Chinese President Hu Jintao was in Hong Kong this weekend to swear in the city’s new chief executive, C.Y. Leung, and to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the city’s handover to China. Many took to the streets, not to celebrate the inauguration, but to protest what they see as the Chinafication of the metropolis. Over 100,000 protesters marched through the city waving banners and shouting slogans, criticizing C.Y. Leung, Hu Jintao, and the Chinese Communist Party. Said @xieqiwen, writing on Twitter, “7/1 – Grass Mud Horse Day has arrived.”
The grass mud horse, or Cao Ni Ma, is a meme that originated in January of 2009. A homonym for “f— your mother” in Chinese, this adorable alpaca represents subversion and defiance of Internet censorship. If you have a minute and 24 seconds to spare, it’s worth watching the YouTube video that propelled the grass mud horse to fame, or this rendition by Chinese artist-dissident Ai Weiwei, which he made to thank supporters for helping raise money to challenge tax charges leveled against his company last year. Since its beginnings, the grass mud horse has appeared whenever the river crab (a homonym for “harmony,” which is a euphemism for internet censorship) has posed a threat.
In Hong Kong, where a majority of journalists recently charged that obstruction of news coverage had risen in the past five years, the mud-grass horse once again showed its furry face. As protesters filled the streets, a few carried signs featuring the grass mud horse, and others featuring the middle finger of defiance. Political cartoonist Crazy Crab collected 105 images netizens submitted for the Grass Mud Horse Festival, and China Digital Times published some of them on its site. Twitter user @abcnnab posted this picture, combining the grass mud horse, the faces of Chinese government officials, and the middle finger all in one image.
In China, where internet censorship often silences overt political criticism, memes and wordplay allow would-be critics to stay one step ahead of the censors. Yet even seemingly harmless mockery can be dangerous – a Chinese woman was sentenced to a year of labor in a re-education camp for a sarcastic three-word tweet just two years ago. In this environment, memes are more politically charged than in the U.S., where Internet police will not stop you from posting the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy as many times as you’d like. As An Xiao Mina argues, memes have ‘an utter refusal to die,’ not only despite, but also as a result of, internet censorship. This censorship is both the problem that creates the space for memes and the reason they continue to be popular, long after a merely amusing image would have faded from the collective consciousness.
In Hong Kong, a city that prides itself on its freedom of speech, the grass mud horse meme sends the message that its citizens hope to preserve that freedom. While dissatisfaction with Beijing is at a 15-year high, social media has also allowed for more communication than ever before between the people of Hong Kong and mainland China. According to @MissXQ, netizens in Hong Kong were circulating images of the Sunday protest on China’s Weibo, adding captions like “So many line up 2 buy iPhone 4S” so that censors would not catch them right away.
Meanwhile on Twitter, images of the protest spread like wildfire, most identified by the hashtag #HK71. In Hong Kong, the grass mud horse was free to roam another day.