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Can toad-worship save China’s democratic future?
In recent years, a mysterious activity moha, “toad-worship,” has become popular among Chinese young people.
This deity is not a true toad. It refers to the former leader of China, Jiang Zemin. The toad was used to vilify Jiang by Falungong activists who were repressed during his rule while to the current Chinese generation, its meaning becomes more fluid. People used the figure not to vilify but to admire Jiang. Toad-worshippers used his quotes creatively in their social media accounts without showing Jiang’s name. The other worshippers left comments “+1s”, which means adding one second (to Jiang’s life), as a major way to identify their comrade worshippers.
Scholars and journalists have found that people engage in toad-worship for different purposes., While no one would deny that one important aspect of this activity is still political, making fun of politicians and the government, or political satire, is a common way to make political critiques. In democratic regimes, professional comedians, such as Stephen Colbert or Jon Oliver, play a major role in creating political satire. In non-democracies, however, such shows are prohibited. The Internet then becomes one important outlet for political satire dissemination. By hiding political critiques into implicit funny jokes, political satire becomes relatively easier to survive censorship. Therefore, scholars have regarded satirical activities online as a way of resistance against the autocrats. The logical extension is that political satire engagement is helpful to create a robust civil society and a rosier hope for democratization.
If this view is true, we should see that satire could encourage dissatisfaction against the government and political participation, yet the literature did not provide empirical evidence for this implication. In our recent article in Political Studies, we test the effects of political satire on its audiences. The results, unfortunately, are less optimistic. In this experimental study, we recruited 500+ participants from the Chinese Internet. We randomly assigned them to three groups. To the first group, we asked the respondents to read satirical pieces about corruption and pollution in China. To the second group, we provided them with formal critiques of the same socio-political topics. The third group read nothing as a control. We found that, compared to the formal critique group and control group, satire readers have less trust in the Chinese government, while at the same time, they became less willing to participate in civic activities against corruption and pollution. From government-led consultation to bottom-up collective action, we found no evidence that satire can encourage participation more than formal political critique.
Why was satire a discouragement? We traced back the literature and found an alternative causal path of satire’s effects: people feel more powerless after reading satire, and thus their willingness to participate is dissolved, although they become more disappointed with the government. Such political distrust and disengagement, as we argue, is a type of political cynicism. Maybe the satirists aim to resist the government when they disseminate the joking pieces, while their enthusiasm generates an unexpected and unfortunate counter-effect – the audiences are somehow more disappointed and demobilized.
Because of the very strong presumption of the resistant effect of political satire in authoritarian regimes that current literature has, our findings provide an opposite perspective in evaluating the effect of online political satire. It may be effective to bypass the censorship by camouflaging direct criticism (similar to the formal critique used in our experiment design) with satirical expression, but the humorous component in political satire may also interfere with the perception of the critical message for the audience. When the readers become politically apathetic after exposure to political satire, it seems inappropriate to call it “resistance.”
This finding of political satire is in favour of the autocrats. While political engagement is viewed as an essential condition for well-functioning democracies, it is not the same case in authoritarian regimes. Citizen engagement can threaten the regime’s stability and survival in autocracies. Political satire, therefore, helps autocrats because it discourages the political actions of ordinary citizens. Instead of undermining the authoritarian regime, political satire stabilizes it.
But not all the news is good for autocrats. Recent literature also finds that authoritarian regimes also need citizens’ inputs to address the information problem. The unwillingness to participate and the erosion of political trust will become a long-term threat to autocratic governance. Indeed, we may not see toad-worshippers become the supporters of democracy in the next few years. However, if China were to become a democracy in the future, the historians may trace the revolution back to the moment when the first netizen posted “+1s” on the Internet.
Read the full article published in Political Studies here.
Li Shao is a PhD Candidate in Political Science Department, Maxwell School, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY. His research focus is on Comparative Politics, especially political communication and political behavior in China (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Dongshu Liu is a PhD Candidate in Political Science Department, Maxwell School, Syracuse University. His research interests include political economy and political behavior in authoritarian nations (email@example.com).
It is because some people feel Jiang, to some extent, looks like a toad. See an article from CNN: https://edition.cnn.com/2014/08/01/world/asia/toad-jiang-zemin/index.html