The myth of “shanzhai” culture and the paradox of digital democracy in China
Zhang LIN and Anthony FUNG
Abstract This article analyzes the Internet-based campaign for the “shanzhai” Spring Festival Gala in connection with the rise of “digital democracy” and the burgeoning economy of grassroots culture in China. Emerging as a bottom-up challenge to the political and economic monopoly of CCTV’s annual Spring Festival Gala, the campaign rode on the popular myth of shanzhai culture, which captured people’s imagination for its associations with grassroots digital democracy. By depicting how different social players appropriate the narratives of shanzhai to construct a collective social imaginary of democracy, the article explores the specific formation of an Internet-facilitated shanzhai democracy, arguing that the myth of shanzhai currently enables and confounds political resistance in China. It nurtures a political subjectivity that encourages the instrumental marriage of affective emotion, populist anarchism, and commercial self-branding and publicity, and cultivates a “shanzhai” democracy that thrives on the commodification of politics and the monetization of the netizen’s and the public’s affective labor. The myth of shanzhai reflects the contested nature of digital democracy in contemporary China, marking a transitional space, a symbiotic relationship with power, and a fluid frontier to be constantly redefined and defended.
Keywords: Shanzhai Culture, Digital Democracy, Grassroots Culture, Political Resistance, Cultural Economy.
Lin Zhang is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School of Communication, University of Southern California. Her research has focused on the culture and history of digital technologies, global and transnational cultural flow, and emerging labor practices and subjectivities related to the Internet.
Anthony YH Fung is Professor and Director of the School of Journalism and Communication, Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research interests include the political economy of media, culture and communication, popular and youth culture, new media and public sphere