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“Fake” and “Hypocritical” – Western Anti-Racism Movements Criticized on Weibo

Chinese social media responses to the Western anti-racism movement after Floyd’s death.

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George Floyd and the global anti-racism movements have not just dominated headlines in the US and other western countries – in China, they have also become a major news topic. This is an overview of the general Chinese online media discussions of these global news developments, including all the big hashtags, from the George Floyd killing to global companies changing their policies amid concerns over racial stereotyping.

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China (forthcoming), see Goethe.de: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
 

George Floyd – it is a name that the entire world has come to know since the 46-year-old black man was killed during an arrest in May of this year.

The death of Floyd has sparked major Black Lives Matter protests around the world, inspiring international movements fighting against racism. The incident also led to unrest, riots, and the defacement of controversial statues in America and other countries.

In solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight against systemic racism, many organizations and companies in western countries have also made various anti-racist statements and announced policy changes.

Minneapolis graffiti mural honoring George Floyd, photo by Munshots, Unsplash.

In China, the case of George Floyd (transcribed as 乔治•弗洛伊德 Qiáozhì Fúluòyīdé) and its ongoing aftermath have also made headlines in the media and have become big news topics on social media sites such as Weibo.

In a year of COVID-19 crisis and geopolitical tensions – including escalating China-US tensions and the passing of the national security law for Hong Kong -, many of the recent news stories do not stand alone.

The way the news is reported and discussed in China by state media and web users is often part of larger narratives about China and its current relations within the international community. But it’s not just politics; cultural context also greatly matters when it comes to how the anti-racism movement in the Floyd aftermath is perceived in the PRC.

 

“Oh, How Free America Is” – Floyd’s Killing

 

As now widely known, the George Floyd incident took place in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, when police responded to a shopkeeper’s call about someone potentially using a counterfeit bill. Floyd was sitting in his car when officers arrived at the scene and was asked to step out of his vehicle.

Even though Floyd was compliant and unarmed, a bystander video shows how he was held face-down on the ground, the officer pressing his knee into the side of his neck, while Floyd was begging for air, uttering the sentence: “I can’t breathe.”

While the officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for over seven minutes, the 46-year-old could be seen losing consciousness and going limp.

The video of the fatal arrest went viral on social media overnight, and soon led to people protesting in Minneapolis and elsewhere across the US, demanding justice over the fatal arrest.

Black Lives Matter public demonstration in Cincinnati, photo by Julian Wan, Unsplash.

The four officers involved in George Floyd’s death have since been fired from the Minneapolis Police Department and have been criminally charged. Tensions in Minnesota reached a boiling point and protests escalated to riots and lootings, with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey declaring a state of emergency on May 29.

On that same day, CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez, a reporter of color, was arrested and handcuffed on live television together with his cameraman and producer while reporting on the situation in Minneapolis. Although the CNN crew was released shortly after, the incident also further intensified the debate on discrimination and racism in America.

On Weibo, news of the George Floyd incident and the American protests soon went trending with various related hashtags.

By late May and early June, some of the top Weibo hashtags regarding the protests were “CNN Crew Arrested by Police” (#CNN报道团队被警方逮捕#, 170 million views), “Minneapolis Enters State of Emergency” (#美国明尼阿波利斯市进入紧急状态#, 370 million views),  “Protests Erupt over Case of Black Man Dying after American Police Applies Pressure on Neck” (#美警察压颈致黑人死亡引发抗议#, 7+ million views),  “American Anti-Racist Demonstrations” (#美国反种族歧视游行#, 3+ million views) and many more.

The hashtag “U.S. Riots” (#美国暴乱#) garnered over 5,3 billion views and triggered thousands of reactions on Chinese social media.

Many of the Weibo responses to the killing of George Floyd and its direct aftermath incorporated these developments into a bigger framework of strained US-China relations, pointing out the supposed American hypocrisy for criticizing China regarding freedom and human rights, especially in light of the COVID19-crisis and the Hong Kong situation.

“Oh how free America is,” one popular comment on Weibo said (“多么自由的米国”), with others saying things such as: “Are these the human rights you are advocating?”

Commenters expressed their disgust at the brutality of the policemen, calling the police officers “ruthless” and “sadistic,” with some – not without sarcasm – wondering if China should introduce an “anti-racism law” against US officials responsible for racial abuse.

News of CNN reporter Jimenez being arrested by the American state patrol was also shared on Weibo by the Communist Youth League official account, leading to many reactions criticizing America’s “freedom of press.”

“So this is so-called equality? Freedom? Democracy?” Another user writes: “So this is the freedom I’m yearning for? Is this called freedom?”

Some Weibo users shared compilations showing American officers using excessive force and violence while beating and shooting down people during their work.

Although criticism of the US-dominated Chinese online discussions of Floyd’s killing, there were also social media users showing support for the protesters: “I fully support the movement of Black Americans fighting for the rule of law, equality, and freedom,” one popular comment, receiving over 14,000 likes, said.

One blogger with over 123,000 followers wrote: “The riots erupting in the US will surely have a negative impact on society. But looking at it from another perspective, it still makes me envious because they have the guts to speak up, the courage to resist. If such a thing would happen in China, would you stand up?”

 

“Fake Anti-Racism” – From The Simpsons to Darlie Toothpaste  

 

As George Floyd protests have now ignited a wave of anti-racism efforts across the globe, there are also new hashtags popping up on Chinese social media that are generating a lot of discussion.

Although the protesters denouncing racism and police brutality directly after the Floyd killing were often praised on Chinese social media, some of the latest efforts by companies and brands – showing wider consideration of racism in media, fashion, and entertainment – met less sympathy among Chinese web users.

One example is the news-related hashtag “The Simpsons Cartoon Stops Using White People to Dub the Voices of Non-White Roles” (#动画辛普森不再用白人为非白人配音#), which had over 90 million views on Weibo at time of writing. In late June, producers of The Simpsons announced that they will no longer let white actors do the voices of characters of color.

“Bloody hell, [as if] you can hear by the voices if they are white or not?!”, a typical comment said, with other recurring comments saying: “This is crazy! Voices aren’t black or white.”

“Just make them all blue,” others suggested, with one person writing: “They [the Simpsons] all have yellow skin, why don’t they use actors of Asian descent to do their voices? This is fake so-called anti-racism.”

Others also argue that these kinds of initiatives only stress racial differences, instead of combating racism: “The more it’s like this, the more they stress the importance of racial distinction. Why?”

Other anti-discrimination initiatives, such as that of Unilever and beauty brand L’Oréal Paris to stop using words like “whitening” and “fair” in describing their products, together with other brands’ initiatives to remove some skin-whitening products altogether, also received a lot of attention on Weibo (hashtag #欧莱雅停用美白宣传语#, 110 million views).

“This goes too far,” “Unbelievable,” “How unnecessary,” many commenters wrote, adding: “What does this have to do with racial discrimination?” “Isn’t this just another form of discrimination?”

“Why do I feel that it’s Asians who are being discriminated against here,” some users said: “Different ethnicities have different beauty standards, different people also have different tastes in beauty. For many Asians, they just happen to think fair skin is pretty.“

Noteworthy enough, the critical stances that are ubiquitous on Weibo toward this kind of initiatives are not just visible from the most general comments; the news sources posting these news articles, from Xinhua to Sina Top Trending, also use ‘thinking face’ or ‘surprised’ emoji in their posts that suggest a certain reproachful attitude towards these kinds of developments.

Chinese media often use pensive/surprised emoji when reporting on western brands’ anti-racism policies (image: screenshot of Xinhua reporting on L’Oréal).

Another notable brand response to the anti-racism movement also ignited online discussions: Colgate announced a review of its Chinese toothpaste brand “Darlie”[1], once known as “Darkie” (literally “Black Man Toothpaste” 黑人牙膏 in Chinese), for featuring a man in blackface.

Some of the hashtags used in discussing this news are “Black Man Toothpaste is the Latest Brand Affected by American Anti-Racism” (#黑人牙膏成美反种族歧视受影响最新品牌#) and “Colgate Considers Changing the Name of the Chinese Market ‘Black Man Toothpaste’” (#高露洁考虑将中国市场黑人牙膏改名#, 110 million views).

Darlie toothpaste is a household name for many Chinese (image via Sina Weibo).

Darlie toothpaste is originally a Chinese brand, under the umbrella of the 87-year-old Shanghai company Hawley & Hazel, and is a household name for many Chinese. The overall sentiment in response to this news is that many do not understand how changing the brand is helpful in the battle against social injustice.

“I just don’t see how this is racial discrimination,” one person comments: “How is this stereotyping [black men]?”

News that America’s biggest bank JPMorgan Chase is dropping the terms “master,” “slave,” and “blacklist” from its technology material and programming code was also met with criticism on Weibo (#摩根大通停用黑名单等术语#), where some wondered if they had “gone mad” and whether this way some sort of “literary inquisition.”

In a recent blog article on Weibo discussing these latest developments, blogger Captain Wuya (@乌鸦校尉) wrote about the brands and companies involved that “they are waving their big stick of political correctness at anyone they can hit.“

“What really needs to change here, is American big brands exaggerating the facts,” another popular comment said.

 

“Excessive Political Correctness” – Rejection of Western Anti-Racist Policies

 

The latest anti-racism movement in western countries is clearly discussed in a very different way in the Chinese social media context than it is in the English-language social media sphere.

Although many of the latest anti-racism initiatives by brands and companies also draw a mix of praise and criticism on Twitter or Facebook, the general view on Weibo seems to be that they are “fake,” “overdoing it,” are “unnecessary” and “non-sensical,” and that they stress racial differences rather than equality. Another recurring sentiment is that anti-black racism is prioritized over racism against Asians.

The different views among Chinese social media users on what is deemed racist or not has attracted wide attention before. One noteworthy example is that of the 2016 Qiaobi laundry detergent commercial that shows a black man turning into a Chinese man after being ‘washed.’ The commercial was taken down after causing controversy outside of China.

The Chinese Qiaobi commercial drew much controversy for being racist in 2016.

A typical comment on Chinese social media, at the time, was: “Western media have just taken their concept of ‘racism’ and applied it [to this commercial]. In reality, the great majority of Chinese people have no notion of ‘white’ versus ‘black’ or ‘Asian’, and any supposed inferiority in this.”

Similar responses also came up when the 2018 CCTV Gala caused consternation in foreign media for featuring a Chinese actress wearing blackface in a segment emphasizing Sino-African relations.

The controversial skit included a Chinese actress in blackface (CCTV).

These attitudes and general comments seem to suggest that racism or discrimination is just less of an issue in China, or that it is soon trivialized. Is this the case?

Issues of racism and discrimination are certainly not trivialized in China when it is about anti-Asian racism. Throughout modern history, the Chinese have been victims of racism. Over recent years, there are myriad examples of collective anger and boycott campaigns because Chinese feel discriminated against.

For example, when Italian luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana launched a promotional video in which a Chinese-looking woman clumsily attempted to eat a large cannoli bread with chopsticks, many netizens on Chinese social media called it racist. After screenshots went viral of a China-bashing online conversation with the alleged Stefano Gabbana, the issue became one of the largest trending topics on Weibo in 2018.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also led to an increase in racism in the US and other countries directed at those of Asian descent, something that has recently become a hot topic on Chinese social media, triggering anger and calls for equal treatment of Asians.

Is it, then, perhaps that discrimination and racial inequality within mainland China are not so much of an issue? This certainly is also not the case. Besides the many different shapes and forms of discrimination – regional discrimination being one of them –, there are many examples of anti-black racism in China. Online racism against Africans has been an ongoing issue on Weibo ever since the platform was first launched in 2009 (example, example).

A notice at a Guangzhou McDonald’s restaurant saying “black people cannot come in” sparked international outrage earlier this year.

Voices against the discriminatory treatment of Africans in China have only grown louder during the coronavirus outbreak, when hundreds of Guangzhou-based Africans were evicted from hotels and apartments after local authorities began a campaign to forcibly test them for the coronavirus. A notice at a Guangzhou McDonald’s restaurant saying “black people cannot come in” sparked international outrage earlier this year.

All in all, it is not about racism being non-existent in China, nor is it trivialized. The fact that the latest western developments are discussed in such a different light on Chinese social media has much more to do with how American and European anti-racist policies, and the grip they hold on media, politics, and the corporate world, are rejected by Chinese netizens.

This does not mean that the Floyd incident is deemed any less horrific in China than elsewhere in the world. Social injustice and inequality are recurring topics on Chinese social media, and it is something that greatly matters to many Chinese web users, with these kinds of stories going trending all the time.

It does mean, however, that western approaches to anti-racism, with the racial etiquette that comes with it and a focus on what is correct or incorrect when it comes to language, imagery and behavior, are often deemed excessive (“矫枉过正”) by Chinese web users – or useless in actually combating social inequality.

These responses have a lot to do with current geopolitical developments and the position of China within the international community, but more so with the fact that China has a very different historical, cultural, and societal context when it comes to (anti-black) racism compared to the US or other western countries.

In a lengthy article posted on Weibo in early July by Chinese commentator and academic Guo Songmin (郭松民), who has been actively posting about the Black Lives Matter movement, the prominent leftist author explains that this also has a lot to do with the fact that, different from most western countries, “China has neither a history of slavery nor a history of colonizing Africa,” and that, at the same time, China is also not a country of immigrants.

In the end, some say that they do understand the latest anti-racist initiatives by American and European companies in their home markets, but also argue that they should not impose their political correctness upon the Chinese market.

A recent Weibo blog, reiterating the views of many on Weibo, argues that Darlie Toothpaste should still be ‘Black Man Toothpaste’ in China, and that cosmetic brands should continue to cater their ‘whitening’ products to the Chinese market. According to the author, these colors, words, and imageries mean something different in the PRC than in the West. “If European and American cosmetic companies truly respect the cultural and ethnic diversities across the world,” they write: “they should also respect the culture and aesthetics of East Asians.”

To what extent the anti-racist movement will eventually affect the Chinese market, and how -and if- this will change existing views on racism remains to be seen. Meanwhile, heated discussions continue on social media. For some Weibo commenters, the situation at hand seems clear enough: “American-style political correctness just makes no sense here.”

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

For COVID-19 related articles, please click here.

[1] Darlie is a toothpaste brand of Colgate partner Hawley & Hazel, that was established in Shanghai in 1933, and was originally marketed as a parody of American performer Al Jolson. He became popular for his blackface performances, and the whiteness of his teeth made him the face of the toothpaste brand.

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.

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

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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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Unbiased Doll

    September 30, 2020 at 2:37 am

    Unfortunately racism is prevalent in China and Asian societies. Even the Asian international students who come to the west e.g. US tend to be very racist towards people of color. This is not just limited to Blacks but to South Asians, Latinos or others. They are simply rude and disrespectful willing to ignore the laws and regulations of the country (e.g. pedestrian laws when driving). Initially I thought they were just not used to customs and etiquettes but then the same people showed a well mannered attitude towards white people. So I definitely can vouch the racism is ingrained in Chinese and Asian culture (mostly hung out with Chinese but I also observed this in Korean, Indonesian and Vietnamese).

  2. Charles Kaltwasser

    July 10, 2021 at 3:59 pm

    an american anti racist tried to kill me today because he curiously deems me to be “racist.”

    What puzzles me is that the mafiaesque black lives matter group in USA says nothing about the thousands of black lives lost at sea
    trying to escape Libya after Obama and the French President now in jail sponsored the destruction of Gaddafy
    Libya

    I am trying to be nonfiction here

  3. Charles Kaltwasser

    July 10, 2021 at 4:04 pm

    hello
    你好吗

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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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