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No Cookie-Cutter #MeToo Approach: An Overview of China’s Me Too Movement (Updated)

There is no China-based, Chinese #metoo movement as there is in the US and other countries.

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In the months after the #Metoo movement first shook social media in the US and other countries, “#Metoo in China” has become a much-discussed topic. What’s on Weibo provides an overview of what has happened in the PRC regarding the global #Metoo movement.

Ever since the #Metoo movement caught fire on social media with people sharing personal stories of sexual harassment, many journalists, China watchers, and Me Too activists have been closely watching if, and how, the #Metoo movement would surface in China.

More than five months after #Metoo particularly shook entertainment and media circles in the US, it has become evident that the #Metoo movement has not taken off in the PRC as it has in some other countries.

What is noticeable about those ‘Me Too’ stories that did become big in China, is that (1) they mostly relate to sexual harassment in academic circles, that (2) the majority is linked to US-based Chinese and the overseas Chinese community, and that (3) some stories on sexual harassment that went viral in China were only framed as ‘#Metoo’ accounts by English-language media – not by the posters themselves.

Some US news outlets have determined that there is no ‘me too’ movement in China because it has been silenced by the government. Although there has in fact been online censorship regarding this issue, there is no sign of a truly China-based ‘Me Too’ movement in which regular female netizens collectively share their stories of sexual abuse in the way it has unfolded in many Western countries.

At time of writing, neither the #Metoo hashtag nor its Chinese equivalents (#我也是,#Metoo在中国, #米兔) were censored on Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo. In addition, contrary to some reports in English-language media, Chinese mainstream media have reported about the Me Too movement since October 2017, with some state-run media (e.g. CRI) serving as a platform for victims of sexual harassment to make their stories known to the public.

This is an overview of some important moments in mainland China since October regarding the global #Metoo movement.


 
● 15 October 2017: Me Too
 

Ten days after the New York Times first published an article detailing sexual harassment complaints against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, American actress Alyssa Milano posts a tweet that urges victims of sexual abuse to come forward using the words ‘me too’.

The ‘me too’ slogan was first used in 2006 by Tamara Burke to help sexual assault survivors in underprivileged communities.

#Metoo soon becomes a hashtag and movement that particularly rocks the American entertainment industry and focuses on the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace.

 
● 16 October 2017: China Daily Controversy
 

The state-run newspaper China Daily publishes an opinion column by Canadian-Egyptian author Sava Hassan titled “Weinstein case demonstrates cultural differences,” in which Hassan alleges that sexual harassment is less common in China because “Chinese traditional values and conservative attitudes tend to safeguard women against inappropriate behavior from members of the opposite gender.”

The article is linked to on Twitter by China Daily, writing: “What prevents sexual harassment from being a common phenomenon in China, as it’s in most Western societies?”

Screenshot of the controversial tweet, by SupChina.com.

Over recent years, various surveys have pointed out that sexual harassment is, in fact, a problem in mainland China. A 2016 survey amongst over 2000 working females conducted by the Social Survey Center of China Youth Daily indicated that more than 30% experienced sexual harassment. Another survey by the China Family Planning Association also showed that more than 30% of China’s college students have been sexually assaulted or harassed.

The article and tweet trigger waves of criticism and is temporarily taken offline. At time of writing, the article is available online again at the China Daily website.

 
● October – November 2017: State Media Reports #Metoo
 

Various mainstream and state-run Chinese media extensively report about the “Me Too” movement in North America and elsewhere.

Some examples (in Chinese):

*People’s Daily, October 30 2017: “我也是受害者!揭发性骚扰运动走上法国街头” [“I am also a victim! The movement to expose sexual harassment is heading to the streets of France.”] http://world.people.com.cn/n1/2017/1031/c1002-29617842.html
*Xinhua, November 4 2017:”美国揭露性骚扰运动延烧到国会山” [“The US movement against sexual harassment extends to Capitol Hill.”] http://www.xinhuanet.com/2017-11/04/c_1121905779.htm
*Xinhua, November 6 2017: “我也是”运动蔓延 美国会酝酿反性骚扰培训” [“As ‘MeToo’ movement grows, America explores anti-sexual harassment trainings.”] http://www.xinhuanet.com/world/2017-11/06/c_129733177.htm
*Xinhua, November 11 2017: “随笔:“我也是”,你有勇气说出吗?” [“‘Me Too’: Do You Have the Courage to Speak Out?”] http://www.xinhuanet.com/2017-11/16/c_1121965426.htm
*Sina News, December 1 2017: “大声地说出来 羞耻的不是你” [“Speak out loud: you are not the one to be ashamed.”] http://news.sina.com.cn/c/2017-12-01/doc-ifyphtze2990099.shtml
*China Daily, December 6 2017 “《时代》揭晓2017年度人物:性骚扰丑闻“打破沉默者” [“Time announces Person of the Year 2017: those breaking the silence on sexual harassment.”] http://language.chinadaily.com.cn/2017-12/07/content_35249891.htm

 
● 27 November 2017: Shanghai Harassment goes Viral
 

The 28-year-old Xu Yalu (nicknamed ‘Brazil Teacher Xu’ 巴西徐老师) posts on WeChat about how she has been harassed multiple times by the same man in Shanghai from 2013 to 2015, and that the police will not do anything to stop the man.

The article, titled “I was harassed three times within two years time by an old pervert” (“上海静安寺,我2年内被一个老色狼猥亵3次”) receives more than 1.19 million views before it is taken down by Chinese censors. Three days later, Xu Yalu republishes her article on Zhihu.com where it is not taken offline.

Photos of the man who allegedly harassed her various times in Shanghai were spread by Xu Yalu.

Although the original article by Xu Yalu does not mention the ‘#metoo’ hashtag once, this story is placed into a larger Chinese ‘#metoo’ context by the New York Times and Reuters.

 
● November 2017: Sophia Huang Xueqing Steps Forward for Chinese ‘Metoo’
 

Huang Xueqin (黄雪琴 aka Sophia Huang Xueqing), a female reporter, launches a survey focused on the sexual harassment of Chinese female journalists and emerges as an initiator of a potential Chinese #Metoo movement by launching ATSH, an Anti-sexual harassment platform on WeChat.

Huang speaks to various English-language media about the silence with which the global #metoo movement is met in China. According to HKFP, Huang receives over 200 responses from female journalists, of which only 16% say they have never experienced sexual harassment.

Later, in January, Huang publicly speaks out in a special show titled ‘Hear me Speak’ by the CRI TV programme “China’s Voice” (中国之声) about the ‘Metoo’ movement in China and about her personal experiences being sexually harassed as a journalist.

 
● 1 January 2018: Wo Ye Shi
 

With the hashtag ‘Wo Ye Shi’ (#我也是, “#metoo”) a US-based former doctoral student named Luo Xixi (罗茜茜) comes forward on Chinese social media (@cici小居士) with sexual harassment allegations against her previous supervisor Chen Xiaowu (陈小武).

Luo accuses the award-winning professor Chen of sexually harassing her and several other students 12 years ago at Beihang University, also known as Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (BUAA). On the Chinese Q&A platform Zhihu.com, Luo shares how her supervisor attempted to force himself upon her. She also posts several testimonies online to support claims that Chen also sexually assaulted at least seven other students.

In a blog post on Weibo, Luo writes that she was inspired to come forward with her story when she first heard about the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the launch of the “#metoo” campaign on Twitter and Facebook.

 
● 4 January 2018: “Social movements play limited role”
 

State-run newspaper Global Times, commonly regarded a Party mouthpiece, publishes an article in which it addresses claims made by Western media outlets that “sex-related crimes are serious in China,” but that the country “‘rarely’ takes sexual assault allegations seriously.”

Although Global Times acknowledges that sexual violence is a problem in China, as it is in other countries, it also stresses that “social movements can only play a limited role in reducing sexual harassment.”

Instead, it says that the most effective solution is that “more efforts should be put into establishing and perfecting laws and regulations so as to deter potential sexual violence and properly handle it if it happens.”

 
● 7 January 2018: Fudan Survey
 

Former Fudan student ‘Taoligeriler’ (@桃莉格日勒在路上), inspired by Luo Xixi’s account, starts a petition asking Fudan University in Shanghai to do more to tackle the problem of sexual harassment on campus.

SCMP reports that the petition collects 300 signatures in a day. On Weibo, Taogeriler writes: “About the petition against sexual harassment, I have asked a lot of people to join, but many people feel it does not have anything to do with them.”

 
● 11 January 2018: “Say no to sexual harassment!”
 

After investigating the claims of Luo Qianqian and other former students, Beihang University fires Chen from his position. Three days later, the Education Departments also recalls his scholar title.

Meanwhile, Party newspaper People’s Daily launches an online campaign titled “Being courageous is the best you can be. Turn things around and say no to sexual harassment!”

 
● 15-19 January 2018: Manifests and Hashtags
 

According to the South China Morning Post, students and alumni across China have been inspired by Luo’s account to press their own universities for change. The report does not give out numbers, but estimate that “between 30 and 50 campaigns had emerged on social media over the past week.”

One of them is an anti-sexual harassment manifesto drafted by Xu Kaibin 徐开彬, a journalism professor at Wuhan University. It is signed by approximately 50 instructors from over 30 Chinese colleges.

Although there are not many accounts of women sharing their own stories of sexual assault on Weibo, various hashtags emerge on Chinese social media as variations to #metoo. Besides #woyeshi (#我也是)there is also #MeTooInChina (#MeToo在中国).

From January 17 to February 17, the hashtag #MeTooInChina gets temporarily blocked on Weibo. In response to this, Weibo users launch the alternative hashtag #mitu, written as #米兔, which literally means ‘rice bunny’, but sounds like the English #metoo, and the hashtag #MiTuinChina (#米兔在中国#).

 
● 31 January 2018: Chinese-American lawyer Hua Qiang’s #Metoo
 

Chinese state-run news outlet CRI.com publishes a feature article about LA-based Chinese-American lawyer Hua Qiang (华强) who has joined the #metoo campaign by sharing her story of sexual harassment.

Photo of Chinese American lawyer Hua Qiang, via cri.com.

Hua Qiang tells CRI that during a 2008 annual conference for lawyers, an influential lawyer by the name of Malcolm S. McNeil gave her a ride home after her car broke down. On the highway, Hua states, the lawyer suddenly started harassing Hua, grabbing her bosom, while driving. Too afraid to cause an accident on the freeway, Hua was too scared to fight him off. His wide network and strong influence in the area also made Hua too afraid to speak out, until the #metoo movement arrived.

 
● February 2018: MeToo in South Korea
 

The spread of the ‘Me Too’ movement in South Korea makes headlines in Chinese (state) media and becomes a topic of discussion on Chinese social media.

 
● 9 March 2018: Wang Ao Speaks Out
 

Chinese assistant professor of East Asian Studies Wang Ao (王敖) at Wesleyan University, Connecticut, writes an article on sexual harassment on Chinese social networking site Douban, in which he expresses his admiration of Luo Xixi and her #MeToo story.

In a lengthy post*, Wang details sexual harassment cases he has encountered inside academic circles.

In one example, Wang tells about an acquaintance who planned to study overseas and received an invitation from the professor in charge of admissions. When she arrived at his Beijing residence, the man tried to grab her and she finally manages to escape. Wang also alleges that the same professor has been targeting students for more than 20 years, and even had to change schools because of it. Although Wang does not mention any names in his article, the Douban link is soon removed.

 
● 10-16 March 2018: The Gary Xu Scandal
 

Wang Ao publishes another article on March 10, first on Douban and then on Zhihu, in which he provides a name with the professor mentioned in his earlier story. According to Wang, it concerns Xu Gang (徐钢), better known as Gary Xu, a prominent art curator at the Shenzhen Biennale and associate professor of East Asian studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). UIUC is known for its large numbers of Chinese students.

Wang adds that not only students but also some his own colleagues became a victim of Xu’s improper conduct. A female commenter under the name “Survivor 2018” replies to the thread, telling her own story of alleged abuse by Xu Gang.

Chinese law graduates in North America start asking people to offer relevant information regarding Xu Gang’s misconduct to be able to take legal actions against the professor.

On March 16, Xu Gang posts a lengthy article through WeChat in response to the accusations made against him. Xu states that he supports the #MeToo movement, but that he denies any sexual misconduct allegations and says that Wang just aims to destroy his reputation.

Meanwhile, Chinese media outlet Sixth Tone reports that two women have come forward about sexual misconduct they say they experienced at the hands of Xu.

One woman told Sixth Tone she was forced into unwanted sexual actions with Xu, which she says “ruined her life” at the time. She furthermore claimed that other UIUC students also had sexual relations with Xu. In 2015, an undergraduate student already reported Gary Xu to the school for engaging in sexual misconduct with several female students.

 
● March 19 2018: Gary Xu Non-Active
 

According to Sixth Tone, the University of Illinois responded to this case through email, saying that “the University investigates and takes appropriate action whenever conduct is reported that may jeopardize or impact the safety or security of our students or others,” and that they are not allowed to discuss any potential investigations. They added that “Dr. Xu currently is not teaching any courses but will hold his tenured status until Aug. 16, 2018, when he will resign from the university.”

Xu has since also been fired from his post as the curator of the upcoming 2018 Shenzhen Biennale.

 
● March 20 2018: Various Hashtags
 

Many discussions using the ‘metoo’ hashtag on social media now relate to how the #metoo movement is gaining traction in South Korea.

*MeToo: 34.8 millions views, 20.000 comments, 241 fans of this hashtag.

*WoYeShi #我也是: 1.7 million views, 2339 comments, 6 followers of this hashtag.

*MeTooinChina #Metoo在中国#: 7.2 million views, 6941 comments, 134 followers of this hashtag.

*MiTu #米兔: 3.2 million views, 8050 comments, 0 followers.

*MiTuinChina #米兔在中国: 3.5 million views, 4456 comments that include this hashtag, 64 followers of this hashtag.

 
● UPDATE – April 2018: Gao Yan Case
 

A two-decade-old sexual abuse case becomes trending on Weibo when Canada-based netizen named Li Youyou (李悠悠), inspired by Luo Xixi and ‘#metoo’, comes forward on social media about a Peking University classmate named Gao Yan (高岩), who committed suicide in 1998.

Twenty years after her death, Li and some of Gao’s other old classmates, link Gao’s suicide to the behavior of Professor Shen Yang (沈阳), who had since moved on to work in the Literature & Language department of Nanjing University. They claim Gao was raped by the professor on multiple occasions over a two-year period, and had been called “mentally ill” by him.

Gao Yan when she was going to university.

The case draws much attention and also leads to the dismissal of Professor Shen. On Chinese social media, rather than a ‘#metoo’ movement, netizens link the story with that of two other university suicides, namely that of male student Yang Baode (杨宝德) and Tao Chongyuan (陶崇园); they address a bigger problem of exploitation of students in Chinese universities. More than sexual abuse, it is also about emotional and verbal abuse, and official misconduct in academic circles – regardless of gender. Also read our article about this here.

 


By now, there are sporadic discussions of China’s ‘metoo’ movement on Weibo. “I still hope #metoo can influence China,” one netizen (@末未木十) writes.

Another netizen says: “The #metoo movement is meaningful, but it hasn’t really been able to become a reality in China.”

“#MetooinChina has returned,” one other Weibo user says: “But there’s barely discussions about it anymore. Now, the hashtag “International Women’s Day Against Harassment” (#三八反骚扰#) has been deleted. I wonder when that one will come back.”

Perhaps saying that there is no Chinese MeToo movement at all is too crude; after all, there are important stories and initiatives in China that are connected to the global #metoo movement. But unlike in the US and other countries, these events have not led to a wider movement of common netizens widely sharing their own stories of abuse on social media.

Why is this the case? According to the Washington Post, it is because of China’s “patriarchal culture and a male-dominated one-party state that obsessively protects those in power.”

Stephany Zoo at RadiiChina says that ‘metoo’ has not taken off because China’s business landscape is built on guanxi, relationships, and that speaking out would pose too much of a risk to individuals within such a stability-focused culture.

One Chinese blogger claims that China’s metoo movement has been hindered by, amongst others, the decade-old abuse case of Tang Lanlan. This case triggered massive attention earlier this year when Chinese media exposed the identity of the victim, potentially ruining her chances to lead her life out of the public eye.

The Chinese so-called ‘human flesh search engine‘ could cause victims of sexual abuse to become victimized once again by becoming the focus of attention in an online environment that is joined by more than 700 million people; in order to protect oneself, not speaking out in public might be the safer option in the eyes of many people.

But maybe there is also another reason for it, namely that some social movements emerge in a country because it is the right time and the place for it. Just as many Chinese movements have never emerged in the US, many American movements will have no success spouting up in the PRC. #Metoo is not a movement that can have a cookie-cutter approach – even if it does spring up in other countries, it will have different shapes, voices, and outcomes.

“Foreign media can report whatever they want [about China],” one Weibo commenter says: “In the end, it’s up to us to pay attention to [the movements] we find important.”

By Manya Koetse with contribution from Boyu Xiao

* title: 《关于学校里的性侵犯,我看到了什么,想了什么,能做什么》

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

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©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. kaka

    April 7, 2018 at 6:26 pm

    Please add the latest news about Professor Shen Yang into this article. Looking forward to that.

    • admin

      April 8, 2018 at 1:41 am

      Thanks for letting us know, we’ll try to update asap.

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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].

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

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