This article discusses the role of ICTs in activism in contemporary China. Instead of following the focus on the modalities of the Internet in collective events, this article claims a more suitable approach that examines the everyday use of the Internet as a mundane, grotesque imagery.
In an authoritarian country where explicit political mobilisation or organisation through the Internet is dangerous, the cyberspace is undergoing a subtle, hidden, yet still a significant change. Bakhtin’s notion of carnival is helpful for us to disclose the transformative dynamic under the vein of rigid Internet governance.
In the aftermath of 2011, the magic of ICTs has been re-examined by scholars. People realise that the development of infrastructures does not guarantee a better society, especially in terms of the basic rights of free expression and communication. With the most authoritarian media system, China is frequently mentioned to support a pessimistic position towards the impact of ICTs in social change. However, such a stance might ignore the full picture of the Chinese cyberspace and miss the underground yet significant changes. Aiming to reorient the emphasis on resource and events to cultural transformations, this article argues that the mundane and grotesque imagery of China’s Internet, illustrated by a large body of satire, rumour and abuse, has an invisible power that was once downplayed in previous studies.
The Dark Side of ‘Digital Activism’
When WikiLeaks, the Arab uprisings and Occupy movements occurred in the year 2011, it signalled a potential for more radical social change worldwide. The role of social media in contemporary social movements — whether it is a facilitator or a cause —has been under constant debate. Network theorists tend to appreciate social media as ‘decisive tools for mobilising, for organising, for deliberating, for coordinating and for deciding’ (Castells, 2012: p.229), as tactics to ‘raise the cost of repression’ (Lynch, 2011), as links between local and global (Bennett, 2004). Liberal scholars envisage the Internet’s promise of freedom (Shirky, 2011; Benkler, 2011) and even view it as ‘a causal role in the Arab Spring’ (Howard & Hussain, 2013: p.118), while others warn of the dark side of it, for instance, commercialism and surveillance (Morozov, 2011). Nevertheless, there are no doubt that both groups consider the Internet as a novel dynamic that empowers the resource-poor and/or the resource-rich.
The debate seems to be caught in a false perception of the Internet as a tool or an instrument used by activists. Rather, as the penetration of the Internet increases rapidly and has been embedded into the mainstream power structure, it is more fruitful, as some scholars argue, to consider the Internet as a ‘space’. It is not just a tool that people can simply decide to use or not. It has been embedded in the lifestyle of individuals and in the working principle of organisations and states. The conventional ‘digital activism’ has been mainstreamed and tends to be less and less significant (Karatzogianni, 2015). Still, social media can serve as an effective platform for informing, mobilising and organising. However, they can hardly challenge the foundation of power structure but serve as another apparatus for the existing world order to justify the status quo. It is a lesson we learn from the endless circle of regime subrogation in Arab countries after 2011.
In China, a similar story about digital activism can be told. For some liberal scholars, the rapid growing of the Internet, especially the rise of social media, has largely empowered the Chinese grassroots, who have been oppressed since the 1990s, by equipping them with a weapon for expression, interaction and even collaboration (Yang, 2009). There were indeed ’good old days’ when a number of encouraging examples of social movements were organised via social media, although they seemed ‘more subtle and mostly less violent’ (Tai, 2015). The problem is, most of those seemingly successful cases, whether online collective actions or street protests, took place before 2012 when social media was relatively ‘new’ to the authority. The ideal time for ‘digital activism’ did not last too long before the current generation of Chinese authority took a rigid approach to the Internet governance. For instance, under such conditions, social organisations have been largely excluded from the process of political activism (Wu & Wen, 2015: p.113). Thus, it is time to rethink the magical power of ICTs in activism. Instead of emphasising on the modalities of social media as digital networks, a wider range of social forces need to be taken into account (Fuchs, 2013).
From ‘Madness’ to ‘Mundanity of Politics’
The reorientation of focus from ICTs to a wider socio-political context does not necessarily turn down the hope of any possibility of online political activism in the aftermath of the digital myth. What is at stake is a more appropriate perspective from which the constant efforts made by the mass grassroots, especially those in non-western countries, can be disclosed and assessed in due course. Instead of focusing on collective contentious events as ‘moments of madness’, Liu (2016) follows Melucci’s perception of social movement as everyday practices and raises a useful concept of ‘politics of mundanity’ to denote the use of digital media as a transgressive dynamic which serves not only as ‘means of contention’, but also as ‘networks of mobilisation and recruitment through which contentious activities are realized’. According to Liu’s analysis, the mundane use of ICTs encompasses a variety of online practices, which are usually trivial by appearance and not necessarily contentious. As Liu summarises, these practices are significant on three levels. Firstly, they consolidate a form of ‘everyday resistance’ (e.g. spreading rumor against official news); secondly, they contribute to a set of commonly shared experiences and structured feelings, which can possibly serve as a rehearsal for open, collective events at some point in the future; thirdly, they entail a growing body of mundane expressions, such as codes, homophones and mockeries. Liu’s perception of ICTs’ role in activism as ‘mundanity of politics’ is insightful for such a position suits better into the context of China’s Internet. However, the main weakness is that he still one-sidedly views the Internet as a tool (or tactic) rather than as a space, which inevitably narrows his understanding of the mundane use of ICTs.
Having raised the idea, Liu does not discuss much about the characteristics of the mundane use of ICTs, especially the political expression through social media, as ‘mundanity of politics’. In this article, I would re-conceptualize the mundane expression on China’s Internet as a discursive power, or as an ideological critique that constantly disturbs the officialdom. A cursory search of China’s social media is enough to obtain a grotesque imagery illustrated with a large amount of satire, rumour and abuse. A remarkable proportion of these user-generated online messages is directly or indirectly associated with socio-political issues but does not necessarily involve any form of social movement. Some scholars examine their meanings and forms as a type of alternative expression (Meng, 2011) or as political resistance (Li, 2011), while others regard their production and circulation through the Internet as ‘networked social practices’ (Yang & Jiang, 2015). However, these approaches are mostly appropriated for specific cases and offer but a static, descriptive and fragmented interpretation. Instead, I consider it as an inseparable whole, a branch of folk culture, which is located in a playful sphere of China’s Internet.
Mundane Online Expression as ‘Carnival’
Specifically, I use Bakhtin’s famous notion of ‘carnival’ to conceptualise the grotesque imagery of China’s Internet. Stemming from the medieval folklore and the Renaissant literature, ‘carnival’ is re-defined by Bakhtin (1984) as a set of symbolic social practices, specifically literacy practices, to interpret the grotesque laughter of various genres and themes through centuries. In the folk culture, a carnival is characterised in three aspects: ritual spectacles, folk artefacts, and an abundance of ‘billingsgate’ (1984: 5). Entering the sphere of literature, the carnival spirit is interpreted as a degradative and transformative dynamic for both grotesque literature and popular speech patterns. Shifting from physical settings to literacy realm, the carnival spirit has been formalised as a literary and speech genre, which exercises a set of functions: to consecrate freedom, to permit abundance and plurality, and to liberate from prevailing ideas (Bakhtin, 1984: 34). The carnival spirit is also manifested in China’s Internet: there are a variety of user-generated content, such as in-jokes, profanities and memes, which mocks officials, humiliates bureaucracy, and curses oppression and inequality in a sensuous, collective and innovative manner. For Bakhtin, a carnival is an inexhaustible source of self-consciousness and collective practices, which continually questions hierarchy and firmly combats alienation of the body and the world. On China’s Internet, where hierarchy and surveillance are maintained by both political and commercial powers, the carnivalesque literacy practices constitute interventions or disturbances toward the socio-political order at least in the two following ways.
Firstly, the mundane expression on the Internet opens a space for political communication under censorship and governance. Facing a multi-stratified, sophisticated system of Internet discipline, Chinese citizens have been using various speech and literacy patterns as alternative communication. ‘Carnival’ provides the subordinate with another arena for political discourses that is otherwise concealed, distorted and denied to the official interest. The use of abusive, indecent, and vulgar language by Chinese netizens is impressive. ‘Diao-si’ (屌丝), one of the most popular Chinese memes, has been gladly accepted by a class of ‘losers’ as a self-mocking metaphor, whereas it literally means pubic hair (Szablewicz, 2014). Beyond the lexical level, The Mandarin language is featured by its ambiguity and flexibility in pronunciation and meaning, which has given birth to a tradition of linguistic tricks like homonyms (Zuckerman, 2013). For example, ‘River Crab’ (河蟹, pinyin: he xie) is a popular mockery of ‘harmony’ (和谐, pinyin: he xie), an official phrase pronouncing as the same (ibid.). ‘Wearing Three Watches’ (带三个表, pinyin: dai san ge biao) is a purposely misspelling of formal president Jiang Zemin’s notion of ‘Three Representatives’ (三个代表, pinyin: san ge dai biao). They are even synthesised and visualised as a weird image (see Figure 1). Thanks to the popularisation of image processing software, visuals become another major medium for alternative discourse. For example, Chinese netizens have created a wealth of mockery images about the severe air pollution. In a recent series, landmark buildings in Beijing were swallowed by heavy smog and could only be identified as being manually outlined on photos. The idea becomes a successful meme that inspired a great amount of imitation and vividly informed the mass of the worsened air quality as well as the incomplete propaganda (see Figure 2).
Secondly, the carnivalesque expression projects a threat to the monological official culture. Rather than one-sidedly perceiving it as political resistance or subversion (Yang & Jiang, 2015, Baym & Jones, 2012), I view it in an ambivalent sense as ‘cultural degradation’. To degrade something is not merely to destroy it to nonexistence, but to bring it down to earth and give it a new birth (Bakhtin, 1984: 21). The ‘digital carnival’ is not aimed to eradicate the official culture, but to disturb, disorganise, and demystify it by lowering its abstract, ideal, and immortal imagery to the material, concrete, and profane level. A recent example is the embarrassment of CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala (SFG). The four-hour, compulsorily aired celebratory feast has been performed every New Year Eve since 1983. It synthesises a threefold of functions: political propaganda, social education and culture cultivation (Wang, 2010). In the post-Maoist period, watching SFG with family was embedded into the ritual of Lunar New Year. In recent years, however, the Internet has projected a disturbance toward this habitual, ritualistic activity. While the official gala being performed on the TV screen, a folk gala called ‘tu-cao’ (吐槽, pinyin: tu cao) — complaining, mocking and unmasking — is performed on the PC or cellphone screens. Almost every piece of SFG is targeted by ‘tu-cao’: bombastic slogans, ugly mascots, lip-synching singers, and dull comedies. The ‘chaos’ even led to a variety of ‘Shan-zhai SFGs’ (山寨春晚), which copycat the form of official one yet recruits performers from the grassroots (see Figure 3).
To understand the role of ICTs in the political life of Chinese, a wide range of socio-cultural dynamics must be taken into account. Instead of getting caught by statistics and network narratives, it is more fruitful to probe the nuance in the mundane use of ICTs by the grassroots. One of the distinctive features of Chinese cyberspace is the immense use of grotesque speech and literacy patterns. The mundanity of online expression should not be simply reduced as an instrument for activism. Conceptualised as a digital version of Bakhtin’s carnival, its significance goes beyond a secondary means of communication, and manoeuvres between a ‘structure of feelings’ and a potential ideological questioning. It is not merely ‘slactivism’. Provided the strict censorship on China’s Internet, it seems ‘the only controversial, political speech that’s possible’ (Mina, 2014). Moreover, there are indeed distinctive cases where the online culture is ‘actualized’ in physical settings as contentious events.
*Jiangbo Deng is a Chevening Scholar from China currently studying an MA course about social media and politics at the University of Westminster. He worked as a senior editor in a Chinese newspaper for six years. He is interested in the way in which language is shaping and shaped by the cyberspace in contemporary China as well as its significance in social change.
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