Memes about Xi Jinping and what they tell us

“Information wants to be free” is a popular assertion about the digital economy. Information also wants to be memed, or at least the information that travels does — Lifewire defines a meme as “a virally-transmitted cultural symbol or social idea“, and the more resonant the idea, the more many-splendoured the memefied mutations become.

Compared to his counterpart in the US, Chinese president Xi Jinping is the subject of far fewer visual, viral depictions in the global press. That’s the effect of a tightly controlled domestic press, which limits the outward flow of information; the language barrier between Chinese content platforms and foreign coverage; as well as, perhaps, a comparative lack of international interest in filtering this particular figure in through the meme.

But that’s started to change. Netizens started comparing Xi to Winnie the Pooh around 2013, inspired by photos of him with then-US president Barack Obama during an informal California summit.

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This continued with Xi’s appearances with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2014…

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…and his appearance in a 2015 military parade commemorating World War Two.

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It seems that these memes originated on Chinese social media, but they got pretty good traction globally too, probably thanks to the adorable Winnie. While many politicians might welcome this cartoon softening, in July this year, several news outlets reported that “Winnie the Pooh has just been axed from social media platforms in China for being too politically sensitive”.

But the memes continued. In June, Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong to mark the 20th anniversary of the territory’s handover, which gave rise to this viral photo that earned him comparisons to a Bond villain.

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This year, the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China seemed to mark a turning point in the international coverage of China. While all the usual suspects (the serious broadsheets and wire agencies) covered the leadership changes, newer media platforms also jumped in with gusto. Quartz remarked on the front pages of Chinese dailies following the Congress:

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In contrast, the memes that trended on Twitter did not tend to feature Xi, but they said volumes about Internet culture and its probable reception to his preferred modes of communication. This picture of Xi’s predecessor Jiang Zemin yawning exuberantly was one of the most widely shared images following the Congress, and basically sums up the spirit of the meme — spontaneous, irreverent, and as unstoppable as a sneeze (or a yawn). These qualities are the currency of viral information in the digital age and also the antithesis of approved domestic news coverage. How that contradiction will manifest itself as China’s influence continues to grow should make for an interesting journey.

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