The White House surely has a full plate already. But it can add one more item to its long to-do list: respond to Chinese petitioners.
Starting on May 3, the White House's petition website has become a favored landing spot for Chinese Web users, and the hashtag #occupytheWhiteHouse, and a variety of related memes, has recently appeared on Chinese social media platforms. The origin of this chatter provides a case study in censorship, Chinese netizen humor, American soft power, and the unintended consequences of a (sometimes) borderless Internet.
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It began on a tragic note. In the wake of a fatal student poisoning at China's Fudan University, Chinese Web users demanded that another long-cold case of attempted murder on a famous Chinese college campus, ostensibly closed because of the suspect's family connections, be re-opened. On May 3, censors reacted by banning the victim's name, "Zhu Ling," from China's social Web. So Chinese netizens went elsewhere. Over 132,000 users logged on to the White House petition site to demand that the suspect, who now lives in the U.S., be investigated and deported back to China. (The White House pledges to respond to all petitions collecting more than 100,000 signatures.)
It was a discovery born of (digital) necessity. Evidently delighted by the realization that they could directly petition the President of the United States from the comfort of an Internet cafe in Chengdu, Chinese netizens have followed suit with several more petitions on the same site. At last count, four of the most recent six White House petitions were apparently penned by Chinese Web users. Some are serious; one calls for the U.S. to condemn a planned oil refinery in the city of Kunming. Some are trivial; one asks that the official flavor of a favorite tofu snack be of the sweet, not salty, variety. On Chinese social media, users have photoshopped images of President Obama as Bao Zheng, a Song Dynasty official that has been the subject of numerous television dramas. One user even helpfully uploaded a four-page PDF explaining exactly how to create a petition on the White House page.
None of the more recent petitions has approached the threshold requiring a government response, and Chinese Web users are likely aware of the limits to the White House's power. But these spontaneous online movements are part of a pattern, where a small but enthusiastic group of Chinese Web users occasionally erupt in digital psuedo-democracy and pseudo-diplomacy.
In early February of 2012, when China's so-called Great Firewall temporarily lifted its block on Google Plus, Chinese Web users took advantage of the brief reprieve to flood President Obama's re-election page with comments. More recently, in mid-March of this year, a well-known provocateur tweeted the results of an imaginary election on Sina Weibo, a micro-blogging service. Hundreds of users replied in surprisingly serious tones, with one estimating that true elections would not be held until 2033, another saying it would be "a thousand years" hence. That provocateur's tweet, and the comments to it, were deleted in less than 24 hours.
One cannot interpret these instantiated movements as representing China writ large. Given the massive size of China's social Web, even a tiny but determined minority can quickly make its presence felt on the American Internet. Even within these comparatively small groups, motivations vary; some White House petitioners wrote in rage, others in jest.
Nonetheless, it's a valuable reminder of American soft power in the digital age. In China, the Letters and Visits Office is charged with accepting petitions from aggrieved citizens. But often, thugs known as jiefang intercept would-be petitioners from outside of Beijing, sometimes before they can even board a train headed for the capital. The contrast with the White House's approach is jarring. As one Weibo user commented, "Going to the gates of the White House to petition may or may not be useful, but I know that going there to petition won't get you in trouble." Another wrote, "Too funny; but after I laughed, I felt like I'd never be able to slake my thirst."
And this particular cross-cultural moment may be a bit longer in the tooth. Censors who descended to block the name "Zhu Ling" have already backed off again, and it may be politically difficult to manage a redux. For its part, the White House petition site, which does not currently require petitioners to be U.S. citizens, may be readying a response to the Zhu Ling petition. It also remains unblocked by the Great Firewall within China.
Most importantly, moments such as these hint, however obliquely, at the latent promise of a truly connected Internet, rather than the siloed version that effectively exists today. China's incarnation has often been described as an "Intranet," one encircled by a Great Firewall that blocks key Western social platforms and beset internally by thousands of censors that keep domestic online content from spurring on-the-ground collective action. The U.S. Internet is a free one, but barriers of language and culture nonetheless shape user habits, tilting the playing field sharply toward domestic content.
As a result, Americans and Chinese often seem to inhabit parallel online universes, despite the Internet's manifest potential to connect them. When the twain collide or merely brush shoulders, the result can be refreshing, even tantalizing.
This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.