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On April 22nd, 2012, China’s renowned civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng escaped his house arrest in Dongshigu Village (东师古村). Using a smuggled-in cellphone to communicate with a network of activists on stand by, Chen climbed over the wall of his compound, evaded the security around his village and eventually reached a pick up point where his supporters took and smuggled him into the U.S. Embassy building in Beijing. As a result of his bold, daring stunt, numerous supporters including his brother and nephew were reportedly arrested in Dongshigu on suspicion of assisting his flee. Amnesty International called on China to guarantee the safety of Chen, his family, and his friends, stating, “It is time for this shameful saga to end.”
Prior to his dramatic escape, Chinese activist had been placed under house arrest since his release from prison in September 2010, after serving four years and three months for “damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic” during the height of his class-action lawsuit against the city of Linyi, Shangdong in 2005. Chen led the lawsuit against the government’s excessive enforcement of the one-child per household policy and as a result of his activism, he became known as the “barefoot lawyer” among the supporters.
The story of Chen’s escape quickly became a sensation in the foreign news media as well as on the Chinese web, with most netizens shocked as to how a blind man made his way out of a guarded compound and travelled for more than 20 hours in the dark.
While the Chinese state-run media didn’t report a single line of news or commentary regarding Chen’s escape, his name Chen Guangcheng as well as the phrases “CGC” and “the blind man” rose to trending keyword topics on China’s equivalent of Twitter network Weibo and other portal search engines. A wide range of anonymously written messages praising Chen’s exit soon followed on the Chinese microblogging network. Some foreign journalists observed that the event quickly revealed a gap between a general public with little access to social media--and therefore less awareness about Chen’s public stunt--and a small circle of Internet-savvy bloggers and social media elites who circumvented around the so-called Great Firewall of China.
Chen’s YouTube Video Message
On April 27th, 2012, Chen posted a video message to YouTube in which he accused local government officials of beating members of his family and demanded that the responsible parties be punished by the law. In addition, Chen addressed his three demands to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao:
1) Local officials who allegedly assaulted his family be prosecuted;
2) His family members’ safety be guaranteed
3) The Chinese government prosecute corruption cases under
The Chinese Censorship
Within the first 24 hours of Chen’s YouTube video upload, Chen’s name as well as related terms like “CGC” and “the blind man” were blocked by Chinese online censors in an attempt to suppress Internet discussion of the case. Many web-savvy internet users soon resorted to using coded references for Chen-related keywords and tags as to evade the government’s detection and censorship. In the following days, many more variations of Chen’s name in English and Chinese were blocked by the censors, not to mention several other keywords that were vaguely connected to the story, such as Chaoyang Hospital, the U.S. Embassy and even the generic word for “blind man.”
As the support base of Chen’s escape continued to grow, an anonymous Chinese artist known as Crazy Cab began collecting and curating digital photographs of netizens wearing dark sunglasses, which served to establish a common ground among the civil rights activists, as well as in tribute to the iconic shades worn by Chen in nearly all of his public appearances. Many Chinese artists participated in the social media campaign, while others created movie poster parodies of Chen’s escape, including the “Dong Si Gu redemption” based on the poster design of the 1994 American drama film Shawshank Redemption.
The Western news media observed the sunglasses photo meme as similar in form to the hoodie-wearing campaign for Trayvon Martin in the United States, or the hijab photo meme in displaying solidarity for the Iranian Green Movement in 2009. The meme eventually reached a milestone with the arrangement of a flash mob event in which masses of people congregated in public while wearing sunglasses.
PBS Ideal Lab – At ROFLCon: The Spread of Memes in China, Brazil and Syria
Christian Science Monitor – Seeking Chen Guangcheng’s freedom in China via Internet meme
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