Where an Internet Joke Is Not Just a Joke


Published: October 26, 2011

Wen learned the true power of Internet humor not from a
joke but from a cry for help from a police interrogation room. Early one
morning in July 2009, Wen, who is 39, woke up in his apartment in the southern
city of Guangzhou to find a startling message on his Twitter feed:
 “I have been arrested by Mawei
police, SOS.”
 The jailhouse tweet was from Guo Baofeng, a young friend
and fellow blogger, referring to a district in the coastal city Xiamen, some
300 miles away. Minutes later came another tweet from Guo, also in English:
“Pls help me, I grasped the phone during police sleep.”

Then there was nothing.

Wen knew how easily people could disappear
into the labyrinths of China’s prison system. Guo, who was then a 25-year-old
English-language translator, had reposted a video in which the mother of a gang-raped
murder victim accused local Xiamen authorities of a cover-up. Now Wen wondered
how far the police would go to muzzle the messenger.

The tweets from detention — and the
silence that followed — unsettled Wen. But what could he do? Any direct protest
would be shut down immediately, even if people could overcome their fear to
participate. Then he noticed
 a phrase
that was going viral on the Internet
: “Jia Junpeng, your mother is
calling you home for dinner!”

The line’s origins were a mystery, but the
online masses latched onto it as a joking commentary on their Web-addicted
generation — lost in cyberspace, unreachable by the outside world. That very
day, millions retweeted the phrase. Wen, though, gave it a new twist. He urged
his tens of thousands of microblog followers to
postcards to the Mawei police station and post photos of them online
all with the same words: “Guo Baofeng, your mother is calling you home for

Nobody can know if the Internet campaign
made a difference. But instead of being lost in the prison system — four other
bloggers arrested for reposting the same video were sentenced to one to two
years in prison — Guo was released after 16 days. For Wen, the incident
crystallized his thinking. “Humor can amplify the power of the social media,”
he told me. “If it hits a nerve, like a case of injustice or abuse, it can be
contagious. It’s indirect — just a joke, right? — so people lose their fear of
getting involved.”

Growing up as the oldest child in a poor
family in rural Guangdong Province, Wen wasn’t always keen to get involved
himself. When army tanks crushed the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Beijing,
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. Wen’s most daring act in college — he was assigned to study
machine welding at a technical institute in Harbin, a city in China’s icy 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 Guangzhou. One night
after clocking out, 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.”

Hungry to learn more, 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 and commentaries 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, Wen moved full
time online, working for the Chinese Internet company Netease and moonlighting
as one of the country’s earliest citizen journalists. His first article, typed
into his cellphone, chronicled the 2007 street protests in Xiamen that succeeded
in halting construction of a chemical plant.

The censors were never far behind, turning
Wen’s life into a perpetual game of hide-and-seek. First a few posts were
blocked, then his 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, Wen began typing out 140-character blasts on Twitter
and China’s fast-growing microblogging sites. Weibo, a Twitter equivalent that
barely existed two years ago, now has 200 million users, churning out some 40
million messages a day. 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,” Wen says. “But whenever
censorship grows, so do the opportunities for sarcasm and satire.”

Not long ago, Wen even dared to target
China’s most unassailable icon: Mao Zedong. The chairman has been dead for 35
years, but his massive portrait still presides over Tiananmen Square. It is
just one sign of what Wen calls the “awful influence” wielded by the founder of
the People’s Republic. Ridiculing Mao is almost unthinkable in China today.
Even so, on the anniversary of Mao’s death in 2009, 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

Wen is a beer-bellied man with a thick
Abraham Lincoln-style beard. Among the hundreds of images of shorn beards and
hair-free legs that flashed across the Web that day was Wen’s own contribution:
a photo of his rotund belly with its hair in a topiary of the “t” of the
Twitter logo. 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 Chinese

When Pi San was a young boy — around the same age as his
impish creation, Kuang Kuang — his parents used to smack his hand with a ruler
every time they caught him drawing cartoons in the margins of his school books.
“I was a mediocre student,” says Pi San, whose family lived in a bleak
copper-mining town in the hills of Shanxi Province. “My parents thought my
doodling doomed me to a life in the mine.”

Despite the punishment, Pi San kept
drawing, even selling caricatures of Kung Fu heroes to his friends. Nearly two
decades later, Pi San runs Hutoon, the animation company he founded in 2005.
Hutoon’s staff of 50 young designers fills most of a floor in “798,” a trendy
district of art galleries, studios and cafes built on the remnants of a
military electronics factory in northeastern Beijing. The young men and women —
most dressed in black, like their boss — huddle over banks of computers, the
clicketyclack of keyboards resounding in the high-ceilinged industrial space.

When I first visited his fourth-floor
studio in early March, Pi San seemed to move easily between his roles as
entrepreneur and provocateur, a reflection of what he jokingly calls his
multiple-personality disorder. 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. “Even CCTV’s cartoons are
all about indoctrination, not entertainment,” he said. Now he and his staff
crank out animated Internet ads and videos for clients including rock stars and
Fortune 500 firms like Motorola and Samsung.

In mid-April, I watched Pi San and his
crew work on an episode of
Hutoon’s most lucrative animation series. Centered on a
risqué but apolitical female character — censors notice Puff only when the
strap on her camisole slips — the series is 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 his
anti-censorship satire, “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, the boss was
preoccupied. There was no news of Ai Weiwei, 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 eight-inch-tall room that
loomed large in “Crack Sunflower Seeds.”

Nearby was a tiny school building featured
in Pi San’s first Kuang Kuang satire in 2009, a mordant swipe at the education
system called “Blow Up the School.” An instant Internet sensation among Chinese
youth, the animation generated a few million hits on its first day and so
angered officials that they slapped him with a fine for “inappropriate content.”
As more irreverent Kuang Kuang videos appeared, Internet fan clubs formed in
nearly every Chinese province, turning the bubbleheaded boy and his creator
into minor cult figures.

None of Pi San’s work has evoked China’s
social ills more provocatively than “Little Rabbit, Be Good,” made last
January. The four-minute “greeting card” to mark the Chinese Year of the Rabbit
begins as a soothing bedtime story about bunny rabbits. But as Kuang Kuang
drifts off to sleep, the story morphs into a nightmare. Ruled by tigers (the
outgoing zodiac sign) who promise to “build a harmonious forest” — a pointed
jab at Hu Jintao’s catchphrase — the rabbits suffer an endless series of
abuses. Babies die from drinking poisoned milk. A protester fighting forced
eviction gets crushed under a tiger’s car. A reckless driver kills a rabbit in
a hit-and-run and boasts about his high-level police protection.

The thinly disguised allegory is based on
real-life events that sparked outrage on the Internet. The ending, however, is
sheer fantasy. Instead of accepting their fate, the rabbits rise up in revolt,
ripping their tiger overlords apart with their bare teeth in a catharsis of
“South Park”-style violence. The uprising ends with a warning: “Even rabbits
bite when they are pushed.”

Pi San knew “Little Rabbit” might have
crossed the line. After consulting a fortuneteller — “I wanted to know if this
would cause me trouble,” he said — he hedged his bets, uploading the video to a
few small fan Web sites in the middle of the night. “Little Rabbit” still
received more than 70,000 hits within two hours, he says. By the time censors
deleted the versions proliferating across the Internet two days later, an
estimated three to four million people had seen it. Local media didn’t touch
the story, but foreign journalists pressed him on the video’s political
message. His coy response: “I only made a fairy tale.”

Pi San’s dark satire landed just as
popular revolutions fueled by social media in Tunisia and Egypt were beginning
to topple dictators. A few weeks later, Chinese bloggers who alluded online to
the possibilities of a similar “jasmine” revolution in China would be detained.
“I was worried,” Pi San admitted. “The line moves all the time, so we never
know where we stand.”

Most Chinese Internet users don’t give the invisible line
between acceptable satire and detainable offense a second thought. They may
know it exists, but their online activities — shopping, blogging, gaming,
networking — 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. “The government’s primary means of control is the fuzzy line,” says
David Bandurski, a researcher at the
 China Media Project at Hong Kong University. “No one ever
knows exactly where the line is. The control apparatus is built on uncertainty
and self-censorship, on creating this atmosphere of fear.”

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
, the human-rights declaration that, like Liu’s name, was banned
inside the Great Firewall. But the government was apoplectic. Chinese officials
smeared the “criminal” Liu in the press, pressured foreign countries to boycott
the ceremony and blocked a raft of new words on the Internet, even “Norway” and

When the banned words extended to the
phrase “empty chair” — the most conspicuous sign of
absence at the Nobel ceremony
 — Wen hit on an idea. If the words were
not allowed, why not post photos of empty chairs as a tribute to Liu? “Everyone
has an empty chair,” Wen pleaded with his 40,000-plus followers on Twitter and
Weibo. “If we only watch, then one day [the empty chair] might appear by your
family’s dining table as well.” At his urging,
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 to the joke, 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. 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.” His was now the empty chair. Wen decided to wait out
the threats in Hong Kong, which is governed by different laws than the rest of
China. Wen’s absence may have spared him detention or prison, but now he was in

When I visited Wen in Hong Kong in April,
he was living in a temporary apartment with a row of shirts drip-drying in the
window. 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,” Wen
said, as he scrolled down a list of friends who had vanished, most likely into
police custody.

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 two
fake Twitter accounts the 50-Centers had set up to look like his. More menacing
were 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.

Early in the evening, Wen scoffed at the
intimidation attempts. “The government has too much invested in the Internet
financially to shut it down, so all it can do is resort to scare tactics,” he
said. But as the night wore on and the beer cans piled up, he confided: “I’m
worried they might pick me up even here in Hong Kong. I’m even more frightened
for my family.”

The following day, I joined 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, Wen still tweeted prodigiously, launching jokes and spoofs
over the Great Firewall, like a medieval catapulter outside the castle
ramparts. His wife and son would join him in Hong Kong months later, but 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.”

At the university that evening, a table
covered in red velvet had been set up on a small outdoor stage. Wen was handed
a microphone, but it proved unnecessary. Fewer than a dozen students stopped to
listen. The train home skirted within a few hundred yards of the mainland
Chinese border. Hurtling through the darkness, Wen looked up from his
BlackBerry and gazed out toward the border, the one line he may never cross

As a cocoon of heat and smog enveloped
Beijing last June, Pi San began to wilt. Two months had passed since Ai Weiwei
was detained, and the artist’s fate and whereabouts were still unknown. The
police had also detained another close friend of Pi San’s, the rock musician
, just days after a live performance in which the words “Free
Ai Weiwei!” appeared on a giant screen above him. The musician was released
within a day, but Pi San was spooked. He 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: Ai
reappeared at his home after 81 days in detention. The artist provocateur, much
thinner now, was uncharacteristically silent. Though not formally charged with
a crime, he was still under a form of house arrest “pending further
investigation” into tax fraud. Two days later, Pi San rode his electric bicycle
to the blue door of Ai’s studio — “like a delivery boy,” he said. High-spirited
as ever, Ai marched back and forth across the small room, showing Pi San how he
had lost so much weight. The two friends talked for hours. Given Ai’s house
arrest, their plan to collaborate on a satirical animation would have to wait.
When Pi San was about to leave, Ai gave him a memento from his days in custody:
a couple of stale biscuits, part of his “detention diet.”

Many artists and bloggers interpreted Ai’s
release as merely a face-saving measure to help Premier Wen Jiabao avoid
embarrassment when he traveled to Europe a few days later. Dozens of other
lawyers and Internet activists were still held in detention without formal charges,
while the harassment of others continued unabated. “I can’t say if anything has
changed,” Pi San said, “but it was a big relief” to see Ai back in his home.

I dropped by Pi San’s studio again in
July. This time, I found his 7-year-old son, his head shaved for summer,
sitting at his father’s wooden desk and playing a game on an iPad. Pi San
shuffled around in shorts and sandals, relaxed and happy. His wife, a fellow
painter whom he met at college, worked on accounting ledgers at a table nearby.

Business had never been better. The first
10 episodes of “Ms. Puff” had pulled in an average of two million viewers, more
than half of them women between 18 and 30. The Youku series’s success raised ad
rates, Hutoon’s largest source of revenue, and several other Web portals had
approached Pi San with offers, eager to entice his young viewers to their sites

In his darkest moments, Pi San vowed never
to make another satire again. Shadowboxing with censors and security agents was
too nerve-racking, and the risks to his family were too high. Now, in the wake
of 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, struggling to explain why
other artists and bloggers were detained or forced into exile while he escaped
unscathed. It is a misconception 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 little grin. “It’s
a game of hide-and-seek.”

Brook Larmer lives in Beijing and writes for National
Geographic and other publications.

Editor: Vera Titunik