Chinese web users are giving low-brow meme culture a political tinge, pushing the boundaries of free online speech.
Liu Bo is famous. One of many police officers assigned to quash recent protests over a planned molybdenum copper plant in Shifang (什邡), Sichuan province, Bo was famously pictured with a riot shield strapped to his forearm, baton raised, charging at the backs of a small crowd.
This image--representative of a growing resentment toward alleged abuses by the People's Armed Police (人民武装警察)--provided a perfect canvas for angry netizens in Shifang and beyond.
A burly man, Bo unwittingly became the subject of a series of Internet memes (sounds like "cream"): Viral, visual remixes integral to China's digital conversation. Fat Police Officer, as he's now known on the Chinese Web, has appeared in remixed photos chasing Mark Wahlberg, jumping hurdles and practicing Tai chi with Jackie Chan in Tiananmen Square.
Derived from the Greek word for imitation, memes are rooted in scientific theory. English evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term in 1976 as ideas or behaviors shared between people through speech, gestures, writing, and rituals.
In recent years, the definition has evolved to refer to popular culture that emerges from the Internet, like the American-made "Lolcat" or then-imprisoned dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng depicted as a latter-day Colonel Sanders.
Alone, memes are pithy, silly, poignant pieces of online expression--an art form, pixelated. But shared instantly and infinitely across platforms like Sina Weibo (China's Twitter), they become a barometer of culture.
"Memes are important because they resonate with us with so strongly to the point that we want to share them with the people around us," Cole Stryker, Internet expert and author of Epic Win for Anonymous: How 4chan's Army Conquered the Web, told Tea Leaf Nation. "They are really the first form of pop culture where every consumer is also a producer--at least in the mass-media age."
Kate Miltner, who prepared a dissertation on the famed Lolcat (see here if you're new to the term), agreed in an email interview with TLN. "The cultural significance of Internet memes is that they allow us to comment on and participate in our own culture, whether that's by creating or sharing," she wrote.
Indeed, netizen participation in China is extra significant considering the country's reliance on "soft" censorship: A blend of algorithms, firewalls and private business cooperation that allows Internet access but polices content deemed threatening to social stability. The sometimes-goofy, sometimes-incensory meme, a product of photo-editing, moxie and the poetic wordplay characteristic of Mandarin Chinese, effectually slips through the netting of keywords that Chinese censors employ as a last line of defense.
"Because of the strictures on speech in China, memes tend to be a really effective way to spread a political message," An Xiao Mina, artist, meme expert and 88 bar blogger, explained in an interview with TLN. "You can't really talk about Internet censorship directly in China, but if you talk about, say, a Grass Mud Horse [a classic insult in Chinese Web slang]--if you use off-the-cuff, remixed humor, it's a little easier to talk about such critical topics."
When shared en masse, Fat Police Officer and company can accordingly cause a powerful, albeit brief, cultural wave across the Web; and like artist Ai Weiwei's room full of sunflower seeds, make millions of little, shell-splitting cracks in the time it takes to post a tweet.
"Fifty years ago, twenty people would make a TV show and then millions of people would enjoy it. Now you have millions of people making memes, and millions of people enjoying them," explained Stryker.
Hong Kong University's China Media Project asserts that this kind of collective power is fundamental to raising issues dealing with social welfare. The trend arguably began in gusto following the fatal July 2011 high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou (温州), Zhejiang province. Authorities there tried to cover up the tragedy, but failed after reporters tweeted graphic images of the disasters via Weibo and sister platforms. Last year, netizens invented the meme shown at right, a t-shirt logo displaying what The Atlantic's Damien Ma dubbed "in-your-face irreverence."
"The scale of citizens talking about social issues in China--whether through memes or through general Internet activity--is much larger than citizens have been able to [accomplish] before," said An Xiao. "These images by themselves can't do anything; but when you look at past social movements, often it is images or graphics that keep a message alive."
What are the implications of this finger in the proverbial eye? "I think it's the beginning of something," An Xiao said. "The fact that there are so many memes and that they continue to spread correlates with a more participatory citizenship." Although we cannot know what citizen participation in China will ultimately look like, memes at least provide a glimpse. We will just have to watch and wait while China's netizens work on their next collective masterpiece.
This article originally appeared at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.