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Friday, May 24, 2024

Instagram Is a Site of Protest for the Chinese Diaspora

As I made my way to the Chinese Consulate on New York's Upper West Side on a Tuesday evening, I was met with a crowd of Chinese youth, united in their grief over the apartment fire in Urumchi and their anger at the Chinese government's draconian zero-covid policy. The rally quickly became a condemnation of the authoritarian regime, with cries of "Down with Xi Jinping! Down with CCP!" filling the air. My friend and I held up a banner reading "Freedom or Death" and joined the march to Pier 84. As we crossed the street, he said to me, “A few hours later, we are gonna see ourselves on one of the meme pages. ”

The “meme pages” are an array of Instagram accounts that have been considered central information hubs for the protest—most notably, @CitizensDailyCN and @Northern_Square. Six months ago, they posted a mix of historical photos, pandemic memes, and China news. Now, they crowdsource and make visible protest footage, political posters, and first-hand narratives from around the world; some of them also mobilize followers and publish mini think-pieces. All these are connected to the ongoing Chinese civil unrest, the largest wave since the 1989 pro-democracy movement. The protests have reverberated across the globe, at a scale that surprised even the most optimistic China pundits.

The protest that I attended mainly consisted of members of the Chinese diaspora—a majority of them young professionals and students who still call China home. Their bold and coordinated response should not be taken for granted, considering that China's youth have long been pegged as politically apathetic, a group pacified by the Chinese Communist Party and divorced from the country's radical past due to a culture of intense surveillance and censorship.  Most millennials and Gen Z had zero organizing or protesting experience, but now they are connecting over social media into a nascent movement against a powerful authoritarian regime. 

Take myself as an example. Having grown up in China, where discussing politics was taboo, my urge to voice my political opinions has almost always lost out to the desire to sustain a facade of harmony. I would not have learned about the rally if it weren’t for these meme pages. Nor would I have this community of like-minded friends had I not viewed and shared the numerous posts showing the absurdities of China’s Zero-Covid Policy. Since the beginning of this year, Instagram has become the go-to app for me to learn about first-hand stories and acts of dissent in China. Though scrolling through social media can be futile and draining, the Chinese meme and mood board instagram continues to provide a great sense of community.

Instagram has enjoyed more popularity than Twitter among Chinese with access to the global internet (sometimes via VPN) due to its initially apolitical, entertainment-heavy content. As the number of Chinese users grew, meme boards featuring the lives of study-abroad Chinese students emerged. The founders could not have imagined that their personal meme accounts would become radicalized along with their followers. The pages can roughly be divided into two types: meme pages and nostalgic mood boards.

@Northern_Square, a protest account that currently boasts 88,000 followers, started as an art project by a US-based artist who goes by Bei. In May 2020, mesmerized by the aesthetics of 80s and 90s China—especially the June 4th movement that would eventually culminate in the Tiananmen massacre—Bei started posting photos from  online archives that documented the joy and solidarity shown by the Tiananmen protesters. “I’m not much of a word person, or had the intention of doing anything aggressive,” Bei told me, “and my only curation guideline was for the page to look nice.” 

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Northern Square was not the only account reviving the lo-fi, nostalgic aesthetic from China’s more hopeful and democratic past. Pages like @beijing_silvermine, and @beijing_in_springtime all became popular in the Chinese Instagram community during the early pandemic. It was my first time seeing these gentle, yet refreshing images from a time that was collectively hushed due to complex political reasons. 

By 2022, Bei had already built a follower base above 30,000. A good number of his followers were based in China during the atrocities of Shanghai lockdown. They started messaging him about their grievances that couldn’t otherwise be posted. When the stream of submissions became considerable, Bei started using the Instagram story feature: “How is everyone doing during the lockdown?” he wrote.

Bei’s check-in was met with an unexpected number of testimonies. Lacking other channels to tell their stories without being censored, followers were eager to share. Some were warned by their own family to keep their mouths shut about the oppression, some were experiencing house arrest-style quarantines with a stable supply of food. During two months of Shanghai lockdown, the page received over a thousand submissions, mostly vivid oral histories about the reality of living under the ruthless tyranny of “zero-covid.” The images of a historical protest, coupled with the stories of Chinese people’s collective suffering, elicited a feeling of unique “historical moment,” as the new wave of protest feels increasingly inevitable, even fatalistic. 

In her book Negative Exposure: Knowing What Not to Know in Contemporary China, scholar Margaret Hillenbrand defined such images as “photo-forms,” an aesthetic category that defies the elusive force of secrecy in China. These aesthetic pages riff on largely-known but poorly-understood historical events like the Tiananmen protest, and opened up a liminal space that a new wave of protest spirit started to inhabit. Thanks to the anonymous submission mode, the narrow slides of Instagram Stories turned into a space for voices of dissent and open forum of political conversations.

Hans, administrator of @beijing_in_springtime first started the page based on his interest in the life of elders in his family. “When the first McDonalds in China opened in my city, my grandma waited in line for two hours to get a burger for my dad. That was a time when people were genuinely excited about the market economy, about western culture, and were open-hearted about changes,” Hans said.  “I wanted to highlight experiences like this in my account, and create an empathetic safe space for fellow young people to process our feelings.” 

A lover of memes, Hans also posts jokes related to contemporary Chinese history, in particular, memes specific to south China’s Pearl River Delta, a metropolitan complex known as “China’s Bay aAea,” on his meme page @bayareashitpeople.

@Bayareashitpeople was directly inspired by @dongbeicantbefuckedwith, a meme account that pokes fun at northeastern China's distinct culture. Apart from niche jokes about regional culture differences, these meme accounts often speak to the shared experience of being bilingual and bicultural as a young overseas Chinese. @RichKidsEnglishPolice, for example, specializes in jokes that draw on subtle linguistic misunderstandings and misuses. A typical post might feature a cringe-worthy Tinder profile, a starter pack image of different types of Chinese transplants, or a hilariously pronounced English phrase by a clueless Douyiner. Over time, the Chinese government or its affiliates become an increasingly convenient butt of the joke. New prototypes of memes were born mocking Zhao Lijian, the state spokesperson who gives definitive but nonsensical answers to journalists and Olympic snowboarder Eileen Gu, the out-of-touch poster child who transcends the US-China geopolitical divide. 

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The “out-of-context” nature of memes make them hard to predict, disobedient, and perfect for political critique. But unlike  Western memes, Chinese memes tend to be more satirical and ironic, channeling an intentional ambiguity that leaves room for plausible deniability. After the Urumchi Fire, Shanghai citizens gathered at Shanghai’s synclastic Urumchi Road for vigil, leading to the police taking away the Road sign. The image of two municipal workers carrying the sign away was superimposed with the Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover in a popular meme, as some added “government brain” to the expanding brain meme, mocking the Chinese authority’s futile attempts to curb public mourning.

On October 13, Bei woke up to a few dozen requests: “Post about the bridge man please”, “Please post about Peng Zaizhou.” In Beijing’s Sitong Bridge, a lone man had put up a giant banner protesting the Chinese Communist Party’s covid policy, and was immediately arrested. The brave act inspired an avalanche of responses from all over the world. Viewers start putting up the same slogan in their cities in solidarity with Peng, and then submitting the pictures to Bei. It was then that Bei realized that he was already part of a political movement. Bei put out a call for submissions, and received over a hundred original art posters in a week. He compiled the posters and made them ready to download in a Google Drive linked to his profile. Bei received 2000 submissions of posters, hanging around the world, in November. 

In December, a large number of the pages unanimously dedicated themselves to the protest. During the past month, I found myself glued to my phone, browsing the feed of videos and pictures that feels infinitely electrifying. In addition to publishing users-submitted photos and footage, a lot of them take on more active roles in the movement. @Citizensdailycn, the account that coined the effort of “A4 movement”, also came up with the widely cited “4 demands” of the movement. @ConfusingChina, a political joke stash published various accounts by protestors detained by Chinese police, and regularly facilitates conversations in the Instagram stories feature between mainland and taiwanese youth.

The flourishing of these accounts shows that Chinese youth internet communities can find a place to demonstrate without censorship. Of course, such accounts are still limited. These spaces rely on access to Instagram, itself a privilege many Chinese in China do not have. As these images are only shared within selective communities in the Chinese diaspora, the very brand of activism itself might drive a wedge between those who put up posters in Amsterdam and those who take the streets risking their safety in China.

Still, it would be dismissive of Chinese Instagram pages’ radical and communal nature if we only pin them down as only “information hubs”. They are an archive of feelings, a distant witness, a channel for catharsis and also a catalyst of dissent. At a time when a lot of our feeds are filled with performative Instagram activism, the genuine formation of community and political movement from cultures that came from censorship like Iran and China felt especially vital. When the simple acts of posting, sharing stories and exchanging views is disallowed in China, forming communities on a banned platform itself constitutes a radical form of resistance. 

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