The Great (Fire)Wall
Leaving Shaolin was a bit of a shock to the system. We were entering into October, and that means Golden Week. The weather was still beaut - but that's not how the name comes about. The Golden Week is a 7-day national holiday happens about twice a year. Imagine having a whole week of bank holidays stacked up in one go. The whole of China was about to go on holiday. London can't handle itself for 3 days even for the strawberries and cream sunburn lines alone.
In the year 2000 the Chinese government decided to give a week's holiday to enable people to make long distance family visits. Sweet an' all, but like, for every fuckboy's promise there's an ulterior motive. It was primarily set to 'expand the domestic tourism market' and 'improve the national standard of living'. Primarily there just to promote the beauty of the staycation.
Get this - in 2006 they even tried to cancel it. They compromised and only took one of the weeks away, leaving October free reign. Yeah, not sure that would go down too well if anyone tried to cancel our bank holidays. They argued a little and though: 'hmmmm actually this isn't working for us'. The holiday period didn't achieve significant enough results to make it worth it. It severely disrupted a 5-day working week (shock) and rocked the boat re. impending commerce both with international and national trade. That shit sort of happens if the whole country shuts down for 7 days. Yeah, kcuf, we didn't think of that.
China turns into frantic chaos, a bit like that week between Christmas and New Year when no one knows what the day or date is and when the shops are open and who does what and we're just sort of waiting for the 2nd of Jan to come around where we can gather ourselves and act like human beings again. Everyone ends up in a dressing gown and slippers questioning their eating and drinking habits for the year that has passed and the year to come. In China, however, people seem to move about during their holidays. 2015 saw 526 million people travel as part of national holiday week. In 2016 that number rose to 589 million until it reached a (predicted) staggering 650 million last year. I mean, Waterloo station back in London just scrapes 100 million passengers -- PER YEAR.
To escape from what was clearly going to be a deepening pit of forced family bonding-slash-Chinese tourist hell hole, we made our way to a remote location. This location was an unrestored part of the great wall of China.
That meaning you didn't have to buy a ticket to see it. To be fair, a lot of the wall is actually unrestored in general, but this part was in somebody's back garden.
At this point it reminded me a lot of the wall in Colchester, Essex (fyi oldest recorded town in Britain). When you've lived there for so long and seen it so many times, you forget that it's seen some shit. Unlike many parts of Colchester (thank god) we had to have dinner and pay our respects to the family that had access to this part of the wall so that we could set camp up safely without being arrested. As we climbed up the hill to find the best spot for sundown, it got me thinking about another of China's Great Walls. The Firewall.
I haven't really talked much about internet access abroad because it's quite a tricky subject.
Gary Zhexi Zhang quotes in his article 'Chaos & Control' (an article about how post internet aesthetics are thriving behind the great firewall):
"There is little doubt that the Chinternet remains the closest thing to free speech in China, and that the Chinese are the most advanced – and, possibly, the sassiest – GIF-based communicators on the planet. As always, laws produce their own transgressions and outside observers have been keen to highlight the Chinternet’s rich interstitial potential: a subversive meme politics, irrepressible and victorious, always two steps ahead of the authorities."
There are two things i'd like to pick up on in this extract. The first: China being 'the sassiest GIF based communicators'. The second: being 'always two steps ahead of the authorities.'
The Chinese authorities seem to be treating online media the same as they have the traditional, printed stuff. And we all know China's relationship with that. Online, however, you get a much younger, more widely spread, opinionated audience with an immediacy to information/view sharing.
Cultural references, the waves these make, their distortions, can spread at an incredible pace. Because their Internet is small and limited, the currents flow and evolve more rapidly than sometimes they would on our Western Web. It's a very large threat to the government, so they control it as much as they can. The firewall blocks hundreds of thousands of websites, search engines and general information. It does not fend off, but rather breeds and festers within. The sassy meme and gif culture retaliates. It is formed in an online flow of information that is swiftly retaliating to the terrifying nature of governmental control.
My news source is sometimes the reel of popular content tending on giphy. I can log on to it and stab a guess at at least 3 of the latest global headlines as well as determine the day and mood of the global citizens.
In the 2014 World Internet Conference, China proposed to safeguard the 'internet sovereignty of all countries'. The vice director of the state internet information office explained why they were getting their knickers in a twist over the effectiveness of the great and mighty firewall. They wanted to make sure the internet was a 'healthy, civilized, harmonious, orderly' being, brimming with positive energy. LOL.
This brings us to point number 2. A state-managed web is a dangerous thing. One particular idiot back when I was on the beginning of my China trip, decided to sign up to WeChat. For those of you that don't know, it is a China specific 'chatting service' taking on the roll of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc. in ONE because everything is banned that can't be state monitored.
After downloading this app, he started slagging off China in general and its terrible rules. 24 hours later of course, he was banned for life from the communication app. 'If you don't have anything nice to say..........'.
Authorities have actually begun to target VPNs as part of a characterised effort to 'clean up' china's domestic internet. Peppa Fucking Pig for instance. China tried to remove foreign TV shows from online platforms about a month ago. Basically trying to say that anything that becomes a fad is unhealthy for young kids, and everyone seemed to obsessed with the cartoon so it needed to go. The result , as you would have guessed, is that PP has now become a cult symbol, representing an extreme middle-finger-naughtyness to the state. Some gangsters are even getting her tattooed.
Some of the Peppa Pig memes have even taken on darker undertones, occasionally veering into violent or pornographic territory. As this Guardian article confirms, its characters have become a common feature in Chinese memes, including sexually suggestive content.
"After Peppa Pig started to take on this subversive hue and subsequently go viral, some experts said the popularity of the cartoon demonstrates the social psychology of hunting for novelty and spoofing, which could potentially hamper positive societal morale."
Beijing appears to be constantly enthusiastic not to completely shut off pig cartoons, and keeps on producing memorabilia with a fake, but domestic friendly cartoon pigs and other animals instead.
Being two steps ahead of the authorities will only work on the internet. You need less courage. Less planning. But you get more anonymous support. As I've already mentioned, communication and control have been closely linked. In this case, meme and gif sharing is sometimes harder to control. Copy and re-appropriation is one of the best things the internet can offer.
You can't communicate freely in China without being watched and monitored. At some point I think the control will break down. The frustration will erupt. The internet is evolving too fast to handle restriction, and people are adjusting. The tighter the authorities press and clamp down, the more violently we see a rebellion.
Although saying that, after turning my VPN off I realised there was nothing I could do of any use on the internet. Tackling the great wall, I think I was done after about 5 minutes. As the sun rose over the actual Great Wall, I vowed never to take Google for granted ever again.