The political crisis in Hong Kong shows no signs of de-escalating after another series of mass demonstrations and violent clashes between police and protesters.
This week marks the ninth consecutive week of protests in Hong Kong. The first demonstrations started in March and April of this year against an extradition bill that would allow local authorities to detain and extradite people wanted in mainland China.
After demonstrations escalated in June, the bill was declared “dead” and suspended by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, but it was not formally withdrawn.
Protests have since continued throughout June, July, and into August, and are now about much more than the extradition bill alone – they are, amongst others, about greater freedom and democracy in Hong Kong, and about less political influence from the Beijing government.
Protesters are calling for Lam’s resignation and for democratic elections, and have denounced violent tactics and “abuse of power” used by the Hong Kong Police Force.
The absence of the police during an attack on residents by suspected gang members dressed in white shirts at the Yuen Long station on July 21 is one of the incidents protesters mention as police misconduct.
But there is also a division between demonstrators, and not necessarily one unified voice. There are also those, for example, who support Hong Kong police. And those who denounce the actions of angry protesters.
China’s Central Government Condemns Protests
Although authorities in mainland China initially remained quiet on the topic of the Hong Kong protests, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council, China’s top agency for handling Hong Kong affairs, held its first press conference on its stance regarding Hong Kong demonstrations on July 29.
Yang Guang, the office’s spokesperson, condemned the actions of protesters over recent weeks, saying that they “exceeded the boundaries of acceptable protest.”
On August 6, there was another press briefing where Yang Guang used stronger language to denounce the protests, saying that the “radical protests (..) severely impacted Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, pushing it into a dangerous abyss” and that those behind the demonstrations should not “misjudge” the situation and “mistake our restraint for weakness.”
Main Stances on Chinese Social Media
On Chinese social media sites, news and discussions on the Hong Kong protest were initially silenced (also see this article), but that has changed now.
Although discussions are still heavily controlled, the topic of the Hong Kong demonstrations has been dominating the trending streams over the past days on China’s popular social media platforms.
On Douyin, one of the most popular short video / social media apps in mainland China, there are dozens of different videos of violent incidents in Hong Kong that are being reposted and liked thousands of times.
On news app Toutiao, articles relating to the Hong Kong protests are in the recommended and ‘hot’ sections, while bloggers and news accounts on WeChat are also posting and reposting Hong Kong related content.
For the scope of this article, we will solely focus on Weibo – the narratives that are spread in daily discussions on the platform are comparable to those on other platforms.
Although the ensuing examples are the main types of posts on Hong Kong that are most popular on Chinese social media now, and definitely receive a lot of support, there are also posts with other views and ideas that might be blocked before ever making it to Weibo or other apps/platforms.
But the restrictions on free discussions on social media do not only relate to platform censorship.
Recently, there are also instances in which Chinese netizens speak out in support of the protesters in Hong Kong who then become a victim of the so-called “human flesh search engine.”
One female Weibo user, responding to the demonstrations in Hong Kong, wrote on August 5th: “Respect to every person out there striking and protesting!” Other Weibo users then made screenshots of her comment and revealed personal details about the woman (a 26-year-old Chinese citizen), labeling her a traitor.
One blogger reposting the woman’s photo and Weibo profile has 1,3 million followers, making this incident quite big and serving as a warning to other Weibo users not to spread their ‘politically incorrect’ views on the Hong Kong protests.
“Protect Hong Kong, Support the Police Force”
With over 5 billion views, the hashtag “Protect Hong Kong” (#守护香港#) is very popular on Weibo these days.
The hashtag is promoted by Party newspaper People’s Daily, that also launched another viral hashtag, namely “Officers, We Support You” (#阿sir我们挺你#, 300 million views). The word for ‘officer’ used in this hashtag is “Ah Sir” or “阿Sir”, a uniquely Hong Kong form of address used for policemen and teachers.
Using the “Protect Hong Kong” and “Officers, We Support You” slogans, People’s Daily has also issued an illustration that shows three police officers carrying weapons and protective screens. Behind them are protesters, and above them is China’s Five-starred Red Flag.
The main idea behind these hashtags/illustrations is that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) firmly supports the Hong Kong government and the Hong Kong Police Force in dealing with so-called “thugs” or “bandits” (“暴徒”).
A common stance expressed by Chinese netizens is that pro-democracy protesters are “damaging public security” in Hong Kong and are “dividing the nation.”
“Talk about democracy and freedom in a fair and reasonable way,” one commenter writes: “Don’t talk about freedom and democracy while breaking the law and acting outrageous.”
“It’s horrible to see,” another person says: “The Pearl of the Orient is no longer blooming, but is now covered with cuts and bruises.”
Many stories of violence used against the police force are circulating on Chinese social media. Some videos show protesters using potentially dangerous laser pointers to shine directly in faces of police officers. Last Tuesday, student leader Keith Fong was arrested for possession of such lasers.
One particular trending story concerns a bald police officer named ‘Liu Sir’ (刘sir) who was violently attacked by a group of protesters on July 31st. The mob allegedly punched and kicked him, and assaulted him with sticks and objects before he pulled out his gun.
Officer Liu, who has sustained some minor injuries from the incident, responded to the incident writing in a text: “[I] just hate the fact that they are also Chinese – it feels wrong to hit them and also wrong not to. It really pains me!”
Officer Liu has become somewhat of a hero on Chinese social media, as his image is propagated by Chinese state media through photos and illustrations.
The idea of ‘protecting’ Hong Kong and supporting its police force goes hand in hand with the idea that Hong Kong is, and “always will be,” a “part of China.”
Many commenters in the comment sections express their anger about Hong Kong protesters attacking police and throwing the Chinese flag into the water. “If you do not want to be Chinese, then don’t live on Chinese territory,” some write.
“Hong Kong’s Colonial Mentality”
A post by an economics blogger (@同行中的我, 14674 fans) that received more than 6500 ‘likes’ on Weibo argues that one problem behind the protests is that Hong Kong youth are stuck in a “colonial mentality.”
The blogger says that Hong Kong people have a lack of patriotic education and have no “sense of belonging.” It is this Hong Kong mentality, the writer argues, that prevents the region from blooming. Without mainland China, Hong Kong is nothing, the post says.
This sentiment is reiterated by many commenters on Weibo, who write things such as “Without a country, you have no home.”
Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain in 1842 as part of the Treaty of Nanjing. July 1st of 1997 marked Hong Kong’s return to China, and the moment it became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the PRC, based on the principle of “one country, two systems.”
Those who are protesting for Hong Kong independence are also called “Pro HK Independence ‘Poison’” on Weibo (港毒分子, a wordplay with characters meaning ‘Hong Kong-independence/poison-members’: a derogatory term for those supporting Hong Kong independence).
“The Pro HK Independence Poison comes from Hong Kong education. Its education comes from its system. So to get rid of this poison, you first need to replace the system, and then change education in Hong Kong,” one person suggests.
“Biased Media Representations”
“Western media only use pictures that are taken out of context -they have an ulterior motive,” Weibo news blogger Jianhua (@建华Wei业) writes: “They fabricate news about Hong Kong police power abuse and violence.”
The accusation of Western media representing the Hong Kong protesters as the ‘good guys’ and the Hong Kong police as the ‘bad guys’ is repeated on Chinese social media quite a lot these days.
One major example is the aforementioned case of Sir Liu, as many media allegedly only forwarded those images or footage of the police pulling his gun, leaving out the part where he was attacked by protesters first.
Since there is a clear pro-Hong Kong Police Force dominant narrative on Weibo, many netizens defend the police and describe the protesters as violent and unreasonable rioters.
“US Meddling in Hong Kong Affairs”
Besides criticism on supposed biased media representations of the situation in Hong Kong, there is also criticism on the role of the United States in the Hong Kong protests.
One photo of American diplomat Julie Eadeh meeting up with student leaders involved in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement circulated on Chinese social media this week, with state media accusing the US of playing a role in “creating disorder” in Hong Kong.
“What Is America Up To?”(#美国居心何在#) is one of the hashtags related to the incident that is shared on Chinese social media, promoted by CCTV.
“America has no right to meddle in Hong Kong affairs,” commenters on Weibo respond: “Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong.”
Adding fuel to this discussion is the fact that some Hong Kong protesters have recently started waving American flags at demonstrations (read more about that here).
Trending on August 9 is an incident in which a woman angrily pulled the American flags from protesters’ hands at Hong Kong airport. Many people on Weibo praise the woman for being so “courageous” to stand up to the demonstrators. “We just want Hong Kong to be stable and peaceful,” the woman stated to the media.
Others on Weibo call on protesters in Hong Kong to be reasonable. “I feel that the situation in Hong Kong is getting more and more complicated,” one commenter writes: “I hope the protesters can rationally overthink why they are participating in these demonstrations; they shouldn’t let themselves be used by others.”
“I just cannot make sense of what these angry youth are doing,” another commenter writes: “They are waving the American flag. But when they leave [Hong Kong], people won’t see them as Hong Kongnese – foreigners will all think they are Chinese. I just don’t get where they’re going.”
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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.
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.
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.”
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.”
With special thanks to Piervittorio Milizia.
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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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?
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.
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 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.
By Manya Koetse
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].
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