The Sprayers of the World Wide Web – or about Fighting Surrogate Battles

Some weeks ago, Karl had a blog here about the right to be forgotten and the dilemma one faces when transplanting this right into the digital age: things, once in the World Wide Web, remain glued to the digital collective memory – substantiated claims and little jokes alike. Graffiti (in the real world) often works the other way round – while sprayers may have the ambition to mark the (urban) landscape, graffiti remains a largely temporary phenomenon, to be washed off as soon as there is money to do so.

Now a graffito has made it into the virtual world and been turned truly unforgettable through an outrage in Chinese social networks. As several Chinese and international newspapers reported last week, the community of Chinese microbloggers identified a 15-year old boy from Nanjing to be the creator of a graffito saying “xxx was here” in Egypt’s Temple of Luxor. A Chinese microblogger, who had travelled to Egypt and taken a photo of the graffiti, posted the picture on his microblog as an example of shameful behaviour by Chinese tourists abroad.

In no time, other microbloggers succeeded in tracing the perpetrator’s identity, and hackers even managed to take over the boy’s school webpage, forcing online visitors to click on the (parodied) graffiti before they could get access to the page.

Even though the boy’s parents took all the blame and apologised, the fierce debates and accusations would not cool down but rather suspect the parents of hypocrisy: the collective corps of microbloggers noted that the graffiti was placed too high for a little boy to be capable of having committed the crime alone. So some adult – his parents? – must have helped him with the task.

The episode is symptomatic in two ways. First, it reflects the deep concern about China’s image in the world that is voiced also in online social networks; second, it serves microbloggers as a platform to re-direct the bloggers’ gaze to issues at home.

 1. China’s image in the world – and those who spoil it

China’s preoccupation with its reputation abroad is nothing new. Travel reports from the 1930s already reflect their authors’ frustration over Chinese co-travellers who, even if from the upper social strata, would “spit and fart wherever they go” and put China in a bad light vis-à-vis foreign visitors [1]. Only a couple of weeks ago, Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang expressed himself in a remarkably similar way, accusing many of his country fellows of displaying “uncivilised behaviour” when they travel abroad, including such bad manners as talking loudly in public places, crossing the streets on red lights, and public spitting. The Central Chinese Government followed suit by re-publishing rules of good conduct for travelling on its website on May 28, and other websites started to cite, or refer to, the Chinese convention for civilised behaviour on inland trips by Chinese citizens (originally published in 2006). The online version of the magazine Caixin came up with a collection of “typical” Chinese graffiti at tourist sites.

There seems to be a craze of blaming and disciplining Chinese tourists gone wild. The news about the boy’s graffiti broke just at the right time – and engaged thousands of online citizens both in the search and bashing of the culprit and in citing from foreign (above all, US American) newspapers that write negatively about the Chinese. Why is the online community so obsessed with China’s allegedly bad reputation in the world that a boy’s behaviour can lead to such a moral outrage?

The answer is humiliation, which still defines to a great deal the Chinese conversation with the rest of the world. (The “century of humiliation” even boasts its own entry in Wikipedia, is an important part of Chinese history education and propaganda, and has been dealt with extensively in academic research, as for example in the well-known article by William A. Callahan.)

Purportedly humiliating actions or events – caused by Chinese or others – travel through the Net in almost real-time. The boy’s graffiti stands for befouling one’s own nest, which in the eyes of many Chinese bloggers (and non-bloggers) will lead to generic disrespect for and thereby humiliation of the Chinese people.

But perpetrators of humiliation are also spotted among non-Chinese and reported to social networks. Joe Biden’s commencement speech on May 13 at the University of Pennsylvania is an example here. In his speech – at a university that is host to one of the largest Chinese student bodies in the US – Biden refuted the threat of a rising China and opined that “you cannot think different in a nation where you cannot breathe free.” Indignantly, some Chinese alumni found this claim racist and started a petition for Biden to apologise to the Chinese students.

Since the starter of the petition posted about the event and the petition on the Chinese social networking site Renren, the issue was soon discussed in various microblogs.

 2. The gaze towards home

Interestingly, the petition did not just solicit support but also earned mockery and cynicism. Chinese microbloggers reversed the perspective and asked whether, given a similar scenario in China, one would even dare to issue a petition for an apology from a lower-rank Chinese official, let alone the vice-president? Another microblogger, on Tencent Weibo, remarked that the Chinese collective reaction of feeling humiliated and asking for an apology is exactly proving the fact that the Chinese can’t think different, even if they have studied abroad.

Analogously, microbloggers in the graffiti case pointed to the double standards when it comes to the protection of cultural heritage. While the boy is being ripped apart in online battles, Chinese authorities can remove entire cities without any law intervening. As one microblogger is quoted in the Independent, “we don’t apologise if we tear down the walls of an ancient city, we don’t apologise if we bury an ancient burial site. We don’t apologise if we destroy ancient buildings with pollution? So where do we get the face to ask a graffiti child to say sorry?”

The bottom line of these interjections seems to be: don’t fight surrogate battles – fight the real battles. Don’t beat up a boy when you don’t dare to apply the same standard to those further up the hierarchical ladder; don’t charge a foreign politician with insult if you aren’t prepared to do the same at home.

The comments also highlight the question of how far you can go with ‘searching for human flesh’ (as the Internet in China has also been nicknamed). Does the perceived and real absence of a lawful executive authority legitimise pseudo-detectives and practices of naming, blaming, and shaming? How far can micro-blogs and with them rumours (see Liu Jun’s blog on this) act as surrogates for transparency and free access to information?


[1] Lu Shu’ang,”Xiangcun weisheng jiaoyu shishi fang’an [An Implementation Plan for Hygiene Education in the Countryside]”, in: Jiaoyu Zazhi 25, 10 (1935), pp. 107-117, here p. 108.

June 4, 2013

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