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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Scrawling graffiti on the Great Firewall

November 4, 2011

BY BROOK LARMER | 2948 words
The cellphone vibrated softly, insistently, echoing off the whitewashed
walls of the artist’s studio. It was a Sunday morning in early April, and
Wang Bo — an Internet animator better known to his legions of online fans
by his nickname, Pi San — ignored the call at first. He wanted no
intrusions. Pi San, 40, is most famous for creating a mischievous cartoon
character named Kuang Kuang, but he earns money by making animations for
corporations, and he was on a deadline. He had bicycled to his studio in a
defunct factory building on the outskirts of Beijing that morning, hoping
to finish up some work in peace. But the buzzing of the phone did not
stop. The moment Pi San picked up, the caller blurted out the news: state
security agents had just detained Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous
contemporary artist and a government critic. Pi San spat out a profanity.
Over the previous six weeks, hundreds of bloggers had vanished into police
custody in one of the harshest assaults on social activism in decades. Now
they had Mr. Ai. And if he could be arrested, was any independent thinker
in China safe? Pi San had reason to be scared. He and Mr. Ai were friends.
A few weeks earlier the two artists talked about collaborating on a
satirical Internet animation. Though a bit wary of Mr. Ai’s Web activism,
Pi San admired his daring exhibitions in New York, Berlin and London. The
most recent show had consisted of 100 million sunflower seeds made of
porcelain, symbols of the Chinese people laid out across the floor of the
Tate Modern in London. Pi San quickly posted the news about Mr. Ai’s
detention on Sina Weibo, China’s closely monitored equivalent of Twitter.
An invisible censor deleted the message in seconds. He then tried posting
a cartoon drawing of Mr. Ai, the better to evade China’s word-sensitive
filtering software. But the image disappeared, too — a sign that a human
being, not computer software, had deleted the drawing. Now the creative
synapses started firing. ‘‘I had to do something to lift the fear,’’ Pi
San told me later. ‘‘Others might write or protest; I make animations.’’
He and a colleague worked feverishly through the night on a 54-second
Flash animation titled ‘‘Crack Sunflower Seeds.’’ The animation takes
place in Kuang Kuang’s school, where a little girl is speaking over the
loudspeakers. ‘‘Once upon a time,’’ she begins, ‘‘there was a Chinese man
selling sunflower seeds.’’ Suddenly, a black cartoon hand yanks her off
the set. A succession of announcers tries to tell the same story, but the
black hand pulls them off, too, each time more quickly than the last.
Finally, it is Kuang Kuang’s turn. The boy hems and haws and, giving up,
sighs in exasperation: ‘‘Ai.’’ A word bubble appears with the Chinese
character for the sigh, virtually the same as Mr. Ai’s surname. Kuang
Kuang is hauled off, screaming. In the next frame, the black hand sweeps
away sunflower seeds arranged in the same ‘‘Ai.’’ Then we hear a grating
sound — teeth meeting porcelain — followed by an off-screen scream: ‘‘Damn
it! Who sold us these fake sunflower seeds?’’ Pi San finished the
animation before dawn on April 4, less than 24 hours after Mr. Ai was
detained. With a few clicks, he sent ‘‘Crack Sunflower Seeds’’ into
cyberspace, posting it onto China’s top video Web sites. In just a few
hours, a million or more people watched the animation online. Then the
video began disappearing from Chinese Web sites one by one. Pi San lashed
out at the censors in a Weibo post: ‘‘You’re like the eunuch who gets
worried before the emperor does!’’ There was no response. Even in his
anger, Pi San was left wondering if the black hand would come for him. No
government in the world pours more resources into patrolling the Web than
China’s, tracking down unwanted content and supposed miscreants among the
online population of 500 million with an army of more than 50,000 censors
and vast networks of advanced filtering software. Yet the Internet is
flourishing as the wittiest space in China. ‘‘Censorship warps us in many
ways, but it is also the mother of creativity,’’ says Hu Yong, an Internet
expert and associate professor at Peking University. Chinese bloggers have
become masters of comic subterfuge, cloaking their messages in layers of
irony and satire. So pervasive is this irreverent subculture that the
Chinese have a name for it: ‘‘egao,’’ meaning ‘‘evil works’’ or, more
roughly, ‘‘mischievous mockery.’’ In its simplest form, egao lampoons the
powerful without being overtly rebellious. President Hu Jintao’s favorite
buzzword, ‘‘harmony,’’ which he deploys constantly when urging social
stability, is hijacked to signify censorship itself, as in, ‘‘My blog’s
been harmonized.’’ Satirical threads sweeping across the Internet can
often seem like brush fires whose origins are lost in the conflagration.
But behind every outbreak are individuals probing the limits of
self-expression, flirting with the blurry line between the permissible and
the punishable. Over the past several months I followed Pi San and the
blogger Wen Yunchao, in an effort to understand the dynamics of
‘‘mischievous mockery’’ and the increasingly serious game of cat-and-mouse
taking place along China’s digital front lines. Growing up as the oldest
child in a poor family in rural Guangdong Province, Mr. Wen, who is 39,
was not always keen to get politically involved. When army tanks crushed
the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Beijing, Mr. Wen, who was then a
middle-school student prone to skipping class, applauded the crackdown.
‘‘I agreed with the government that it was necessary to prevent chaos,’’
he recalls. Mr. Wen’s most daring act in college — he was assigned to
study machine welding at a technical institute in Harbin, in the far north
— was to smuggle in Cantonese pornography and pop music to help him endure
the long winters. His Internet ‘‘awakening,’’ as he calls it, came years
later, when he toiled at a power station near the southern city of
Guangzhou, where he now lives. One night after clocking out, Mr. Wen
watched a television special beamed in from nearby Hong Kong that
contradicted the official story of the 1989 massacre. Finding a trove of
information online to confirm its veracity — this was before the Great
Firewall, erected in 2003, blocked such terms as ‘‘June 4’’ — he emerged
with a new conviction: ‘‘The Internet will open the door of democracy.’’
Mr. Wen transformed himself over the next decade into an information
machine, first as a journalist and then as a blogger. Covering events for
state-run newspapers and, later, for government television, he produced
reports that toed the official line. On the Internet, though, he adopted a
more freewheeling persona, writing a popular blog called ‘‘Ramblings of a
Drunkard’’ under a pseudonym. Soon, Mr. Wen moved full time online,
working for the Chinese Internet company Netease and moonlighting as one
of the country’s earliest citizen journalists. It was not long before Mr.
Wen started initiating satirical campaigns in defense of free speech — in
one instance even helping spring a fellow blogger from jail. The censors
were never far behind. First a few posts were blocked, then Mr. Wen’s
entire blog, then the Chinese Internet portal he used. An overseas Web
server worked until the Great Firewall shut it out, too. Riding the next
wave of technology, Mr. Wen began typing out 140-character blasts on
Twitter and China’s fast-growing microblogging sites. The government,
hard-pressed to keep up, leans on Web companies to censor their own
content in return for ‘‘self-discipline’’ points needed to renew licenses.
‘‘No place is safe anymore,’’ Mr. Wen says. ‘‘But whenever censorship
grows, so do the opportunities for sarcasm and satire.’’ Not long ago, Mr.
Wen even dared to take aim at China’s most unassailable icon: Mao Zedong.
On the anniversary of Mao’s death in 2009, Mr. Wen urged his online
followers to join a devious ‘‘de-Maoification’’ campaign. Since ‘‘mao’’ is
also the Chinese word for ‘‘hair,’’ he suggested posting before-and-after
shots of shaved body parts — people literally ‘‘getting rid of mao.’’
Among the hundreds of images of shorn beards and hair-free legs that
flashed across the Web that day was Mr. Wen’s own contribution: a photo of
his rotund belly with its hair in a topiary of the ‘‘t’’ of the Twitter
logo. Mr. Wen’s abdominal salute was funny, but it was also a manifesto
for a more open China — and a dangerous move in his showdown with the
Chinese authorities. When Pi San was a young boy, his parents used to
smack his hand with a ruler every time they caught him drawing cartoons in
his school books. ‘‘I was a mediocre student,’’ says Pi San, whose family
lived in a copper-mining town in Shanxi Province. ‘‘My parents thought my
doodling doomed me to a life in the mine.’’ Despite the punishment, Pi San
kept drawing. Nearly two decades later, he runs Hutoon, the animation
company he founded in 2005. Hutoon’s staff of 50 young designers fills
most of a floor in ‘‘798,’’ the trendy district of art galleries, studios
and cafes in northeastern Beijing. A few years ago, Hutoon produced an
animated series for China Central Television — the government’s main
propaganda arm — but Pi San chafed at the lack of creative freedom. Now he
and his staff crank out animated Internet ads and videos for clients
including rock stars and Fortune 500 firms like Motorola. In mid-April, I
watched Pi San and his crew work on an episode of ‘‘Ms. Puff,’’ Hutoon’s
most lucrative animation series and the first original animated content
commissioned by Youku, the Chinese equivalent of YouTube. Two weeks
earlier, Youku had been one of the first Web sites to delete ‘‘Crack
Sunflower Seeds.’’ This didn’t matter to Pi San. Hutoon’s financial future
depended on the success of ‘‘Ms. Puff.’’ ‘‘You have to have a split
personality to succeed in China,’’ he told me. ‘‘With some animations, I
make money. With others, I just make fun.’’ That afternoon, though, he was
preoccupied. There was no news of Mr. Ai, and Pi San’s thoughts about the
future — that of his wife and their 7-year-old son — cycled between anger,
fear and resignation. Leaving Hutoon’s main studio, he led me to a back
room filled with heaps of corrugated cardboard, which were the miniature
sets used in the Kuang Kuang animations. ‘‘This is where I come when my
emotions are running high,’’ Pi San said, bending down to examine the room
that is only 8 inches, or 20 centimeters, tall yet loomed so large in
‘‘Crack Sunflower Seeds.’’ Nearby was a tiny school building featured in
Pi San’s first Kuang Kuang animation in 2009, a swipe at the education
system called ‘‘Blow Up the School.’’ None of Pi San’s satires has caused
a greater sensation than ‘‘Little Rabbit, Be Good,’’ which came out in
January. An allegory based on real-life abuses of power, the animation
ends with the long-suffering rabbits rising in revolt. The video’s timing
was uncanny. A few weeks later, Beijing began detaining bloggers who
tweeted approvingly about the popular uprisings sweeping the Middle East
and North Africa. ‘‘I was worried,’’ Pi San said. ‘‘We never know where we
stand.’’ Most Chinese Internet users do not give the invisible line
between acceptable satire and detainable offense a second thought. Their
online activities remain safely within the confines of the Great Firewall.
But the boundary is of the utmost concern for a growing number of artists
and activists. Mr. Wen felt the line shift a year ago, after judges in
Oslo awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the jailed Chinese writer Liu
Xiaobo. Few Chinese had ever heard of the man behind Charter 08, the human
rights declaration that, like Mr. Liu’s name, was banned inside the Great
Firewall. But the government was apoplectic. Chinese officials smeared the
‘‘criminal’’ Mr. Liu in the press and blocked a raft of new words on the
Internet, even ‘‘Norway’’ and ‘‘Nobel.’’ When the banned words extended to
the phrase ‘‘empty chair’’ — the most conspicuous sign of Mr. Liu’s
absence at the Nobel ceremony — Mr. Wen hit on an idea. If the words were
not allowed, why not post photos of empty chairs as a tribute to Mr. Liu?
At his urging, bloggers posted dozens of seemingly innocuous pictures
online, from an empty chair in a Van Gogh painting to a magazine ad for an
Ikea lounger. The censors eventually caught on, but not before Wen had
turned a bit of microblog mischief into a human rights statement. Three
months later came the broad crackdown seeming to stem from Beijing’s
paranoia about the possible domestic repercussions from the uprisings in
the Middle East and North Africa. Mr. Wen was visiting Hong Kong when he
received an e-mail warning from Chinese public-security agents: ‘‘Don’t
come home. You’ll be arrested before you even see your wife and son.’’ Mr.
Wen decided to wait out the threats in Hong Kong, which is governed by
different laws than the rest of China. Mr. Wen’s absence may have spared
him detention or prison, but now he was in limbo. When I visited Mr. Wen
in Hong Kong in April, he was living in a temporary apartment. Dinner
consisted of a six-pack of beer followed by sausages fried up at 1 a.m. At
one point, he pulled out his BlackBerry. ‘‘Gone, gone, gone,’’ Mr. Wen
said, as he scrolled down a list of friends who had vanished, most likely
into police custody. Mr. Wen’s Twitter account was now swarming with the
gadflies of the 50-Cent Party, which is the nickname for commentators who
reportedly get paid 50 Chinese cents for every pro-government post. He
showed me the barrage of disparaging tweets he had received, along with
the text warnings from anonymous senders who seemed to know everything
about him: his identification number, his travel itineraries, even details
about his wife, his 10-year-old son and his parents. The following day, I
joined Mr. Wen on an excursion to Lingnan University, along Hong Kong’s
border with mainland China, where he was to give a talk about Internet
activism. On the train ride out, he spoke about his tenuous life in Hong
Kong. A local satellite television company had hired him to develop a show
that would beam propaganda-free reports into China. At night, Mr. Wen
still tweeted prodigiously. His wife and son would join him in Hong Kong
months later, but Mr. Wen’s inability to return freely to his homeland
left him depressed. ‘‘I got angry the other day when a friend called me a
‘liuwang,’ an exile,’’ he told me. ‘‘It’s such a sad word. I never thought
it would apply to me.’’ As a cocoon of heat enveloped Beijing last June,
Pi San began to wilt. Two months had passed since Mr. Ai was detained, and
the artist’s whereabouts were still unknown. Pi San shelved an idea for
another Kuang Kuang satire and began, for the first time, to consider
seriously his friends’ advice to leave the country. Then, on June 22, came
a surprise: Mr. Ai reappeared at his home after 81 days in detention. The
artist provocateur was uncharacteristically silent. Though not formally
charged with a crime, he was still under a form of house arrest. Many
artists and bloggers interpreted Mr. Ai’s release as a face-saving measure
to help Prime Minister Wen Jiabao avoid embarrassment when he traveled to
Europe a few days later. Dozens of lawyers and Internet activists were
still held in detention without formal charges, while the harassment of
others continued unabated. I dropped by Pi San’s studio again in July.
Business had never been better. The first 10 episodes of ‘‘Ms. Puff’’ had
pulled in an average of two million viewers. The Youku series’ success
raised ad rates, Hutoon’s largest source of revenue, and several other Web
portals had approached Pi San with offers. In his darkest moments, Pi San
vowed never to make another satire again. The risks to his family and
career were too high. Now, in the wake of Mr. Ai’s release, his fear was
subsiding. ‘‘I think the government still looks at what I do as just
cartoons, child’s play,’’ he said. It is a perception Pi San is happy to
embrace, even if, as he put it, ‘‘animated cartoons may be the most
realistic way to capture the absurdity of our country.’’ Not long ago, Pi
San started gravitating, once again, to the back room filled with
miniature cardboard sets. ‘‘I think I have a few moves left,’’ he said. He
has already mapped out three new Kuang Kuang episodes. The theme of the
next one? Pi San flashed a grin. ‘‘It’s a game of hide-and-seek.’’
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