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The Art of Political Memes

BEIJING — Just a few days after I wrote this post on the state of cosplay in China, and this one on the visual, street art-like responses to the Wenzhou train collision on Sina Weibo, I found this image circulating around Weibo. It’s based on the graphic image below, posted by Weibo user @zeeko. What’s striking about it is how quickly it leapt from the online world into the offline world. I’m used to to thinking of Internet memes, political or not, as restricted to online space.

I dug around and found it was Zeeko’s work, as he had constructed the costume himself and roamed around the halls of the Beijing Exhibition Centre during a convention. He posted a few photos of the costume on Douban, a social networking site popular amongst Chinese creatives. The costume itself isn’t explicitly critical of anything, and you see strange characters like this roaming around cosplay conventions all the time. But for those in the know, it must have been quite something to see indeed.

It’s not all fun and games, of course. Sina soon reasserted control, and I met a few people whose accounts were frozen and whose train crash-related messages were deleted (for reasons not clear to me, only a few people were affected; my account and those of many others had no issues).  I’m thinking now to other memes, like those explored in Janelle Grace’s look at responses to the London riots, which according to her have been a mixture of two extremes:

However, some of the social media memes that have been popping up are not out to analyze the situation and are seemingly uninterested in why the riots are happening. From what I’ve seen so far, the imagery widely distributed online regarding the riots has been sharply critical of the actions of the people looting and inciting violence, mirroring the sentiment of some of the tweets and posts I’ve seen suggesting that their behavior is simply mindless and should not be interpreted as political.

Vacuous or not, politically/sociologically-insightful or not, these images should have a right to exist and be disseminated.  That’s the core principle of free speech. With British Prime Minister David Cameron’s calls to restrict criminals’ use of social media in the United Kingdom, it’s important to remember that restricting posts critiquing the government is just a slippery slope away.

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