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The Anti “Halalification” Crusade of Chinese Netizens

Discussions on the so-called ‘halalification’ of China have flared up after delivery app Meituan introduced separate boxes for its halal food deliveries this week.

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Discussions on the so-called ‘halal-ification’ of China have flared up after delivery app Meituan introduced separate boxes for its halal food deliveries this week. Many netizens see the growing prevalence of halal food in China as a threat to a unified society and say that featuring special services for Muslims is discriminatory against non-Muslims.

The “halal-ification” (清真泛化) of food products in China has been a hot issue on Chinese social media over the past two years. Discussions on the spread of halal food in China broke out again this week when food delivery platform Meituan Takeaway (美团外卖) locally introduced a special halal channel and separate delivery boxes for halal food.

What especially provoked online anger was the line used by Meituan to promote its new services, saying it would “make people eat more safely” (Literally: “Using separate boxes for halal food will put your mind at ease.”)

The image of Meituan’s promotional campaign for halal food that went viral on Chinese media: “Make you eat more assured.”

Many netizens said the measure discriminates against non-Muslims. They called on others to boycott Meituan and to delete the app from their phone. In response, the topic ‘Is Meituan Going Bankrupt?’ (#美团今天倒闭了吗#) received over 3.7 million views on Weibo, with thousands of netizens discussing the issue under various hashtags.

 

RAISING AWARENESS ABOUT ISLAMIC DIETARY LAW

“China is a secular country ruled by an atheist Party, and firmly boycotts Islamic laws.”

 

In 2016, halal products were already at the center of debate on Chinese social media when officials called for national standards on halal food (definition here).

A popular Weibo imam called Li Haiyang from Henan wrote a post in March titled “Raising Awareness about Islamic Dietary Law” (“关于清真食品立法的几点认识“), in which he discussed the importance of national standards on halal food in China.

Li Haiyang, who is part of China’s Henan Islam Society (河南省伊斯兰教协会), wrote that all Muslims should follow the classic rules and abide by their beliefs, of which Islamic dietary laws are an important part, and that the PRC cannot discriminate against Muslim ethnic groups by refusing to legally protect Muslim halal food.

At the time, the imam’s post was shared over 500 times and besides much support, it also attracted many comments strongly opposing the imam’s views. A typical comment said: “China is a secular country ruled by an atheist Party, and firmly boycotts Islamic laws!”

Despite backlash, there are multiple accounts on Weibo dedicated to informing people about halal food, such as ‘China Halal Food Web’ (@中国清真食品网 3100+ fans) or ‘Halal Cuisine Web’ (@清真美食网, 3950 fans).

 

“HALALIFICATION”

“Halalification is not good for national harmony and not conducive to the healthy development of Chinese Islam.”

 

In Chinese, the word for ‘halal’ is qīngzhēn 清真, which also means ‘Islamic’ and ‘Muslim.’ The two characters the word is composed of (清 and 真) literally mean ‘clean’ and ‘pure.’ The various meanings of the Chinese word for ‘halal’ somewhat complicate discussions on the matter.

In the halal food debate on Chinese social media, the term qīngzhēn fànhuà (清真泛化) is often used – a new term that popped up in Chinese media in 2016. It basically means ‘halal-ification’ or ‘halal generalization,’ but because qīngzhēn also means ‘Islamic,’ it can also imply ‘Islamization.’

And that is precisely what is at the heart of the discussion on the spread of halal food on Chinese social media: those who oppose the spread of halal food in the PRC connect the normalization of Islamic dietary laws to an alleged greater societal shift towards Islam. The spread of ‘Islam’ and ‘halal food’ are practically the same things in these discussions through the concept of qingzhen.

Another issue that plays a role is the idea that ‘qingzhen‘ stands for ‘clean and pure’ food. This distinction between halal and non-halal food implies that while the one is clean food, non-halal food is ‘unclean’ and ‘dirty,’ much to the dismay of many net users. Some people suggest that the name of ‘halal food’ should be changed to ‘Muslim food.’

On Baike, Baidu’s Wikipedia-like platform, the page explaining the term qīngzhēn fànhuà 清真泛化 says: “The term [halalification] originally only referred to the scope of the specific diet of [Muslim] ethnic groups, and has now spread to the domains of family life and even social life beyond diet, including things such as halal water, halal tooth paste, and halal paper towels.”

Advertisement in Ningxia public transport for halal paper towels.

The Baike page explains that halal products are hyped by companies that are merely seeking to gain profits. It also says that halalification is “not good for national harmony” and “not conducive to the healthy development of Chinese Islam.”

Although there are no official government records of how many people practice Islam within the PRC, it is estimated that there currently are around 23 million Muslims in China, which is less than 2% of the total population. According to Pew Research (2011), because China is so populous, its Muslim population is expected to be the 19th largest in the world in 2030.

 

HALAL WORRIES

“State-financed products should not be religious.”

 

Most Chinese food ordering apps now have a special halal section; Chinese supermarkets provide a wide range of products labeled as ‘halal’ and there are ample halal restaurants in Chinese cities.

But many people on Chinese social media feel that the spread of halal products is going too far. Legal service app Ilvdo (@律兜) published an article on Weibo this week that mentions that many Chinese consumers might buy halal products such as halal ice cream or milk without even knowing it: “You perhaps drank [halal] water and indirectly funded Islam religion – because the companies that have halal certifications have to pay Islamic organizations for them.”

On Weibo, there are some popular accounts of people opposing the spread and normalization of halal food in China. An account named ‘No Halal’ (@清真发言) has over 143.500 followers. The ‘No Halal Web’ (@非清真食品网) account has nearly 90.000 fans. These accounts regularly post about halal products in Chinese shops and restaurants and link it to the spread of Islam religion in China.

The account ‘No Halal Web’ recently posted a photo taken at a Shanghai restaurant that shows a table with a sign saying “Reserved for Halal Customers Only.”

“Table reserved for Halal customers only.”

The ‘No Halal Web’ account wrote: “This already is Muhammed’s Shanghai.” They later stated: “In the Islam world, the demands of Muslims are not as simple as just wanting a mosque, they want their environment to be Islamic/halal.”

Verified net user ‘Leningrad Defender’ (@列宁格勒保卫者, 254465 fans) posted photos of a segregated ‘halal’ checkout counter at a Jingkelong supermarket in Beijing’s Chaoyang area, wondering “is this even legal”?

‘Halal’ checkout counter at a supermarket in Beijing’s Chaoyang area.

A Weibo user named ‘The Eagle of Great Han Dynasty’ (@大汉之鹰001) posted a photo on July 20 showing a bag of infant nutrition from the China Family Planning Association that also has a ‘halal’ label on it. He writes:

“What is the Family Planning Committee doing? Why is this halal? This is Jilin province, are we all Muslims? What is behind this, can the Committee tell the public? This is financed through the state, the public has the right to know!”

Infant product by the Family Planning Committee that is labeled ‘halal.’

Others also responded to the photo, saying: “State-financed products should not be religious.”

 

THE MEITUAN INCIDENT

“Only when we as the Chinese people integrate together, can our country be unified as an undivided family.”

 

Although there is much opposition to the spread and regulation of halal food in China, the halal food industry also provides many business opportunities for companies who are eager to serve the millions of customers wanting to buy halal.

Popular food delivery platform Meituan faced furious backlash this week when it introduced its special halal food services. The so-called ‘Meituan Incident’ (美团事件) became a heated topic of debate on Weibo and Wechat.

One of the key arguments in the debate is not so much an opposition to halal food in itself, but an opposition to a normalization of ‘halal food’ (with the complicating factor that the Chinese qingzhen also means ‘Islamic’ and ‘clean and pure’), which allegedly discriminates against non-Muslims and increases social polarization. Many netizens said that if there are special boxes for food for Muslims, there should also be special boxes for food for Buddhists, Daoists, atheists, etc.

One well-read blog on Weibo said:

“National identity, in the end, is cultural identity (..). What is needed for the long-term stability of a country is integration [of the people] rather than a division [of the people] – let alone isolation. The national law should [therefore] turn ‘halal food 清真食品’ into ‘Muslim special food 穆斯林专用食品.’ This would make sure that Muslims don’t eat anything they shouldn’t eat, and it also liberates those (..) who aren’t religious. The law could confirm that there is a special kind of food designed for Islamic religious people to eat, instead of asking non-religious people to eat it as well. (..) There are more and more atheists. We should no longer distinguish people by saying he is a Daoist, he is Buddhist, that’s a Muslim or a Christian..in the end we shouldn’t even distinguish people as being Han or Zhuang or Miao or Hui or Manchu. Only when we as the Chinese people integrate together, can our country be unified as a harmonious and undivided family.”

The blog, that was viewed over 88.000 times, received much backing from its readers. One person wrote: “As there is now a national resistance against Islamization and religious segregation, how could the Meituan incident not cause anger amongst the people?”

It is not the first time that the separation of facilities/services for Muslims versus non-Muslims triggers online discussions in China. In September last year, the introduction of special “Muslim-only” shower cabins at a Chinese university also provoked anger about alleged “Muslim privilege.”

 

TRIVIAL MATTER OR SOCIAL SHIFT

“Today it is about separate boxes for food; tomorrow it might be about separate seating areas in restaurants. And what’s next?”

 

On Thursday, Meituan Takeaway officially responded to the controversy through Sina Weibo, saying that the promotion of halal delivery boxes was a local and unofficial activity by one of its agents in Gansu province. It also said it would strengthen supervision of its agents and their promotional material.

But not all netizens believed Meituan’s explanation. One person said: “I am located in Inner Mongolia, and your Meituan [here] also promotes the two separate delivery boxes.”

Other netizens also posted photos of Meituan’s food delivery rival Eleme also using special “Halal only” delivery boxes.

Image of food delivery box that says “special use for halal food.”

Among all the negative reactions and the resistance against the spread of halal food, there are netizens who praise halal food for being tasty and who do not get what all the fuss is about. A female netizen from Beijing wrote:

“Why are so many brain-dead people opposing Muslims these days? How does Meituan’s separation of halal food hinder you? What do you care if your yogurt is halal? If you don’t want to eat it, don’t eat it. There are plenty of people who will. Use your brain for a bit. Not all Muslims are extremists; just as not all people from the Northeast are criminals.”

But there are many who think Meituan’s separate boxes are no issue to disregard. One young female writer says:

“(..) Under the current national policy of protecting ethnic minorities, Muslims enjoy special privileges in the name of national unity. If this continues for a long time, the inequality inevitably will spread to other domains of society. Today it is about separate boxes for food; tomorrow it might be about separate seating areas in restaurants. And what’s next? Segregated neighborhoods? Trains? Airplanes? It might seem like a trivial matter, but if you ignore this, then those who are privileged now will go on and get greater privileges. The distancing of Muslims will only grow. I’m not saying this to alarm you. It’s self-evident that unequal benefits and the privilege of an ethnic group will eventually create conflicts between the people.”

Amidst all ideological arguments, there are also those who say it is all about the money. In the article published by Ilvdo, the author says about the Meituan incident: “Why do the boxes need to be separated? Because in general, Muslims feel that what we eat is “dirty” … but the product increase cost is shared by all the customers – so not only does it make us feel “dirty”, we also spend more money.”

They later say: “What we want is national unity, not religious solidarity. (..) You have your freedom of religion, which app I use is my freedom. Separate boxes and other special services will ultimately be reflected in the costs, and I do not want to pay religious tax. Luckily I have the freedom to delete this app and stop using it.”

By Manya Koetse

©2017 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Bruce Humes

    July 24, 2017 at 1:53 pm

    This post on “halalification” is indeed fascinating. It does offer some real insight into what Chinese society is talking about these days.

    Reading it, one almost forgets that this is Chinese social media. There are various arguments, pro and con, and the way they are presented, it sounds fairly “balanced,” like something you’d read on Twitter in the West. “Let one hundred flowers bloom,” as Mao Zedong famously said in the 50s — before cracking down on anyone expressing unPC attitudes, and persecuting and even jailing hundreds of thousands of those “blossoms.”

    The issue here is that the columnist fails to point out to readers how significant it is that “halalification” is being openly discussed, and not banned, by the authorities. Based on my experience, almost any critical comments related to one of China’s ethnic minorities is highly sensitive and likely to be scrubbed almost immediately.

    Therefore, an important yet unexplored story here is: Why are the authorities allowing this topic to be discussed openly? Does this indicate their neutrality regarding this phenomenon? Or are they subtly using social media to critique this contemporary aspect of Muslim culture? And how long will they allow such a sensitive topic to be freely discussed before they — inevitably — begin to censor such entries?

    In the future, I look forward to Ms. Koetse alerting readers to such aspects of “media management,” and her efforts to “decode” these signals.

    • Jie

      September 7, 2017 at 10:59 am

      According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, “” search results are not shown.
      Sorry, the sticker has been deleted
      Sorry, you do not have permission to view the content.

      Huh.

      Do you really understand China?

  2. The other

    July 25, 2017 at 12:08 pm

    This article demonstrates why Westerners are so wrong in assuming that China is an ethno (Han supremacist) state. They’re actually riffing off a stereotype of East Asians as an extremely racist people, without bothering to learn the facts.

  3. Jane

    July 25, 2017 at 6:56 pm

    Sigh.. I would never think that a standard halal certificate will make such a ruckus. Moslems only eat halal foods, just like vegetarians only eat non meat foods. Why would it then expand into segregation in other parts of life? Look at Singapore, it’s a secular country but we’d still get to know which food is halal, which isn’t. The PRC government need to do something, so the problem will be solved once and for all. Either it’s allowed to do so, or just ban it nation wide. I really feel like it’s funny how the majority of people who are non Moslems would feel discriminated against; I didn’t know minorities are capable of discriminating against more powerful majorities

  4. Joey

    July 26, 2017 at 9:46 pm

    Halal food is the only food I trusted in China, especially from street vendors.

  5. Funtik-fuf

    July 31, 2017 at 9:53 pm

    the problem is not with the food here — it’s with the presenting of it. of course, halal food deserves to be cooked and sold everywhere in this world, same as all the other types of food, but when people start segregating the society then you know something’s very wrong with it. it is totally okay for any diet to have its own cafe, but different tables, delivery boxes and checkout counters are clear evidence of the separation. it seems like people who demand separate tables to eat don’t want to be associated with or be equaled to other people. which is not good.

  6. SpeakTheTruth

    August 11, 2017 at 8:53 am

    So Chinese people in China can’t even protect the Chinese culture of eating pork?

  7. Always Worried German

    September 2, 2017 at 4:32 pm

    Ha! The Mohammedans are doing the same thing they started about 10 years ago in Europe. Be very careful, China, or you’ll end up like us.

  8. jixiang

    January 7, 2018 at 5:42 pm

    “Only when we as the Chinese people integrate together, can our country be unified as an undivided family.”

    Right, only when everyone speaks the same, thinks the same and eats the same can China be a happy family.

    Sigh.

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Backgrounder

Digital Art or Visual Propaganda? China’s New Wave of Online Political Satire

Political, patriotic art mocking Western leaders is welcomed by social media users and propagated by Chinese officials.

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Image by What's on Weibo, highlighting various digital artworks by @乌合麒麟, @半桶老阿汤.

A specific genre of political satire has been gaining popularity on Chinese social media lately, with some images even making international headlines. While political satire mocking Chinese authorities is generally soon taken offline, these online works are brought to the limelight by Chinese official channels. Is it grassroots digital art? Or is it official visual propaganda?

When the parody image ‘The Last G7’ went viral on Chinese social media in June of 2021, it made international headlines for insulting the G7 summit, the West and Christianity, ridiculing ‘double-faced’ Australia, bashing Japan over Fukushima water, and offending India’s COVID19 situation. There was enough satirical symbolism and detail in the image to offend virtually any country that was -implicitly- portrayed in it.

Some media headers suggested the image was created by Chinese state media, others said it was done by ‘Chinese trolls’ or Chinese authorities.

The image was actually created by a Chinese computer graphics illustrator from Beijing who is active on social media, where he also sells his digital art online.

Online political satire in China has been around since the early start of social media in China and is often seen as a form of online activism. In media articles and academic literature focused on online political satire in China, the phenomenon is often discussed within the framework of censorship and dissidence, as a practice of resistance against Chinese authorities. Political satire can exist in many forms, from funny word jokes to catchy songs, from viral gifs to sophisticated cartoons.

Renowned Chinese political cartoon artists such as Badiucao (巴丢草), Hexie Farm (蟹农场), Kuang Biao (邝飚), and Rebel Pepper (变态辣椒) were previously active on Chinese social media platform Weibo, and their accounts were shut down dozens of times before publishing their work within China’s online environment became virtually impossible.

These artists are known for drawing cartoons that criticize and mock Chinese leaders, the central government, or their policies. Their work fits the narrative of online political satire being used as a weapon to resist authoritarian rule in spite of the highly censored online climate they exist in (Shao & Liu 2019, 517).

What exactly is political satire? It is “a specific form of criticism that ridicules political figures, events, or phenomenon” (ibid). Visual political satire is especially relevant within the context of Chinese social media because images allow for a creative form of expression, an outlet to critique political events, that is harder to detect by online censors than the use of potentially sensitive words and terms.

But what if political satire does not critique the Chinese party-state at all? What if it actually does not conflict with party ideology, or even suits the narratives that are propagated by Chinese officials?

 

Recent Examples of Chinese Political Satire on Social Media

 

In late December of 2020, a photoshopped image of an Australian soldier murdering a child stirred controversy on social media and beyond. The soldier, who is holding a knife to the throat of a child, is standing on an Australian flag, the shadows of bodies can be discerned lying on the floor. The image – which alluded to the report regarding unlawful killings of Afghan civilians and prisoners by Australian troops – was shared on Twitter by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian. The controversial post led to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanding an apology from China.

The computer graphic by Wuheqilin that was shared on Twitter by a Chinese official.

In January of 2021, around the time of Biden’s inauguration, another satirical work was shared on Twitter by a senior producer of CGTN (@Peijin_Zhang) and others. Like the earlier image, this political satire was also full of details and symbolism. It shows American President Biden holding a bomb in front of a White House background, while Trump is taken away by officers and Kamala Harris is standing by an open grave reserved for Biden – shovel in hand. The text underneath the image says: “What a paradise of freedom, democracy, and sweet air.”

Artwork titled ‘失乐园·末日余晖’ ‘Paradise Lost-Afterglow’ created by ‘半桶老阿汤’ aka ‘Half Bottle Of Old Soup.’

At the time of the online controversy over the Xinjiang cotton ban by the BCI in March of 2021, another digital illustration titled “Blood Cotton Initiative” made headlines for featuring (BBC) journalists in KKK-style hoods interviewing a scarecrow in a field, cotton-picking slaves in the background.

The image is a response to the allegations of forced labor and human rights abuses in Xinjiang, which various Chinese officials and state media have condemned as being ‘false,’ ‘manipulative,’ and ‘hypocritical’ in light of many western countries’ own human rights records. The image was shared on Twitter by, among others, the official account of China Daily Asia (@Chinadaily_CH) and China Daily Hong Kong (@CDHKedition).

“Blood Cotton Initiative” (血棉花) by Chinese artist Wuheqilin.

In June of 2021, another political satire made headlines, as mentioned earlier in this article. It was the image mocking the G7 members who issued a summit communique that called on China to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms,” especially in relation to Xinjiang and Hong Kong autonomy, and also pushed for a new inquiry into the origin of the Covid-19 virus (link to pdf). The image, which is a parody of The Last Supper mural painting, is titled ‘The Last G7’ (最后的G7).

Image ‘The Last G7’ created by ‘半桶老阿汤’ aka ‘Half Bottle Of Old Soup.’

The image shows various animals sitting around the table, supposedly to represent Germany (left), Australia, Japan, Italy, US, UK, Canada, France, and India. Behind them are oxygen tanks, while the elephant on the right (India) is still receiving IV treatment and is not participating in the table talks. The Akita dog (Japan) is serving a green drink from a radioactive tea cattle while the bald eagle in the middle (US) is turning toilet paper into money. The beaver (Canada) is tightly holding on to a Chinese doll – a reference to Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou who has been in Canada ever since she was arrested during a stopover by Canadian police in 2018. On the table, there is a cake with the Chinese flag on it. 

“Through this we can still rule the world,” the words above the image state, while the text on the wall in the image says: “We have freedom and democracy.” State newspaper Global Times shared and explained the political satire in an article on June 13.

 

The Creators Behind the Artwork

 

Recent Chinese political satire images circulating on social media have been labeled as ‘propaganda’ by many commenters on Twitter, who assume the images were originally published by Chinese state media outlets. But although these images were often shared by official (media) accounts, their creators are seemingly unaffiliated with state media.

Chinese social media has seen a surge of (CG) artists dedicated to creating patriotic art and political satire mocking Western powers. At this time, the two most noteworthy names are Wuheqilin and Bantong Laoatang.

 
‘WUHEQILIN’ 乌合麒麟
 

The aforementioned Australian piece and the ‘Blood Cotton Initiative’ image both were created by Wuheqilin (乌合麒麟), a professional computer graphic (CG) artist with over 2.8 million followers on his Weibo account, which he opened in 2009. Wuheqilin’s real name is Fu Yu (付昱, 1988) – a business owner and art director from Harbin.

Although Wuheqilin became especially famous for his controversial Australia image of November 2020, his work was featured by Chinese state media before that time. In June of 2020, Global Times (English version) called him a “Wolf Warrior artist” who “strives to use new art to spread truth and inspire patriotism.”

Wuheqilin published his first political artwork on his social media account in 2019, at the time of the Hong Kong protests. In this work, titled ‘A Pretender God,’ the artist takes a critical stance towards the demonstrators, showing them bowing to a monster-like figure resembling the Statue of Liberty.

‘A Pretender God’ by Wuheqilin.

Another one of Wuheqilin’s recent viral pieces is titled ‘G7’, an old-looking photograph that was a satirical comparison of the G7 foreign ministers to the leaders of the Eight-Nation Alliance that invaded northern China in response to the Boxer rebellion in 1900. This image was also shared and explained by Global Times.

‘G7’ by Wuqihelin.

Wuheqilin clearly focuses on showing the dark side, hypocrisy, and supposedly bad intentions of Western powers in international politics. Noteworthy enough, he often uses English phrases in his work to emphasize his point, which may suggest he also intends for his art to be noticed by media and politicians outside of China.

Although Wuheqilin is most famous for political satire mocking Western powers, he also makes non-satirical patriotic art, such as the piece he dedicated to Chinese agronomist Yuan Longping (袁隆平), China’s ‘Father of Hybrid Rice,’ who passed away in May of 2021.

“I Always Had Two Dreams” “我一直有两个梦想” by Wuheqilin.

Over the past year, Wuheqilin and his work are often praised by Chinese official media outlets. It is often shared by English-language state media, or retweeted by Chinese officials or media accounts that are active on Twitter. Together with the fact that Wuheqilin uses English in his artwork, his work has gained major attention both in- and outside of China.

 
‘HALF BOTTLE OF OLD SOUP’ 半桶老阿汤
 

The creator of ‘The Last G7’ image and the White House image is active on social media under various names. On Weibo, where he has over 39,000 followers, the artist is known as @半桶老阿汤 (Bàntǒng lǎo ā tāng). On Twitter, he has an account under the name ‘Half Bottle Of Old Soup’ (@Half_soup), a direct translation of his nickname. The artist also has a site under the name Henry Yu. His webshop is under the ‘Laoatang’ nickname, which we will use here.

Laoatang is a concept designer and computer graphic artist from Beijing. On his Weibo account, the artist has been sharing artwork by himself and others for years. Like Wuheqilin, he has an online cloud link where people can download artworks for free, but he also has a site where people can support him by buying digital art files for the small price of 10-15 yuan ($1.5-$2.5).

Like Wuheqilin, Laoatang’s artwork is also often focused on mocking the supposed hypocrisy of Western powers regarding international affairs involving China. ‘The Last G7’ was the first work by Half Soup to make (international) headlines, but he previously did many other works in response to political affairs.

His work ‘That’s What U.S. did'(‘这是你们的愚蠢行径,我们不会’) was published at the time when news over the BCI [Better Cotton Initiative] Xinjiang cotton ban over forced labor concerns made waves in China.

‘That’s What U.S. Did’ by 半桶老阿汤

The image is part of a computer graphic video that shows black slaves working in American cotton fields while singing ‘My Lord Sunshine Sunrise.’ The next scene shows how one black man is held at gunpoint by a white hooded figure, a scarecrow with a BCI logo showing in the foreground. The words “That’s what U.S. Did, Not Us!” come up while two black figures can be seen hanging from the gallows.

In a different style, Laoatang has also created various other political satire illustrations. One from June 2021 is called ‘Investigate Thoroughly! Except Here’ (‘彻查!除了这儿’). It shows members of the WHO research team standing in front of the American army biochemical lab at Fort Detrick which is closed and guarded by Biden. In the background, there’s the scenery of a happy and open Wuhan city.

‘Investigate Thoroughly! Except Here’ (‘彻查!除了这儿’) by 半桶老阿汤 / Half Bottle of Old Soup

The illustration is a response to U.S. calls for a thorough investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus in China, while a possible link between the Fort Detrick institute and the COVID19 pandemic are allegedly ignored. This image was also shared by the Communist Youth League on social media.

 
OTHERS & INTERTEXTUALITY
 

Online creators such as Wuheqilin and Laoatang move in certain Chinese social media circles of artists producing work in similar genres who share each other’s work and comment on it. At times, there is also some kind of intertextuality or connection between these artworks.

A good example of this intertextuality is the work by the artist who is active on Weibo under the name ‘钢铁时代2011’ (Gangtie Shidai 2011). In December of 2020, they published the artwork below that reflects on the international commotion involving the Australian soldier image by Wuheqilin, which was tweeted out by Chinese official Zhao Lijian.

“Damn it, they know what we’ve done” by @钢铁时代2011 [Gangtie Shidai 2011].

The image shows artist Wuheqilin holding up one of his artworks relating to the alleged Australian war crimes in Afghanistan, while Zhao Lijian is holding up the other image by Wuheqilin. In the front, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is depicted turning his back to the images, with the sentence: “Damn it, they know what we’ve done.”

During the controversy over the BCI ban on Xinjiang cotton, there was also an outpour of online (unofficial) political art. Beijing illustrator Yang Quan @插画杨权 (1990) is also among those creating online political/patriotic art. He published an image titled “Cotton is Soft, but China is Strong.”

‘Cotton is Soft, But China is Strong’, by @插画杨权.

The dog has the letters “H” and “M” coming from his bloody mouth, referring to fashion chain H&M which was one of the major Western brands publishing a statement regarding the ban on Xinjiang cotton (read more here). Again, as in most of the recent works produced by the artists in this genre, the message of the image is reinforced through a text in English, suggesting the work is also meant for an international audience to understand.

 

In Between Censorship and Propaganda

 

Propaganda is part of Chinese media, and a ‘new’ kind of propaganda has been part of Chinese social media propaganda efforts over the past few years (also see here, here, here, here).

But separated from those mainstream, more centralized propaganda efforts, the artists mentioned in this article are part of a ‘new wave’ of political satire on Chinese social media because:

– They are independent artists and/or not officially part of state media outlets or the CCP Propaganda Bureau.
– Their style is very different from official (online) propaganda posters and imagery.
– Their works are labeled as ‘art’ and have definite artworks qualities; they are unique, are made with skill and technique, and are filled with symbolism and detail.
– Their works are praised and welcomed by state media outlets and/or government officials, as these are shared and propagated through multiple official channels.
– These artists and their creations are widely celebrated and praised by Chinese social media users.

The phenomenon of artists who are unrelated to official agencies creating political art that is then used as a tool for propaganda is not unique in the history of Chinese propaganda or that of other countries, but it is very noteworthy in the context of the short history of social media in China, where political satire is often targeted at Chinese government officials and policies and therefore censored.

Perhaps you could say it is not surprising at all that the political satire we see most in Chinese social media today is directed at foreign leaders and Western powers, since any images mocking the Chinese government would be censored immediately.

But to solely interpret these political images through this one-dimensional view would not do justice to the artwork, the artists, nor to the art aficionados, since there are several influences at play within the creation of this genre.

> Digital Art & Nationalism

There are many young artists in China today who are patriotic and nationalistic, and who use art as a way to express their political views. They do so in various ways, through personal websites, social media, cloud downloads, etc, providing an alternative to official, controlled media sources. Propaganda sometimes becomes art, and art sometimes becomes propaganda. These dynamics do not automatically turn these artists into ‘Chinese trolls,’ as some foreign media labeled them.

Artists such as Wuheqilin or the aforementioned artist named Yang Quan all belong to the post-80 generation. In this current, post-Mao generation, you find a “fourth generation” of nationalism, as described by Peter Hays Gries in China’s New Nationalism. This nationalism is very much alive in China’s online environment, and it is fused with anti-western sentiment that partly builds on the “one hundred years of humiliation” of China at the hands of the West (Zhang 2012, 2). Although this generation, that grew up amid China’s rapid economic growth, did not directly experience the past humiliations upon which their nationalist narratives are constructed, this history remains central to understandings of Chinese national identity and its place in the world today (Wang 2-11).

As pointed out by Tao Zheng (2012), the articulation and promotion of nationalist views by individuals and groups independent of the state have been a significant part of Chinese online culture for many years, with several online movements and campaigns focusing on pointing out “western arrogance and prejudice.” The current wave of political digital art is just another form of expression of this type of “cyber nationalism.”

> Building Communities

Another reason why it would be too crude to simply label China’s recent online political satire as ‘propaganda’ is because it has emerged from a dynamic digital environment where netizens engage in a participatory activity of creating, sharing, commenting, recreating, connecting, etc. – and it is through these practices that the artworks become meaningful.

In ‘The Networked Practice of Online Political Satire in China’ by Guobin Yang and Min Jiang (2015), the authors argue that the sharing and circulation of online political satire in China is a “networked social practice” that is actually more important than the meaning and significance of the content itself. It is a grassroots political expression that, in their mode of unofficial network operation, could be seen as “popular mobilizations against power” (216). Yang and Jiang also emphasize the social function of political satire, where the reception is just as relevant as the production.

> A Fine Line

In the end, the question of whether these works are grassroots digital artworks or official propaganda pieces is perhaps not one of either/or: they are both. They saw the light as digital artworks and then became tools within a framework of official propaganda once they were praised, shared, and used by Chinese state media and officials to project their own strategies.

The creators of these artworks, however, walk a fine line. When their artworks no longer suit the strategic interests propagated by official channels, they are still at risk of being censored within the highly controlled digital environment they operate in. In that case, their online influence, magnified by official actors, could actually be held against them.

For now, artists such as Wuheqilin are thriving on Chinese social media. In his last post, Wuheqilin drew his own conclusion about the current state of China’s online environment, writing:

For the public intellectuals and those with vested interests who once held on to the power of speech, these are perhaps the darkest times, because their “decade-long campaign for Enlightenment has been lost.” But for ordinary Chinese netizens, for those who love this country and believe in it, we have unprecedented confidence, creativity, and cohesion. These are the best of times, and we are marching towards the brightest future.”

 

By Manya Koetse (@manyapan)

With special thanks to Piervittorio Milizia.

References

Gries, Peter Hays. 2004. China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy. Berkely and London: University of California Press.

Shao Li, Liu Dongshu. 2019. “The Road to Cynicism: The Political Consequences of Online Satire Exposure in China.” Political Studies 67(2): 517-536.

Yang, Guobin and Min Jiang. 2015. “The Networked Practice of Online Political Satire in China: Between Ritual and Resistance.” The International Communication Gazette 77(3): 215-231.

Zhang, Tao. 2012. “Anti-CNN and ‘April Youth’: Anti-Western Sentiment in Youth-oriented Chinese Online Media.” In Hernandez, L. (ed.), China and the West: Encounters with the other in Culture, Arts, Politics and Everyday Life,
Cambridge Scholars, 1-16.

Zheng Wang. 2012. Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations. New York: Columbia University Press.

Featured image created by What’s on Weibo, highlighting and using parts of various digital artworks by @乌合麒麟, @半桶老阿汤.

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Backgrounder

The Concept of ‘Involution’ (Nèijuǎn) on Chinese Social Media

Nèijuǎn (involution) has become a commonly used term on Chinese social media, but what is it?

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Chinese TV drama A Love for Dilemma (“小舍得”) has reignited an ongoing debate about the problem of ‘involution’ in Chinese society today.

A scene from the Chinese TV drama A Love for Dilemma (“小舍得”) has reignited online discussions on the concept of nèijuǎn 内卷, “involution,” which was also a top buzzword in China in 2020.

A Love for Dilemma is a 2021 TV drama directed by Zhang Xiaobo (张晓波), who also worked on other hit series including Nothing But Thirty. This season’s popular TV drama A Love for Dilemma is themed around family, parenting, and China’s competitive education system.

In the series, two stepsisters compete against each other over the school results of their children. The family’s ‘grandpa’, played by famous actor Zhang Guoli (张国立), tries to create harmony around the dinner table between his daughter and stepdaughter, but the rivalry between the two and how they raise their children intensifies nevertheless.

Scene from A Love for Dilemma.

While stepsister Tian Yulan urges her little son to work hard in school and focus on his grades so that he can go to the best high school and university, sister Nan Li places more emphasis on the general development of her children and wants them to enjoy their childhood. Both mothers, however, question their own choices when facing challenges with how their children perform at school.

The specific scene that has ignited current discussions is a dialogue between the husbands of the sisters, who sit outside to talk about the education system and how it sometimes feels like everyone is in a theatre watching a show together until one person stands up from their seat. This makes it necessary for other members of the audience to also stand up, until everybody is standing.

The dialogue continues, with the two talking about how it does not stop at the people standing up. Because then there are those who will take it a step further and will stand on their seats to rise above the others. And then there are even those who will grab a ladder to stand higher than the rest. But they are still watching the same show and their situation has actually not changed at all – except for the fact that everybody is now more uncomfortable than they were before.

Many netizens found it striking how this dialogue explains how the term ‘involution’ is used in China nowadays. After the show aired, the hashtag “How to commonly explain involution” (#如何通俗解释内卷#) became a trending topic in the week of April 19, receiving 260 million views in a few days.

 
What Is ‘Involution’?
 

As explained by Jialing Xie in this top buzzword article on What’s on Weibo, involution describes the economic situation in which as the population grows, per capita wealth decreases. Since recently, this word has come to be used to represent the competitive circumstances in academic or professional settings in China where individuals are compelled to overwork because of the standard raised by their peers who appear to be even more hardworking.

The term ‘involution’ and how it is used today comes from a work by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz titled Agricultural Involution – The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia (1963). In this work, Geertz explores the agricultural dynamics in Indonesia during the colonial period’s Cultivation System, where a radical economic dualism existed within the country: a foreign, Dutch economy and a native, Indonesian economy (p. 61-62).

Geertz describes how the Javanese faced a deepening demographic dilemma as they saw a rapidly growing population but a static economy, while the Dutch, who organized Javanese land and labor, were only growing in wealth (69-70). Agricultural involution is the “ultimately self-defeating process” that emerged in Indonesia when the ever-growing population was absorbed in high labor-intensive wet-rice cultivation without any changing patterns and without any progress (80-81).

When Geertz used the term ‘involution’ to describe the dynamics in Indonesia, he built on the work of another American anthropologist, namely Alexander Goldenweiser, who also used the term to describe “those culture patterns which, after having reached what would seem to be a definitive form, nonetheless fail either to stabilize or transform themselves into a new pattern but rather continue to develop by becoming internally more complicated” (Geertz 1963, 81).

 
The Involution Concept in the Chinese Context
 

The popular use of the Chinese translation of ‘involution’, nèijuǎn 内卷, started to receive attention in Chinese media in 2020. It is deviating from the original use of the term and is meant to explain the social dynamics of China’s growing middle class.

As suggested in the article “‘Involution’: The Anxieties of Our Time Summed Up in One Word” by Zhou Minxi (CGTN), the popularity of the term comes from “a prevalent sense of being stuck in an ever so draining rat race where everyone loses.”

China’s ever-growing middle class is now facing the question of how they and their children can remain in the middle class in a situation where everyone is continuously working harder and doing all they can to rise above the rest. Xiang Biao, a professor of social anthropology at Oxford University, is quoted by Zhou:

The lower class still hopes to change their fate, but the middle and upper classes aren’t so much looking upward, and they are marked by a deep fear of falling downward. Their greater fear is perhaps losing what they already have.”

The term ‘involution’ often comes up together with criticism on China’s ‘996’ work system (working from 9am-9pm, 6 days a week). Although Alibaba founder Jack Ma once called the 12-hour working day a “blessing,” the system is a controversial topic, with many condemning how Chinese (tech) companies are exploiting their employees, who are caught in a conundrum; they might lose their sanity working such long hours, and might lose their job and future career prospects if they refuse to do so.

But the term also comes up when discussing China’s education system, where competition starts as early as kindergarten and the pressure on children to succeed in the ‘gaokao’ college entrance exam starts many years before it takes place.

This image shows the “juan” 卷 character from ‘nei juan’ (involution) changing into a person on their bike with laptop. Image via http://www.bajieyou.com/new/431e6ef39aac4a6da232671122f66ff4

This discussion also came up with a now-famous image of a student riding his bike while also working on his laptop, using every moment to study. This was then also called “Tsinghua Inversion” (清华内卷), referring to one of China’s top universities, where competition is so vicious that students must double their efforts to catch up with others.

 
‘Involution’ Discussions on Chinese Social Media
 

By mid-2020, ‘involution’ attracted the attention on Weibo when popular academic accounts started discussing the term. Recently, ‘involution’ is used so often on Chinese social media that it has already gone beyond its original context, leading to many people discussing its meaning.

“We are forced to work overtime and are unable to resist, and yet it seems that everyone is doing it out of free will,” one Weibo user says, with another person adding: “The abnormal state of inversion has already become our normal state.”

A popular legal blogger (@皇城根下刀笔吏) on Weibo writes:

It is an internal bottomless vicious cycle of competition. For example, everyone used to work eight hours per day, five days per week. Then one company comes up where people work twelve hours per day, six days per week. Then this company will have major competitive strength in the market economy. But the outcome is that other companies are also compelled to do the same in order to compete. As time goes by, all companies will shift to a twelve-hour workday, six days a week, and job applicants entering the market can’t find any eight-hour workday positions for five days a week anymore. So, if another company wants to beat its competitors, it will have to introduce a seven-day workweek. And then other companies will need to follow in order to make a living. That is involution.”

By now, there are various images and memes that have come to represent the meaning of ‘involution’ in present-day China, such as one cram school sign saying: “If you come we will train your kids, if you don’t come, we will train the competitors of your kids.”

“The society’s resources are in short supply and to obtain the limited supplies, people are all madly practicing their skills to obtain them – regardless if they need them or not,” another Weibo user says.

Most comments relating to the discussion of ‘involution’ on Chinese social media express a sense of fatigue with an ongoing rat-race in the education and employment market.

On the interest-based social networking platform Douban, there are even some support groups for people who feel stuck in ‘involution’ and are looking for a way out. The “Center for Victims of Involution” (内卷受害者收容中心) group has over 3000 members, with smaller groups such as “Let’s Escape Involution Together” (我们一起逃离内卷) having a few dozen participants.

The generation that is mostly affected by this sense of socioeconomic stagnation is the post-90 generation. In 2020, a record high of 8.74 million university graduates entered the job market, but their chances of finding a job that suits their education and personal expectations are slim; many industries are recruiting fewer people than before in an employment market that was already competitive before the COVID19 pandemic. It leaves them facing a troubling Catch 22 situation: they will be stressed and pressured if they do not find that top job, but when they do, they are often also stressed and pressured.

It is a recurring topic on social media. Five years ago, a song by the Rainbow Chamber Singers (彩虹室内合唱团) titled “The Sofa Is So Far” immediately became a hit in China. Many young Chinese recognized themselves in the hardworking and tired people described in the lyrics, which started with: “My body feels empty / I am dog-tired / I don’t want work overtime.”

How to get away from the involution rat race is also a much-discussed topic on Weibo, where the hashtag page “How can young people resist involution” (#年轻人如何反内卷#) has received over 280 million views.

Some suggest the answer to ending the vicious cycle is to find a way to get rich fast, others suggest that not getting married and staying child-free is also a way to alleviate the pressure to participate in this zero-sum game.

Tech blogger Sensai (@森赛), who has over 2 million followers on Weibo, advises young people to find their true interest and to invest in it before the age of 30. Doing something that sparks joy, such as learning a new language or working on art, might start as a hobby but could turn into a valuable side business later, Sensai says.

For some, however, that goal seems unattainable. “I am already working 15 hours a day, how could I ever do that?!”

“This is just bringing us into a whole other level of involution,” others write.

In order to watch A Love for Dilemma (小舍得), the show that started so many of these discussions this month, you can go over to iQiyi or YouTube.

By Manya Koetse

References

Geertz, Clifford. 1963. Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Zhou Minxi. 2020. “‘Involution’: The anxieties of our time summed up in one word.” CGTN, Dec 4 https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-12-04/-Involution-The-anxieties-of-our-time-summed-up-in-one-word-VWNlDOVdjW/index.html [20.4.2021].

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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