Where an Internet Joke Is Not Just a Joke

Practitioner: 

Date: 

Oct 26 2011

Location: 

China

From The New York Time
By BROOK LARMER

The cellphone vibrated softly, insistently, echoing off the whitewashed
walls of the artist’s studio. It was a Sunday morning in early April,
and Wang Bo — an Internet animator better known to his legions of online
fans by his nickname, Pi San — ignored the call at first. He wanted no
intrusions. A compact 40-year-old with short-cropped hair and arched
eyebrows that give him a look of permanent bemusement, Pi San is most
famous for creating a mischievous cartoon character named Kuang Kuang,
but he earns money by making animations for corporations, and he was on a
deadline. Pi San had bicycled to his studio in a defunct factory
building on the outskirts of Beijing that morning, hoping to finish up
some work in peace. But the buzzing of the phone didn’t stop.

The moment Pi San picked up, the caller blurted out the news: State security agents had just detained Ai Weiwei,
China’s most famous contemporary artist and a government critic. Pi San
spat out a profanity. Over the previous six weeks, hundreds of bloggers
— lawyers, activists, journalists — had vanished into police custody in
one of the harshest assaults on social activism in decades. Now they
had Ai — fat, brilliant, bombastic and internationally renowned. If Ai
could be arrested, was any independent thinker in China safe?

Pi San had reason to be scared. He and Ai were friends. A few weeks
earlier, over lunch, the two artists talked about collaborating on a
satirical Internet animation. Though a bit wary of Ai’s Web activism, Pi
San admired his daring solo exhibitions in New York, Berlin and London.
The most recent show had consisted of 100 million sunflower seeds made of porcelain,
laid out across the floor of the Tate Modern, which visitors were
invited to walk upon. Some considered the seeds to be symbols of the
downtrodden Chinese people.

Despite his fear, Pi San quickly posted the news about Ai’s detention on
Sina Weibo, China’s closely monitored equivalent of Twitter and the
fastest-growing Internet platform in the world. An invisible censor
deleted the message in seconds. He then tried posting, without comment, a
cartoon drawing of Ai, the better to evade China’s word-sensitive
filtering software. But the image disappeared, too — a sign that a human
being, not computer software, had deleted the drawing. Pi San told his
Weibo followers: “Again I was ‘harmonized.’ It’s just a picture!”

Now the creative synapses started firing. “I had to do something to lift
the fear,” Pi San told me later. “Others might write or protest; I make
animations.” He and a colleague worked feverishly through the night on a
54-second flash animation entitled “Crack Sunflower Seeds.”
The animation takes place in Kuang Kuang’s school, where a little girl
is speaking over the loudspeakers. “Once upon a time,” she begins,
“there was a Chinese man selling sunflower seeds.” Suddenly, a black
cartoon hand yanks her off the set. A succession of trembling announcers
tries to tell the same story, but the black hand pulls them off too,
each time more quickly than the last.

Finally, it is Kuang Kuang’s turn. The boy hems and haws and, giving up,
sighs in exasperation: “Ai.” A word bubble appears with the Chinese
character for the sigh (哎), virtually the same as Ai’s surname (艾).
Kuang Kuang is hauled off, screaming. In the next frame, the black hand
sweeps away sunflower seeds arranged in the same “Ai.” Then we hear a
grating sound — teeth meeting porcelain — followed by an off-screen
scream: “Damn it! Who sold us these fake sunflower seeds?”

Pi San finished the animation before dawn on April 4, less than 24 hours
after Ai was detained. “I hesitated for a second before posting it
online,” he told me. “But then I thought, If I don’t put it up, that
would be like self-castration.” With a few clicks, he sent “Crack
Sunflower Seeds” into cyberspace, posting it onto China’s top video Web
sites. In just a few hours, a million or more netizens watched the
animation online. Then the video began disappearing from Chinese Web
sites one by one, just like the announcers in his animation. Pi San
lashed out directly at the censors in a Weibo post: “You’re like the
eunuch who gets worried before the emperor does!” There was no response.
Even in his anger, Pi San was left wondering if the black hand would
come for him.

No government in the world pours more resources into
patrolling the Web than China’s, tracking down unwanted content and
supposed miscreants among the online population of 500 million with an
army of more than 50,000 censors and vast networks of advanced filtering
software. Yet despite these restrictions — or precisely because of them
— the Internet is flourishing as the wittiest space in China.
“Censorship warps us in many ways, but it is also the mother of
creativity,” says Hu Yong, an Internet expert and associate professor at
Peking University. “It forces people to invent indirect ways to get
their meaning across, and humor works as a natural form of encryption.”

To slip past censors, Chinese bloggers have become masters of comic
subterfuge, cloaking their messages in protective layers of irony and
satire. This is not a new concept, but it has erupted so powerfully that
it now defines the ethos of the Internet in China. Coded language has
become part of mainstream culture, with the most contagious memes
tapping into widely shared feelings about issues that cannot be openly
discussed, from corruption and economic inequality to censorship itself.
“Beyond its comic value, this humor shows where netizens are pushing
against the boundaries of the state,” says Xiao Qiang, an adjunct
professor at the University of California, Berkeley, whose Web site, China Digital Times, maintains an entertaining lexicon of coded Internet terms. “Nothing else gives us a clearer view of the pressure points in Chinese society.”

So pervasive is this irreverent subculture that the Chinese have a name for it: egao, meaning “evil works” or, more roughly, “mischievous mockery.” In its simplest form, egao
(pronounced “EUH-gow”) lampoons the powerful without being overtly
rebellious. President Hu Jintao’s favorite buzz word, “harmony,” which
he deploys constantly when urging social stability, is hijacked to
signify censorship itself, as in, “My blog’s been harmonized.” June 4,
the censored date of the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters, is
rendered as May 35 — or “535.” There are also more complex forms of egao, like Hu Ge’s 2010 film spoof, “Animal World,”
in which a rare species of Internet users is “saved” from “compulsive
thinking disorder,” i.e., the urge to think freely.

Satire is sometimes a safety valve that government might grudgingly
permit. Better a virtual laugh, after all, than a real protest. But
being laughed at, as Orwell found during his stint as a colonial police
officer in Burma, can also be a ruler’s greatest fear. And the Chinese
government, which last year sentenced a woman to a year of hard labor for a sarcastic three-word tweet,
appears to suffer from an acute case of humor deficiency. “Jokes that
mock the abuse of power do more than let off steam; they mobilize
people’s emotions,” says Wen Yunchao,
an outspoken blogger who often mounts sardonic Internet campaigns in
defense of free speech. “Every time a joke takes off,” Wen says, “it
chips away at the so-called authority of an authoritarian regime.”

Satirical threads sweeping across the Internet can often seem like brush
fires whose origins are lost in the conflagration. But behind every
outbreak are individuals probing the limits of self-expression,
flirting, often perilously, with the blurry line between the permissible
and the punishable. Over the past several months I followed two
individuals — the animator Pi San and the blogger Wen Yunchao — in an
effort to understand the dynamics of “mischievous mockery” and the
increasingly serious game of cat-and-mouse taking place along China’s
digital front lines.

Pi San and Wen are perfect counterpoints — a northerner and a southerner who approach egao
from different angles. One specializes in visual images, the other
mainly in words. Pi San shudders at being considered an activist; he
sees satire as an artistic way to vent personal frustration. Wen wears
the activist label proudly; he views humor as a “weapon of the weak” to
mobilize civil society. As the government crackdown intensified, each
man was forced to adjust his calculations of danger and opportunity: How
far could they go before they crossed the invisible line?

Wen learned the true power of Internet humor not from a
joke but from a cry for help from a police interrogation room. Early
one morning in July 2009, Wen, who is 39, woke up in his apartment in
the southern city of Guangzhou to find a startling message on his
Twitter feed: “I have been arrested by Mawei police, SOS.”
The jailhouse tweet was from Guo Baofeng, a young friend and fellow
blogger, referring to a district in the coastal city Xiamen, some 300
miles away. Minutes later came another tweet from Guo, also in English:
“Pls help me, I grasped the phone during police sleep.”

Then there was nothing.

Wen knew how easily people could disappear into the labyrinths of
China’s prison system. Guo, who was then a 25-year-old English-language
translator, had reposted a video in which the mother of a gang-raped
murder victim accused local Xiamen authorities of a cover-up. Now Wen
wondered how far the police would go to muzzle the messenger.

The tweets from detention — and the silence that followed — unsettled
Wen. But what could he do? Any direct protest would be shut down
immediately, even if people could overcome their fear to participate.
Then he noticed a phrase that was going viral on the Internet: “Jia Junpeng, your mother is calling you home for dinner!”

The line’s origins were a mystery, but the online masses latched onto it
as a joking commentary on their Web-addicted generation — lost in
cyberspace, unreachable by the outside world. That very day, millions
retweeted the phrase. Wen, though, gave it a new twist. He urged his
tens of thousands of microblog followers to send postcards to the Mawei police station and post photos of them online, all with the same words: “Guo Baofeng, your mother is calling you home for dinner!”

Nobody can know if the Internet campaign made a difference. But instead
of being lost in the prison system — four other bloggers arrested for
reposting the same video were sentenced to one to two years in prison —
Guo was released after 16 days. For Wen, the incident crystallized his
thinking. “Humor can amplify the power of the social media,” he told me.
“If it hits a nerve, like a case of injustice or abuse, it can be
contagious. It’s indirect — just a joke, right? — so people lose their
fear of getting involved.”

Growing up as the oldest child in a poor family in rural Guangdong
Province, Wen wasn’t always keen to get involved himself. When army
tanks crushed the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Beijing, Wen, who was
then a middle-school student prone to skipping class, applauded the
crackdown. “I agreed with the government that it was necessary to
prevent chaos,” he recalls. Wen’s most daring act in college — he was
assigned to study machine welding at a technical institute in Harbin, a
city in China’s icy far north — was to smuggle in Cantonese pornography
and pop music to help him endure the long winters.

His Internet “awakening,” as he calls it, came years later, when he
toiled at a power station near Guangzhou. One night after clocking out,
Wen watched a television special beamed in from nearby Hong Kong that
contradicted the official story of the 1989 massacre. Finding a trove of
information online to confirm its veracity — this was before the Great
Firewall, erected in 2003, blocked such terms as “June 4” — he emerged
with a new conviction: “The Internet will open the door of democracy.”

Hungry to learn more, Wen transformed himself over the next decade into
an information machine, first as a journalist and then as a blogger.
Covering events for state-run newspapers and, later, for government
television, he produced reports and commentaries that toed the official
line. On the Internet, though, he adopted a more freewheeling persona,
writing a popular blog called Ramblings of a Drunkard
under a pseudonym. Soon, Wen moved full time online, working for the
Chinese Internet company Netease and moonlighting as one of the
country’s earliest citizen journalists. His first article, typed into
his cellphone, chronicled the 2007 street protests in Xiamen that
succeeded in halting construction of a chemical plant.

The censors were never far behind, turning Wen’s life into a perpetual
game of hide-and-seek. First a few posts were blocked, then his entire
blog, then the Chinese Internet portal he used. An overseas Web server
worked until the Great Firewall shut it out too. Riding the next wave of
technology, Wen began typing out 140-character blasts on Twitter and
China’s fast-growing microblogging sites. Weibo, a Twitter equivalent
that barely existed two years ago, now has 200 million users, churning
out some 40 million messages a day. The government, hard-pressed to keep
up, leans on Web companies to censor their own content in return for
“self-discipline” points needed to renew licenses. “No place is safe
anymore,” Wen says. “But whenever censorship grows, so do the
opportunities for sarcasm and satire.”

Not long ago, Wen even dared to target China’s most unassailable icon:
Mao Zedong. The chairman has been dead for 35 years, but his massive
portrait still presides over Tiananmen Square. It is just one sign of
what Wen calls the “awful influence” wielded by the founder of the
People’s Republic. Ridiculing Mao is almost unthinkable in China today.
Even so, on the anniversary of Mao’s death in 2009, Wen urged his online
followers to join a devious “de-Maoification” campaign.
Since “mao” is also the Chinese word for “hair,” he suggested posting
before-and-after shots of shaved body parts — people literally “getting
rid of mao.”

Wen is a beer-bellied man with a thick Abraham Lincoln-style beard.
Among the hundreds of images of shorn beards and hair-free legs that
flashed across the Web that day was Wen’s own contribution: a photo of
his rotund belly with its hair in a topiary of the “t” of the Twitter
logo. Wen’s abdominal salute was funny, but it was also a manifesto for a
more open China — and a dangerous move in his showdown with Chinese
authorities.

When Pi San was a young boy — around the same age as
his impish creation, Kuang Kuang — his parents used to smack his hand
with a ruler every time they caught him drawing cartoons in the margins
of his school books. “I was a mediocre student,” says Pi San, whose
family lived in a bleak copper-mining town in the hills of Shanxi
Province. “My parents thought my doodling doomed me to a life in the
mine.”

Despite the punishment, Pi San kept drawing, even selling caricatures of
Kung Fu heroes to his friends. Nearly two decades later, Pi San runs
Hutoon, the animation company he founded in 2005. Hutoon’s staff of 50
young designers fills most of a floor in “798,” a trendy district of art
galleries, studios and cafes built on the remnants of a military
electronics factory in northeastern Beijing. The young men and women —
most dressed in black, like their boss — huddle over banks of computers,
the clicketyclack of keyboards resounding in the high-ceilinged
industrial space.

When I first visited his fourth-floor studio in early March, Pi San
seemed to move easily between his roles as entrepreneur and provocateur,
a reflection of what he jokingly calls his multiple-personality
disorder. A few years ago, Hutoon produced an animated series for China
Central Television — the government’s main propaganda arm — but Pi San
chafed at the lack of creative freedom. “Even CCTV’s cartoons are all
about indoctrination, not entertainment,” he said. Now he and his staff
crank out animated Internet ads and videos for clients including rock
stars and Fortune 500 firms like Motorola and Samsung.

In mid-April, I watched Pi San and his crew work on an episode of “Ms. Puff,” Hutoon’s
most lucrative animation series. Centered on a risqué but apolitical
female character — censors notice Puff only when the strap on her
camisole slips — the series is the first original animated content
commissioned by Youku,
the Chinese equivalent of YouTube. Two weeks earlier, Youku had been
one of the first Web sites to delete his anti-censorship satire, “Crack
Sunflower Seeds.” This didn’t matter to Pi San. Hutoon’s financial
future depended on the success of “Ms. Puff.” “You have to have a split
personality to succeed in China,” he told me. “With some animations, I
make money. With others, I just make fun.”

That afternoon, though, the boss was preoccupied. There was no news of
Ai Weiwei, and Pi San’s thoughts about the future — that of his wife and
their 7-year-old son — cycled between anger, fear and resignation.
Leaving Hutoon’s main studio, he led me to a back room filled with heaps
of corrugated cardboard, which were the miniature sets used in the
Kuang Kuang animations. “This is where I come when my emotions are
running high,” Pi San said, bending down to examine the eight-inch-tall
room that loomed large in “Crack Sunflower Seeds.”

Nearby was a tiny school building featured in Pi San’s first Kuang Kuang
satire in 2009, a mordant swipe at the education system called “Blow Up
the School.” An instant Internet sensation among Chinese youth, the
animation generated a few million hits on its first day and so angered
officials that they slapped him with a fine for “inappropriate content.”
As more irreverent Kuang Kuang videos appeared, Internet fan clubs
formed in nearly every Chinese province, turning the bubbleheaded boy
and his creator into minor cult figures.

None of Pi San’s work has evoked China’s social ills more provocatively
than “Little Rabbit, Be Good,” made last January. The four-minute
“greeting card” to mark the Chinese Year of the Rabbit begins as a
soothing bedtime story about bunny rabbits. But as Kuang Kuang drifts
off to sleep, the story morphs into a nightmare. Ruled by tigers (the
outgoing zodiac sign) who promise to “build a harmonious forest” — a
pointed jab at Hu Jintao’s catchphrase — the rabbits suffer an endless
series of abuses. Babies die from drinking poisoned milk. A protester
fighting forced eviction gets crushed under a tiger’s car. A reckless
driver kills a rabbit in a hit-and-run and boasts about his high-level
police protection.

The thinly disguised allegory is based on real-life events that sparked
outrage on the Internet. The ending, however, is sheer fantasy. Instead
of accepting their fate, the rabbits rise up in revolt, ripping their
tiger overlords apart with their bare teeth in a catharsis of “South
Park”-style violence. The uprising ends with a warning: “Even rabbits
bite when they are pushed.”

Pi San knew “Little Rabbit” might have crossed the line. After
consulting a fortuneteller — “I wanted to know if this would cause me
trouble,” he said — he hedged his bets, uploading the video to a few
small fan Web sites in the middle of the night. “Little Rabbit” still
received more than 70,000 hits within two hours, he says. By the time
censors deleted the versions proliferating across the Internet two days
later, an estimated three to four million people had seen it. Local
media didn’t touch the story, but foreign journalists pressed him on the
video’s political message. His coy response: “I only made a fairy
tale.”

Pi San’s dark satire landed just as popular revolutions fueled by social
media in Tunisia and Egypt were beginning to topple dictators. A few
weeks later, Chinese bloggers who alluded online to the possibilities of
a similar “jasmine” revolution in China would be detained. “I was
worried,” Pi San admitted. “The line moves all the time, so we never
know where we stand.”

Most Chinese Internet users don’t give the invisible
line between acceptable satire and detainable offense a second thought.
They may know it exists, but their online activities — shopping,
blogging, gaming, networking — remain safely within the confines of the
Great Firewall. But the boundary is of the utmost concern for a growing
number of artists and activists. “The government’s primary means of
control is the fuzzy line,” says David Bandurski, a researcher at the China Media Project
at Hong Kong University. “No one ever knows exactly where the line is.
The control apparatus is built on uncertainty and self-censorship, on
creating this atmosphere of fear.”

Wen felt the line shift a year ago, after judges in Oslo awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the jailed Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo. Few Chinese had ever heard of the man behind Charter 08,
the human-rights declaration that, like Liu’s name, was banned inside
the Great Firewall. But the government was apoplectic. Chinese officials
smeared the “criminal” Liu in the press, pressured foreign countries to
boycott the ceremony and blocked a raft of new words on the Internet,
even “Norway” and “Nobel.”

When the banned words extended to the phrase “empty chair” — the most conspicuous sign of Liu’s absence at the Nobel ceremony
— Wen hit on an idea. If the words were not allowed, why not post
photos of empty chairs as a tribute to Liu? “Everyone has an empty
chair,” Wen pleaded with his 40,000-plus followers on Twitter and Weibo.
“If we only watch, then one day [the empty chair] might appear by your
family’s dining table as well.” At his urging, bloggers posted dozens of seemingly innocuous pictures online,
from an empty chair in a Van Gogh painting to a magazine ad for an Ikea
lounger. The censors eventually caught on to the joke, but not before
Wen had turned a bit of microblog mischief into a human rights
statement.

Three months later came the broad crackdown seeming to stem from
Beijing’s paranoia about the possible domestic repercussions from the
uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Wen was visiting Hong
Kong when he received an e-mail warning from Chinese public-security
agents: “Don’t come home. You’ll be arrested before you even see your
wife and son.” His was now the empty chair. Wen decided to wait out the
threats in Hong Kong, which is governed by different laws than the rest
of China. Wen’s absence may have spared him detention or prison, but now
he was in limbo.

When I visited Wen in Hong Kong in April, he was living in a temporary
apartment with a row of shirts drip-drying in the window. Dinner
consisted of a six-pack of beer followed by sausages fried up at 1 a.m.
At one point, he pulled out his BlackBerry. “Gone, gone, gone,” Wen
said, as he scrolled down a list of friends who had vanished, most
likely into police custody.

Wen’s Twitter account was now swarming with the gadflies of the 50-Cent
Party, which is the nickname for commentators who reportedly get paid 50
Chinese cents for every pro-government post. He showed me the barrage
of disparaging tweets he had received, along with two fake Twitter
accounts the 50-Centers had set up to look like his. More menacing were
the text warnings from anonymous senders who seemed to know everything
about him: his identification number, his travel itineraries, even
details about his wife, his 10-year-old son and his parents.

Early in the evening, Wen scoffed at the intimidation attempts. “The
government has too much invested in the Internet financially to shut it
down, so all it can do is resort to scare tactics,” he said. But as the
night wore on and the beer cans piled up, he confided: “I’m worried they
might pick me up even here in Hong Kong. I’m even more frightened for
my family.”

The following day, I joined Wen on an excursion to Lingnan University,
along Hong Kong’s border with mainland China, where he was to give a
talk about Internet activism. On the train ride out, he spoke about his
tenuous life in Hong Kong. A local satellite television company had
hired him to develop a show that would beam propaganda-free reports into
China. At night, Wen still tweeted prodigiously, launching jokes and
spoofs over the Great Firewall, like a medieval catapulter outside the
castle ramparts. His wife and son would join him in Hong Kong months
later, but Wen’s inability to return freely to his homeland left him
depressed. “I got angry the other day when a friend called me a liuwang, an exile,” he told me. “It’s such a sad word. I never thought it would apply to me.”

At the university that evening, a table covered in red velvet had been
set up on a small outdoor stage. Wen was handed a microphone, but it
proved unnecessary. Fewer than a dozen students stopped to listen. The
train home skirted within a few hundred yards of the mainland Chinese
border. Hurtling through the darkness, Wen looked up from his BlackBerry
and gazed out toward the border, the one line he may never cross again.

As a cocoon of heat and smog enveloped Beijing last June, Pi San began
to wilt. Two months had passed since Ai Weiwei was detained, and the
artist’s fate and whereabouts were still unknown. The police had also
detained another close friend of Pi San’s, the rock musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou,
just days after a live performance in which the words “Free Ai Weiwei!”
appeared on a giant screen above him. The musician was released within a
day, but Pi San was spooked. He shelved an idea for another Kuang Kuang
satire and began, for the first time, to consider seriously his
friends’ advice to leave the country.

Then, on June 22, came a surprise: Ai reappeared at his home after 81
days in detention. The artist provocateur, much thinner now, was
uncharacteristically silent. Though not formally charged with a crime,
he was still under a form of house arrest “pending further
investigation” into tax fraud. Two days later, Pi San rode his electric
bicycle to the blue door of Ai’s studio — “like a delivery boy,” he
said. High-spirited as ever, Ai marched back and forth across the small
room, showing Pi San how he had lost so much weight. The two friends
talked for hours. Given Ai’s house arrest, their plan to collaborate on a
satirical animation would have to wait. When Pi San was about to leave,
Ai gave him a memento from his days in custody: a couple of stale
biscuits, part of his “detention diet.”

Many artists and bloggers interpreted Ai’s release as merely a
face-saving measure to help Premier Wen Jiabao avoid embarrassment when
he traveled to Europe a few days later. Dozens of other lawyers and
Internet activists were still held in detention without formal charges,
while the harassment of others continued unabated. “I can’t say if
anything has changed,” Pi San said, “but it was a big relief” to see Ai
back in his home.

I dropped by Pi San’s studio again in July. This time, I found his
7-year-old son, his head shaved for summer, sitting at his father’s
wooden desk and playing a game on an iPad. Pi San shuffled around in
shorts and sandals, relaxed and happy. His wife, a fellow painter whom
he met at college, worked on accounting ledgers at a table nearby.

Business had never been better. The first 10 episodes of “Ms. Puff” had
pulled in an average of two million viewers, more than half of them
women between 18 and 30. The Youku series’s success raised ad rates,
Hutoon’s largest source of revenue, and several other Web portals had
approached Pi San with offers, eager to entice his young viewers to
their sites too.

In his darkest moments, Pi San vowed never to make another satire again.
Shadowboxing with censors and security agents was too nerve-racking,
and the risks to his family were too high. Now, in the wake of Ai’s
release, his fear was subsiding. “I think the government still looks at
what I do as just cartoons, child’s play,” he said, struggling to
explain why other artists and bloggers were detained or forced into
exile while he escaped unscathed. It is a misconception Pi San is happy
to embrace, even if, as he put it, “animated cartoons may be the most
realistic way to capture the absurdity of our country.”

Not long ago, Pi San started gravitating, once again, to the back room
filled with miniature cardboard sets. “I think I have a few moves left,”
he said. He has already mapped out three new Kuang Kuang episodes. The
theme of the next one? Pi San flashed a little grin. “It’s a game of
hide-and-seek.”

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