China at the Tipping Point?

From “Fart People” to Citizens

Of all the transformations that Chinese society has undergone over the past fifteen years, the most dramatic has been the growth of the Internet. Information now circulates and public opinions are now expressed on electronic bulletin boards with nationwide reach such as Tianya Club (since 1999); blog-hosting portals such as (since 2007); and microblogging services such as Sina Weibo (since 2010). According to a September 2012 report by the official China Internet Network Information Center, Internet users in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) now number 538 million out of a total national population of about 1.3 billion. Sina Weibo has announced that its registered-user accounts reached 386 million in August 2012. The rise of such online platforms has given Chinese “netizens” an unprecedented capacity for self-publishing and communication, albeit within a heavily censored environment. The instantaneous, interactive, and relatively low-risk nature of blogging has empowered netizens to voice political opinions, form social connections, and coordinate online (and sometimes offline) collective actions.

Nevertheless, Chinese netizens are still speaking in a heavily monitored environment, and so their demands for greater freedom of information and expression often find voice through coded language and metaphors that allow them to avoid outright censorship. The government’s pervasive and intrusive censorship system has generated equally massive resentment among Chinese netizens. The Internet has become a quasi-public space where the dominance of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is constantly being exposed, ridiculed, and criticized by waves of jokes, videos, songs, poems, jingles, fiction, sci-fi, code words, satire, and euphemisms. As a result, Chinese cyberspace has seen the emergence of a new political discourse. Largely invented by young gadflies, a surprising number of these terms have begun to spread widely. Liberals, ultranationalists, and even the People’s Daily (the CCP’s official newspaper) have used them.

Will a new political discourse give birth to a new political identity? Old CCP assumptions about linguistic ritual as a tool to forge conformity remain in place. People are still trained to believe, for example, that dang (party) and guo (nation) are inseparable, or at least close enough that aiguo (patriotism) and ai dang (love of the party) need not be distinguished. In official language, wodang or “our party” implies “the party of everyone.” This makes it especially significant that, in today’s Internet lingo, terms such as guidang ([your] honorable party) are beginning to be used in ways that put sarcastic distance between the speaker and the Party. As this kind of usage spreads, it begins to raise questions of national identity. If netizens are rejecting “party equals country,” what are they putting in its place? What does it mean today to be “Chinese”?

One reason why citizen inroads have reached further on the Internet than in other media is that linguistic innovations have helped the Internet to seem like a new, open realm. All human languages constantly evolve, of course, and in principle there is nothing “new” in having new terms appear on the Chinese Internet. But their production and spread there has been especially rapid. Some of the new terms grow from temporary code words that netizens have used in order to evade word filters. The term zhengfu (government), for example, counts as “sensitive,” and efforts to skirt it have given rise to a number of new terms. One of these is tianchao (heavenly dynasty), which, besides avoiding filters, delivers the mischievous suggestion that the government is hardly modern. In a nod to George Orwell, the CCP’s Department of Propaganda is referred to as the zhenlibu (Ministry of Truth).

One of the most famous Internet puns has to do with a character called the cao ni ma or Grass Mud Horse. The term literally contains those three words—there are Grass Mud Horse comics, videos, and stuffed animals that bring the character to life. The joke is that with only a shift of tone the words can easily be made to sound very much like a certain highly provocative and insulting profanity. Playful images of the Grass Mud Horse are novelties that circulate within the relatively small circles of people who enjoy such things. But the term cao ni ma as a spoken word has a much broader range and reaches many more people both on and off the Internet. In a famous photograph, the artist Ai Weiwei leaps into the air, naked except for a stuffed-animal Grass Mud Horse held over the middle of his body at crotch level in order to block his genitals from view. The photo is a jab at the CCP regime, for the expression “the Grass Mud Horse covers the middle” can mean, with a shift of tone, “f___ your mother, Communist Party Central Committee.” The elegance of Ai’s art is that he can induce viewers to think that second phrase without uttering a single syllable. To the regime’s Internet police he can say, “You said it, not me!”

Another widespread term is hexie, which means “river crab” but is a near-homonym of the word for “harmony.” The regime of recently retired PRC president Hu Jintao, in its public rhetoric, put great stress on the idea of a hexie shehui or “harmonious society.” By recasting this official phrase to turn “harmonious society” into “river-crab society,” netizens are evoking Chinese folklore, in which the crab appears as a bully known for scuttling sideways. Netizens also use hexie as a verb as well as a noun. When a website is shut down or a computer screen goes blank, the victims might say “We have been river-crabbed!” or, in other words, “harmonized” into silence.

Does New Language Lead to New Thought?

In recent years, Chinese netizens have shown that they possess boundless creativity and ingenuity in finding such ways to express themselves despite stifling government restrictions on online speech. Scholars and China watchers have argued about whether or not Internet repartee is a mere safety valve. By giving people a way to blow off steam, does it ultimately reinforce the status quo? Sometimes resistance does seem little more than a fun game: Reports from the official Xinhua News Agency will not say what really happened? Alright, we will. You close us down for doing so? No problem, we will jump around online and find another way. You keep doing it? Very well, we will lampoon you as a bunch of crotchety river crabs. The “safety-valve” theory holds that this kind of resistance, which is almost recreational, may be cathartic but hardly affects the way people think and behave in the offline world.

But others have argued that Internet sarcasm has deeper effects. Once it catches on, they say, it tends to spread. Satire of things such as bullying and corruption naturally extends just as far as the problems themselves extend—which is very far indeed, potentially into every corner of society. There, in those myriad corners, satire can begin to rot the foundation on which bullying and corruption rest, and “prepare the ground” for more significant change. One can even hope that regime change, when it eventually arrives, will be more likely to be peaceful than violent insofar as the ground for it has been softened.

An important shift takes place when sarcastic terms spread into general use: They come increasingly to lose their sarcastic bite and to seem just like normal terms. Talk of the CCP regime as the tianchao or “heavenly dynasty” began as barbed mockery, but once it spread and became standard, the sarcasm drained away and it turned simply into a way of saying “government.” Similarly, the use of pimin (fart people) began as a bitter suggestion that powerholders see rank-and-file citizens as having no more value than digestive gas. Now it is just another way to say laobaixing (ordinary folks). But the seemingly innocuous process by which sarcastic terms are normalized can have profound consequences. It converts the terms from the relatively narrow role of expressing resistance to the much broader one of conceiving how the world normally is. When tianchao is used specifically as a jab at the regime, it is a tool with a purpose and can be countered with a return jab. But when it reflects and expresses normality, much more is at stake. The question of an alternative worldview and new political identity emerges.

Worldviews that differ from the official one are not new in the PRC. They certainly preceded the Internet. In the past, though, such views were almost entirely confined to private spaces—either to the privacy of individual minds or to small groups that were beyond public earshot. People who share alternative worldviews have not been allowed to hold public assemblies. Internet language, however, has nurtured new sub-cultures in which style and camaraderie have become values in their own right, and in which “cyber-assemblies” have emerged. Through online consultation, they can do many of the things that physical assemblies do in a free society: debate issues, argue over the wording of petitions and manifestoes, sign statements, vote in polls, and bring public pressure to bear on specific issues—all while each member sits separately in front of his or her computer screen.

Cyber-meetings resemble physical meetings in some ways that have politically important implications. They are, first of all, autonomous assemblies that usually originate from the bottom up. Consider an example. On 23 June 2011, netizens came across Weibo postings by an attractive twenty-year-old woman named Guo Meimei. Even as she flaunted her ownership of pricey handbags and cars (including a Lamborghini and a Maserati), Guo claimed to be a “commercial general manager” at the Red Cross Society of China (described by the New York Times on 3 July 2011 as “a government organization that is the country’s largest charity”). After this netizen-discovered story went viral on the Internet, China’s official media began to discuss it too, and eventually it reached even the international media. Netizens not only broke the story but drove the public’s opinion of it. Online “assemblies” large and small denounced Guo, excoriated the Chinese Red Cross (which watched its donations plummet despite denying any link to her), raised suspicions about the entire world of philanthropy in China, and eventually decried the general decline in ethics across Chinese society as a whole.The Guo Meimei case faded out almost as quickly as it flared up, so it is hard to say that it has left behind any enduring instance of “cyber-organization.” In other cases, though, it is clear that online campaigns have indeed given birth to organizations. They have survived the issues that originally brought them together and have sometimes led to action “in real life” (or IRL, as the Internet acronym puts it).

In addition to forging some new group identities, Internet culture has subjected national identity to reimagination. What does it mean to be Chinese today, and how does netizen culture affect the question? The CCP has always offered a ready answer to the question of Chinese identity, and has stressed it in the schools and the media: To be Chinese is to stand with the Chinese Communist Party. To depart from the Party is to be not only politically incorrect but un-Chinese.

On the Internet, however, these axioms are being drawn into question, and alternative answers to the national-identity question are beginning to appear. A few years ago, a netizen with a sly sense of humor began using the terms guidang (your [honorable] party) and guiguo (your [honorable] state). Gui literally means “noble” or “expensive” and has long been placed before nouns as a polite way of saying “your”: Thus guixing means “your honorable surname,” and so on. Guiguo has also, for a long time, been an established way of saying “your country” when people from different countries are talking to each other in a formal way. But now, in some circles on the Internet, guiguo has taken on the sarcastic meaning of “your state”—in other words, the state that belongs to you rulers, not to me. The question “What is guiguo?” has popped up in Internet chat rooms. In one of these, in October 2010, a netizen wrote: “It turns out that this guo is not our guo, but the guo of a certain dang [that is, the Communist Party]. This fact makes the terms guiguo and guidang appropriate.”

What Is It to Be Chinese?

But if netizens are putting ironic distance between themselves and “your state,” the question arises of what they do identify with at the national level. What is it, in the new day, to be Chinese? This is a big question, and the answers that are beginning to appear are only tentative.

Consider pimin or “fart people,” the playful tag that has come to stand in opposition to guiguo. The pimin usage originated from a notorious incident that took place on 29 October 2008, when Lin Jiaxiang, a fifty-eight-year-old Communist Party official, was eating and drinking at a seafood restaurant in Shenzhen City, near Hong Kong. He asked an eleven-year-old girl for directions to the men’s room, then told her to lead him to it personally. Once there, he grabbed her and tried to force her inside. She escaped and ran to her parents. Her father confronted the would-be molester and an argument ensued, during which Lin pointed at the father and yelled, “I was sent here by the Ministry of Transportation! My rank is the same as your mayor’s! You people are farts to me! You wanna take me on?! You wanna test what I can do to you?!”

Unfortunately for Lin, the entire episode was captured by a security camera and leaked to the Internet, where it went viral. Lin eventually was fired and “fart people” became a standard term. Gradually it morphed into a term of pride. Fart people came to mean “us” netizens and ordinary people, the ones on the receiving end of abuse, the ones who have no vote, the ones who empathize and identify with one another—the ones who, in short, form the polar opposite of guiguo, the country of Lin Jiaxiang and his entitled ilk.

The imbalance in power between guiguo and pimin is sometimes highlighted by the satiric use of bei. Bei originally meant “quilt,” but has also been used as a verb to mean “suffer [an action].” It has been useful in translating the passive voice from Western languages. An English sentence like “my wallet has been stolen” can be rendered in Chinese as wo de pibao bei tou le. Now, wo bei hexie le, or “I have been harmonized,” has become a standard quip when censors strike. The role of bei in this phrase is important. It signals that I suffered the action; it was done to me, and I in no way willed it. This “involuntarily passive” implication has led to a range of other sarcastic uses. One is bei xingfu, which literally means “happiness-ified.” In the Mao era, it was said that the Great Leader mou xingfu (sought happiness) for the people; to be on the receiving end of this search, then as now, is to be bei xingfu. We look at the officials who “represent” us and see ourselves as bei daibiao or “undergoing representation.” In each case, the point is that the “esteemed country” acts upon the “fart people,” not the other way around.

Guiguo, pimin, bei hexie, and other terms of this kind have powerful implications. They imply that the twenty-first-century answer to the question “What is it to be Chinese?” does not have to be the formula “China equals the CCP,” and that there is a terrain upon which people can explore alternative answers to questions of identity. Terms that suggest other ideas—ones that contain min or “people,” for example—are becoming more salient. “Fart people” or pimin is sarcastic and as such provides no concept with which people will identify for long. But another word containing min is gongmin (citizen), and it too has been spreading on the Internet. Gongmin is dignified. Like pimin it establishes a distance between the citizen and the party-state; but unlike pimin, it can be the basis of a new concept of national identity. Gongmin are people who have quan (rights).

Talk on the Internet of rights of various kinds—the “right to know,” the “right to express,” the “right to monitor [officialdom],” and others—has been steadily increasing in recent years. In September 2011, a Tsinghua University law student named Li Yan—frustrated by the rejection of her repeated requests for research information on several government ministries—filed a lawsuit against the authorities on the basis of her “right to know.” For months after the July 2011 collision of two high-speed trains in Zhejiang province, netizens citing the same “right to know” flooded the Railways Ministry with demands that it publicly list the victims. In October 2012, a Google search for the combination of the phrases “right to know” and “high-speed train” produced 13.5 million results (just a year ago, the same search had generated 3.75 million results). From such figures we can glean an indication of how many people were concerned by the issue and how fast such language spreads.

The opening of space on the Internet for expression of authentic public opinion along with the use of that opinion to bring pressure to bear on the state-run media and on decision makers, has already become an established pattern in China. It is unlikely that it can be dislodged. A number of events in 2011 alone—the Guo Meimei Red Cross scandal, the crushing to death of toddler Wang Yue,waves of netizens making the journey to visit blind activist Chen Guangcheng at his home in Shandong province, and others—show how the mechanisms by which people can be heard and can exert pressure are not only in place but almost regular and predictable.

It is important to note as well that netizens who embrace the new online language also appear to embrace the political values of democracy, human rights, and freedom of expression. These netizens, with their growing numbers, expanding social networks, and increasing influence, seem to be evolving from “voices under domination” to “net- worked agents of change.” The government’s efforts to control online information, the implications and limitations of such control, and the capacity of Chinese netizens to advance free speech and facilitate political mobilization remain matters that are crucial to an adequate understanding of China. Are new forms of networked communication enhancing opportunities for social change and helping to move China toward a “threshold” for political transformation? Our study of the rise of a new Internet political discourse suggests that such possibilities are indeed increasing.