NEW YORK -- If there is one dark art that thrives inside the Great Firewall of China, it is sarcasm.
One Clubhouse room called the Hu Xijin Fan Club became a sensation last week on the increasingly popular social app, named after the editor-in-chief of Global Times, the English-language tabloid belonging to the People's Daily, the Communist Party of China's official organ. Discussions went on for days with netizens -- including mainlanders joining through virtual private networks (VPN) to jump China's internet firewall -- outdoing themselves to express their "love" for Hu.
Thousands of users flocked to the room, patiently waiting their turn to speak in Mandarin, including Chinese contemporary artist Ai Wei Wei from his home in exile, now located in Lisbon, Portugal.
It was Hu's statement on a stimulus plan that went viral, and won him his fan club: "If our country hands out money to everybody, it means it doesn't send out money at all," Hu said. It soon became a comeback festival as participants exhausted themselves coming up with new ways to mock the senior journalist's logic.
"If everybody orgasms, it means nobody orgasms at all," Ai chimed in at one point. "If everybody trolls Hu, it means nobody trolls Hu at all," said one. "If there's a wall everywhere, it means there isn't a wall anywhere," said another, who called -- tongue in cheek -- for the U.S. to match China's "Great Firewall" that blocks access to foreign platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
The Hu Xijin Fan Club sprang up soon after news broke that Clubhouse had been banned in mainland China after it was found hosting sensitive discussions about Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, providing a rare glimpse of what China would be like if it allowed freedom of speech, quickly putting it on the censor's radar.
Phiyona Law, who lives in Japan, acted as one of the fan club's moderators. "I started using Clubhouse in January, when we predicted the app would be blocked in the mainland before Chinese New Year," she told Nikkei Asia. "It was truly extraordinary to have people from the mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, ethnic groups and people living overseas being able to have free and open discussions together. I think the Hu Xijin Fan Club shows young people are pushing back from inside the Great Firewall."
While China's netizens have long been frustrated with government restrictions on social media that made it unsafe to vent openly, somehow people always find a way.
John Gao, who lives in California and is one of the fan club's original moderators, said that it was during discussions in other Clubhouse rooms that he met two other moderators located inside China. They soon discovered that they shared similar values.
"We felt helpless and frustrated that Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat are heavily censored and only one voice is allowed," Gao told Nikkei. "We are OK with what the government did right, but we are very unhappy that it doesn't allow us to talk about what it did wrong. We talked about this a lot, and decided to put on an act of performance art on Clubhouse. We chose Hu Xijin because everybody felt that his stimulus statement severely insulted the intelligence of Chinese people."
The moderators of the fan club gave members a fan name: "iWho" in English, from a word in Chinese that means pepper and rhymes with Hu. One user known as Chopin, from the U.S. state of Wisconsin, told Nikkei that the moderators were smart to make Hu the butt of their jokes because he already has critics inside the firewall.
"Hu Xijin has long been criticized by progressives, and even among some blind nationalists," said Chopin. "He is known for double standards, and his positions swing back and forth. That's why Chinese netizens on Weibo have come up with a phrase that translates as 'Hu's opinions flip-flopping every other day.'"
Chopin believes Hu is a soft target for trolling. He may be the editor of Global Times, but he is not a ranking party official. Mainland netizens are less likely to suffer from any kind of retaliation for mocking Hu than they would attacking more powerful figures. Moderators and fan club members are well aware of safety issues. They are urged not to use real names or photos on the app, and are also asked not to record discussions or post screenshots of the room where usernames and photos are visible.
One Clubhouse discussion was about whether to troll the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after spokesman Wang Wenbin deflected a reporter's question on the decision to block Clubhouse by saying that China's internet is free and open. The group decided to carry on going after Hu because it was less risky.
The parody has won many cheers. One Chinese student in Germany said he reads Global Times "every single day." Starting every sentence with the sound "Hu," he used it is as a communal comeback. "If everybody gets vaccinated for free, it means nobody gets vaccinated for free at all. We need to refuse the vaccine in the horrible West, because chief Hu's saliva drops are the best vaccines for us."
Another "fan" said that she became an iWho from reading another iWho's Weibo post.
"The iWho said, 'Beijing could take Taiwan back and legalize same-sex marriage as a token to give Taiwan face.' I was suddenly enlightened because I finally realized that China hasn't legalized same-sex marriage because it was saving it for the return of Taiwan. My mind was just too small to see the big picture," she said while others laughed loudly. "I became an iWho instantly because only chief Hu's true fans could be so intelligent."
Some mocked the way party officials speak on CCTV. Others encouraged the most devoted iWhos to copy Hu's every post by hand. Moderators sometimes joshed with fans: "You mentioned Google, what is that?" one asked. "Global Times and Baidu are the only credible sources."
"When you said 'God is my witness,' are you religious?" another moderator asked. "Because we don't believe in God in this club -- we only believe in chief Hu and the party."
While this amalgam of wit, sarcasm and irony has brought laughter to thousands, there is no masking the bitter truth that many Chinese are frustrated with the restrictions they face online.
"The Radio Yerevan jokes-type of parody on Clubhouse is unique to mainlanders, and people from other countries may not be able to understand them," said Law. The question and answer joke format, also known as Armenian Radio jokes, became popular in the Soviet Union. "It's a linguistic art form that thrives under the oppression of speech."
Law said that some users in Taiwan did not get the humor and responded critically. Moderators kept the joke going by not correcting them. It is a fan club with "unending love" for Hu is all they would allow.
After the fan club made waves on the internet, Hu himself responded with a somewhat humorless opinion piece in Global Times: "Free speech cannot be allowed to jeopardize China's governance."
"It must be admitted that a small number of Chinese have extremely high requirements for 'freedom of speech,'" Hu wrote. "But their desires cannot be satisfied in reality. In China, arrangements surrounding free speech must be compatible with China's governance system. Free speech cannot impact or jeopardize the country's governance. This is the bottom line. People need to have a basic knowledge and understanding of this fact."
Hu also honed in on U.S. social media platforms that banned Donald Trump in his final weeks in the White House. He said it showed "freedom of the internet in every society has a bottom line."
"I think his response shows his sleekness," said Chopin. "You can't really pick any bones out of it." He said Hu even alienated Chinese Clubhouse users by characterizing them as "a small number of Chinese" that are often highly educated and relatively well-off.
California's John Gao believes that it may become easier to manipulate public opinion in China, because Generation Z was born after the firewall was set up, whereas millennials had the experience of a free and open internet in their childhood. Chinese who have studied abroad also have a tough time going back into the firewall, "unless they're benefiting from the current system."
While he expects the popularity of the Hu Xijin Fan Club to fade, the frustration will remain and find new ways to manifest itself.
"The 'bottom line' Hu talked about in his response is ridiculous, because there is no clear law or policy written about this line," said Gao. "That is the scariest thing for us. If you draw the red line loud and clear, then we wouldn't be so scared. They can say I didn't breach the bottom line yesterday but I breached it today, and that's what really pisses us off."