Xu Hui (许晖): Twitter, the Symbolic Association of Grass Mud Horses

Xu Hui (许晖), independent author, publisher, blogger and Twitterer, was born in the 1960s and currently lives in Beijing. He wrote the following post on his Sina blog, translated by CDT:

Twitter, the Symbolic Association of Grass Mud Horses (1)

May 5, 2010, 11:41 AM

I have to thank my country. (2) Yesterday grass mud horses in both the north and the south held banquets. In the north, the Twitter tour arrived in Beijing and people gathered to eat dinner together and discuss the case of the three Fujian netizens who were accused on false charges. (3) However, the pandas (4) accused those present of “illegal gathering, eating and drinking.” They ordered the restaurant to cut off power and electricity and also expelled [the grass mud horses]—so in the end, the event was not a total success. In the south, Ai Weiwei rushed down to Hangzhou and invited people to dinner. Even though one would have expected a somber atmosphere after more than thirty twitterers had been “invited to teas” (5), there were still nearly two-hundred twitterers in attendance. And even though the pandas monitored the entire event, the atmosphere was still extremely lively and the proceedings were brought to a successful close.

These two banquets gave birth to a new word, “illegal eating and drinking.”(6)Twitterers have eagerly shown a desire to continue the glorious tradition of “illegal eating and drinking” and to host more of these meal-drunk [pun for “criminal”] communal dinners.

Look, Twitter Always Touches People Like This

One day in April at around 5:00 in the afternoon, someone posted a tweet on Twitter, “Oh Twitter god, tell me are there any twitterers in Dali?” By 7:00 I was already sitting down to do some “illegal eating and drinking” with Anzhu (7) at a Guizhou mutton restaurant. This twitterer brought along his elderly father and a Taiwanese friend. During dinner, the Taiwanese friend could not really understand why Anzhu and I hit it off so well. She said that in Taiwan, Twitter is just an internet service. I told her that Twitter means something completely different in the mainland than what it means in Taiwan. That is why when Twitterers in the mainland run into each other they always have a special kindred spirit type of feeling.

Many years ago when I commented on controversy surrounding Peking University’s ranking of “The Ten Most Uncivilized Behaviors” (8) I wrote the following: “Human bodies will forever keep the dictators awake at night with a mixture of love and hatred. Fleshy human bodies are the vessels of ingratiation but are also the tools of sedition. Without these bodies the rulers would have nothing to rule over. However, what fills them with silent dread are associations amongst these human bodies. From the perspective of an autocracy, “excessive closeness” between two human bodies is not permitted because it may set off a sort of avalanche effect—it may cause “excessive closeness” between even more and more human bodies which will set off “excessive closeness” between innumerable human bodies. Dictators despise this sort of outcome. Associations between human bodies are the source of their paranoia and will forever keep them worrying awake at night.

This is the autocracy’s Achilles’ heel; they are delighted when with the wave of a hand they can control gatherings of people such as reviews of the troops or patriotic assemblies. What they fear the most are gatherings of people that they cannot control with the wave of a hand, such as any manner of protests, such as twitterers’ scrutiny of the case of the three Fujian netizens who were wrongly accused, or such as the two grass mud horse banquets that were held last evening.

I call Twitter the “symbolic association of grass mud horses.” It is just like Michael Anti (9) said, Twitter is the first uncensored, public, free speech zone in China’s autocratic history. Besides Twitter, no other domestic microblog can say the same. According to somewhat incomplete statistics, there are approximately 150 thousand Chinese Twitter accounts, of which about 80 thousand are active. This small bunch of people from varying backgrounds each find their own way over the Great Firewall of China (GFW) to gather together on this small Twitter platform. There, they speak unrestrainedly, no topic is off limits. What a harmonious scene of free speech! This is what I told Anzhu’s Taiwanese friend: because people in Taiwan have free speech, they look at Twitter as just a kind of internet service; however, we do not have free speech, that is why this small group of “free speech pioneers” naturally have this special kindred spirit feeling amongst themselves.

These meetings together in real life of twitterers who harbor basically the same demands has emerged as a kind of symbolic “association.” Even though this is just a symbolic “association” it is enough to distress the dictators’ delicate hearts. It has caused them to tighten things up as they face imaginary foes whom they treat as formidable enemies. Perhaps that’s because they know that revolution is all about inviting friends to dinner parties. (10)

Translator’s note:
1 The grass mud horse, which sounds nearly the same in Chinese as “f*** your mother,” was originally created as a response to government censorship of obscene content. It has since developed an additional meaning than its homonym; one who is a “grass mud horse” is someone who is web-savvy and critical of government attempts at censorship.
2 The phrase, “I have to thank my country” is a sarcastic phrase used after mentioning an action taken by the state with only minor benefits and substantial losses or costs. For example, “The world should really thank the country for spending USD 58 billion on such a great World Expo,” or “Kim Jung-Il should really thank the country for showing him such a good time while he’s in China.” It can also be used when the government takes small measures to address a problem the government is accused of being responsible for. For example, “I have to thank my country for ending the cultural revolution,” or, “I have to thank the country for punishing the two people who were responsible in the tainted milk scandal.”
3 The three Fujian netizens, “Fan Yanqiong (范燕琼), Wu Huaying (吴华英), and You Jingyou (游精佑) were convicted of ‘slander’ for posting articles and video online urging government officials to investigate the alleged rape and murder of a young woman.” From http://chrdnet.org/2010/04/16/three-fujian-digital-activists-convicted-as-thousands-gather-in-landmark-protest/
4 The panda is one of China’s national treasures (guobao). Incidentally, “national treasure” sounds the same in Chinese as the Domestic Security Department, or DSD. The DSD(国内安全保护支队)is a branch of the police force within the Ministry of Public Security, specializing in collecting intelligence, infiltrating and dealing with political dissidents, human rights activists, petitioners, religious groups as well as “subversive” activities in the cultural, educational and economics domains.
5 Drinking Tea” (喝茶) is now a common vocabulary in online political discourse. It refers to the widespread practices by DSD police or other authorities to harass, intimidate and conduct information-gathering on citizens for their political activities. For an account of one of these “teas” see CDT’s post here.
6 The phrase ”Illegally doing something” originated from an event in which a group of netizens went to Google’s China office to dedicate flowers when they heard that Google wass pulling out China, and the building security guards told them that their action was the “illegal laying of flowers.” After that, “illegally laying flowers” became a hot phrase online, especially among Chinese twitterers.
7 Anzhu (literally “peaceful pig) is a netizen’s screen name.
8 In 2005 Peking University ranked the Ten Most Uncivilized Behaviors. There was some discussion about the fact that “excessive closeness amongst lovers” made the list. The other nine uncivilized behaviors were; being late to or skipping class, carelessly spitting phlegm, stepping on the lawns, disturbing others’ rest in the dormitories, littering, cheating on exams, reserving seats in the library for excessive amounts of time, destroying public property, and not turning off cell phones in the classroom or library.
9 Michael Anti is a Chinese journalist and blogger. His Chinese blog can be found here.
10 This is a parody of a famous quote by Mao Zedong in which he said, “Revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”