All posts by Renee Cai

Thesis moment and RBA Roadmap

Creative title, right?

Research Question and Working Thesis:

How can online activism in China transcend the boundaries of strict censorship imposed by the Chinese Communist Party to create meaningful change? Current Chinese “activist” groups such as public interest NGOs have been permitted to remain online by only promoting causes  that are deemed “unthreatening” by the Chinese government and do not outwardly challenge its authority (e.g. campaigns for endangered species, charities for rural school children, environmental awareness, etc.) These institutions have been allowed to advocate for their causes to the Chinese web population because they choose to avoid oppositional politics and purposely seek a non-confrontational approach to their “activism.” However, this current mode of compliance and coexistence only solidifies the Chinese government’s  monolithic control over the Internet, as these public interest groups satisfy the desires of netizens to collectively create social change and provides a semblance of offline involvement that true activism would otherwise create. To avoid this type of false online activism that acquiesces to the oppressive government’s censorship and thought control, the collective potential of social media must be harnessed. With its pervasive reach (over 91% of all Chinese netizens use social media daily) and speed (a subversive blog post can reach up to 5 million reblogs within the first thirty minutes of its creation, far before many censors can react), social media in China has the power to draw public attention to the many violations of freedom of speech and expression in modern China.

As a road map for the remainder of my RBA, I plan to highlight specific examples of the efficacy of social media in mobilizing enormous groups of netizens around government-targeted activism (e.g. corruption, imprisonment of human rights lawyers, etc.) I also hope to address the small instances when online outrage over governmental corruption does result in change, albeit small — are these small appeasements meant to defuse a momentous collective action? How does the Chinese government prevent the many social media outbursts from escalating into an outright revolution or rebellion?

If you have any suggestions or examples that are relevant, please let me know! Thanks for reading 🙂


CENSORED – an infographic 

The feedback I received, both in-class and outside of class, was incredibly useful in narrowing down my research topic and reorganizing my research proposal. For example, during the proposal peer review, many of my classmates noted that the way I concealed information about the true meaning of the characters “占占占占人 占占占点 占占点占 占点占占 点占占占 灬占占占占” until the concluding paragraph was potentially confusing for many readers. Instead, they found that it would be more effective if I revealed the truth at the beginning before delving into the history of freedom of speech and Internet censorship in China, so as not to leave the audience guessing.

Furthermore, I reorganized the way I introduced background information in my proposal after hearing positive feedback about the way I formatted the statistics and facts on my Genre Modes infographic. As you can see on the first few panels of the infographic, appealing to logos by including indisputable facts about the scope of the issue at the beginning of the page demands the audience’s attention and immediately creates a framework to structure future arguments. From the concrete statistics about Chinese internet usage to the abstract concepts of wordplay, parody, and collective action, I am able to craft the narrative of internal subversion by setting the stage properly with adequate information and context.

I was also inspired by the comments on both my research proposal and Genre Modes presentation to research more about subtle character slang that Chinese people use to subvert the censorship system. For example, 大裤衩 (dà kùchǎ) or “Big Boxer Shorts” is the internet nickname for the China Central Television building in Beijing, because of its stunning similarity

  • 喝茶 (hē chá) or “to drink tea” is code for a police interrogation, in which police would use bribes or coercion (tea) to get people to confess.

There are many, many more amusing examples to be found online, and I’m so delighted to start exploring them.

In conclusion, I’d like to reframe my research question and start working towards a possible thesis for my RBA:

To what extent and through which methods can Chinese citizens subvert censorship and mobilize activism in modern Communist China?

I’ll be looking at examples, both past and ongoing, from internet archives and reading (extensive) literature on the growth of videos, memes, internet slang, and sublanguage to answer the research question. Let me know if you have any suggestions or ideas!



Hashtags, Fur, Multi-colored women, and Firewalls

It was difficult enough for me to even make this list of topics, let alone choose one to focus on as a potential research topic. Narrowing down an ever-expanding list of activist topics I find interesting was like asking which of my twenty children I loved the most, and being forced to axe the rest.

1. #Hashtivism: Social Media Activism or “Hashtivism” (Hashtag Activism)
“Slacktivism,” “Hashtivism,” or whatever condemning nickname it currently boasts has come under heavy criticism as a symbol of younger generation “apathy.” Instead of traditional forms of activism or protest, millenials and Gen X-ers are taking to the web to express their dismay or outrage over political and social activist issues. From #Kony2012 to #ALSicebucketchallenge, the endless list of petitions on, and FB status updates, how effective are these massive online campaigns? Is this Generation X/Y/Z’s revolutionary version of rioting and open air protests, the distant off-spring of college student protests in the 1960s? Or is online activism merely a self-serving badge used to bolster personal profiles? Is this form of activism sustainable, or is it dangerously contributing to the proliferation of so-called “echo chambers” that censor dissenting views and encourages the creation and sharing of fake news.

2. Animals over Humans (Animal Rights Extremists)
Although a small minority, these extremists appear often in the media for their often violent shock tactics and can discredit or embarrass existing animal rights groups. Using death threats, physical violence, property destruction (arson), and other forms of illegal coercion, these extremists often target science institutions and researchers using animals for cancer studies or drug tests as well as food producers and law enforcement. The most prominent extremist animal rights group in recent history has been the Animal Liberation Front, who are estimated to have caused over 1,100 criminal acts in the U.S. since 1976 with damages amounting to $110 million by the FBI.

3. Intersectionality in Feminism
The history of feminism in the United States often overlooks the participation of racial and sexual minority groups in the struggle towards equality. Even today, where many feminist college groups and activist groups are dominated by white, heterosexual women, and black, Asian, or LGBTQ+ women are left to form their own separate groups. Is it more important to assimilate feminist groups into a cohesive coalition or to acknowledge distinct cultural differences and backgrounds with specialized communities? What happens when identity politics are ignored in the push for gender equality? Can true equality be achieved when there is an existing imbalance in feminist discourse

4. Not Your Music, Not Your Headdress
With growing awareness over the potential offensiveness of culturally-themed Halloween costumes (2016 Yale student protests), white-washing in Hollywood (Gods of Egypt, Doctor Strange, Ghost in the Shell, etc.) and the co-opting of black music by white artists for profit (Iggy Azalea vs. Nicki Minaj). However, some are arguing that people are taking the concept of appropriation too far; for example, the criticism by the LGBT community of a Christian church’s Christmas display that involved rainbows. Where is the line drawn between appropriation and appreciation? Furthermore, there is the growing question of whether or not the “culture of the majority” can be appropriated. Is there such thing as “white” or “straight” culture, and is it vulnerable to the same level of appropriation as minority cultures?
5. The Great Firewall of China (Likely Topic) 
When we think of censorship in history, we are often reminded of widespread book-burnings during the Nazi regime, or the repressive dictatorships of Soviet Russia. However, it’s important to realize that the world’s most extensive and restricting government censorship is occurring in today’s world: Communist China. It is often the source of many jokes to those traveling briefly to China (“Not going to be on FB for a few weeks, going to the Great Firewall of China!”), but the everyday reality of government-monitored Internet access is bleak. Those accused of signing online petitions, researching politically sensitive material (Tian An Men Square massacre, Tibetan independence) , contacting unapproved social groups through email, or simply posting anti-government views on their personal social media sites may be imprisoned — in fact, China has “the largest record of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world.” Despite predictions that a censorship program of this scale could not last, China’s Internet censorship has thrived. It now involves over 2 million government agents and although VPNs may be used to “jump the Firewall,” less than 2% of China’s 1.4 billion people attempt to. The Chinese government dictates all political discourse, shutting down any discussion (no matter how private) of government corruption and disagreements with party policies. Using carefully cultivated social media sites (Weibo instead of Twitter, WeChat instead of Facebook, Baidu instead of Google), China doesn’t mind that these American companies refuse to operate in their country on the basis of privacy violations — they merely create their own platforms. How can the most populous country in the world sustain this level of censorship? How are activists fighting back, and where can they go (besides jail)? What are the implications of this “information prison” on the minds of the Chinese people? What can the rest of the world do?

Let me know what you think of these topics, and I welcome any suggestions! 

(edit: Added title)

Recuperation: Culture Jamming and Hacktivism

Despite activists’ best efforts, even the most transgressive of actions can be co-opted by the very structures they attempt to oppose. In his 2002 book Activism!, University of Sussex professor Tim Jordan illustrates how the activist technique of “culture-jamming” can backfire. Using the “bloodless terror” of semiotic terrorism to undermine and question ubiquitous symbols, culture jamming seeks to dismantle the insidious codes built by corporations and states to generate unconscious desires (104). Common examples of these subversive, often highly irreverent culture jams include billboard defacement by the Billboard Liberation Front and Adbusters, in which they use the same language as the target corporation to “[make] explicit” the subtle codes that influence desire (Absolut Vodka becomes “Absolut Impotence” or “Absolut End”) (107).

However, just as how culture jammers can assimilate their opposition’s  language into their own for transgression, corporations and states can likewise co-opt culture-jamming techniques for their own benefit. Jordan claims that this phenomenon, “recuperation,” greatly undermines culture jamming because it is merely a reinforcement of codes (114). For example, the enormous amount of press generated when anti-Nike culture jammers had a “billboard war” with the company allowed Nike’s campaign to receive publicity “they could not have gotten from any ‘normal’ ad campaign” (113). Furthermore, Nike even commissioned authors to disseminate their supposed cultural critique, raising further doubts about the efficacy of culture jamming. Other corporations, such as Box Fresh in London, use the same “subversive” symbols and rhetoric as activists groups (Zapatista guerillas graffitied on walls with “We are you” slogans pasted underneath) to advertise their own products — and in the process, generate free publicity when the culture-jamming spacehijackers responded in outrage (115).

Culture jamming, unfortunately, isn’t the only activist technique being connaturalized by corporations and states. Hacktivism too, has been used by states to wage war against each other through delegitimization under the banner of free speech and email leaks. This occurred most recently in the 2016 American election, in which an FBI and Homeland security investigation revealed that Russian hackers posing as American hacktivists unleashed a torrent of private documents aimed at delegitimizing the Clinton campaign and sowing distrust amongst American voters through media (“Assessing Russian ACtivities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”). The two prominent web presences in this hacking effort, Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks, mimicked the style of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to pose as hacktivists; Guccifer 2.0 claimed to be a “freedom fighter” who would point journalists to anti-Democratic National Committee documents, while DCLeaks pretended to be “launched by American hacktivists who respect and appreciate freedom of speech.” 

This undermining of yet another technique used by many activists is terrifying, in that nobody can be quite sure of the intentions and backgrounds of their “fellow activists.” Doubt and mistrust is antithesis to solidarity and collective action, which is crucial to effective, transgressive “activism!”