Overt political criticism remains out-of-bounds for most online Chinese, as automated Internet filtering and alert human censors work to purge sensitive references. But memes allow Chinese Web users to express themselves by using a kind of guerrilla activism – avoiding the keywords that flag the automated filters and disguising political messages such that human censors cannot distinguish them from the overwhelming volume of innocuous online speech.
Take Chen’s captivity and subsequent escape, which have been inspiration for a number of Chinese memes. One of the simplest is the “Dark Glasses Portrait,” a phenomenon started in China, where Chen supporters take pictures of themselves wearing sunglasses in reference to the blind activist’s eyewear. In isolation, each photo does not trip the sensors of the “Great Firewall” – the photos are simply photos, the sunglasses simply sunglasses. But in the aggregate, the hundreds of photos send a loud message.
Other memes are more complex, using visual codes, parodies, and satire. An artist supporter of Chen created a satirical KFC ad, featuring a cartoon version of Chen in place of the Colonel, and the slogan “Free CGC.” The similarity to KFC ads, which can be found all over China, provides a loose disguise, enabling Chen’s supporters to post the image – say, as a bumper sticker – despite its political message.