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Seeking Chen Guangcheng's freedom in China via 'Internet meme'

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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. 

A small but potent community

This is not to say that China’s “memeosphere” is rife with political activity, Ms. Mina points out.  

The memeosphere is huge, and most of China’s meme culture is as apolitical as the English version: Cat pictures and visual jokes far outnumber political memes. Though ascertaining the size of the political meme community is difficult, Mina guesses that it numbers in the hundreds at least. She also gathers from the avatars that the community uses that it tends to be made up of youths born in the 1980s and ‘90s. That may help it avoid the censors, she says, as their online “language” flies over the heads of older people – like party officials and censors. The meme community’s size is also small enough that it can survive in the Chinese Web’s censored environment, by hiding in the background noise of the larger Internet.

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