"Avatar," China and the Internet

When Confucius threatened Cameron, the masses went online and the government buckled. Keep watching this channel

Published February 19, 2010 9:15PM (EST)

If you are interested in the intersection of the Internet, pop culture and politics in China, then you should not miss the remarkable essay, Critical Masses, Commerce, and Shifting State-Society Relations in China," published on Wednesday at China Beat.

The title is hard to penetrate but the content is anything but. Based on a talk given at Google on Feb. 12 by Ying Zhu, a professor of media culture at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island, the essay lucidly covers an extraordinary amount of ground, but is especially enlightening as to how the Internet has created a discussion space that China's leaders must pay attention to, even as they strive to control it.

This discussion space is particularly potent when it merges with commercial forces increasingly at play in China's fast-growing economy, as demonstrated by the recent "Avatar" vs. Confucius throwdown.

Pulling the 2-D version of "Avatar" to make way for "Confucius" was not quite the overanxious political move that it has been portrayed as in the West. Western news reports have suggested that the state removed "Avatar " because it felt threatened by the film's enormous popularity and some of its thematic content. The fact of the matter is that it was unusual to begin with for a Hollywood blockbuster to get a release window so close to the Chinese New Year holiday, which is normally reserved for major domestic releases. So ending "Avatar's" run about a week ahead of the holiday's start was more or less according to the usual practice. Nevertheless, the state's action was so abrupt, and the film was so popular, that audiences were considerably miffed. Miffed and moved to action, going online and on social media sites in huge numbers to express their passion for the blue people of Pandora and against poor "Confucius." The response was quick, widespread and intense, transforming passive association -- audience membership -- into active participation in a popular movement. Markets, too, joined the campaign -- many theaters simply ignored the government's order to remove "Avatar" -- and recently the government responded by restoring "Avatar" to more screens. So, a catalyzing event turns an audience into something more like a public, and the government takes some accommodating action.

It might seem trivial to look for the emergence of a potent Internet-enabled civil society in something as politically unthreatening as a blockbuster Hollywood flick, but you have to start somewhere, don't you? Ying Zhu describes a China where the Internet masses are making their minds known, and the future prospects of the Chinese Communist Party depends on its ability to accommodate that hubbub, instead of quelching it.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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