,” an animated video that depicts boys and girls trying to tell the story of a sunflower-seed seller before a black hand sweeps them away. Ai, of course, had become famous for his installation of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds in London’s Tate Modern. The video was a viral hit. You couldn’t talk about Ai Weiwei on Chinese Internet, but you could talk about the ubiquitous Chinese snack food.

"Free Ai Weiwei" posters were scattered upon the sunflower seeds in Ai's exhibit at the Tate Modern.

“It became a meme for a while, people posting pictures,” Mina told me. Most powerful for her was stumbling upon a lone sunflower seed, spray-painted, in a Beijing alleyway. “It was just kind of there. It was a perfect example of something slipping totally under the noses of anyone who’d be walking by, except for those who were in the know,” she said.

I interviewed Mina after she spoke on a panel titled “Global Lulzes” at this weekend’s ROFLCon III, a conference here in Cambridge dedicated to memes. (Also present: Tron Guy, Paul “Bear” Vasquez, Antoine Dodson, New York Times GIF enthusiast Jenna Wortham, and many other Internet-famous.)

The panel, moderated by Ethan Zuckerman, reminded us that Western meme culture is America-focused. Try showing lolcats to people in China: “They have no idea why this is funny,” Mina told me.

Mina was joined on the panel by Bia Granja of Brazil, who founded youPix, which is apparently the world’s largest conference about memes; and Anas Qtiesh, a U.S.-based Syrian blogger who has studied the memes of Syria’s bloody uprising.

As the panel got underway, I got a breaking-news alert that China had agreed to let Chen Guangcheng, a blind dissident who managed to escape house arrest, study in the United States.

Chen, too, had attracted a cult following on the Chinese Internet. People were posting his picture to Sina Weibo and other Chinese microblogging sites, voicing their support. But that was easy for the censors to pick up.

“But then this artist, Crazy Crab, an anonymous artist, said, Hey everyone, you should send me your pictures of yourself wearing sunglasses, as a way of showing support. People would send him pictures of themselves in sunglasses or blindfolds, and this served many purposes. One was to raise awareness about Chen Guangcheng, two was to show each other that they’re all aware of this,” Mina said.

Mina likens Chinese memes to the slave songs of the American South.

Any one photo of a person in sunglasses is not suspicious, but in aggregate, it’s powerful. That meme was not unlike the Trayvon Martin hoodie meme here in America.

“It’s very unlikely that the people who organized the Trayvon Martin hoodie meme were talking to the people who organized the sunglasses meme in China, because [of] language barriers, cultural differences, the firewall,” she said. It’s almost like “there’s this universal way of meme-ifying a political or social issue.”

She said the meme gave way to flash mobs, masses of people wearing sunglasses in public. Supporters in shades stealthily stood guard outside the hospital where Chen was detained.

Mina provided other examples of issues or stories that led to memes: suffocating smog and the push for clean air; the deadly high-speed train crash of July 2011.

“The obscure humor is actually a protective layer,” Mina said. “A good friend of mine suggested it’s like the slave songs of the South, when the slaves were singing about the underground railroad. It’s hiding in plain sight.”

In a perverse way, the creativity of censorship evasion has made for a richer Chinese Internet.

POSTED     May 8, 2012, 11 a.m.
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