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“This is what happens when you take the addictive power of an LOLcat and apply it in a ceonsorship state,” says An Xiao Mina, a writer, technologist and researcher who studies Chinese memes. On the TEDGlobal 2013 stage, she shares the moment that led her to this unusual specialty.
Two years ago, China’s government imposed a severe crackdown in which many human rights activists were rounded up. In April 2011, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei disappeared for 81 days after being detained at the Beijing airport. During that time, many of his associates were brought in for questioning, others went missing and still others became the subject of wiretaps. Meanwhile, anyone who posted Weiwei’s name or initials online in Chinese social media found their message deleted and, sometimes, their account gone. It was then that Mina noticed an interesting thing pop up on social media — sunflower seeds.
Sunflower seeds may be a popular nosh in China, but these seeds weren’t simply a snack — they referenced Weiwei’s installation of one million porcelain sunflower seeds, hand-painted by 1,600 Chinese artisans, at the Tate Modern in 2010. Posting a sunflower seed was an un-censorable way to show support for Weiwei. As Mina explains, it would be like censors in the United States trying to follow and suppress references to potato chips.
This is what internet memes in China do — they use visual motifs, leverage puns and dream up new words in order to get out a message while avoiding censorship or retribution. “It turns out that internet culture — a culture of rapid remixing and sharing of memes, or cultural units — is a compelling force against censorship,” Mina says. “A peek behind the curtain of the world’s most censored internet has so many corners of creativity as people find new ways to speak out.” (Check out this TED Blog piece looking at 8 examples of Chinese memes, written with Mina’s help last year.)