No organization or individual may produce, duplicate, announce or disseminate information having the following contents: being against the cardinal principles set forth in the Constitution; endangering state security, divulging state secrets, subverting state power and jeopardizing national unification; damaging state honor and interests; instigating ethnic hatred or discrimination and jeopardizing ethnic unity; jeopardizing state religious policy, propagating heretical or superstitious ideas; spreading rumors, disrupting social order and stability; disseminating obscenity, pornography, gambling, violence, brutality and terror or abetting crime; humiliating or slandering others, trespassing on the lawful rights and interests of others; and other contents forbidden by laws and administrative regulations.
(Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China 2010)
China, Muslim Minorities, and Digital Media
In the wake of reports emerging in late 2017 about the unlawful detention of thousands of Muslim minority citizens, the Chinese governance of Xinjiang has been once again propelled under the spotlight of news reports, nongovernmental organization campaigns, and international advocacy organizations (Human Rights Watch 2017). In November 2018, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern regarding reports of Chinese authorities detaining up to one million Muslim citizens in newly built internment camps situated in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. If these numbers are accurate, this would constitute roughly a tenth of China’s Uyghur population, one of the fifty-five ethnic minorities officially recognized by the Chinese government. Multiple investigative reports have confirmed the ongoing construction of detention facilities throughout Xinjiang, clustering around the regional capital Ürümqi and along the borders with Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan (Wen and Auyezov 2018). Testimonies from Uyghur and Kazakh individuals who have been detained in the camps paint a troubling picture, including overcrowding, duress, torture, and regular subjection to political indoctrination. Pressured by these reports, Chinese officials eventually admitted the construction of these facilities but framed them as sites offering a “vocational education and training program” that should be viewed “as a constructive effort to help eliminate the soil that breeds terrorism and extremism” (Mu 2018).
This renewed attention to the plight of Uyghurs in Xinjiang is much overdue given the long history of ethnic tensions plaguing the region (Becquelin 2004; Mackerras 2012). The economic migration of ethnic majority Han citizens, combined with intensified state oversight of the Uyghur population after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, fueled resentment and flares of violent turmoil throughout the 2000s that have occasionally resulted in violent attacks allegedly carried out by extremist cells of Uyghur separatists. The “People’s War on Terror” (Roberts 2018) waged by Chinese authorities on what they identify as “separatist extremism” in the region has taken the form of periodic crackdowns accompanied by increasing restrictions on cultural and religious practices (Clarke 2010) and the establishment of pervasive layers of surveillance infrastructure (Brophy 2019). Since 2014, the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” (launched by former Communist Party Secretary of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Zhang Chunxian and escalated in 2016 by current Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo) has enforced restrictive policies aimed at dismantling religious identity—including a ban on beards, religious clothing, and pilgrimages to Mecca (Brophy 2018)—and reinforced oversight by imposing regular “home stays” of party cadres in Uyghur families (Human Rights Watch 2018). As Darren Byler details, between 2014 and 2018, three waves of campaigns funneled more than one million Han civilians into Uyghur villages in Xinjiang, conscripting them into the “state-directed oppression of Muslim minorities” without the possibility of choice (Byler 2018).
The history of ethnic tensions in Xinjiang is also deeply bound with regional technological development. Along with other hinterland provinces, western China was subjected to the state-endorsed relocation of information and communication technology manufacturing, in pursuit of an economic restructuring capable of supporting the region’s industrial development. This move did not shift the economy away from the coastal regions but rather resulted in infrastructural disconnections and the “industrial hollowing-out” of western China (Hong 2017, 15–19). The informatization of Xinjiang has largely followed Han settlement, and while it has fared relatively better than other hinterland provinces (CNNIC 2015, 29), ethnic turmoil has profoundly shaped the role of networked communications in the region. Following a series of violent riots taking place in the regional capital Ürümqi during July 2009 that resulted in the deaths of almost two hundred Chinese citizens (the majority reportedly being Han), Chinese authorities resorted to cutting off the entire region from the internet (Shan and Chen 2011). Attributing the riots to separatist incitement disseminated through the internet by the World Uygur Congress led by Rebiya Kadeer, the regional government suspended access to the internet along with SMS services and international direct dialing, throwing Xinjiang into an “internet blackout” that lasted almost a year (Cao 2014). When the region was reconnected to global networks in mid-2010, things had already changed dramatically: the incidents prompted the Chinese government to blacklist services like Facebook and Twitter throughout the country—a ban that persists to this day—and Xinjiang became a testing ground for increasingly pervasive disciplinary technologies (Lam 2017), ranging from facial recognition camera systems to surveillance apps forcibly installed on Uyghur citizens’ smartphones (Leibold 2019).
Cognizant of the urgent implications of the context described above, in this chapter, I approach the intermeshing of ethnic tensions and digital media in contemporary China by tracing anti-Muslim sentiments to the everyday interactions of Chinese social media users. While acknowledging that the current surveillance and repression of ethnic populations in Xinjiang and other regions of the People’s Republic of China requires academic research and humanitarian advocacy, in this chapter, I aim to highlight how the generalized approval and occasional resignation voiced by Chinese citizens regarding the Chinese government’s treatment of Muslim minorities relates to—and can be partly explained through—the circulation of Islamophobic sentiments on Chinese social media platforms. Woven through repertoires of online content ranging from heavy-handed ethnic humor to slanderous disinformation, Islamophobia is clearly present on Chinese social media and colors everyday interactions among local users. The argument advanced in this chapter is not based on fieldwork in Xinjiang or other ethnic minority areas but rather is grounded in observations, interviews, and data that I collected between 2014 and 2018 over multiple stays in Chinese cities and ongoing participation in Chinese social media platforms, largely among ethnically Han citizens. Applying a digital ethnographic approach to the circulation of anti-Muslim sentiments on Chinese social media, I situate localized ethnic tensions and widely supported authoritarian measures by relating them to contentious discussions and uncivil practices mediated by digital platforms. After introducing the central topic of my analysis—the uncivil practice of muhei, or “slandering Muslims”—I move on to describe the stereotypes reinforced by the circulation of visual ethnic humor in instant messaging apps and analyze the discursive domains invoked by internet users debating muhei on microblogging platforms.
An Uncivil Practice: Muhei, or Slandering Muslims
Civility has been a constant matter of debate in the history of computer-mediated communication, and the popularization of internet access and social media use have only made it a topic even more relevant to public life at large (Benson 1996; Coe, Kenski, and Rains 2014). Recent research on online incivility and uncivil digital media practices trace the global span of this concern and the situated articulations of this category of behavior, which often reflect sociopolitical tensions and local contention (Pohjonen and Udupa 2017). As in many other national contexts, incivility has been a component of Chinese online life since its early days. Since the mid-1990s, Chinese internet users have argued, flamed, spammed, and offended each other on homepage guestbooks and bulletin boards (de Seta 2013; Leibold 2011; G. Yang 2008); as the 2000s brought hundreds of millions of new users online, new forms of contention arose around the exploits of fenqing (angry youth) or the self-styled vigilantism of renrou sousuo (crowd-sourced doxing) actions (L. Yang and Zheng 2012). Today’s Chinese digital media landscape is as plentiful with platforms and services as it is rich in examples of incivility: forum wars between fandoms, international incidents triggered by patriotic publics, and tensions among fragmented political identities give rise to what Hu Yong (2008) has insightfully termed a “rising cacophony” of digitally mediated voices. In this context, it is not surprising to see Chinese authorities stress the ideological keyword wenming (civility, civilized) to steer the use of new communication technologies away from the boiling tensions of a bu wenming (uncivil) society (de Seta 2018b; G. Yang 2018).
Over years of ethnographic engagement with multiple Chinese social media platforms—including the Baidu Tieba forum community, the instant messaging software QQ, the microblogging service Sina Weibo, and the messaging app WeChat—I have encountered several kinds of uncivil online practices. These forms of incivility ranged from various kinds of trolling (de Seta 2013) and fishing (de Seta 2018b) to specific varieties of insult and slander (de Seta 2018c) and were clearly shaped by the degree of privacy or publicness of the social media platform where they were practiced. Among the many forms of bu wenming (incivility) highlighted by discussants and interviewees—including spreading rumors, paid spamming, and conducting scams—the practice of diyu hei (local offense, regional discrimination) emerged as one of the examples of uncivil sociality most evident from the online content I was collecting. During extended fieldwork stays in Shanghai, local contacts would often callously joke about the uncouthness of “hard drives,” the nickname given to rural migrants and other non-Shanghainese residents of the city (in Mandarin waidiren, the “WD” acronym of which is also a brand of hard drives). Interurban and interregional rivalries would result in Chongqing friends lambasting their neighbors from Chengdu, northerners demeaning southerners and vice versa, and Hong Kongers expressing distaste for mainlanders at large (and often being reciprocated in kind). Regional and urban–rural discrimination is a well-documented phenomenon in China (Jiang 2016). The creative ways to hei (literally, “to blacken,” to slander) others by virtue of their local provenance easily crossed over into social media as ethnic humor (Boxman-Shabtai and Shifman 2015), where anonymous interactions with citizens from the entire nation (and Chinese abroad) would easily devolve into stereotyped name-calling.
As shown by user-generated content like the “humorous” map circulated across WeChat groups (fig. 10.1), the stereotypes most prevalent in diyu hei happen most often on a regional basis, with citizens from different Chinese provinces labeled as poor, uncultured, or effeminate. When assigned to regions in western China, the stereotype of poverty seems to give way to the accusation of its inhabitants being “terrorists,” conflating a genre of humor often deployed in jest with the official narrative about minority populations in regions with a history of ethnic tensions and violent incidents attributed to separatist movements. Among the variety of diyu hei, I started observing a recurring insistence on making fun of Muslim minorities, a practice that soon turned out to be defined by a Mandarin neologism in itself: muhei, from mu (the first syllable of musilin, Muslim) and hei, “slandering.” Muhei, or slandering Muslims, could take multiple forms, from offhand remarks about Uyghur people being “poor” or “lazy” and cautionary tales about being pickpocketed by bands of Xinjiang youths to outright discriminatory instances of extreme speech against “Muslim terrorists”—even just on a lexical level, muhei often conflated Uyghur ethnicity with Chinese Islam as a whole (Ma 2017). Although widespread, these judgments were by no means shared by everyone around me, and the practice of muhei was, in fact, a contentious topic in itself that was debated among my interlocutors in both online discussions and in private conversations. Emerging from a repertoire of uncivil practices widespread on digital media, muhei is a specific form of regional discrimination that resonates with the overtones of religious and ethnic tension that have characterized western China for decades.
Figure 10.1 “Compilation of negative impressions about Chinese people, come take a shot at every region!” Map of regional stereotypes ranging from the provinces of Heilongjiang (“mafia”) and Shaanxi (“poor”) to the Western regions of Xinjiang (“thieves + terrorists”) and Tibet (“terrorists + ignorant”).
China’s Muslim population includes various minorities with different degrees of integration in Chinese society—some, like Uyghurs, are subjected to harsher regimes of control, and others, like the Hui, are historically more integrated and integrated with the Han majority (Ho 2013). To understand an uncivil practice like muhei and its reinforcing of existing stereotypes about Muslim minorities, it is useful to contextualize it in a history of Islamophobic sentiments bound with postcolonial and patriotic reactions running through Chinese society at large (Li 2018). As James Leibold (2010) explains, younger generations of Chinese, confronted with the perceived inequalities resulting from the multiethnic culturalism pursued by the government’s religious and ethnic policies, resort to articulating a “Han supremacism” that mobilizes racialist self-identification. Combined with the patriotic reactions to perceived judgments from Western governments and media about the country’s handling of its minority populations, this articulation leads to Islamophobic sentiments being increasingly visible, especially on social media platforms (Huang 2018). Panics about purported “pan-halal tendencies” and the impending “arabization” of China (Liu 2018) drive Islamophobic interpretations of family-planning regulations (from which ethnic minorities are partially exempted) as components of an ongoing “genocide policy” aimed at the Han majority (Han 2015, 1012). These sentiments—strikingly parallel to the “white genocide” conspiracy theories promoted by neonationalist and supremacist groups in the United States, Europe, and South Africa—result in growing numbers of attacks on Muslim businesses and fuel ethnic tensions on Chinese soil. Unsurprisingly, Islamophobia is also underpinned by the stereotyped coverage of Islam on Chinese news media (Luqiu and Yang 2018) and amplified as it circulates among the Chinese diaspora worldwide (Huang 2018), commingling with similar theories propagated by North American and European conservative and far-right outlets (Jung 2018; Zhang 2018). As Matt Schrader (2018) notes, the circulation of Islamphobic content among Chinese-speaking social media publics results in the popular identification of entire minority populations with “terrorists” and “time bombs,” which in turn underpins everyday discussions of government policies, discriminatory practices, violent incidents, and international outcry.
Personalized Stereotypes: Ethnic Humor and Muhei Stickers
My first exposure to muhei came during fieldwork conducted in 2015, when I started noticing a loose series of images circulating on two instant messaging software apps, QQ and WeChat. These apps are extremely popular among Chinese internet users and function in a way similar to WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, or LINE for the exchange of textual messages, audiovisual content, and files. One peculiarity of both QQ and WeChat is the support they provide for the personalization of emoticons and stickers, the kinds of visual communicative resources that in Chinese are commonly known as biaoqing (de Seta 2018a). Among the hundreds of biaoqing I collected and cataloged over the years, some shared a common repertoire of visual signifiers: they often depicted a stereotyped Muslim individual (often identified as a Chinese Muslim through markers of Uyghur, or at times Hui, ethnic identity) and were clearly created by amateur users through limited image-editing tools. Most were reworked versions of existing stickers, whose stylized figures were overlaid with long black beards, green and white striped shirts, taqiyah and turbans, the Holy Quran, and halal signage (fig. 10.2). These predominantly male Muslim characters were also often portrayed as engaging in threatening or aggressive behavior—wielding automatic weapons, large knives, explosives—and framed by textual captions ranging from the humorous to the outright offensive: “Ethnic unity is larger than the sky”; “This is not qingzhen (halal)”; “This chat group is not qingzhen”; “I suspect you are not qingzhen”; “I really want to eat pork meat.” The humorous devices employed in these biaoqing were clear markers of a generalized Chinese Muslim identity: ironically praising the minzu tuanjie (ethnic unity), a policy keyword promoted by the government; policing the “halal-ness” of chat groups and topics of discussion; and craving or being repelled by pork meat. Users combined these stereotypical ethnic markers with elements drawn from popular youth culture (light sabers, Japanese anime characters), and collected them in personalized biaoqing bao (sticker packs) ready to be exchanged across chats.
Most examples of diyu hei that I observed during my fieldwork were relatively innocuous topical jokes drawing on interurban rivalries or urban–rural prejudices; the popularity of personalized stickers stereotyping Chinese Muslim minorities seemed to indicate a particular tension bubbling across social media. The connection between muhei stickers and interethnic tensions in western China was corroborated by some of my social media contacts (all Han Chinese), who admitted having saved some of these biaoqing on their devices, mostly because they were “funny” and could be shared in chats for humorous purposes. My interlocutors were aware of the context from which these stickers emerged, but they also felt it necessary to clarify how they thought that the fennu (angst) of the Han population against Uyghur Muslims was somewhat understandable considering recent episodes of violence. As put by Shao, a university student from Hangzhou, “I also have some of these biaoqing in my WeChat, actually . . . I think they are hilarious. But they exist because of some incidents in Western China, and because of the privileges that the government grants to minorities. Han people are not happy about it, it’s natural to be fennu [outraged]. But of course, this mostly happens online, because it’s a public space, and people are more unrestrained, that’s why I think that online spaces are really difficult to manage.”
Figure 10.2 A selection of muhei stickers circulated on instant messaging applications QQ and WeChat. Collage by the author.
In another discussion, Cheng, a university student from Hubei province, suggested that this sort of sticker revealed a pressing issue in Chinese society: “Recently there have been all these debates about qingzhen [halal] on Sina Weibo, have you followed them? People are posting photos of all kinds of qingzhen food they can find around them, as a way to complain about how Chinese Muslims get treated with privileges just because of their religion.” According to Cheng, the symbolic grievance about qingzhen food was a reaction to multiple incidents reported across Chinese news media involving extremist Muslim citizens that had “left the minzhong [masses] outraged.” Examples of incidents included the dramatic 2014 Kunming Railway Station terrorist attack that resulted in thirty-one civilian casualties, but also less violent events such as the case of a radical imam who traveled to Beijing to oppose an interethnic marriage. In his view, humorous stereotypes of Muslim minorities circulating on social media reflected the perceived difficulty of finetuning China’s religious and ethnic policies: “I think that, on the one hand, this is because of ethnic policy, because, as you know, China’s shaoshu minzu [ethnic minorities] have some privileges: the government helps them economically over Han people, and Han people feel this disparity, especially when some incident happens. . . . On the other hand, it is also because of religious management because, for a period of time, the government helped build a lot of mosques in minority areas, but then Muslim people became more radical, and this created social problems.”
The interpretations offered by both Shao and Cheng paint a coherent picture of the Han perspective transpiring from behind the muhei stickers I collected—a narrative of legitimate interethnic grievances and resentment aggravated by media narratives depicting violent episodes as terrorist attacks (Clarke 2010, 17; Shan and Chen 2011, 14). The dozens of replies I received when I raised the issue of muhei in a WeChat group of well-educated Chinese university students testify to more complex reactions to ethnic stereotyping. While some group members explained that Muslim minorities tended to isolate themselves at the fringes of “mainstream society,” deadlocking themselves with self-righteous judgments, others warned that discussing this issue online would most likely result in a polarization of positions without any consensus being reached. Some participants shared stories of Muslim minority citizens trying to integrate into Chinese society and being ultimately reined in by traditional parents and families, whereas others noted that muhei discourse was noticeably more present on social media than the voices of Muslim citizens themselves, with muhei social media accounts and discussion groups organizing outrage campaigns: “There are many large muhei accounts, they have a lot of followers, they are all dog whistlers followed by crazy dogs . . . Whenever they see something about qingzhen food or events in the Middle East they qu pen [go trolling], that’s why Muslim people don’t dare to speak online, they are afraid of stirring up these muhei.”
While some discussants agreed that “Chinese people suffer from Islamophobia,” others noted that sending a humorous picture should not be enough to automatically consider someone a muhei, a label that was already becoming devoid of critical edge: “I think that today, if you dare saying something critical about Muslims, it doesn’t matter if you are correct or not, you will be called a muhei, just like if you say something positive about China, people will call you a ‘Little Pink’ patriot.”
Debating Islamophobia on Social Media Platforms
Discussing muhei with friends and social media contacts pointed me to wider debates happening on online platforms supporting the public interactions of larger user bases, including forum boards, social networking services, Q&A websites, and microblogging platforms. While stereotypical ethnic humor was circulated through the private channels of instant messaging and chat groups as part of a broader online vernacular, the practice of muhei was articulated more explicitly on the public fronts of social media platforms. To grasp how muhei was being discussed on social media, I collected and analyzed posts shared in late 2018 on two relatively comparable microblogging services: Twitter and Sina Weibo. Sina Weibo is, at the time of writing, the most popular Chinese microblogging platform; multiple interviewees pointed out that the existence of muhei-related accounts and debates on Weibo made it an obvious choice for further research. Twitter is an American microblogging platform and is notoriously inaccessible from inside China without the use of a VPN (virtual private network). Despite recent crackdowns on Chinese citizens using Twitter, which noticeably affected the “simplified Chinese” Twitter user base (Xiao 2018), the wealth of muhei search results and the liveliness of debates around the topic convinced me that this platform offered a worthy comparative case. The data collection on Twitter was conducted through a script compiling all new tweets posted to the platform that included the Chinese characters for muhei. Given the limitations of the Sina Weibo application programming interface and internal search, posts from this platform were collected manually on a daily basis, allowing me to skim through false positives and to correctly flag promoted content. After polishing the corpus (282 tweets, 229 Sina Weibo posts), I conducted basic word-frequency counts and co-occurrence analyses on the two subsets of data, complementing these with discourse analysis of individual posts.1
One of the most evident features of the muhei discussions happening on Twitter is the proximity to voices critical of the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party. Given the role that Twitter has historically played as a platform for Chinese abroad, citizen journalists, and activists to discuss issues in terms that would not be allowed on local social media, it is not surprising to find a large majority of tweets about muhei, criticizing the practice by retweeting questionable tweets and labeling their authors: “This Jingjing woman is a muhei”; “This is just a muhei idiot”; “Being a muhei and being a Little Pink are both a waste of IQ.” The constellation of terms co-occurring in these sorts of tweets pitch muhei users alongside xiaofenhong (Little Pink patriots) and chuanfen (Trump fans), denoting political connections being articulated across countries and political systems.
Muhei criticisms on Twitter also flared up around specific instances of Islamophobia and discriminatory behavior reposted from other platforms. Around the end of October 2018, for example, multiple users retweeted and commented on an alleged Chinese muhei woman who urinated on a copy of the Holy Quran in a toilet and posted photos of her desecration on local social media platforms. These posts included both hashtags #fan qingzhenyundong (anti-Halal movement) and #XinjiangCamps, directly correlating muhei Islamophobia with recent developments regarding the crackdown on Uyghurs. Although the majority of muhei-related tweets were critical of Islamophobia and relatively international in their outlook (with a clear prevalence of references to the United States and Taiwan), some tweets were clearly posted by Chinese users with different political leanings. These latter tweets supported the government line and encouraged their interlocutors to love their motherland and “study the classics,” at times invoking the “Islamization” of Europe through sharia law as an argument for their grievances (Qihuang Zhongbian 2017).
In a similar way, posts collected from Sina Weibo consisted largely of reblogs and comments labeling other users as muhei: “This guy is an older leader of those online muhei that keep showing up”; “I can’t stand those idiot muhei”; “Don’t be dazzled by those international muhei groups, the more you know Islam, the more you will love Islam.” Nevertheless, in contrast to Twitter, muhei debaters on Sina Weibo appear to be less outraged about broader issues such as the detention of Uyghurs in camps and more concerned about specific events targeting Chinese Muslims such as harassment, misinformation, and slander—with the obvious provision that extensive censorship on the platform has likely skewed these attitudes. Discussions regarding muhei on Sina Weibo seem to include more voices from Chinese Muslims (at least as far as nicknames, avatars, and profile descriptions would suggest) and to adopt an outlook decidedly more focused on national-level issues—although occasional comments on international, Muslim-related news also widened the conversation. Also in contrast to Twitter is the organization of Sina Weibo users in contesting muhei on the platform. One example is the account @fanmuheijituan (antimuhei group), which is entirely dedicated to reblogging and flagging muhei content. As its profile description explains, “Muhei are the most terrifying extremists of contemporary times! Using the internet to destroy ethnic unity, harming the citizens’ faith! Attacking enterprises and architectures in ethnic minority areas.”
Accounts like @fanmuheijituan deploy governmental terminology like minzu tuanjie (ethnic unity) in a defensive way, labeling muhei themselves as terrorists and extremists stirring up violence against minority populations. Almost a quarter of the posts collected on Sina Weibo (47 of 229) were created by verified account holders, and another fifty were created by users with a paid membership, highlighting the heightened visibility that the platform’s internal search engine grants to privileged accounts. Studies of contention and controversy on Sina Weibo advance the hypothesis that verified accounts might be less prone to express extreme viewpoints and hateful speech (Ng and Han 2018, 2005); however, given the opacity of the Sina Weibo search engine and the vagaries of platform-side censorship mechanisms, it is difficult to draw conclusions from the prominence that verified accounts and paying members seem to have in discussions of muhei. Despite the predominance of critical and antimuhei posts on Sina Weibo, keyword searches occasionally revealed instances of offensive ethnic slander, usually directed at a specific user. In one case, a young female Muslim user who was praising the platform for dealing with some of her harassers was attacked by other muhei users with offensive responses, such as “eat more pork, say less bullshit” or “I saw a picture of a pig in your profile . . . aren’t you scared to go to hell?”
Conclusion: Articulating Incivility
My exploratory analysis of the practice of muhei and its critical labeling illustrates how different genres of online content and seemingly unrelated practices resonate with each other and with issues of national and international relevance such as religious policy and ethnic minority rights. Muhei stickers and humorous images shared privately among messaging app users are commonly described by Han Chinese citizens as a by-product of interethnic tensions and unmanageable digital media platforms. However, the more public discussions happening around the term on microblogging platforms reveal more complex negotiations of how civility and incivility are deployed by different actors and publics in the country. Ethnic humor slandering Muslim minorities might be perceived as a “funny” genre of visual content until it circulates in the semiprivate friend circles of QQ and WeChat, but its foregrounding as muhei material in the discursive arenas of Sina Weibo or Twitter frames it in broader debates around the boundaries of civility and extreme speech. In fact, even the most recent campaigns launched by the Xinjiang administration—which resulted in the reported incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs in “reeducation through transformation” camps—are justified by authorities through appeals to the “civilizing” power of state institutions “healing” Muslim minorities from the social illness of “extremist” religious thought (Zenz 2019). When examined as a social media practice, muhei can be understood as an uncivil reaction by Han Chinese to the perceived privileges of ethnic minorities and to the violent incidents attributed to extremist groups. The sustained circulation of muhei content on social media platforms suggests a failure of Chinese authorities to contain precisely the kind of content “instigating ethnic hatred or discrimination and jeopardizing ethnic unity” that documents such as the 2010 White Paper on the Internet in China (quoted at the beginning of this chapter) set forth to regulate.
In conclusion, the example of muhei confirms that forms of incivility and extreme speech are not reducible to clear-cut categories that are applicable throughout societies around the globe. These practices and discursive resources are often segmented and articulated according to situated historical and sociopolitical contexts. Moreover, muhei highlights how uncivil practices channel and provoke different interpretations and reactions at various scales. When shared in private chat conversations as a subset of regional humor, stereotypical depictions of Muslim minorities are widely framed as an ironic response to news events and connected to a Han majority disappointment with religious policy and perceived minority privileges. When they are scaled up to the more public fronts of social media platforms, examples of muhei become the focus of a backlash against ethnic and religious discrimination, and their connections to Han supremacism and global Islamophobia are positioned in broader political discussions about governance and international relations. Muhei offers a clear example of how, on digital media, in-group “fun” is deployed as a metapractice through which incivility is articulated at an accelerated pace (Udupa 2019). Once it is foregrounded in more public discussions, the sharing of “funny” stickers of bearded figures in ethnic garb becomes quickly connected to socioeconomic grievances, official narratives about extremism, and global politics. As personal attacks and targeted harassment of ethnic and religious minorities reveal the widespread currency of Islamophobic sentiments among Chinese citizens, ironic reprisal and satirical responses to muhei accounts become a strategy of deploying the official government line of ethnic unity against uncivil practices.
1. These data were collected from search queries for posts containing the term muhei (in Chinese characters) while logged in with my personal account on both platforms. Data collection on Twitter was automated through a script and run between October and December 2018, resulting in 282 posts. Data collection on Sina Weibo was conducted manually between November 2018 and January 2019, resulting in 229 posts.
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