Instagram Is a Site of Protest for the Chinese Diaspora
Northern Square was not the only account reviving the lo-fi, nostalgic aesthetic from China’s more hopeful and democratic past. Pages like @beijing_silvermine, and @beijing_in_springtime all became popular in the Chinese Instagram community during the early pandemic. It was my first time seeing these gentle, yet refreshing images from a time that was collectively hushed due to complex political reasons.
By 2022, Bei had already built a follower base above 30,000. A good number of his followers were based in China during the atrocities of Shanghai lockdown. They started messaging him about their grievances that couldn’t otherwise be posted. When the stream of submissions became considerable, Bei started using the Instagram story feature: “How is everyone doing during the lockdown?” he wrote.
Bei’s check-in was met with an unexpected number of testimonies. Lacking other channels to tell their stories without being censored, followers were eager to share. Some were warned by their own family to keep their mouths shut about the oppression, some were experiencing house arrest-style quarantines with a stable supply of food. During two months of Shanghai lockdown, the page received over a thousand submissions, mostly vivid oral histories about the reality of living under the ruthless tyranny of “zero-covid.” The images of a historical protest, coupled with the stories of Chinese people’s collective suffering, elicited a feeling of unique “historical moment,” as the new wave of protest feels increasingly inevitable, even fatalistic.
In her book Negative Exposure: Knowing What Not to Know in Contemporary China, scholar Margaret Hillenbrand defined such images as “photo-forms,” an aesthetic category that defies the elusive force of secrecy in China. These aesthetic pages riff on largely-known but poorly-understood historical events like the Tiananmen protest, and opened up a liminal space that a new wave of protest spirit started to inhabit. Thanks to the anonymous submission mode, the narrow slides of Instagram Stories turned into a space for voices of dissent and open forum of political conversations.
Hans, administrator of @beijing_in_springtime first started the page based on his interest in the life of elders in his family. “When the first McDonalds in China opened in my city, my grandma waited in line for two hours to get a burger for my dad. That was a time when people were genuinely excited about the market economy, about western culture, and were open-hearted about changes,” Hans said. “I wanted to highlight experiences like this in my account, and create an empathetic safe space for fellow young people to process our feelings.”
A lover of memes, Hans also posts jokes related to contemporary Chinese history, in particular, memes specific to south China’s Pearl River Delta, a metropolitan complex known as “China’s Bay aAea,” on his meme page @bayareashitpeople.
@Bayareashitpeople was directly inspired by @dongbeicantbefuckedwith, a meme account that pokes fun at northeastern China’s distinct culture. Apart from niche jokes about regional culture differences, these meme accounts often speak to the shared experience of being bilingual and bicultural as a young overseas Chinese. @RichKidsEnglishPolice, for example, specializes in jokes that draw on subtle linguistic misunderstandings and misuses. A typical post might feature a cringe-worthy Tinder profile, a starter pack image of different types of Chinese transplants, or a hilariously pronounced English phrase by a clueless Douyiner. Over time, the Chinese government or its affiliates become an increasingly convenient butt of the joke. New prototypes of memes were born mocking Zhao Lijian, the state spokesperson who gives definitive but nonsensical answers to journalists and Olympic snowboarder Eileen Gu, the out-of-touch poster child who transcends the US-China geopolitical divide.