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Resisting Harmony: Chinese activists challenge online censorship
The 'Great Firewall of China' is a catch-all term for the laws, policies, technology protocols and methods used to regulate the internet in China. It has become shorthand for the culture of censorship and restrictions on access to information which currently exist in China. Much has been said and written about the Firewall.
What you rarely hear, however, are the stories of how the wall has been challenged – how people have been creating a kind of virtual graffiti on its surface. Even while the Chinese internet is tightly controlled, activists have still found spaces to create campaigns that use irony, satire and parody to mock the regime.
Liu Xiabao, a Chinese writer jailed on subversion charges, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2010 but was not allowed to attend the ceremony in Oslo; his chair on the dais remained empty. Liu's empty chair became the source of inspiration for an activist called Wen Yunchao. He encouraged his social media friends and followers to post pictures of empty chairs online with the comment "if we only watch, then the empty chair may appear at your family's dining table one day". They responded in great numbers, before the official censors caught on. Angered at the award, the Chinese government had filtered out the words 'Liu' 'Nobel' and 'Norway' from online searches, even before the Empty Chair Campaign started; soon the phrase 'empty chair' was also filtered.
Similarly, the Dark Glasses Campaign urged Chinese internet users to post pictures of themselves wearing sunglasses to show their support for the blind activist Chen Guangcheng who had been speaking out against the forced abortions and sterilizations of the Chinese government's One Child policy.
In 2011, the renowned artist and outspoken advocate of free speech Ai Weiwei and his assistant were detained on charges of 'spreading pornography online' for a photo series called One Tiger Eight Breasts. His supporters felt this was an outrage and started tweeting pictures of themselves naked to make the point that nudity is not the same thing as pornography. Support for Ai also came from the Beijing animator Pisan, creator of the darkly funny Kuang Kuang cartoon series, which takes a satirical swipe at social injustice, unhappiness and everyday life in Chinese society. Pisan created an animation called Crack Sunflower Seeds almost overnight as a commentary on Ai Weiwei's detention.
The Dangerous Politics of Internet Humour in China, New York Times, 2011.
The Googlist Saga, Cultural Bytes, 2011.
A portrait of Ai Weiwei: Ai Weiwei Never Sorry.
Crack Sunflower Seeds: "Behind China's Great Firewall, Subversive Content in Cartoon Form".
Kuang Kuang's Diary animation series:
Blowing Up the School
The Little Rabbit