“I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
like pure water
touching clear sky.”
On December 9th, 2021, Geoff Keighley hosted the eighth annual The Game Awards, less an award show and more a three-and-a-half-hour marketing blitz. Ping-ponging from bizarre Imagine Dragons performances to a vague declaration of abuse being bad to glitzy trailers from abusive companies, it was enough to make even professional journalists bail. Add in the constant assault of the Twitch/YouTube live chat, and it’s enough to overwhelm even the most content-addled brain, but it’s in these comments I noticed something. Patterns amid the swarm. Yawning emoji whenever speakers mentioned racism and vomiting ones every time a woman was on screen. Expected, if depressing, this kind of screaming online hatred of anything non-white male has probably existed since 70s Berkleyans could pay 25 cents to post into Community Memory, the first BBS. All that’s changed is scale, the techno-utopian ideals of individual collaboration and communication inverted into subsuming hiveminds, as market-driven as ever.
Genshin Impact, the popular gacha adventure game, is the first homegrown Chinese game to transition to international phenomenon. It won the best mobile game award, and one of the many aforementioned glitzy trailers promoted a new character. Both times this happened, the chat erupted. Not with complaints of predatory microtransactions, but with endless spamming of racial slurs, “-1000 SOCIAL CREDIT’’, and copypastas. Anti-Asian racism has a storied history offline and in meatspace, but this virulent anti-China variant is relatively new. You may or may not be part of it. Your particular politics may or may not align with some of these memes. You may have already cringed at me characterising online banter as racist. I’m not going to try and convince you that Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is the way forward. No, what I want to do is come up for air, at least for a little bit, and think about what we’re swimming through, what floods the English speaking internet, and what it might say about where we’re heading.
Oh yeah, what even are copypastas? The meaning is easy enough to explain. If there’s one thing that the internet loves, it’s corrupted terminology. Once forums and imageboards popularised copy and pasting blocks of text, it was natural to codify it into “copypasta”. Some of these are comedic, like the immortal Navy Seals copypasta, others cruel and hateful, as with “You Will Never Be a Woman”. They can also be political, an advanced form of traditional sloganeering. The Tiananmen Square Copypasta is a collection of apparently banned terms in China. Full disclosure- I live in China as of writing, and I use a VPN almost every day. Internet censorship is real and annoying. But the idea that this copypasta collects every banned word online as some kind of anti-censorship weapon is, well, uh, ridiculous at best and infantilising at worst. Let’s take a closer look at it.
“动态网自由门 天安門 天安门 法輪功 李洪志 Free Tibet 六四天安門事件 The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 天安門大屠殺 The Tiananmen Square Massacre 反右派鬥爭 The Anti-Rightist Struggle 大躍進政策 The Great Leap Forward 文化大革命 The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution 人權 Human Rights 民運 Democratization 自由 Freedom 獨立 Independence 多黨制 Multi-party system 台灣 臺灣 Taiwan Formosa 中華民國 Republic of China 西藏 土伯特 唐古特 Tibet 達賴喇嘛 Dalai Lama 法輪功 Falun Dafa 新疆維吾爾自治區 The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region 諾貝爾和平獎 Nobel Peace Prize 劉暁波 Liu Xiaobo 民主 言論 思想 反共 反革命 抗議 運動 騷亂 暴亂 騷擾 擾亂 抗暴 平反 維權 示威游行 李洪志 法輪大法 大法弟子 強制斷種 強制堕胎 民族淨化 人體實驗 肅清 胡耀邦 趙紫陽 魏京生 王丹 還政於民 和平演變 激流中國 北京之春 大紀元時報 九評論共産黨 獨裁 專制 壓制 統一 監視 鎮壓 迫害 侵略 掠奪 破壞 拷問 屠殺 活摘器官 誘拐 買賣人口 遊進 走私 毒品 賣淫 春畫 賭博 六合彩 天安門 天安门 法輪功 李洪志 Winnie the Pooh 劉曉波动态网自由门”
Don’t worry. I’m not trying to test your Chinese. As we can see, it mostly follows the pattern of Chinese phrase then English translation. I can’t say why it’s sometimes out of order or goes large portions without translation, though I assume it has been cobbled together by mostly non-Chinese speakers. Let’s address the bear in the room- Winnie the Pooh isn’t going to get any Chinese internet user in trouble. The comparison image of Xi Jinping and Barack Obama to Winnie and Tigger does get (stupidly) removed. I have verified this myself by sending it on WeChat (amusingly, the only other example I’ve noticed is that sleeping picture of former president Jiang Zemin). The character himself, though? He’s pretty popular in China, his toys and books plastered all over Taobao and JD, the most popular e-commerce platforms, never mind his presence at Shanghai and Hong Kong Disneyland. This meme of the ban enduring is fascinating, as it exists as a self-sustaining discourse that resists all contrary evidence, a bubble of righteous anger and smugness centred on cartoon bear, put here at the same level as dramatic moments in Chinese history. Speaking of, simply referring to said historical events like the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution without criticism or commentary would also not be blocked. These are crucial moments in Chinese history that span further than Tiananmen Square. If censored, you wouldn’t be able to discuss China’s modern history. Huge links in the chain, missing. Whether you consider modern China to be some kind of dystopian hellscape or not, it is a country. Countries have academia with their prevailing narratives of history. Sure, there may be omissions, but not ones large enough to render themselves incoherent. You can’t deny a decade of history, but even if you could, denial requires acknowledgement of the denied. It doesn’t even work for a single day, as “nothing happened on June 4th” is the historical equivalent of the sitcom policeman shouting, “nothing to see here, move along”. To imply that such a line (which I cannot find in any official Chinese source) would pass muster with Chinese citizens doesn’t even square with other Western-held stereotypes.
Here’s the rub with June 4th. The average Chinese person probably knows more about it than you do. This statement is not an insult, more the reality of learning things from outside your culture. The shadow does not linger across you. You do not see the ripples in your everyday life. From both an inside and outside perspective, the real issue is how muddled the accounts are. Any estimation of deaths that ranges from 300 to thousands is tremendously unhelpful for analysis. This fog caused by Party suppression lies at the root of bickering about “CIA narratives”, “Victims of Communism”, and the fact that we still discuss it decades later. I don’t think we should forget the event; instead, I want a formal declassification that would at least clear the air, though it’s probably too late for that. Regardless, the mere mention of it does nothing, as meaningful as the placement of random nouns like “Freedom” and “Democratisation”. Considering Freedom and Democracy are two of the twelve Core Socialist Values in China, these are, again, unlikely to stir up trouble. I’ve seen many ex-pats here laugh at these values, pasted as they are everywhere from subway stations to park benches. Crammed into a sardine tin of a subway car, I can see how it’s easy to smirk or think of them as hypocritical. But even if we choose to read them in the least charitable ways possible, as vapid slogans to paper over ideological questions or even as some kind of They Live style subliminal programming, the words are there and their presence in this pasta again does nothing. There’s also “multi-party system”, which I guess implies that Chinese people are unaware of how other countries function or that discussing the idea of such a system in China never occurs, never mind that within the CCP’s United Front there are actually eight political parties. One of the most common questions I’m asked about my country is how anything gets done with changing leaders and parties. I guess the answer is very little, even considering a decade of Conservative rule. I’m aware that’s anecdotal evidence, and I’m certainly not qualified to describe how things are over the entirety of China, but people read the news. They’re aware not every country is China.
The Chinese translation of The Epoch Times, Falun Dafa’s Q-Anon promoting newspaper, also appears amongst the word salad towards the end. Falun Gong and its media empire are beyond the scope of this article, my friend Yoshimi has already written extensively about it here, so I’d just recommend reading that. It’s unlikely anything beyond the name “Falun Dafa” would give the average Westerner pause when sharing this, but leaving it untranslated brings us to the copypastas strangest aspect. The first recorded instance of the copypasta noted that it was supposed to get Chinese players booted from games, a kind of brute force tactic to trip every possible word filter. The efficacy of this is doubtful at best, but it’s not the only way I’ve seen it used. Some seem to genuinely believe that it will wake the sleeping masses, a sledgehammer to break through CCP propaganda, letting the pure light of truth through. Ok, then. Why is any of it in English?
Because it isn’t some anti-censorship weapon, it’s a combination conversation stopper and pledge of allegiance, the internet equivalent of a BETTER DEAD THAN RED placard, a piece of agitprop as subtle as a sledgehammer. Deploy it in a Reddit thread for upvotes aplenty, insert it contextless into Twitter arguments, wear it on a T-shirt if you are a genuinely tragic soul. The primary audience for it is not the Chinese people, and if I was obnoxious enough to show it around, I very much doubt they’d have seen it before. “Aha, that’s because it doesn’t get through!”. Well, it does, as we’ll see later, but the people using it aren’t signing up for Weibo accounts. It’s a signal to show you’re on the “right” (and Right) side of the culture war, to show you are a virtuous citizen of the internet.
A virtue signal, if you will.
As with any meme, there are variations, some shorter, some more or less palatable for general audiences, even inversions to toss back ineffectually. Whether the copypasta synthesises all anti-China memes or is the progenitor is irrelevant. It is stupid and ill-conceived, but that is of no consequence. There is no talking point not already contained within this rosetta stone of green text.
Well. Except one. The big one, the one that’s everywhere, even where you wouldn’t expect.
MechaGaikotsu is a YouTuber focused on Gundam model kits (Gunpla). His delivery is a bit too manic for my tastes, but he is undoubtedly the hobby’s most popular evangelist. As someone who has put together too many plastic robots, I have crossed his online path several times. When he reviewed a kit based on the Freedom Gundam in Shanghai, I guessed the comments would be terrible.
“SUNRISE HAS TO UNDERSTAND THE IRONY OF PUTTING A FREEDOM GUNDAM IN CHINA”
“-35 Social Credit for only giving this kit Silver Tier!”
Ah, there it is. A few weeks ago, on a group call, a friend in England asked an innocent enough question- what is social credit? If one were to believe the memes, you would assume it is some tangible score applied to every person, increasing and decreasing according to constant monitoring. Very dystopian, but alas, the truth is far more boring. An extension of credit rating systems that can restrict things like high-speed rail tickets for the “blacklisted”. A person can accrue this status by repeatedly committing fraud, using a fake ID and cheating on exams depending on your province. It’s more a dumb way to promote “traditional values” than a comprehensive system of control. That said system mainly focuses on businesses rather than individuals goes largely unnoticed. There is genuine criticism of this program regarding its effectiveness, and if you want to do the whole slippery slope to totalitarianism thing, then go for it. It sucks. I would like them to scrap it and credit ratings while they’re at it, but when it’s so basically misunderstood, wouldn’t it be better to focus on a system already entirely in place that does genuinely limit the freedom of China’s poorest and most vulnerable? Social credit is missing the forest for the trees.
Hukou, the antiquated household registration system with roots in the over one thousand-year-old baojia system of the Song Dynasty, is that forest. It aims to strengthen cities without draining agricultural centres by (in its early days) classifying citizens as rural or urban, with different benefits for both, and making it difficult to transfer between classifications. For that part, it has worked, helping immensely in China’s growth. But it also can be highly unfair and restrictive regarding inter-province migration, never mind if you are outside the system as many migrant workers are. The latest five-year plan promises to relax restrictions for larger cities and remove them for those with a population under 3 million. Still, I don’t think it’s fair to praise a policy that has yet to go into effect. So yes, perhaps these memes are just purely absurd and not meant to represent the reality of China. But in their spread, they’ve made a country already confusing for those looking from the outside even more opaque to the point of obscuring a far more prevalent issue. My friend asked me about it, and I did my best to explain as an admitted non-expert, but the majority aren’t even going to ask, never mind get even as lame an answer as I gave. Behold, the incredible efficiency of a format born from dancing baby gifs and cat pictures absorbing the political- infinitely replicating propaganda bouncing off brains and passing through hands until there’s such a cloud of noise that it only aggravates, confuses or takes root.
If the anons of /pol/ thought they were waging a meme war to elect (and then re-elect) Donald Trump, then this is the meme cold war, saturated into every corner of the western internet. What of the other side? Xi Jinping has often talked of an idea of “cyberspace sovereignty”- that he does not want China to be closed to the world online, but that it should have borders in the way a state has. Cyber sovereignty, in theory, justifies the promotion of homegrown alternatives and general censorship. I’m not really a fan of this- I don’t miss the likes of Facebook over here, but Chinese big tech companies are just as insane hives of disgusting misogyny and soul-crushing working hours. In terms of censorship, I can’t thoroughly shake my tech-Utopianism. Growing up in a poor rural area, I have significantly benefited from a free open internet. I also spent too much time on 4chan, so take that with a grain of salt, I guess. Such optimism is typical, though. Genshin Impact’s developer miHoYo’s slogan reads TECH OTAKUS SAVE THE WORLD. Considering the attempted murder and racist screaming their game has inspired, that optimism may be misplaced. Ah, but what if China was “free” in the small-government vote for centre-right/left party every four years sense? Tear down the firewall, remove cyber sovereignty! That’d stop it. After all, there’s that common refrain- “hate the party, not the people”.
Only, it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to enforce cyberspace sovereignty- people will do it to themselves. A propaganda department could never dream of having an army of souls to wage war on the astral plane of cyberspace. While no doubt these types of memes are spammed at Chinese press and party officials on Twitter, how are we supposed to read their usage when assailed at anything Chinese, even something as benign as a weeb-baiting gacha game? miHoYo made their game incredibly Japanese, from title to art style to labelling themselves as otaku, but it wasn’t enough. They are from the wrong country, the bad kind of Asian. Any ideas of tech utopianism, eroding the barriers between cultures and countries, break down in the face of online nationalism as prevalent in the far right with the “good” liberals. The climate these memes are part of propagates the seemingly benign assumptions that censors will remove any gay scene from any Hollywood movie, that something as anodyne as The Matrix Resurrections wouldn’t play here due to its perceived anti-authoritarian messaging. The latter ignores the majority of wuxia fiction being about fighting against tyranny through the cultivation of body and mind, and that The Matrix is probably more widely watched than Star Wars here, albeit under the incredible title of 黑客帝国 (literally Hacker’s Kingdom/Empire). The former has elements of truth to it but is heavily exaggerated and points to a fundamental misunderstanding of how China functions. I’m aware “China is a big country!” is a tired defence of haphazard policies and inconsistent governance from province to province. Still, it’s necessary to realise that while the government certainly is stronger than the ones found in Western representative democracies, the size and (more importantly) variation of China prevent ruthless efficiency from being possible outside of crisis.
This is why even the Great Firewall doesn’t work, the combination of technology and legislature once described by Harvard professor Stephen Peter Rosen as an “effort to use modern information technology not to disseminate information, empowering individuals, but to make people think what you want them to think and to monitor their behavior so that you can isolate and suppress them,” easily dodged by VPN software advertised across the internet while you’re not using one. “That’s because this is a regime which is fundamentally afraid of its own people. And it’s fundamentally hostile to them” - which is why the government provides VPN software for businesses and newspapers because what this legislature is is a guideline. And how strict a policy ends up being comes from private companies reactions. If you have an iPhone, it is more challenging to get a VPN app, but it’s trivial to change to another regions App Store. Tencent sells an official Chinese Nintendo Switch, but it’s much easier and cheaper to find an import model that does not have their version’s restrictions. The excesses of the market are curtailed by the government, and the excesses of the government by the market. This is not a stable equilibrium, more an awkward symbiotic relationship, threatening to collapse.
The government still has to toady up to big business. The Double Reduction policy currently decimating the private schooling industry is an outlier, and the kind of comprehensive policy that I doubt would ever be levied at any other industry. There’s a reason 996 work weeks (9 am to 9 pm, six days a week) took so long to legislate. That wild beast of capital can still be destructive, especially when it’s let off its leash for the sake of China’s largest companies. It feels like the government is doing a lot and a lot faster than usual these days, but that’s more due to the dual crises of the falling birthrate and Covid-19. The paradox of the CCP is that it is both stronger and weaker than it appears. The internet played no small part in the pushback against 996, thanks to the 996 ICU, a crowdsourced blacklist of companies hosted on GitHub. The outrage of GitHub’s potential censure (discussed publicly here in China, before you get any ideas) undoubtedly helped push a more rapid response, even if we have to be generous with the word “rapid”. Still, it’s a rare instance of the internet having a positive impact beyond replacing the model for Sonic the Hedgehog, so I’ll take what I can get.
“I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.”
Not every China-related meme is political or racist. Super Idol, a Douyin (Tiktok) meme based on a bizarre video of an influencer miming a portion of the song “热爱105°C的你” before chucking water on the cameraman, is the rare example of a China-born meme translating almost unchanged into the English speaking internet. While there is the element of “other culture so wacky!”, I found more people simply enjoying the song or entranced by the various baffling decisions in the video, climaxing (in more ways than one) with the performer soaking the camera operator in water. But, it exists in the same climate, and so infection occurs. It’s spammed right alongside social credit jokes and the copypasta. Similar is the incredibly embarrassing John Cena Chinese videos. He did these after accidentally referring to Taiwan as a country, and the CCP are admittedly overly sensitive to that. His awkward Chinese is funny. I’ll never forget the look of abject horror on my co-worker’s face. But then it was reposted. Again. Now with Vine boom sound effects. Again. The Chinese word for ice cream is rendered as “Bing Chilling”. And so now it can be spammed in text. Never mind that the Laoganma video is much funnier; we now have another amongst the slings and arrows.
If your response to the existence of a Chinese person online is to spam China memes at them, it doesn’t matter how innocent they might be. Mild criticism of the tactical shooter “Ready or Not” for including it as audio buried in the game files, attributed to “John Xina”, resulted in its Western fans spamming the Steam Reviews with social credit references and yes, that damn copypasta. Go to Reddit, and you’ll get the real pure strain stuff, with the kind of incredibly biting satire you’d expect from a subreddit focused on a Blue Lives Matter sim. The one odd standout are the users sincerely hoping the one Chinese poster in the thread can make it out of the mainland to, uh, not have to live in the same country as a minority of users complaining on Steam? Considering how little the overall user score was affected (it still has “Very Positive” reviews and remains on Steam’s bestseller list), we can see this an even more absurd case of the manufactured outrage gamers love to peddle, using small numbers of Twitter posts that are sufficiently “SJW” to relitigate old arguments from GamerGate. They’re madder about a Kotaku article now, with users pleading others to not mod in its office to reenact some very normal things, no doubt. The more things change and all that. Still, that copypasta remains, with 327 people marking it helpful, still others giving it awards such as “Wholesome”, “Take my Points“, and “Slow Clap” because of course they did.
Covid has accelerated this. Lab leak conspiracy theories aside, being the source of a global pandemic has always engendered xenophobia. As part of Operation Denver, the KGB seeded news articles alleging the US created AIDS. Such a top-down operation is no longer necessary. Soundbites from pundits are the accelerant, not the fuel. The benefit of BBS systems was their locality and specificity, that aforementioned 25 cent fee on the earliest akin to Something Awful’s membership fee, enough to give a troll pause. These circles didn’t go away. After all, it’s the World Wide Web, bridges of cyber silk between anchor points, eventually resembling a spiral. Instead of the internet being decentralised, it has multiple centres. The internet is accessible to almost 60% of the world’s population, but most are served by American companies, albeit poorly. Facebook managed to facilitate the genocide in Myanmar in part because their overworked moderators are too busy trawling through gore, porn and Q-Anon, the majority not even understanding the language of the country they suddenly expanded into. Cyber sovereignty is very real. It’s just the empire of the United States.
In 2004, Rammstein released “Amerika”, a blunt anthem against the New American Century. I still remember singing, “We’re all living in Amerika/Coca-Cola, sometimes war” in a KTV, much to the chagrin of an American coworker. But that song was released amidst the War on Terror, a campaign that those outside of America and its various targets could largely ignore. Fast forward to 2019, and they release Deutschland, a piece far more introspective, reflecting on the rot of Germany’s past, the chorus integrating the opening lines of the Deutschlandlied, of which only the third stanza remains as the national anthem, the rest tainted by the legacy of Nazism. Yet the song primarily refers to the present- so what changed? After all, Germany has had to wrangle with its past for a very long time. What had changed was those same dark forces rising again. I’m not going to claim that the rise of the far-right in Europe is the fault of America or the internet, at least not entirely. To regard the rise of fascism as an inevitability across the world makes some kind of sense but ignores the differing circumstances each country faces. So it has always been, but now a fabric connects them all. Tommy Robinson (disgusting racist shitheel helpfully labelled by Wikipedia as an “activist”) can ally with the German anti-Islam organisation PEGIDA and strengthen both thanks to the likes of Facebook, who can only ineffectually ban members months (or sometimes years!) after they’ve done their damage. Therein lies the problem of us all living in America- America doesn’t know what to do with the world, and it might not even know what to do with itself.
Let’s take a break from doomerism. Hebei Pangzai (literally Hebei (province) fat guy) is the only pure example I can think of Chinese memes enjoyed by both sides of the cold war. Not that his videos are, uh, completely pure, consisting entirely of the most powerful bald dude in the universe drinking ungodly amounts of baijiu, often with fire and (for some reason) egg yolks. He became a Kuaishou (a Douyin/Tiktok competitor that’s more popular in certain parts of China) phenomenon, spreading internationally thanks to Twitter reuploads. Naturally, Kuaishou pulled the videos following a government crackdown on the “promotion of unhealthy lifestyles”. Whether this was just Kuaishou overreacting or genuine government pressure, it’s a fantastic own-goal for Chinese soft power. As I’ve often discussed with a friend, it doesn’t seem like generating a positive image of itself abroad is a priority for China. We have only had three superpowers in our modern history of capitalism, and it has only been America that’s sought to spread its tendrils throughout the world.
Nevertheless, it would be nice for China to promote themselves with something other than clumsy Global Times cartoons, then at least there would be a modern thing I could point my UK friends to in hopes of them not thinking I live in North Korea. The positive images of China abroad are limited to an appreciation of food, Hong Kong action movies and that broader fad of kung-fu. It’s good for Pangzai’s health that he’s slowing down on the upload schedule, though I miss seeing the reactions ranging from bewilderment to pride every time he posted. I hope he is a harbinger for more Chinese culture to break through organically since there’s certainly no institution that is succeeding in doing so. Some of the wholesome Douyin videos have crossed over unscathed, and memes about Shen Yun have indirectly spread the word of its bewildering content. Then again, if that show can contain a final dance in which “Chairman Mao appeared, and the sky turned black; the city in the digital backdrop was obliterated by an earthquake, then finished off by a Communist tsunami. A red hammer and sickle glowed in the center of the wave” and still retain its anodyne family image then Falun Dafa has truly rehabilitated its image in the West, memes or no memes.
What’s my horse in this race, anyway? I’m not Chinese. Do I want to get everyone to like China? No. We should probably stop cheering on countries like football teams or defending them like fanboys in console wars. China is a country, a superpower, with all the marvels and baggage that entails. It has an ideological goal that I am more supportive of than America’s, and it’s certainly better than the nihilistic no-future of the UK.
I guess my worry is I would have been part of this tide. Yes, travel is an excellent antidote to xenophobia, but here is one of the few countries where I can leave the standard sphere of the American internet without having to be fluent in another language. Using my VPN to bypass that firewall has not made me a total convert to Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Theory of Three Represents, the Scientific Outlook on Development and Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, but it serves the same purpose that 25 cent coin slot did. It offers a moment between disconnection and connection. Without it, I’d be living in cyber America twenty-four hours a day, a world not just dominated by American popular culture but one that forces engagement with the minutiae of American politics. That Q-Anon, a conspiracy theory explicitly centred around Donald Trump saving America, can take root in the likes of Germany and Australia even after he left office is mindbending. A cult probably started by a katana-wielding dork that has created its overlapping web of connections to every conspiracy theory on the planet, one that’s certainly helped to traffic both lab-leak and anti-vax conspiracies, and around and around we go. Taiwan’s official Twitter account even wields meme formats created by Americans. They avoid the racist ones, but it demonstrates how memes really are the modern propaganda poster.
The modern dystopia is not a ruthlessly efficient AI creating its idea of a perfect world, but flailing algorithms fuelled by our worst instincts, growing larger and more sprawling by serving those same instincts. I’m lucky that none of my family or friends has descended into any conspiratorial abysses, but the waters of their more palatable strains have lapped at their feet. It’s not a matter of how smart or resilient you are. These waves will erode you, rush into your cracks of trauma and pain. It is the prevailing wind of our online culture, and it has invaded the real world, too. The pandemic has not only killed millions worldwide but provided the perfect pressure cooker to annihilate family ties, only to be replaced with new groups who share their newfound delusions, of which Q is only one.
Speaking of Q, here we can see a more deliberate, if ineffectual, infiltration. Someone is uploading Q-anon songs to QQ music, including the incredible J.T. Wilde song “Where We Go One, We Go All”, in case you were wondering how subtle they are. There’s also “Let’s Go Brandon Christmas”, though regrettably, the lyrics have no translation into Chinese, which I would have loved to have seen. These songs have a couple of likes a pop, with no comments. I have met more Chinese people than I expected who profess to like Donald Trump or at least begrudgingly respect him. I don’t know if Q-Anon would ever be able to take root here, but the 20th century had its fair share of cults in China, too. I don’t want to give the firewall credit for shielding the country from the influence of these modern cults, rather a combination of admittedly harsh crackdowns on cults as well as having a guiding ideology that prevents some of these mind-viruses.
Western memes penetrate the firewall, of course. Pepe the Frog is an altogether more wholesome figure in China, appearing in official collaborations with HeyTea and perhaps most famously used as a symbol in the Hong Kong protests. Then again, he was around people yelling “obscene epithets” at Lebron James, so perhaps he hasn’t gone so far from this 4chan persona after all. Reaction gifs and rage faces pervade WeChat conversations. Playlists of meme songs from Crab Rave to Shooting Stars have thousands of likes and comments. Bobby Hill of King of the Hill became the subject of many Chinese macros for reasons I’m still not entirely sure of. When memes fail to make the jump, there are still mirrors. Antiwork, a hugely popular subreddit dedicated to uh, what you’d expect, has a lot in common with one of China’s most popular recent buzzwords, 躺平 (lying flat), a call to disconnect from the rat race, and with society at large. There’s more than a whiff of the hikikomori to the latter, but both are understandable responses to crushing workloads and wage theft, all compounded by our friend the pandemic. Unfortunately, like many internet political movements (Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring et al.), they are entirely reactive, without a vision for a future society. I suppose it’s okay that that isn’t the goal, and I don’t think it’s down to a failure of imagination. The medium is the message, from expressing grief on Twitter through crying emojis and the letter “F” to online communities that cannot organise anything thanks to algorithms and upvote-based dopamine hits. “Lying Flat” admittedly has it worse, being a meme in the traditional sense, roaming the net without anywhere to truly call home. We will never know whether that home would make the community fester as the likes of /r9k/ did in the past or evolve into something more productive.
“I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.”
Richard Brautigan, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
Lest I give you the impression that this toxic memery belongs only to the West, note that China too has extremely online men complaining about Chinese models being too ugly sans horrifying whitening and smoothing filters, eyes like dinner plates, forever smiling with blinding white teeth. Just as capitalism files away the rough edges and co-opts radical ideas, so too does socialism with Chinese characteristics, redefining lying flat as an attempt to “recharge and prepare to fight better tomorrow”, according to the National Language Resources Monitoring and Research Centre. You could be snarky and use these parallels as evidence of China not being socialist, and while I think such a conclusion is reductive, I have to admit there are similar impulses at work here. Socialism with Chinese characteristics may seek to cage the bird of the free-market, but it has not been able to fill the void of purpose that free-market engenders worldwide. At least not yet. I’ll choose to err on the side of optimism, considering, unlike in my home country, the quality of life for the average Chinese person has increased over decades, not decreased. I think of my rotting hometown, which is chiefly known for a George Orwell book about its crushing poverty and a viral video about “smack barm pey wet”. Each time I go back, it’s only worse, pawnshops, discount liquor stores and bookmakers like carrion crows picking at its corpse, with no help given to its most destitute, instead sharing the burden across its populace. No wonder cans of Special Brew litter the street, below signs decrying public alcoholism as antisocial behaviour, not considering that people get loaded in the street for a reason beyond some kind of moral failing.
Shoots may sprout under crushing boots. Whether we wait until the current order dries and cracks or it’s torn apart by force, the internet is too fluid to stand the containment of a few social media monopolies. If a genuinely decentralised internet is possible is a question relevant as much to politics as it is to psychology, but I certainly don’t think Web3 garbage is the way forward. Even if NFTs were completely carbon neutral and didn’t look rancid, there’s no evidence that their widespread implementation would affect anything other than how the existing monopolies monetise themselves. The metaverse, that great buzzword, also shows no real exciting change. No wonder it’s being promoted most aggressively by Facebook, laundering their image through disgusting Second Life avatars and the promise that you too can glitch through the wall as you try and buy an NFT of virtual street art. VR promised to let you experience the inexperienced, see and do things completely impossible, escape from reality. Now, this is rendered down to wearing your Oculus- sorry, MetaQuest at home so you can view a version of your home in the Alegria art style with an even grosser amount of internet content flowing directly into your eyeballs. There is no future that the internet can offer or even promise as it is now. Those shoots are in these net-Luddite communities like Neocities, projects that, while mired in nostalgia (guilty as charged), serve as purposefully absurd, work-intensive and poorly monetisable corners of personal space, a brief break from homogenisation. Is it the future? Probably not. I don’t know what is. But really, your choices are about all you have control over in this moment, online. Our great digital mirror. The internet isn’t good for organising as long as businesses mediate our efforts and communication. The structures outside of it will have to be changed before it will follow suit. They are too intertwined.
In 1996, John Perry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, wrote “A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace”. It’s libertarian and very flowery (perhaps expected for a Grateful Dead lyricist), but I don’t look at it as some work of folly. It’s more just a bit depressing.
“Your increasingly obsolete information industries would perpetuate themselves by proposing laws, in America and elsewhere, that claim to own speech itself throughout the world. These laws would declare ideas to be another industrial product, no more noble than pig iron. In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish.”
Though censored by laws worldwide, the internet would be damaged far more by business than any government. Ideas became a commodity because sites the size of countries made their users into their prime commodities. The phrase “if you’re not paying for it, then you’re not the customer, you’re the product being sold” is a meme in itself, stretching back to the days of broadcast television as the dominant medium. The difference with that relationship now is not just in scale, but that the internet is participatory. The motto of Community Memory was “make a connection”, and now we don’t only make connections, but have everything connected. That’s partly why the Tiananmen Square copypasta puts Winnie the Pooh on the same level as atrocities. Politics is entertainment. Hunger Games salute at a protest. Entertainment is politics. Watch South Park, that’ll stick it to them, whoever they are this week. This has been true since before the internet, of course. Adorno and Horkheimer wrote extensively on this merge, coining the term “culture industry” to describe the factory-like production of mass culture and how it compared (and was integral to) the fascism they escaped.
“We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.” Maybe it’s possible. The fantasy of the Matrix was that unplugging will change your reality. There is no “The One”, though—just us.
Until then, I’m going to take a bit of a break.
From a world
All ruled over
by memes of loving grace.