It was hard not to be stunned to by recent images of protests in Hong Kong, a massive sea of people of all ages donning black to rail against Beijing’s plan to enact national education. Hong Kongers deemed Bejing’s efforts “brainwashing” (洗脑), a paternalistic move from to inculcate the special territory into the mainland’s ways. The sheer scale of protests led Beijing to agree not to mandate national education after all, at least not for now.
But while citizens took to the streets, they also took to the web. “Brainwash” may have been blocked on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, but “wear black” wasn’t, nor was “oppose national education.” Searches for these and related terms called up powerful images like the following:
These are normal scenes of protest, but they have a strong online component too:
And in addition to the crossing of arms, the simple act of wearing black has become a visual strategy in itself, as protesters have encouraged each other to wear black to oppose national education.
But like any good meme, this one also has more comic/cartoonish manifestations. Here are a few favorites:
The “wear black” strategy makes intuitive sense: like wearing blue jeans to support gay rights, wearing black is a normally-apolitical gesture imbued with new meaning that forces dialogue. This is particularly true in fashionable Hong Kong, where the smart set prefer chic black, just like New Yorkers. But the symbol and imagery of black continued to grow until it was a sea of black shirts and black pants. Add to that the gesture of crossing one’s arms, and you have the perfect political meme: A simple, personal gesture with easy-to-find materials. It works as much in grand gatherings as it does in casual snaps posted onto Weibo.
Online meets offline
The big question is, why such an online flurry? In mainland China, the memetic spread of images of discontent and dissent makes sense; lacking the freer speech and public assembly opportunities of more democratic nations, citizens take to the Internet to express their concerns. Since both mainlanders and Hong Kong citizens use Weibo, the culture of memes in the Chinese-speaking Internet hops across political and regional boundaries. This explains why the crossed-arms gesture appears from users in the mainland to overseas Chinese in Canada, and why sunflower seeds, a symbol originating from a Beijing artist, also resonates in Hong Kong. The Chinese-speaking Internet loves its memes.
But viewed more broadly, the “meme’ing” of protest and dissent reflects just how intertwined Internet life and offline life have become. While public assembly on the streets of the city is often crucial–just look at the sheer scale of the crowd–so is public assembly on the streets of our collective online city. And in the Chinese-speaking Internet, the city of cities is Sina Weibo, where netizens gather at every hour of the day to converse, share and debate in a national public forum. As a recent look at the Trayvon Martin and Chen Guangcheng memes demonstrates, public assembly on the Internet is a particularized form, one much more visual and reliant on basic art and design skills.
Indeed, meme’ing has become a key way to show scale in an online environment–text alone is rarely enough. It’s a trend visible not only in Hong Kong (Anti-Brainwashing), but also in Moscow (Pussy Riot), New York (Travyon Martin), Beijing (Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng) and elsewhere. As we see more protests involving the Internet generation in the Chinese-speaking world and beyond, we should expect to see more and more meme’ing of dissent.
This article originally appeared on 88 Bar’s China Meme Report.