May 09, 2017
In the summer of 2015, a friend messaged me to say that a woman had been killed by an escalator. It’s graphic, he warned with a frowning emoji, before sending me the file, which showed up on the chat screen next to his smiling avatar. When I pressed play, the video expanded to fill my phone’s screen. It was surveillance footage from a mall in Hubei province in China, where a woman was riding up an escalator while holding her young child. Upon stepping onto the upper platform, the metal cover falls through, exposing the machine’s gears below. The woman throws her child onto the solid ground ahead as she falls in, pulled deeper and deeper into the escalator’s gears. As is common nowadays in China, the surveillance footage had morphed from the material used to monitor our world into the realm of public spectacle.
That month I was one of the millions of recipients of the viral footage on WeChat, the Chinese messaging app run by Shenzhen-based tech giant Tencent, with 846 million users at the end of 2016, a hybrid that rolls together the features of Facebook, Instagram, and Apple Wallet in one. Having lived in Shanghai for over a year now, I use it every day, to buy my morning Starbucks, communicate with friends and business partners, or pay for the electricity at my apartment. WeChat is mainly for messaging, though. Its Chinese name, “WeiXin,” literally means “micro message” or “micro information.” But its English translation better captures the essence of the app — the first-person plural capturing the collective nature of the nation’s main messaging hive, and the verb measuring its chief use for many of “us.”
Through the video, the surveillance footage had morphed from the material used to monitor our world into the realm of public spectacle
To chatter is to talk incessantly of something small or trivial. It can also mean to perpetuate a sound over and over again due to cold or fear, as in the chattering of one’s teeth. We share, we forward, we chat, we repeat. We send along viral videos of death as we create an endless stream of idle gossip. Though “information” and “chatter” can seem paradoxical, the conflation and tension between the two concepts captures well the nature of the platform. Life and death are news, chatter, anonymous and available for public consumption. Everything is ours and nothing is mine.
WeChat is set up for quick and intuitive communication and information sharing: Long press any text, photo, video, or pdf, and the top two options will be to Copy or Forward. Any content from anywhere on the app can be sent, without original attribution, to any other person or group. The app was made for virality — content can be passed along without context, resulting in data that is untethered, unowned, and unaccountable.
Death videos comprise a kind of genre of content on WeChat. Every day, users share surveillance footage of tourists being eaten by tigers at zoos, traffic accidents, escalator deaths. For the rest of the summer of 2015, spoof videos related to the mother’s death by escalator became a popular meme on Chinese social media. Young people shared videos of themselves riding escalators in formations 10-deep, balancing on the handrails in inverted downward dog-like positions before jumping off over the platforms onto solid flooring. I rallied against watching the video and its subsequent parodies. When they landed in my app, I clicked quickly away before the videos played through, and refused to forward them to friends and family. I was developing a fear of using escalators, on one hand; on the other, I imagined a future 10 years out when the child would understand that their mother’s death had been a summer’s entertainment for an entire nation.
In 2012, the New York Post was widely criticized for publishing a photo on the front page of its tabloid of a man, also a parent, who had been pushed into the city’s subway tracks and faced an oncoming train. Part of the caption read “This man is about to die.” In large bold letters across the front page, the word “DOOMED” was spelled out in all caps. The Post was criticized for exploiting the man’s misfortune in order to sell issues. Many felt that through their actions, the Post cheapened the tragedy, commodifying and sensationalizing death for commercial gain.
What made the photo so disturbing to viewers and critics was the extraordinary horror of the photo, which takes as its backdrop an unremarkable scene in the subway, and as its subject an average man from Queens: a depiction of tragedy among the quotidian elements of daily life, a man coming face-to-face with his death in public.
The video of the mother’s death by escalator in China (in a public mall, on another mechanism of transport) took this horror one step further. It was no freelance cameraman who had caught death on film and then sold it to a tabloid for a fee. Her death was captured by a surveillance video that was then shared with the media and forwarded, long press by long press, to millions across the country in an instant. The footage went from screen to screen without comment, without owner. Her death was not appropriated from her unjustly by a paper or a cameraman, as many felt Mr. Han’s death was in New York. Her death never belonged to her at all.
The idea of ownership is both new and old in China. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976, the concept of private wealth and ownership was violently beaten out of the national psyche. Generations of landowners were stripped of their wealth and everything became public, shared property. Despite the opening up and capitalist growth of modern China, there is still no stable sense of personal ownership. Wealthy Chinese send their money abroad to safeguard it from potential seizure. Regulations regarding trading in the stock market are fluid and indeterminate; the government could remove properties or funds at its will. Even today, despite the massive wealth created from real estate development and soaring property values in China’s biggest cities, no one really owns the houses they buy. Land does not technically belong to individuals in the true sense of the word. Ownership rights are leased by the government to people for a maximum of 70 years. The first 70-year period is not up yet; no one knows what will happen at that point.
The footage went from screen to screen without comment, without owner. Her death was not appropriated from her by a paper or a cameraman. Her death never belonged to her at all
Tencent WeChat accounts, like Facebook accounts, are technically leased to their users. The data and photos do not belong solely to individuals in the end, as Tencent maintains the rights to copy, use, and forward whatever is shared on the platform. Accordingly, Tencent’s servers themselves are leased from the Chinese government, subjecting all messaging data to government monitoring and surveillance. A viral video of a mother’s death by escalator will happily make the rounds, whereas a video of a Tibetan monk burning himself in protest will be shuttered by government monitors — “we” are allowed to gawk at the spectacle of death, but not the spectacle of resistance. In 1967’s The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord, prescient founder of the Situationist International, wrote: “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” Aside from the work of mediation, he wrote, spectacle also allowed for the proliferation and control of the masses and degraded authentic life and experience.
Monitoring is both the source and the function of internet spectacle. When graphic death footage via surveillance is released for public consumption, the structures in place for social order become the means by which the public is controlled by the spectacle they feed on. We are “allowed” death, like a taste of the forbidden, and numbed by its intensity. We move from death videos to death-video parodies to WeChat Wallets to state-sponsored news: the most and the least mundane are totalized in one mesmerizing feed.
Death footage on WeChat becomes public property — fodder for chatter, open to reproduction, to parody. On WeChat, where all content is equal, death is decontextualized, commodified, reproduced mechanically as gif. As such, these videos render death both sensational and meaningless, in a slow stripping away of traditional ceremonies associated with death, rituals of mourning and respect that have been required in China for thousands of years.
Attitudes toward death in China, like ownership, are both old and new, mutations of aborted traditional and innovative capitalist culture. Each year China celebrates the ancient Qing Ming festival, a national holiday reserved for the past 2,500 years for visiting the tombs of ancestors. It is known in English as the Tomb Sweeping Festival. On the holiday last year, I visited my grandfather-in-law’s grave for the first time. The cemetery, in Jiading, a suburb of Shanghai, holds the cremated remains of 150,000 people. (The government promotes cremation; there is not enough space in Shanghai for traditional burial.)
To get from Shanghai’s center to Jiading, we left at 6 a.m. to avoid traffic. Shanghai’s population of 24 million was on the move that day. When we arrived at the cemetery grounds, the local police were guiding cars into the overflow parking lots of the nearby Shanghai Circuit, where China’s Formula 1 Grand Prix has taken place every year since 2004. From the stadium’s lots, we queued in line for an hour to hop onto city busses that had been repurposed for moving the hordes of descendants to the resting place of their ancestors.
Like modern Chinese apartment complexes built efficiently and for thousands of inhabitants, the graveyard spreads out as far as the eye can see, rows upon rows of identical grey headstones, about four feet tall, cut through by wide pathways designed for massive foot traffic. After 20 minutes of walking, we located my grandfather’s spot toward the end of a long row. His photo had been placed in the center the slab, and small white lions with open mouths flanked each side. The entire “plot” was about the size of a cubicle; to his left and right, in long rows ahead and behind were other headstones of the same shape, size, and design. Scattered family groups stood around, placing food, fruit, and liquor in front of the graves. Some were adorned with flowers and peppered with soot from those who had come and gone earlier.
A video of a mother’s death will make the rounds; that of a Tibetan monk burning in protest is shuttered by government monitors. We are allowed to gawk at the spectacle of death but not of resistance
We began our ceremony. One uncle had brought the items to be burned in large black garbage bags. He started a small fire in front of the gravestone and pulled out origami-like paper shapes the size of ice cubes. Throwing them by the handful into the fire, he burned the ones made of paper flaked with gold, then the ones covered in silver. Finally, he took out another garbage bag and threw wads of fake cash into the pyre. The smoke rose in the air. The paper money, along with the gold and silver, would go to grandfather in the afterlife, that vague and ever changing place for Chinese, where grandfather could buy and enjoy the new luxuries of the living world. Nowadays it is trendy to burn paper iPads, paper cars, paper laptops, and even paper swimming pools.
When we were finished paying our respects to grandfather, we turned to the neighbors on his right and left. We burned a few handfuls of paper money for them, and expressed our gratitude for peaceful neighborly relations. It’s important to cultivate a good relationship with the neighbors, my father-in-law told me. You will be spending eternity with them. Just beyond the borders of the cemetery were construction cranes for new developments. Apartments flanked the gates and I wondered who would want to look out of their living room window onto a sea of grey gravestones. But I also did not know how long the government planned to lease out their land to the dead.
After we finished, we cleaned up the mess and made the long journey back to the Circuit. Along the pedestrian walkway, vendors had set up stands to sell bottled water, stinky tofu, and fried bread. Precocious hawkers followed us as we walked by, offering refreshment and sustenance for the long ride home.
Like many rituals of life, there is a digitized version of tomb sweeping: on WeChat you can connect with someone who will, for a price, visit the tomb of your ancestor, provide food, bow the requisite number of times, and dust the slate clean. He will take photos or video call with you over WeChat on site. Your mourning can be outsourced and represented in pixels through a mobile screen.
Moments, or “Pengyou Quan” (Friends Circle), is the Timeline-like feature of WeChat that users use to post photos, links, and comments. Two months ago, an acquaintance I’ll call Wang shared his last Moment with friends and family. In response to his death, one friend started a WeChat group as a memorial to him, inviting anyone who was connected to share photos or memories. In the chat group, the messages flowed through, without structure or order. Unlike a Facebook Page, with its photo albums and posts with replies and replies to those replies, a WeChat chat group is unorganized, all information equal and flowing in and moving into the background as newer information flows through.
People wrote memories. They sent stickers and emojis. Hands Praying was popular, often sent in groups of three. Cry Face was popular as well. Different combinations of Hand Praying and Cry Face made their way into the group, as well as photos of the deceased speaking at events or posing with friends. The Wilted Rose flowed through. Then the Erect Rose came along. The Fist to Palm made a showing, as did the Angry Face Squeezing out Tears. Over the next few months, groups of people met at memorial services for the deceased. They took group photos together and then shared them with the WeChat group.
Unlike a Facebook Page, with its organized photos, posts, events, and custom hyperlink, a WeChat group is transient and temporary, and with enough time, and enough silence, incredibly difficult to find. Photos and files will expire in a matter of days. Group chats will fall lower and lower down the list of chats in the home screen when they stagnate or once their usefulness dies down. Two months later, after the last in-person group meeting, someone had left behind an umbrella at a restaurant. The last photo in the chat was of the black umbrella, propped up against an empty red chair. “Anyone left an umbrella behind? Let me know.” There was no reply.
Recently, another viral death video was making the rounds on WeChat. A woman was trying to commit suicide on a tree in a busy Shanghai street. A group had gathered below to save her. She tied a scarf around a thick branch and the other end of the noose around her neck. In the video, she let go, dangling precariously from the tree, gasping and turning. The spectators below boosted up a man in the crowd, who then pushed up the woman, releasing some of the pressure off her neck. Another man quickly climbed atop a nearby car, struggling up the tree until he was able to pull her back onto the branches to safety. The video ended there. There was no context, no identifying details, no story.