School students aged 16-18 were invited to send in a short article to answer the question: ‘Does social media make your life better or worse?’
In her article, ‘The dilemma of young social media users in China’, Sarah looks at how the energies of Chinese young people – often focused on fandom and entertainment – can be directed into activism.
‘During the essay writing process, I thought about how to ground the hot topic of social media in my own context to provide a unique perspective to the discussion that is important to me personally. Overall, I believe in the power of social media to create change, especially among the teenage generation.’ - Sarah Tan
The Dilemma of Young Social Media Users in China
On February 24, 2020, a piece was published on the world’s largest fanfiction website AO3, portraying Xiao Zhan, a male Chinese star, as a transgender salon girl. Instantaneously, a group of Xiao’s fans swarmed to accuse the author of feminizing Xiao and devastating his public image.
An online anti-smear campaign began. Enraged fans waged a cyberwar against AO3 on multiple social media platforms and tirelessly reported it to government authorities. Five days later, AO3 was blocked in mainland China. Xiao’s fans were mostly comprised of teenagers and young adults. Throughout the incident, these young Chinese people demonstrated the militant spirit that can be found today only in the political movements of their western counterparts. The year 2019 saw the rise of teenage activism across Europe and the US, but this was not echoed in China.
My generation was not raised or licensed to put politics into action. We think twice before posting a political comment on social media because we fear being reported or judged as troublesome, assertive, or conceited about our opinions. In the end, the best option was to remain silent and keep our thoughts to ourselves. Censorship indirectly muted our political voice and took away from our culture the courage to criticize.
Instead, we divert calls for change into fandom and entertainment. George Orwell imagined a people made powerless by the punishment of expression. Aldous Huxley depicted the same picture, but resulting from an excess of entertainment. In this society, it is both.
To awaken the political potential of the young, there has to be an exposed, inflaming story. On December 30, 2019, Dr Ai Fen of Wuhan Central Hospital received a report of a patient with an unknown type of pneumonia. She quickly alerted her colleagues of its similarity to the virus which caused SARS. Ai was denounced by local officials, accusing her of rumour-mongering. She was told to remain silent until 20 days later when the government officially announced the coronavirus outbreak and confirmed human-to-human transmission.
An article that documented her story appeared on March 10, 2020 and quickly circulated on WeChat. The article was soon censored and deleted, but in the following hours, the story experienced a transformation into every possible linguistic form: reversed text, inverted text, barcode, binary notation, Braille, Latin, and even Quenya, an elvish language invented by Tolkien. The tension that accumulated was unprecedented.
Within one day, the original article became accessible again. Indeed, it would have appeared absurd if the ridiculous cat-and-mouse game had carried on. Yet silly though it may seem, it demonstrated how Chinese social media could potentially conquer its own defects. It shows that the massive population of young social media users has a vast momentum of political energy, but it would take a long struggle before it could be unleashed.
Three essays were highly commended:
Alexander McGovern, The King’s School, Canterbury, ‘Time to look up from our phones’
Sophia van Zyl, The Judd School, Tonbridge, ‘Using social media is a skill to be learned’
Anupam Bandi, Saint Olaves Grammar School, Orpington, ‘A small world is good, but we all need some space’
The competition was organized by The World Today, the international affairs magazine of Chatham House, and the Financial Times free schools access programme.