What you need to know
When Chinese netizens slide past censors to air their grievances, they're key cogs in a massive and well-oiled outrage machine.
Lo and behold, Florida rapper Lil Pump is ensnared in 2018’s war of words, more words and tariffs between China and the United States after being lambasted by Chinese internet users and dissed by government-sponsored rapper Pissy for sharing racist lyrics on Twitter and Instagram last weekend.
In a preview of his new single, “Butterfly Doors,” the 18-year-old raps: “Smokin’ on dope, they call me Yao Ming ‘cause my eyes real low (ching chong),” making a slant-eye gesture at the words “Yao Ming.”
Chinese netizens quickly stormed his Instagram with critical comments. The gesture, and the “ching chong” adlib, are longtime racist caricatures of Asians.
Chinese internet users also went after the son of soccer star David Beckham for liking Lil Pump’s Instagram post. The rapper has yet to comment on the firestorm.
The deluge of China-based critics presumably operating behind the Great Firewall caught the attention of China online censorship watchdog GreatFire.org:
Instagram (along with Twitter, YouTube, and The News Lens) is, of course, blocked in China but remains accessible via virtual private networks, or VPNs. Despite persistent rumors of government crackdowns on VPNs, they’re still widely used by Chinese internet users.
This is entirely by design, according to academics and commentators such as journalist Michael Anti, who argued in a 2012 TED talk that the Great Firewall is a flexible apparatus, porous to dissident voices and online debate when it suits the needs of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) while retaining the ability to crack down with force when necessary.
It’s the primary mechanism behind what looks to the outside observer like a well-oiled Chinese online outrage machine. But whether it’s targeting an American rapper, Dolce & Gabbana, or Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), Chinese selective outrage is likely both far more calculated and far less centralized than it may appear from afar.
Hold up – how did we even get here?
Let’s start at the top: Lil Pump’s racist “eyes looking Asian” gesture is a well-worn, tired hip-hop metaphor simulating the effects of certain illegal substances. It also feeds into a larger fetishization of Asian culture in hip-hop that, with some exceptions, has been by and large accepted within the genre despite its racially insensitive overtones.
A 2013 Pitchfork review of the Migos song “Chinatown” implicitly sets some boundaries of perceived acceptability: The song, it explains, “juggles plentiful references to Asian culture – Honda, Mortal Kombat, Manny Pacquiao – hilariously failing to hit on anything legitimately Chinese.” (That’s its own trope: Memphis legend Juicy J, for instance, once said he had “eyes like I’m Chinese, out in Tokyo.”) But Migos lose points as their “adventures in drug smuggling are periodically punctuated by gross ‘ching chong’ adlibs.” (The group later went for an even more direct slur in 2017’s “Get Right Witcha.”)
This time around, Pissy – a member of the hip-hop group CD Rev (short for Chengdu Revolution), which is backed by the Communist Youth League, the CCP’s youth wing – wasn’t having it.
He dropped an English-language diss track on Monday, aptly titled “FXXX LIL PUMP”:
“I won’t say the n-word, but fuck Lil Pump,” Pissy raps before turning the tables by addressing the longtime mistreatment of black people and Native Americans in the U.S.: “The fact is you and white racists the same / Respect yourself, you’ve suffered the pain / You don’t know anything ‘bout the history / ‘Cause you a nation of immigrants, and if you really won’t take it serious, check it out on those Indians.”
China has a complicated relationship with hip-hop: It’s wildly popular among young Chinese (here’s a comprehensive guide to Chinese hip-hop), but the government tends to shave the rough edges off any music destined to hit the mainstream. (Apparently, Vladimir Putin has been paying attention.)
In the past, the devoutly nationalist CD Rev has dropped singles touching on topics spanning from U.S. THAAD missile deployment in South Korea to predictable anti-Taiwan fare. While a 2017 RADII China profile of the group points out that Pissy and his three cohorts are not Communist Party members and have been critical of social issues, the foreign press has taken to pegging them as propaganda tools of the Chinese government, noting that the party bankrolls their music videos.
Pissy is probably best known for responding to the September 2018 eviction of Chinese tourists from a Swedish hotel by releasing a diss track titled “Hey Sweden,” finishing it off by saying: “You know what? Tibet and Taiwan belong to China, b*tch.”
Hard lyrics, soft power: China’s outrage machine
To sum things up: CD Rev’s nationalist rhymes aren’t necessarily designed to be party propaganda, but they do use the party’s money. Great Firewall evaders flooding Instagram and Facebook with pro-China comments haven’t been ushered through the door by the CCP, but that door isn’t exactly bolted shut, either. How does this all work?
A series of landmark studies by Harvard researchers Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret E. Roberts on Chinese censorship provide many of the answers. Their groundbreaking 2013 study showed that the Chinese government allows selective criticism to slip through the cracks while aiming “to reduce the probability of collective action” it considers dangerous – basically, China lets some water through so the dam won’t burst.
The analysis, unprecedented in scope, showed spikes in censorship around events that could spark unrest, like the 2011 protests in Inner Mongolia and the arrest of dissident artist Ai Weiwei. But it also revealed decreases in censorship around many potentially unsavory news items, such as China halting its nuclear program, that were unlikely to lead to anti-party organization.
In 2017, the team returned with a study of China’s shadowy wumao, or 50 Cent Party, said to receive small payments for making pro-China posts on social media. While these notorious trolls and disinformation agents are a persistent thorn in the side of Taiwan’s defense and cybersecurity officials, very little is definitively known about how wumao actually operate.
A 2014 batch of leaked emails from an anonymous blogger gave us a peek. Commenters were paid to follow preordained talking points determined by the party secretary of Zhanggong District in Ganzhou, a modest city in Jiangxi province. (The extent to which the district secretary directly followed central mandates is not revealed by the email leak; the district office is separated by three bureaucratic levels from China’s national level cyberspace bureau, according to China Digital Times.)
King, Pan and Roberts studied these emails, along with thousands of other potential wumao comments, and found that the Chinese regime directs its netizens to “distract and redirect public attention” from events with collective action potential. Surprisingly, the study found that wumao steer clear of controversy, instead engaging in “cheerleading and positive discussions of valence issues.” Once again, there was a clear pattern of spikes in positive discussion to drown out sensitive events – for example, an April 2014 attack at Urumqi’s railway station was followed by a “burst” of about 3,500 posts on topics such as “people’s livelihood” and “good governance.”
This makes sense: China’s online ecosystem is far too large to control but all too easy to manipulate, especially as operations seem to be delegated to local party officials far from Beijing’s orbit.
And Chinese authorities have been shown to selectively allow discussion of international affairs, perhaps when it benefits the party – exhibiting how mass outrage can rapidly spread to a global audience.
According to an analysis published yesterday by BuzzFeed News, China initially censored reactions to Vice President Mike Pence’s boisterous October speech criticizing China’s trade practices before removing blockades to allow negative commentary. King-wa Fu of WeChat censorship monitor WeChatscope, which was used for the analysis of just over 500 WeChat posts, told BuzzFeed that, following the speech, “we observe that WeChat system employed a shift of information control strategy from censorship to propaganda within a week.”
This filtration philosophy is present in China’s state control of hip-hop. Despite early 2018 media reports that the genre was effectively being banned in China, the party still allows rappers like Pissy to fire shots at Lil Pump’s racist rhymes while occasionally referencing more delicate matters, such as the 2008 melamine milk scandal.
In his 2012 TED talk, Michael Anti drew comparisons between China’s censorship regime and the proposed SOPA and PIPA legislation in the U.S., anti-piracy bills that were heavily controversial due to their potential to restrict public expression. Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has floated amendments to the National Security Act and Social Order Maintenance Act, which opponents say would suppress free speech. The underlying point: China’s censorship operates on a large and authoritarian scale, but it’s ultimately a weapon in a worldwide war of information control waged by states and corporations alike. It’s not a foolproof apparatus driven by an always-steady central hand, but this porousness is exactly what allows it to function.
When netizens from China’s Baidu Tieba message board flooded Tsai Ing-wen’s Facebook page with anti-Taiwan independence posts after her 2016 election victory, they stated: “This is a self-organized cultural communication from members of Liyi Ba,” using the name of the message board they belong to. “We aimed to close the cognitive gap between netizens from both sides,” they wrote.
This likely wasn’t an earnest attempt at fostering a healthy cross-Strait debate, but the Chinese outrage did appear to be organic. It’s something to remember as the world struggles to counter social media disinformation from China and elsewhere.
After all, a certain rapping mayor in Taipei has long called for “mutual familiarity, understanding, respect and cooperation” between Taiwan and China. Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) has been criticized for alleged conciliatory views towards Beijing, but you never know – maybe he’ll drop a track in response.
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