With increasing influence on everyday social interactions and cultural practices, social media platforms do not just represent but also profoundly reproduce various forms of social inequalities. This essay investigates what role social media have played in the emergence of an underclass habitus among Chinese youth. By focusing on the rise and fall of a participatory hanmai culture on Kuaishou, an underclass-centric social media platform in China, the study identifies social media platforms as key actors in restructuring power relations. Chinese social media platforms, particularly Kuaishou, produce contemporary relationships of power by simultaneously incorporating algorithm design, profit-seeking strategies, underclass users’ expressions, and state surveillance. The overall effect is to mediate, regulate and buttress social inequalities in the process of sustaining Chinese class stratification. This analysis necessarily problematizes and debunks the myth of technological neutrality claimed by social media platforms. The result is that Chinese underclass youth (individual and unexpected acts of human agency aside) are routinely subjected to and reproduced through the logic of both capitalist accumulation and state authoritarianism via their participation on these social media platforms.
Understanding the intertwinement of social and digital inequality
Identifying the voices of underclass youth
The underclass habitus in Hanmai rap videos
Imagining a collective underclass identity in the algorithmic field
Disciplining the underclass through “positive energy”
MC Tianyou, whose name literally means “being blessed by God,” never expected to become a super star on Kuaishou, one of the most popular video-clip sharing mobile social media platforms in China since being launched from 2013. As the only child born in the industrial northeast of China, Tianyou’s pleasant childhood was cut short after his parents lost their jobs with state-owned factories during the 1990s’ market transition (when tens of millions of laid-off workers became urban poor). After dropping out of middle school, Tianyou attempted to make a living through running a barbecue stall, selling used cars, and performing street dancing, but none of them turned out to be a long-term career choice . At a loss what to do next, he sat in front of a webcam from 2014, rapping about his own experiences, frustrations and yearnings in rhymed lyrics remixed with pirated rhythmic music, uploaded on Kuaishou. As his message resonated with other youth, he became an Internet sensation attracting a massive online following.
This rapping performance style, particularly popular on Kuaishou, is called hanmai, a Chinese neologism that literally means “to shout at a microphone” (see Figure 1). Though sharing some similarities with global hip-hop rapping, hanmai performance is regarded more as an indigenous culture among its fans. Hanmai combines both traditional Chinese vocal performance and the contemporary underclass youths’ aspiration . In one of MC Tianyou’s most popular works, “I get myself drunk”, he simply raps the rhymed lyrics in front of a low-resolution smartphone camera along with background music, ranging from disco to viral Internet songs:
I defeat the emperor and battle with the sky
I win the throne and I never die
I face the world full of pride
I keep writing my hanmai
Figure 1: A collection of hanmai rap videos from Kuaishou’s hashtag of hanmai .
With nearly 30 million followers, MC Tianyou was one of the most acknowledged representatives of the hanmai rap culture both on Kuaishou and to the general audience in China. However, he was not alone. Hanmai rap culture became an online sensation for a time with hundreds of thousands of hanmai videos created and uploaded to Kuaishou every day and thousands of “MCs” holding classes using Kuaishou’s live-streaming function to teach their audience how to produce their own hanmai rap videos . The popularity of hanmai was simultaneously praised and condemned. Hanmai supporters regarded the genre as the first online cultural expression of the previously silent Chinese underclass youth. Opposers criticized the content as vulgar and argued that it could negatively affect the younger generation’s morals. Amid the public opprobrium, hanmai rap videos, one of the most popular forms of user-generated content, gradually disappeared from both the Kuaishou platform and Chinese cyberspace after 2018.
By tracing the rise and fall of hanmai rap culture together with its co-evolving Kuaishou platform, this study first attempts to understand the latest changes among Chinese underclass youth, who were widely considered to be pacified and segmented without a particularly strong sense of class consciousness (Solinger, 2012). The transformation from a class “in-itself” to a class “for-itself” among Chinese youths should be interpreted in the context where the scale of previously disadvantaged social groups’ online participation on social media rapidly developed in China during the last decade (Joppke, 1986). Since social media platforms operate as a space where diverse levels of social power interact and the invisible is made visible, social class distinctions within Chinese society are now more apparent than ever. Drawing on the work of Bourdieu (1984), this study investigates the emergence of an underclass habitus among Chinese youth and asks what role social media has played in the process of class stratification in contemporary China.
This article will first start from incorporating Bourdieu’s social class theory to understand the nuanced situation whereby inequalities are represented and transformed in the age of social media. The theoretical framework will be followed with an introduction of the method and multiple sources of data used in the study. In the analysis part, the essay will first identify “underclass youth” in China as the term itself is significantly ambiguous both in the historical and the contemporary social and cultural context. Second, through a close reading of hanmai culture, this essay particularly interprets the meaning of underclass habitus in the Chinese context. Then, how the emergence of underclass identity is constructed or interpellated will be discussed in relation to the virtual field expanded and transformed by Kuaishou’s platform affordances. Finally, the impact of state surveillance on the platform will be analyzed to argue that the growing visibility of the underclass threatened the state’s notions of a “harmonious society.” By examining how state authorities transform their repressive power to an ideological and disciplining one through cooperation with the commercial social media platform of Kuaishou, the rapid emergence and disappearance of hanmai rap culture provides a greater understanding of how digital platforms are deeply involved in producing and reproducing relations of power within current social structures, while becoming an agent that amplifies and transforms existing social inequalities in China.
Understanding the intertwinement of social and digital inequality
With increasing influence on social interactions and cultural practices, digital technologies have become part of existing social structures, transforming the social inequalities worldwide. For example, the algorithm design of Google backed by its corporate interests and the relatively few alternative options in search engines reproduced and reinforced racism and sexism against women of color in particular by providing biased search results (Noble, 2018). Concurrently, Facebook’ s platform, especially its personalized and quantified News Feed function, has contributed to increasing partisan and bitter polarization among Americans (Settle, 2018).
Social media were once portrayed as innately empowering “tools” that could increase people’s abilities to take collective actions beyond traditional institutions and organizations (Shirky, 2008). Nonetheless, the digital platforms that facilitate social interactions, cultural activities, and even provide products and services today do not simply replace old social structures, but profoundly reconstruct the forms of power dynamics among different social groups (Dijck, et al., 2019).
Information and communication technologies are not neutral tools that simply facilitate their online participation, but are technological assemblages embedded in specific histories, political economies, and design and usage contexts (Dijck, 2013). Instead of being “intermediaries”, these technologies are more like mediators (Latour, 2005) that transform and modify processes and perceptions when facilitating activities and interactions online.
Though the social implication of digital platforms has attracted attention from researchers in Chinese Internet studies, most of them concentrate on access issues represented by a notion of a digital divide, which is still based on a positive anticipation for technology. The concept of Web 2.0 (O’Reilly, 2005) once brought utopian expectations for the Internet being more decentralized, with wider participation and richer interactions. In Chinese cyberspace, the political and social implications of social media were championed, along with the belief that the Internet could empower public participation and therefore contribute to the development of a civil society (cf., Yang, 2009; Tai, 2007; Zheng, 2008).
For the Chinese underclass in particular, Internet research also attempted to connect the social inequalities they confronted with unequal Internet access. For example, information and communications technology (ICT) devices were not fully accepted among rural residents especially in farming, their dominant living activity (Oreglia, 2013) because they had to learn how to incorporate these “strange” devices into the routines of everyday work and life. On the other hand, for rural migrant workers, mobile phones were particularly useful in empowering them to “see the world” and gain an imagined sense of mobility by being online with some level of autonomy (Wallis, 2013). However, low-end and marginal ICT devices, such as cheap cybercafés or copycat mobile phones, distinguished them as ICT “have-less”, a bizarre grey position in between “haves” and “have-nots” (Qiu, 2009).
This optimistic outlook that inequalities can be improved by the wider use of digital technologies was challenged by the de facto realities once these technologies became more widely adopted. The situation changed dramatically in the past decade when the Internet-accessible population in China doubled to nearly one billion (China Internet Network Information Center, 2021). Promoting ICTs as the strategic tool in economic growth and modernization has been China’s national policy since the 1980s. The teens of the twenty-first century witnessed an acceleration especially in rural informatization that simultaneously incorporated the government along with state-owned telecommunication companies and the domestic private sector (Qiang, et al., 2009). Soaring access to the Internet facilitated by the Chinese informatization policy provided a technological basis for the emergence of the “sent-down Internet” that targeted grassroots including underclass users (Oreglia, 2015). Therefore, the broad digital divide between the “haves” and “have-nots” especially in technological access significant in the early 2000s (Harwit, 2004) narrowed to more nuanced differences in skills, usages, and cultural practices (DiMaggio and Hargittai, 2001). Nonetheless, existing social inequalities, for example in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, and class, persisted because of not just unequal access but also differentiated skills, usages, and perceptions for online participation (Schradie, 2012; Robinson, et al., 2015).
Limited attention has been paid to understanding the functions of some digital platforms in reshaping underclass users’ behavior — for example, how the award system of QQ, the Tencent instant-message-based social media, enhanced rural residents time of use (McDonald, 2016) and how the barriers of using Taobao, the Alibaba e-commerce platform, prevented local small farmers from sharing economic benefits with digital technologies (Wang, 2019). Nonetheless, how digital platforms are involved in shaping and limiting the cultural practices of underclass and the related social implications in the Chinese class-stratification has yet to be investigated.
Moreover, few have concentrated on how the structural affordances of digital platforms have shaped the underclass. Liu and Wu (2017) argued that Kuaishou provided Chinese rural youths an alternative platform to express themselves apart from dominant urban Internet users. Nonetheless, this paradigm that neutral social media platforms reflect social realities fails to capture the dialectical relationship between society and media. Rhetorically, why must Chinese underclass youths be ghettoized into their own alternative platform?
Therefore, the analysis of this study proposes a combination between Bourdieu’s class analysis from cultural perspective and a framework to disassemble a specific social media platform (Dijck, 2013). In other words, Kuaishou, the social media platform will be regarded as a field where levels of power dynamically interact and contribute to the assemblage of semiotic, human, and material relations. The scope of analysis encompasses micro, meso, and macro elements of phenomena, from the users’ agency to the underclass habitus implied in hanmai rap videos as cultural artifacts as well as more structuring social powers such as the contestation from the public and surveillance from state authorities. Specifically, the actors in the field are not restricted to human agents but include the intended and unintended effects of technological assemblages that comprise major social media platforms. In the form of affordance, technologies gain implicit power in not only shaping cultural activities, transforming social interaction, and building community (Bucher and Helmond, 2017) but also in framing the social meanings of “underclassness.”
The qualitative analysis of the underclass hanmai rap culture in this paper is based on the author’s digital ethnography of Kuaishou over two periods — from December 2017 to December 2018 and from July 2020 to September 2020. Since the Internet is a combination of numerous digital technologies and different people embedded in specific off-line historical and social contexts (Miller and Slater, 2000), this research concentrates only on the Chinese version of Kuaishou, which largely differs from its official global version, Kwai, in not just language settings but also in technological affordances including the interface and algorithms.
The researcher first obtained data through the “walkthrough method” of the Kuaishou app, to identify the changing characteristics of the platform and users’ ways of working with the app (Light, et al., 2018) . Secondly, a total of 60 hanmai rap videos were collected with transcribed lyrics in order to learn why and how the types of user-generated musical performance embodied the habitus of an emerging consciousness of underclassness. Last, data from group discussions, blogs, news reports, live streaming, and semi-structure interviews were collected from various actors of the phenomenon, including performers and spectators of hanmai as well as developers of the Kuaishou app. The intentional integration of varied or even conflictual sources of data aimed to provide a more comprehensive understanding of how meanings were constructed (Dicks, et al., 2006).
Identifying the voices of underclass youth
The over forty-year economic reform since 1978 witnessed emerging forms of social inequalities in Chinese society, from rapidly increasing income disparity (Xie and Zhou, 2014) to various social resources such as education, labor markets, and welfare system (Li, et al., 2013). Social class is one of the central elements in analyzing the unequal distribution of social resources across China (Crompton, 2008). Of equal importance are the political semiotics of social class. Examining the semiotic and ideological centrality of representations of social class both in the official Chinese party-state ideology and in its unofficial popular culture, yields important insights, as a marker of social, cultural, economic, and political change in Chinese society (Guo, 2016).
In Bourdieu’s (1987) theory, social class particularly describes an individual’s relational position in society that is constituted by multi-dimensional social spaces or fields. To identify the underclass in the post-socialist China, we have to first briefly understand two different mechanisms, class and strata, in determining one’s social position (Anagnost, 2008). Socialists tend to use stratum or social stratification to locate people’s positions in the contemporary market-oriented Chinese society (Bian, 2002). For example, Lu’s (2002) “Ten major strata” theory is highly influential both in media and academia, because it categorizes the general population into different social strata according to occupations, type of employments, and social prestige. The Weberian categorization largely neglects Chinese socialist legacies (1949–1978), where an individual’s social position was determined by ascribed factors including birth origin (e.g., rural or urban) and the political status of one’s family backgrounds (e.g., landlord, peasant, workers, or party cadres) (Wortzel, 1987).
The socialist hierarchy did not diminish with economic reform. At the institutional level, the ascribed factors determining people’s position, especially the rural/urban division of one’s birthplace, are still preserved in the form of the Chinese household registration system (Q. Li, 2002). Additionally, in various forms of cultural artifacts ranging from advertisements to TV variety shows, communist symbols (either textual or visual) can still be frequently found juxtaposed with consumerist and neoliberal values (cf., Zhao and Belk, 2008; Feng, 2016).
Therefore, in the post-socialist China with increasing levels of inequality, ‘underclass’ refers to the various social groups who suffer from relative deprivation. In comparison with capitalists, party cadres, urban residents, or people living in the advanced east-coastal areas, salary workers, rural residents, and those from the under-developed middle and western inland regions constitute the underclass. The intertwining of the socialist hierarchy and the market-driven stratification together contributes to the emergence of a massive Chinese underclass (Q. Li, 2002). The current Chinese social reality configures the famous inverted-T shape stratification (Q. Li, 2005). That said, though the middle-class has been increasing since economic reforms, when wealth, prestige, and power were simultaneously taken into consideration, 64.7 percent of the general population are still characterized as underclass, totaling nearly 900 million rural peasants, rural migrant workers, urban poor, and other lumpen groups (Q. Li, 2005).
Second, the various underclass social groups have been so segmented and divided that they never formed a collective class consciousness as they declined into the underclass amid different social conditions (Solinger, 2012). Consistent with the findings of previous scholarship, different underclass social groups were also depicted as divided and disconnected in Chinese media culture. Commercial media such as the film industry has managed to tread a fine line between social relevance, political safety, and market success by targeting an urban middle-class audience (Sun, 2014). One way of achieving this is by depicting rural migrant workers as laughable and inferior others lacking the necessary qualities (suzhi) for a decent middle-class urban life (Jacka, 2009). In comparison, new urban poor, particularly workers laid off from state-owned industries — such as Tianyou’s parents’ generation — were interpreted more as personal sacrifices made for structural transition and development in artistically successful films, such as The piano in a factory (2010) by Zhang Meng (Liu, 2016).
Third, Chinese underclass have rarely protested their status, despite being deprived equal access to social resources (So, 2003). Although class consciousness is formed not only based on shared experiences but also productive relationships , it is believed that even rural migrant workers, the most essential component of the underclass, can hardly be mobilized with a collective class consciousness because of their extreme isolation and lack of human interactions in sweatshop factories, such as Foxconn (Wang, 2014).
This study differs from previous scholarship by first refusing to assume social class as a ready-made objective reality based on socioeconomic conditions. Instead, it notices an emerging shared yearning and imagination in hanmai rap culture among divided underclass social groups. The popularity of hanmai videos embodies an underclass-specific taste and conditions of collective participation. These cultural practices therefore reconfigure existing boundaries of being underclass. Second, this study argues that information technologies and social media in particular have expanded a virtual field that both afford and constrain the underclass to interact. The principles of the new field are simultaneously shaping and shaped by an underclass habitus, platform affordances, and surveillance power by the state.
Bourdieu’s class theory has encouraged scholarly exploration from market-driven Chinese school education and its role in exaggerating class-based social inequalities (Postiglione, 2006; Mu, et al., 2018) to urban cinema narratives’ reinforcement of social class divisions (Talmacs, 2017). However, whether underclass’ cultural practices in the digital realm follow similar patterns have yet to be investigated.
The underclass habitus in Hanmai rap videos
For both participants and the general public, hanmai videos were the first time for the segregated and pacified underclass to display and represent themselves to a wider audience. Rather than determined by a clear class-consciousness, the logic underneath such a cultural practice is more related to an underclass habitus. Bourdieu  defines the term habitus as “a system of dispositions, that is of permanent manners of being, seeing, acting and thinking”. Habitus is therefore both the embodiment of history and the internalized principles of social space . At the same time, it does not simply produce mechanic or rule-based practices but generates and conditions diverse strategies and actions . In short, hanmai rap videos offer us a chance to explore the system of dispositions that is both shaped and shaping underclass youth through their own narratives.
Some music critics claim that hanmai rap could be interpreted as a Chinese version of African-American hip-hop rap due to the similarities in their formats, styles, or even subjects, compared to the more widely acknowledged hip-hop rap in Chinese . It should be noted that the comparison is mostly rhetorical. For both hanmai and Chinese hip-hop lovers, the former significantly differentiates from the latter for its embodiment of the local history and an earthy underclass-specific taste. By contrast, hip-hop rap aligns to a modern and cosmopolitan cultural taste consistent with the global popular trends shared among urban middle-class youth (Kloet, 2010). The underclass disposition in hanmai rap culture thus needs to be understood within its own evolving trajectory.
Though becoming popular on social media, hanmai is not an exclusively online culture. Shared in local communities, hanmai rap culture originated from underground pubs located in small towns or rural-urban fringe where different groups such as migrant workers, rural youth, and new urban poor descended into the underclass since the late 1990s. This was the transition period from the socialist planned to a neoliberal economy when social inequalities soared and underclass social groups coalesced due to the unequal distribution of social resources (Sun, 2003). At the same time, the Chinese were immersed in a consumerist public culture with much more abundant material and entertaining resources that reproduced them as new “desiring subjects” (Rofel, 2007). Oral performance culture, which shared similarities with current hanmai rap, became a popular form of expression in the emerging underclass’ new leisure life. In their raps, they spoke about their disillusionment and discontent toward the new neoliberal lifestyle in rhymed lyrics with rhythmic musical accompaniment. Huang, a hanmai observer in his late thirties, explained the style to me in an interview:
Have you ever noticed those earthy catchphrases frequently played on intercity buses, the vernacular proverbs (shèhuì kēr)? I have been hearing them since my adolescence. For example, taste the bitter of life, then you can drive a Land Rover. Or work hard when young, otherwise you only deserve a Xiali . Or one day I have power in my hand, I will kill all those once betrayed me. These unrefined jingles were inherited by Tianyou or other MCs to be visible for the current public in the form of hanmai .
The Chinese term shèhuì can be literally translated to social, but it contains specific connotations intricately situated in the transitional history of China. Though the term may imply bandits or street gang in its current everyday use (Li, et al., 2020), its original meaning referred to all the individuals and actions beyond the scope of the previously ubiquitous socialist work units’ systems (Xiang, 2018). New urban poor such as Tianyou’s family and rural migrant workers were both inevitably “social” due to their fallout from the formal socialist structures because of either unemployment or the household registration. The term shèhu, indicating marginal, precarious, unofficial, and underclass, left a significant mark in the early history of hanmai rap culture.
The characteristic of habitus being socially reproduced in Bourdieu’s framework accords with French society. However, in the Chinese case, where developmental mechanisms experienced several huge shifts (Sun, 2003), the underclass habitus is also structured by intermittent histories, fragmented principles, and conflicting values. The following paragraphs will give an analysis around one specific hanmai work, “Buddha says” (2017), to show how the contemporary underclass habitus was constructed by appropriating the meanings of certain symbols and therefore created a shared imagination of underclass identity across previously divided social groups.
Despite its title “Buddha says”, the whole work speaks in the tone of the Monkey King to acrimoniously condemn the Buddha’s sayings (Tathagata in particular) for its hypocrisy, apathy, and incapability to differentiate between good and evil. As the original performer and lyric writer of the well-known and widely-acclaimed hanmai work, MC Qixing established his fame in the community for the use of the Monkey King voice, a particular coarse and sharp tone of voice filled with anger and disappointment.
As the main character in the sixteenth century Chinese fantasy novel Journey to the West (Xī Yóu Jì), the Monkey King has always been a Chinese hero particularly for children and teenagers. Journey to the West is composed of two stories. In the first several chapters, the Monkey King defies the authority of heaven in Chinese mythology by fighting against the heavenly army and smashing down the Celestial Emperor’s palace with his own magic power. The rebelliousness of the Monkey King concurred with Chinese socialist thought and was highly praised by Mao Zedong. In his poem “A reply to Comrade Guo Moruo” written in 1961, Mao described the Monkey King as the icon of Chinese revolution opposed to various forms of authority:
The Golden Monkey wrathfully swung his massive cudgel, and the jade-like firmament was cleared of dust. Today, a miasmal mist once more rising, we hail Monkey King, the wonder-worker .
However, the Monkey King was severely punished for his defiance and was later rescued and also disciplined by Tang Sanzang, the master appointed to him by Tathagata. During their long journey to India to search for Buddhist cannons, the Monkey King diligently and conscientiously used his supernatural power to help his master overcome struggles and finally attain his own Buddhahood by the end of the story. The latter and also the main story was more proclaimed in contemporary China. On the one hand, the Monkey King’s endurance, humbleness, and loyalty to his master was interpreted as the common moral ethics of ordinary Chinese people (Dai, 2018). Moreover, these values, like the Monkey King’s maturing path, perfectly aligned with the dominant ideology during the economic reforms — namely, that the Chinese people should work hard and keep patient while waiting for national rejuvenation. As a more widely-perceived text compared to the original novel, The Journey to the West TV series (1986) carefully depicted how a childlike Monkey King became obedient and self-dedicated during the arduous trip, largely trivializing its rebelliousness.
Interestingly, the lyrics of “Buddha says” intentionally ignore the whole story of Monkey King serving his master and doubting the meaning of the journey. In this hanmai work, the vigor of Monkey King is not just being rebellious for his personal freedom but also for being a representative of the powerless underclass. The lyrics refuse to perceive the final Buddhahood of Monkey King as a satisfactory ending. Instead, the song interprets the Monkey King as pathetic for the loss of his own family and his authentic self.
Buddha, open your eyes and see these ugly faces
The evil are waiting for their reward but the good are begging for forgiveness
Buddha, I believe in you but where on earth are you
I have walked for hundreds of thousands of miles
You tell me you are in my heart
Buddha says turning back and I can see the shore
I go back but I don’t have a home anymore
The underclass youth created a new Monkey King by themselves and for themselves. On the one hand, this particular icon made use of disconnected cultural legacies including tradition, socialist revolution, and neoliberalism. The underclass habitus is thus an incoherent system of dispositions that seems inevitable due to the several drastic shifts in modern Chinese history. Unsatisfied with the current social structure that reproduces existing inequalities and prohibits the majority from upward mobility, the underclass attempted to create their own imagination of themselves by giving new or alternative meanings to these previously ideological symbols.
In an ordinary hanmai video, the performer usually sits in front of a webcam or a cellphone cam, holds a microphone, and directly enunciates the lyrics along with the music. Besides the basic visual format, hundreds of user-generated music videos were created for “Buddha says”. Fans of the work collected tons of Monkey King clips to narrate their own story of the figure, built on the abundant existing adaptions of Journey to the West in TV drama, films, anime, and video games.
The image of the Monkey King often is more precarious than the tone of its lyrics. Unlike the gracefulness and agility in the dominant image of Monkey King, it bleeds, hurts, screams, and always fails in these mashup music videos (see Figures 2, 3, and 4). The underclass signifies their own powerlessness by intentionally using the weak, unpretty, and extremely small image of the Monkey King in contrast with the indifferent and massive Tathagata.
Figure 2: This is a screenshot from Havoc in heaven (1964) where the Monkey King powerfully fights against the heavenly army .
Figure 3: This is a well-known image of the Monkey King from the TV series Journey to the West (1986) — human-like, clever, and obedient .
Figure 4: The is a snapshot from MC Qixing’s music video for “Buddha says”, where a beast-like Monkey King is overwhelmed by the enormous Buddha .
Their “careless” appropriation of semiotic meanings and deliberate reinterpretation of classic texts were perceived by the middle-class public as a lack of cultural capital among the underclass (Hou, 2020). However, these cultural practices can also be viewed as the outcome of an emerging shared underclass habitus, which not just embodies the extremes of Chinese history, but also conditions flexible imaginations and strategic actions of the underclass when faced with current difficulties.
These new connotations of the Monkey King encouraged a shared sense of belonging within the community. Viewers enthusiastically commented on the work by saying “it surely speaks out the innermost feeling of Monkey King” . They also expressed their enthusiasm online by giving a “like,” actively interacting with each other, and contributing donations to performers during live streams. Besides being an oral performance, hanmai is also a participatory culture. One does not need to write his or her own work to participate, but has multiple ways of engagement afforded by the Kuaishou platform. If lacking human interaction in their physical work and living environments, then social media platforms such as Kuaishou affords a new sociality for the Chinese underclass.
Imagining a collective underclass identity in the algorithmic field
As MC Tianyou started sharing his hanmai rap videos on Kuaishou in 2014, the application had just transformed from a tool for making GIF (graphics interchange format) images to a mobile social media platform. The fundamental architecture of Kuaishou is constructed around video-clip sharing directly through smartphones, from shooting, editing, and sharing one’s own short videos, to viewing, commenting, and liking others’ works. Though some users may befriend the members from their real-life social networks, the majority of them depend on the “exploring” (fāxiàn) section of Kuaishou where tens of millions of newly produced videos everyday are automatically distributed by the customized recommendation algorithm (see Figure 5). When the users open the application, it is assumed that they “naturally” keep scrolling down the Pinterest-like digital masonry layout to look for videos that they are interested in without any explicit preference. These features created the basis for Kuaishou’s rapid growth in its user base and successfully attracted investment. By May of 2019, the daily active users of Kuaishou exceeded 200 million . As one of the leading Chinese Internet corporations, Kuaishou at that time was financially backed by both domestic Internet giants Tencent and Baidu and International ventures such as DCM and Sequoia.
Figure 5: The interface of Kuaishou’s exploring section .
Though Kuaishou is commonly assumed to appeal only to underclass users, data suggest that Kuaishou users share demographic features with the general Internet-accessible population . It is highly controversial whether Kuaishou intentionally targeted Chinese underclass or simply reflected the fact that China still has a large underclass population. Su Hua, one of the two co-founders and the current CEO of Kuaishou, claimed that the platform aims to be a mirror of contemporary Chinese society by impartially facilitating all ordinary Chinese to record their real lives in the virtual gathering space . The mirror metaphor implied that the earthiness or grassrootness of Kuaishou videos simply reflected the persistent inverted-T shape of Chinese social stratification consisting of a massive low-income population and a minority who possess both economic and political resources and high-status cultural tastes (Q. Li, 2005).
Some sociologists accept Kuaishou’s argument that their users merely reflect society, noting that one of the key features of current Chinese class stratification is simply the massiveness of the underclass (cf., Q. Li, 2005; C. Li, 2005; Li and Zhu, 2015). The mirror of society metaphor was also promoted by the media. For example, Caijing, one of China’s leading independent magazines, praised Kuaishou for providing the first channel for the silent majority of Chinese to record and display the images of their real lives . Huo, a freelance columnist on WeChat, condemned the “authentic” dark side of contemporary China on Kuaishou, for the platform reflected the morally degraded and uncivilized Chinese underclass that was excluded from economic prosperity . Though different on the surface, these stances commonly assumed that Kuaishou videos were a truthful reflection instead of a technologically mediated representation of social reality.
Nonetheless, the mirror metaphor has strong political implications about the purported neutrality and objectivity shared by almost every social media platform across the globe (Gillespie, 2010). It reveals Kuaishou’s attempt to depict itself simply as an intermediary (Latour, 2005) that only delivers user-generated content and connects user-communities without intervention or bias. Kuaishou is consistent with the global “platform” discourse that employs both the term itself and the mirror metaphor to maintain a cautious balance between a focus on user’s agency and the company’s profit-seeking aims (Plantin, et al., 2016). Moreover, the mobile application also needs to depend on the “platform” concept to negotiate between keeping the large user-base active in creating diverse user-generated content, pursuing commercial success, and complying with the state’s policy to maintain social stability (Lin and de Kloet, 2019). Particularly, the Chinese state authorities have significant influence on the developments of Chinese social media platforms, not just through techno-nationalist media regulations (Plantin and Seta, 2019) but also through directly imposed practices for censorship in the name of national security (Yuen, 2015).
Therefore, the simple paradigm that neutral social media platforms reflect social realities could hardly explain why Kuaishou became such a vivid platform for underclass youth. Different from Weibo or TikTok that are highly dependent on trending topics and celebrities (Jia and Han, 2020), Kuaishou puts greater weight on the videos of ordinary users and intentionally excludes content produced by online celebrities in its exploring section (the app’s default content distribution channel). Though the algorithm itself is not open to public, three employees of Kuaishou mentioned the particular strategy in designing their algorithm system. For example, a programming engineer explained in an interview:
Kuaishou’s algorithm never lets top users, those with a lot of fans, to be displayed again in the exploring section. I think it is a kind of perseverance to maintain being a decentralized community (laughing). Kuaishou does not want to become another Weibo .
The users, on the other hand, successfully perceived the impact of the algorithm, though the strategy had never been articulated to them, as one user who switched from Weibo to Kuaishou described her experience:
A new user needs a lot of time to be visible on Weibo. Do you realize that? Most of us will never be seen, because the trending topics and celebrities on Weibo are very influential. But my first video on Kuaishou has tens of likes from complete strangers. I don’t know how it is possible, but it feels really good. I am getting myself heard .
With the help of the preferential algorithm, ordinary users especially those who were hardly heard on any other existing social media platforms were attracted, maintained, and connected on Kuaishou. Customization and recommendation algorithms have been criticized for increasing the risks of individualization (Just and Latzer, 2017) and producing “filter bubbles” that not just limit one’s view to his or her own preferences but also isolate people as a centrifugal force (Pariser, 2011). However, recommendation algorithms do not always produce the same value, as multiple algorithms are drawn together for multiple uses (Neyland, 2015). When adjusting the details of the system, algorithms can also increase visibility and build connections among disadvantaged social groups, especially when such social-technical systems might affect the sociality among users (Nagy and Neff, 2015). For example, one user attributed her use of Kuaishou to seeing the diversity:
I see a lot of lifestyles or living situations (on Kuaishou) very different from my own. Like those peasants, trunk drivers, or monks. I have never seen these anywhere else. ... It makes you feel that you enter a new world. Or in another word, you cross over some boundaries .
The intentional strategy in designing the recommendation algorithm afforded the previously silent underclass to express themselves and build social ties. However, the situation is not entirely evidence of technological empowerment or how the Internet flattens the world. Kuaishou is neither a revolutionary corporation featuring a demotic or ethical algorithm design. First, claiming inclusiveness, the Kuaishou algorithm still lacks transparency and provides no means to investigate its accountability or what biases are imposed. Moreover, in using the platform, one has no choice but to enter the filter bubbles created by its algorithm both because of the collective unconsciousness of the power of algorithms (Beer, 2009) and the lack of alternatives (Pasquinelli, 2009).
Second, the complexity of social-technical systems such as recommendation algorithm should be interpreted in the context of the platform economy. On the one hand, Kuaishou is not a platform created by underclass themselves. In parallel to Walmart’s success in targeting the underserved population in small towns in the U.S., Kuaishou’s seemingly equalizing algorithm has also proven to be commercially successful in Chinese society where the accumulative amount of rural migrant workers, laid-off workers, rural residents and their family members reach as many as hundreds of millions. Their demands for expression, entertainment, and media representation have seldom been fulfilled as they are always excluded from the urban middle-class focused media and culture industries (Sun, 2014). On the other hand, it would be an oversimplification to assert that Kuaishou succeeded only by exploiting the underclass users’ data and labor (Tan, et al., 2020). Kuaishou thrived as an online ghetto among the emerging Chinese underclass since the relationship between the platform and its users was mutually shaped in dialogistic dynamics.
Therefore, rather than interpreting the relationship between users and the platform as a binary opposition, this essay argues that the relatively inclusive algorithm of Kuaishou expanded the virtual field where underclass youth could share their lives with other social groups. In Bourdieu’s sense, a field is a network of relationships where individuals’ positions are determined by the amount of economic, political, and cultural capital (Ignatow and Robinson, 2017). The rules of a field can be internalized into habitus, therefore, either conditioning or constraining each individual participants’ apparatus. In this case, the technologically mediated visibility of the underclass can be seen as a necessary but not sufficient condition for class identity formation. Nonetheless, the perceived platform affordance and the emerging habitus implied in hanmai rap culture intertwine and together formulate the visibility of the previously silent and segmented underclass.
Like any other social field in Bourdieu’s (1987) theory, the virtual underclass field transformed by Kuaishou and hanmai culture was also itself multi-dimensional and embedded in a larger social context. Visibility on social media does not necessarily empower either the individuals or the underclass as a social group, but it also triggers surveillance especially in contemporary China where the government endeavors to demonstrate social harmony amid rapidly increasing inequalities (Brighenti, 2007).
Disciplining the underclass through “positive energy”
The success of hanmai rap videos generated a strong response from state authorities. In early April 2018, China Central Television (CCTV), which is closely connected to and controlled by the state, criticized Kuaishou for providing vulgar and harmful information to Chinese youth. Soon thereafter, the National Radio and Television Administration required Kuaishou to examine its existing online content, stop uploading new videos, and remove its app from the Android online store . Besides these public punishments, it was also disclosed that Chinese Internet regulators summoned Kuaishou’s administrators for a face-to-face meeting . The details of the meeting were not disclosed, except that Kuaishou started recruiting new employees to manually examine the content of user-generated videos shortly afterwards. The estimated number of censors recruited was around 3,000, but most of the content was examined and regulated by its backstage algorithm before.
At the same time, a new round of the “Purifying the Internet” campaign was launched in cooperation among several governmental departments including the National Office Against Pornographic and Illegal Publications, Cyberspace Administration of China, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, and Ministry of Public Security. The rationale of the campaign was to protect the younger generation from online vulgar and obscene content . Although the national campaign never claimed to have targeted either Kuaishou or the hanmai culture, the timing of the crackdown is notable. Numerous other platforms and various user-generated content including pornography, ribaldry, offense material, and deceptive advertising were deleted, blocked, or subjected to further examination. Overall, the state’s intervention in the name of protecting juveniles from vulgar online content had a significant impact on Kuaishou. For example, by the end of May 2018, Kuaishou publicly announced that they had removed nearly 700,000 video clips and blocked almost 200 accounts every day since early April due to “vulgarity” . However, the legal or operative definition of what constituted vulgarity was unknown to Kuaishou users whose accounts were affected.
The subsequent changes to the Kuaishou platform provided some clues as to the meaning of vulgarity. On the one hand, hanmai videos gradually disappeared from the platform from a genre with tens of thousands of updates every day to nothing: no one was performing any longer, no videos were being shared, and no more public discussions were being held. Videos such as exhibiting agricultural products, providing life tips, or performing pop songs replaced the previously popular hanmai rap videos. Different from the underclass yearning for justice and the concurrent, defiant, sometimes painful expression of a desire for social and economic mobility, subsequent videos conveyed a new set of messages: a positive expectation for a better life through the aid of digital technology. Carefully crafted and emotionally sanitized prosocial messages and images swiftly replaced the waves of raw, spontaneous and affective desires of those at the margins of Chinese society. The commercial campaign “See Every Type of Life on Kuaishou” at the end of 2018 exhibited this new more positive narrative that accorded with state ideology. Some underclass Kuaishou users were particularly designated as representatives, especially those who could market either agricultural products or spectacular personas in line with both the national policy and the expectation for economic growth. For example, Zhuoma, a Tibetan girl, overcame poverty by selling mushrooms; or Geng, an ordinary farmer, became a celebrity for inventing humorous gizmos; and various folk artisans attracted a young audience by performing traditional puppetry. The positiveness was in accordance with “positive energy”, the guiding ideology for the state’s intervention in online media discourse endorsed by Xi Jinping ever since the start of his term of office from 2012. The hegemonic slogan achieved notable effectiveness in disciplining the Chinese media from the traditional old media to the new online environment (Yang and Tang, 2018).
Notably, the promotion of content with “positive energy” on Kuaishou was not initiated directly by the state authorities or official media institutions. Though the first few days after Kuaishou was penalized witnessed a significant increase in propagandistic accounts from the Communist Youth League or CCTV, the exploring channel quickly returned to displaying user-generated content (see Figures 6 and 7). Nonetheless, the de facto change occurred at the algorithmic level rather than the content itself. As claimed by Su Hua in a public letter of apology after being sanctioned, “the algorithm will be optimized with a healthy, positive value” that “strictly complies with the national regulations and common ethics and morals” (see Figure 8). Though continuing in claiming to be the mirror of Chinese society, the invisible Kuaishou algorithm (aided by 3,000 newly recruited human censors) now excluded vulgar hanmai videos and endeavored to depict a more hopeful image of the Chinese underclass.
Figure 6: Kuaishou’s exploring section was soon filled with propagandistic content right after being criticized by the state authorities .
Figure 7: Kuaishou’s exploring section returned to the original user-generated track while vulgar content was replaced by positive ones .
Figure 8: Kuaishou’s apology letter written by its CEO, Su Hua .
The reorientation of the platform appeared as a tremendous success both politically and commercially. The official state-run Xinhua News Agency reported in September 2019 that the active daily users of Kuaishou doubled from 100 million to over 200 million after the changes were implemented in May 2018 . Earlier in June 2019, CCTV again mentioned Kuaishou, but this time commended it for the over 3.4 million underclass users who earned sufficient amount of money to either end or help end their poor living conditions by engaging on the platform. The reputation of Kuaishou also dramatically changed in Chinese media culture from a vulgar virtual field to a digital hero in the national campaign to reduce poverty, preserve traditional culture, and empower the underclass. The mirror metaphor of Kuaishou was further endorsed by state authorities when the platform was designated as the exclusive partner in live broadcasting the CCTV Spring Festival Gala, a media event for conveying party ideology and moral values during one of China’s most important national holidays (Feng, 2016). The partnership between Kuaishou and the Spring Festival Gala signaled the subordination of Kuaishou to the state’s system of political propaganda and censorship.
The disappearance of hanmai rap videos and the transition of Kuaishou also indicated a shift in Chinese Internet content regulation and censorship, from the previously state-oriented mechanism to the current collaboration between the state and commercial platforms. Though it has already been noticed that the de facto Chinese censorship practices varied from platform to platform (MacKinnon, 2009), changes of Kuaishou indicated a closer relationship between state authorities and private social media platforms. Previous studies concentrated on how the state-oriented censorship actively deleted politically sensitive terms (Bamman, et al., 2012) or the system actually allowed criticism toward government but mainly targeted curtailing collective protests (King, et al., 2013).
However, Kuaishou’s case suggested a directional shift in the censorship system from a repressive and responsive state apparatus to a more hegemonic power structure that became invisible and coercive. As Roberts (2018) noted, the controlling strategies of Chinese censorship evolved from direct restriction to more subtle ones that included inconvenience in information seeking and distribution. Nonetheless, information manipulation, and hence the censorship of social and cultural practices on social media platform, has gained increasing significance as the state and corporate actors have become increasingly intertwined.
Moreover, social media platforms in China only succeed to the extent that they adjust themselves to the state’s political agenda. In the case of Kuaishou, it succeeded in making its initial public offering (IPO) in Hong Kong raising $US5.4 billion dollars in January 2021 . This commercial success has been ensured because after being punished in 2018, the social media platform actively mobilized its underclass users to participate in the national poverty reduction and rural revitalization campaign with updated affordances and “positive energy”. The original users of Kuaishou, especially the underclass who had few alternatives, could only remake themselves into marketable objects in order to survive in the new reality when online and off-line inequalities further intertwined.
Even though we might still encounter a few videos using the previously popular hanmai works as soundtracks, the cultural practices that once demonstrated a collective underclass habitus lost their significance in public discussions. When underclass users were busy depending Kuaishou’s new live streaming and e-commerce functions to make money and overcome their economic troubles, hanmai rap culture turned out to be a background music similar to the trivializing of Monkey King’s rebelliousness. Kuaishou’s new algorithm complying with the state’s “positive energy” became another set of internalized laws of the virtual field that conditioned and constrained underclass users. Nonetheless, social class is never an objective static position, and habitus does not only generate rule-based practices. For how the underclass might engage alternative strategies or actions in the field with new laws, we still have to wait and see.
This study examined how a collective class consciousness was briefly formed among the previously segmented Chinese underclass on social media. The habitus mutually shaping and shaped underclassness was embodied in the participatory hanmai culture that thrived on the Kuaishou social media platform. This emergent collective consciousness was a product of an assemblage of actors that included Kuaishou’s algorithmic design, underclass youths’ social experiences and marginalization, their appropriation of ideological symbols, and the interpellation of social differences through “vulgar” denunciations that they confronted in mainstream media. The emotional connections, the yearnings for social mobility and alternative social rules, and the practices in hanmai participatory culture were the means for expressing collective resistance, however briefly, to existing social inequalities.
However, the virtual field that once enabled the recognition of underclassness was also a field for its suppression. The mirror metaphor promoted by Kuaishou that asserted the impartiality of the platform to facilitate everyday ordinary expression was far from true. The architecture of the platform that mediated underclass expression was constructed with a specific profit-seeking agenda in an online landscape of pervasive state surveillance. The platform’s users, on the other hand, were subjected to the logic of both capitalist accumulation and state authoritarianism. As a result, the “vulgar” hanmai was replaced by user-generated content with “positive energy” so that the platform could maintain this cooperation between state and market.
More than just merely reflecting growing social inequalities, Kuaishou was profoundly integrated in the process of reproducing an awareness of social inequalities. On Kuaishou, the early algorithmic design targeting underclass users was a result of a distinctive monetization strategy that proved to be particularly successful in the Chinese context of class stratification. Though growing solidarity among the underclass began to emerge, the perception of the underclass as the “vulgar” others of the society whose visibility on social media was a social problem that justified state intervention. The state’s program to promote “positive energy” on Kuaishou exposed the state’s willingness to “cleanse” the Internet of representations of social inequality and class habitus. The collaboration between Kuaishou and the state authorities once again ensured that ordinary users were excluded from participation in the virtual spaces of the online worlds where their own content and labor generated value. As a result, social media platforms such as Kuaishou are growing into key actors in structuring power relations that simultaneously incorporate technology, capital, and the state in mediating and regulating social inequalities in an increasingly divided Chinese society.
About the author
Jiaxi Hou is a doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies at the University of Tokyo. Her research interests include the power dynamics of social classes, digital platforms, and transnational cultural flow in East Asia. She earned her B.A. in communication studies from Tsinghua University, China and a M.A.S in information studies from the University of Tokyo, Japan.
E-mail: hou-jiaxi [at] g [dot] ecc [dot] u-tokyo [dot] ac [dot] jp
1. Li Tianyou shared his personal growth in a New York Times interview, at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/15/world/asia/china-li-tianyou-livestream.html, accessed 27 January 2021.
2. Chinese traditional vocal performance refers to a group of folklore art forms consisted of narrative storytelling using staged monologues or dialogues with musical accompaniment including shuohua [tale-telling], shuoshu [book-telling], xiangsheng [crosstalk], kuaiban [talk with rhythm]. This oral tradition of storytelling can be traced back at least to the Song dynasty (960–1279) and has always existed in ordinary people’s entertainment life ever since (Boerdahl, 1998).
3. The snapshot was secured on 2 April 2018, from the researcher’s mobile phone and her Kuaishou user account.
4. MC is usually an abbreviation for masters of ceremonies or microphone controllers. The term is especially popular to refer to an underground rapper in hip-hop culture. An MC usually presents performers, speaks to the audience, entertains people, and generally keeps the performance moving. Hanmai lovers either grabbed the word from directly imitating hip-hop rappers or inherited the term from the pre-digital underclass club cultures.
5. In particular, the researcher used the walkthrough method to engage with the application’s screens, buttons, and menus during the stage of regular usage. Kuaishou’s interface consisted of three main channels, “following” (gunzh), “exploring” (fāxiàn), and “nearby” (tóngchéng) for viewing short videos (usually less than one minute). “Exploring” is always the default page whenever a user opened Kuaishou, where endless short videos were displayed to a specific user according to a personalized recommendation algorithm as scrolling continued. Additional functions such as searching, live streaming, or e-commerce could be accessed by tapping on a hidden left bar. Rather than being a static platform, Kuaishou always updated itself by testing functions with new finger gestures, such as swipe to switch between channels, double click for a like, and long press for a dislike.
6. Thompson, 1966, pp. 9–10.
7. Bourdieu, 2017, p. 43.
8. Bourdieu, 1977, p. 82.
9. Bourdieu, 1990, p. 64.
10. Music producer Liang Huan proposed this argument in an interview with Vice China, from https://daily.zhihu.com/story/9317114, accessed 30 April 2018.
11. Xiali is a domestic car brand popular from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. Xiali cars usually serve as taxicabs in many underdeveloped towns and cities. It is famous for its low quality and cheap prices, therefore usually perceived as an ”underclass” car brand.
12. Huang, SS, interview by author, by WeChat, 19 July 2020.
13. English translation of the poem can be found at https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/poems/poems31.htm, accessed 20 August 2020.
14. Screenshot from Havoc in heaven (1961), at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rg4Y-R5AmfE, accessed 26 July 2020.
15. Screenshot from Journey to the West TV series (1986), from https://movie.douban.com/photos/photo/2610078128/, accessed 26 July 2020.
16. Screenshot from MC Qixing’s music video for “Buddha says” (2017), from https://video.kuaishou.com/featured/3x34tnu4dtbppi6, accessed 30 March 2018.
17. This is a fan’s comment below the video “Buddha says”, kept in the author’s field notes on 30 March 2018.
18. Kuaishou Big Data Research Centre, 2019. Sina Weibo page. “Kuaishou neirong shengtai baogao” [“Report on Kuaishou’s content ecology”] (12 September), at https://www.weibo.com/p/1006067006475303/home, accessed 14 September 2019.
19. The snapshot was achieved on 12 March 2018, from the researcher’s mobile phone and Kuaishou user account.
20. Specifically, according to the report from Tencent’s Penguin Intelligence, by 2018 April, 90 percent of Kuaishou users lived outside Chinese metropolis (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen). Exactly 87.6 percent of them earned less than $US1,200 per month and 70 percent of them never went to college. At the same time, statistics of the general population also shows similar patterns. Tencent report can be accessed at https://tech.qq.com/a/20180409/002763.htm while the general population statistics can be accessed from National Bureau of Statistics from http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjsj/.
21. Zhang Wei and Xiaoqi Zhou, 2017. “Kuaishou CEO Su Hua: Zuo zhenshi shijie de yimian jingzi” [“Kuaishou CEO Su Hua: Be a mirror of the real world”], Beijing News (7 November), at http://www.bjnews.com.cn/news/2017/11/07/463202.htm, accessed 1 December 2017.
22. Cheng Ye, 2018. “Pinduoduo he Kuaishou li de diceng zhongguo” [“The underclass China in Pinduoduo and Kuaishou”], Caijing (31 July), at http://finance.sina.com.cn/chanjing/gsnews/2018-07-31/doc-ihhacrce4213733.shtml, accessed 2 August 2018.
23. Qiming Huo, 2016. WeChat Official Accounts Platform. “Canku diceng wuyu: Yige shipin ruanjian de zhongguo nongcun” [“The cruel story of underclass: Rural China in a video app”] (9 June), at https://xw.qq.com/news/20160609003283/NEW2016060900328301, accessed 2 December 2017.
24. A.A. Li, interview by the author, by WeChat, 6 June 2018.
25. Mao mao, 2018. Kuaishou live-streaming (28 February).
26. Xiao tian, interview by author, by WeChat, 16 June 2018.
27. National Radio and Television Administration, 2018. WeChat Official Accounts Platform. “Guojia guangbo dianshi zongju yansu chuli jinri toutiao kuaishou chuanbo youwei shehui daode jiemu deng wenti” [“NRTA seriously treated Toutiao and Kuaishou for distributing controversial information”] (4 April), at https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/jnn-uMPl_uPaFbunaE4Kgg, accessed 4 April, 2018.
28. Xu Wen, 2018. “Kuaishou huoshan xiaoshipin chuanbo disu xinxi bei yuetan” [“Kuaishou and Huoshan are summoned for spreading vulgar content”], Beijing News (8 April), at http://www.bjnews.com.cn/inside/2018/04/08/482234_2.html, accessed 8 April 2018. In particular, face-to-face meeting between the state and the Internet company, sometimes named as being invited for a cup of tea, is a common strategy for the Chinese officials to more effectively communicate with and directly discipline the Internet industry.
29. The “Purifying the Internet” campaign, or Jingwang in Chinese, was initiated after the establiahment of the Cyberspace Administration of China in 2014, led by Chinese president Xi Jinping to pay special attention to the regulation and management of online information.
30. Kuaishou, 2018. WeChat Official Accounts Platform. “Kuaishou dui weigui yonghu ji neirong de chufa qingkuang tongbao” [“Kuaishou penalizes users and content against platform policy”] (27 May), at https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/UzX0vwI01MJo9olu27K4MA, accessed 28 May 2018.
31. The snapshot was secured on 5 April 2018, from the researcher’s mobile phone and Kuaishou user account.
32. The snapshot was obtained on 23 April 2018, from the researcher’s mobile phone and Kuaishou user account.
33. The snapshot was captured on 3 April 2018, from the researcher’s mobile phone and Kuaishou user account.
34. Xinhua Net, 2019. “Kuaishou 2019 neirong shengtai baogao fabu” [“Kuaishou content report releases”] (16 September), at http://www.xinhuanet.com/tech/2019-09/16/c_1125001001.htm, accessed 17 September 2019.
35. Julia Fioretti, 2021. “Chinese video app Kuaishou raises $5.4 billion in Hong Kong IPO,” Bloomberg (30 January), at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-29/chinese-video-app-kuaishou-raises-5-4-billion-in-hong-kong-ipo, accessed 22 February 2021..
Ann Anagnost, 2008. “From ‘class’ to ‘social strata’: Grasping the social totality in reform-era China,” Third World Quarterly, volume 29, number 3, pp. 497–519.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/01436590801931488, accessed 23 August 2021.
David Bamman, Brendan O’Connor, and Noah Smith, 2012. “Censorship and deletion practices in Chinese social media,” First Monday, volume 17, number 3, at https://firstmonday.org/article/view/3943/3169, accessed 23 August 2021.
doi: https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v17i3.3943, accessed 23 August 2021.
David Beer, 2009. “Power through the algorithm? Participatory Web cultures and the technological unconscious,” New Media & Society, volume 11, number 6, pp. 985–1,002.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444809336551, accessed 23 August 2021.
Yanjie Bian, 2002. “Chinese social stratification and social mobility,” Annual Review of Sociology, volume 28, pp. 91–116.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.soc.28.110601.140823, accessed 23 August 2021.
Vibeke Boerdahl, 1998. The eternal storyteller: Oral literature in modern China. New York: Routledge.
doi: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203036761, accessed 23 August 2021.
Pierre Bourdieu, 2017. “Habitus,” In: Jean Hillier and Emma Rooksby (editors). Habitus: A sense of place. Second edition. New York: Routledge.
doi: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315253701, accessed 23 August 2021.
Pierre Bourdieu, 1990. In other words: Essays towards a reflexive sociology. Translated by Matthew Adamson. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Pierre Bourdieu, 1987. “What makes a social class? On the theoretical and practical existence of groups,” Berkeley Journal of Sociology, volume 32, pp. 1–17.
Pierre Bourdieu, 1984. Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Pierre Bourdieu, 1977. Outline of a theory of practice. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511812507, accessed 23 August 2021.
Andrea Brighenti, 2007. “Visibility: A category for the social sciences,” Current Sociology, volume 55, number 3, pp. 323–342.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0011392107076079, accessed 23 August 2021.
Taina Bucher and Anne Helmond, 2017. “The affordances of social media platforms,” In: Jean Burgess, Alice Marwick, and Thomas Poell (editors). Sage handbook of social media. London: Sage, pp. 223–253.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781473984066.n14, accessed 23 August 2021.
China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), 2021. “Chinese Internet network information center 47th survey report” (3 February), at http://www.cnnic.cn/hlwfzyj/hlwxzbg/hlwtjbg/202102/P020210203334633480104.pdf, accessed 20 February, 2021.
Rosemary Crompton, 2008. Class and stratification. Third edition. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Jinhua Dai, 2018. “Hou geming de youling” [“Spectra of post-revolution”], Kuawenhua duihua [Dialogue Transcultural], number 38, pp. 10–49.
Bella Dicks, Bambo Soyinka, and Amanda Coffey, 2006. “Multimodal ethnography,” Qualitative Research, volume 6, number 1, pp. 77–96.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794106058876, accessed 23 August 2021.
José van Dijck, 2013. The culture of connectivity: A critical history of social media. New York: Oxford University Press.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199970773.001.0001, accessed 23 August 2021.
José van Dijck, David Nieborg, and Thomas Poell, 2019. “Reframing platform power,” Internet Policy Review, volume 8, number 2.
doi: https://doi.org/10.14763/2019.2.1414, accessed 23 August 2021.
Paul DiMaggio and Eszter Hargittai, 2001. “From the ‘digital divide’ to ‘digital inequality’: Studying Internet use as penetration increases,” Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, Woodrow Wilson School, Working Paper, number 15, at https://culturalpolicy.princeton.edu/sites/culturalpolicy/files/wp15_dimaggio_hargittai.pdf, accessed 23 August 2021.
Dezheng Feng, 2016. “Promoting moral values through entertainment: A social semiotic analysis of the Spring Festival Gala on China Central Television,” Critical Arts, volume 30, number 1, pp. 87–101.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/02560046.2016.1164387, accessed 23 August 2021.
Tarleton Gillespie, 2010. “The politics of ‘platforms’,” New Media & Society, volume 12, number 3, pp. 347–364.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444809342738, accessed 23 August 2021.
Yingjie Guo, 2016. “Introduction: Class and stratification in the People’s Republic of China,” In: Yingjie Guo (editor). Handbook on class and social stratification in China. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp. 1–20.
doi: https://doi.org/10.4337/9781783470648.00008, accessed 23 August 2021.
Eric Harwit, 2004. “Spreading telecommunications to developing areas in China: Telephones, the Internet and the digital divide,” China Quarterly, volume 180, pp. 1,010–1,030.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0305741004000724, accessed 23 August 2021.
Jiaxi Hou, 2020. “Contesting the vulgar hanmai performance from Kuaishou: Online vigilantism toward Chinese underclass youths on social media platforms,” In: Daniel Trottier, Rashid Gabdulhakov, and Qian Huang (editors). Introducing vigilant audiences. London: Open Book, pp. 49–75, and at https://books.openedition.org/obp/15522?lang=en4, accessed 23 August 2021.
Gabe Ignatow and Laura Robinson, 2017. “Pierre Bourdieu: Theorizing the digital,” Information, Communication & Society, volume 20, number 7, pp. 950–966.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2017.1301519, accessed 23 August 2021.
Tamara Jacka, 2009. “Cultivating citizens: Suzhi (Quality) discourse in the PRC,” Positions: Asia Critique, volume 17, number 3, pp. 523–535.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10679847-2009-013, accessed 23 August 2021.
Lianrui Jia and Xiaofei Han, 2020. “Tracing Weibo (2009–2019): The commercial dissolution of public communication and changing politics,” Internet Histories, volume 4, number 3, pp. 304–332.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/24701475.2020.1769894, accessed 23 August 2021.
Christian Joppke, 1986. “The cultural dimensions of class formation and class struggle: On The social theory of Pierre Bourdieu,” Berkeley Journal of Sociology, volume 31, pp. 53–78.
Natascha Just and Michael Latzer, 2017. “Governance by algorithms: Reality construction by algorithmic selection on the Internet,” Media, Culture & Society, volume 39, number 2, pp. 238–258.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443716643157, accessed 23 August 2021.
Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts, 2013. “How censorship in China allows government criticism but silences collective expression,” American Political Science Review, volume 107, number 2, pp. 326–343.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003055413000014, accessed 23 August 2021.
Jeroen de Kloet, 2010. China with a cut: Globalisation, urban youth and popular music. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Bruno Latour, 2005. Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. New York: Oxford University Press.
Chunling Li, 2005. Duanlie yu suipian: Dangdai zhongguo shehui jieceng fenhua shizheng fenxi [Cleavage and fragmentation: Class stratification in contemporary China]. Beijing: Social Science Academic Press.
Miao Li, Chris K.K. Tan, and Yuting Yang, 2020. “Shehui Ren: Cultural production and rural youths’ use of the Kuaishou video-sharing app in Eastern China,” Information, Communication & Society, volume 23, number 10, pp. 1,499–1,514.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2019.1585469, accessed 23 August 2021.
Peilin Li and Di Zhu, 2015. “Nuli xingcheng ganlanxing fenpeigeju: Jiyu 2006-2013nian zhongguo shehui zhuangkuang diaocha shuju de fenxi“ [“Formulating olive-shaped distribution structure: Analysis based on Chinese census data from 2006 to 2013”], Zhongguo Shehui Kexue [Chinese Social Science], number 1, pp. 45–65.
Qiang Li, 2005. “Dingzixing shehui jiegou yu jiegou jinzhang” [“Inverted T-shape social structure and structural strain”], Shehuixue Yanjiu [Social Science Research], number 2, pp. 55–73.
Qiang Li, 2002. Zhuanxing shiqi de zhongguo shehui fenceng jiegou [Stratification structure in transition China]. Harbin: Heilongjiang People’s Press.
Shi Li, Hiroshi Sato, and Terry Sicular (editors), 2013. Rising inequality in China: Challenges to a harmonious society. New York: Cambridge University Press.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139035057, accessed 23 August 2021.
Ben Light, Jean Burgess, and Stefanie Duguay, 2018. “The walkthrough method: An approach to the study of apps,” New Media & Society, volume 20, number 3, pp. 881–900.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444816675438, accessed 23 August 2021.
Jian Lin and Jeroen de Kloet, 2019. “Platformization of the unlikely creative class: Kuaishou and Chinese digital cultural production,” Social Media + Society (21 November).
doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305119883430, accessed 23 August 2021.
Xingshuo Liu and Jing Wu, 2017. “Cong kuaishou duanshipin shejiao ruanjian zhong fenxi chengxiang wenhua renting” [“Rural/urban identity division on Kuaishou social media platform”], Xiandai Xinxi Keji [Modern Information Technology], number 3, pp. 111–116.
Yan Liu, 2016. Lishi Jiyi Shengchan: Dongbei Laogongye Jidi Wenhua Yanjiu [History, memory, and production: Cultural studies of the Rust Belt regions in northeast China]. Beijing: China Yan Shi Press.
Xueyi Lu, 2002. Dangdai zhongguo shehui jieceng yanjiu baogao [Social stratification in contemporary Chinese society]. Beijing: Social Science Academic Press.
Rebecca MacKinnon, 2009. ”China’s censorship 2.0: How companies sensor bloggers,” First Monday, volume 14, number 2, at https://firstmonday.org/article/view/2378/2089, accessed 23 August 2021.
doi: https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v14i2.2378, accessed 23 August 2021.
Tom McDonald, 2016. Social media in rural China: Social networks and moral frameworks. London: UCL Press.
Daniel Miller and Don Slater, 2000. The Internet: An ethnographic approach. Oxford: Berg.
Guanglun M. Mu, Karen Dooley, and Allan Luke, 2018. ”Introduction: China, education, and Bourdieu,“ In: Guanglun M. Mu, Karen Dooley, and Allan Luke (editors). Bourdieu and Chinese education: Inequality, competition, and change. New York: Routledge, pp. 1–19.
doi: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315104331, accessed 23 August 2021.
Peter Nagy and Gina Neff, 2015. ”Imagined affordance: Reconstructing a keyword for communication theory,“ Social Media + Society (30 September).
doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305115603385, accessed 23 August 2021.
Daniel Neyland, 2015. ”On organizing algorithms,“ Theory, Culture & Society, volume 32, number 1, pp. 119–132.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276414530477, accessed 23 August 2021.
Safiya U. Noble, 2018. Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. New York: New York University Press.
Elisa Oreglia, 2015. “The ‘sent-down’ Internet: Using Information and communication technologies in rural China,” Chinese Journal of Communication, volume 8, number 1, pp. 1–6.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/17544750.2015.991369, accessed 23 August 2021.
Elisa Oreglia, 2013. “From farm to Farmville: Circulation, adoption, and use of ICT between urban and rural China,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, at https://escholarship.org/uc/item/68s0x1r3, accessed 23 August 2021.
Tim O’Reilly, 2005. “What is Web 2.0? Design patterns and business models for the next generation of software” (30 September), at https://www.oreilly.com/pub/a/web2/archive/what-is-web-20.html, accessed on 9 November 2019.
Eli Pariser, 2011. The filter bubble: How the new personalized Web is changing what we read and how we think. New York: Penguin Press.
Matteo Pasquinelli, 2009. “Google’s PageRank algorithm: A diagram of cognitive capitalism and the rentier of the common intellect,” In: Konrad Becker and Felix Stalder (editors). Deep search: The politics of search beyond Google. London: Transaction Publishers, pp. 152–162.
Jean-Christophe Plantin and Gabriele de Seta, 2019. “WeChat as infrastructure: The techno-nationalist shaping of Chinese digital platforms,” Chinese Journal of Communication, volume 12, number 3, pp. 257–273.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/17544750.2019.1572633, accessed 23 August 2021.
Jean-Christophe Plantin, Carl Lagoze, Paul N. Edwards, and Christian Sandvig, 2016. “Infrastructure studies meet platform studies in the age of Google and Facebook,” New Media & Society, volume 20, number 1, pp. 293–310.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444816661553, accessed 23 August 2021.
Gerard A. Postiglione (editor), 2015. Education and social change in China: Inequality in a market economy. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe.
doi: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315704937, accessed 23 August 2021.
Christine Zhen-Wei Qiang, Asheeta Bhavnani, Nagy K. Hanna, Kaoru Kimura, and Randeep Sudan, 2009. “Rural informatization in China,” World Bank, Working Paper, number 172.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1596/978-0-8213-8018-5, accessed 23 August 2021.
Jack Linchuan Qiu, 2009. Working-class network society: Communication technology and the information have-Less in urban China. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Margaret E. Roberts, 2018. Censored: Distraction and diversion inside China’s Great Firewall. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Laura Robinson, Shelia R. Cotten, Hiroshi Ono, Anabel Quan-Haase, Gustavo Mesch, Wenhong Chen, Jeremy Schulz, Timothy M. Hale, and Michael J. Stern, 2015. “Digital inequalities and why they matter,” Information, Communication & Society, volume 18, number 5, pp. 569–582.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2015.1012532, accessed 23 August 2021.
Lisa Rofel, 2007. Desiring China: Experiments in neoliberalism, sexuality, and public culture. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822389903, accessed 23 August 2021.
Jen Schradie, 2012. “The trend of class, race, and ethnicity in social media inequality,” Information, Communication & Society, volume 15, number 4, pp. 555–571.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2012.665939, accessed 23 August 2021.
Jaime E. Settle, 2018. Frenemies: How social media polarizes America. New York: Cambridge University Press.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108560573, accessed 23 August 2021.
Clay Shirky, 2008. Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. New York: Penguin Press.
Alvin Y. So, 2003. “The changing pattern of classes and class conflict in China,” Journal of Contemporary Asia, volume 33, number 3, pp. 363–376.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/00472330380000231, accessed 23 August 2021.
Dorothy J. Solinger, 2012. “The new urban underclass and its consciousness: Is it a class?” Journal of Contemporary China, volume 21, number 78, pp. 1,011–1,028.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/10670564.2012.701037, accessed 23 August 2021.
Liping Sun, 2003. Duanlie: 20 shiji 90 niandai yilai de zhongguo shehui [Cleavage: Chinese society after 1990]. Beijing: Social Science Academic Press.
Wanning Sun, 2014. Subaltern China: Rural migrants, media, and cultural practices. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.
Zixue Tai, 2007. The Internet in China: Cyberspace and civil society. New York: Routledge.
doi: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203944073, accessed 23 August 2021.
Nicole Talmacs, 2017. China’s cinema of class: Audiences and narratives. New York: Routledge.
Chris K.K. Tan, Jie Wang, Jinjing Xu, and Chunxuan Zhu, 2020. “The real digital housewives of China’s Kuaishou video-sharing and live-streaming app,” Media, Culture & Society, volume 42, numbers 7-8, pp. 1,243–1,259.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443719899802, accessed 23 August 2021.
Edward P. Thompson, 1966. The making of the English working class. New York: Vintage Books.
Cara Wallis, 2013. Technomobility in China: Young migrant women and mobile phones. New York: New York University Press.
Hui Wang, 2014. “Liangzhong Xin qiongren jiqi weilai: Jieji zhengzhi de shuailuo zaixingcheng yu xin qiongren de zunyanvzhengzhi” [“The futures of two types of the poor: The decline and rebirth of class politics and the dignity of the poor”], Kaifang Shidai [Open Times], number 6, pp. 49–70.
Wei Wang, 2019. “Centralized agricultural networks and changing agrarian power dynamics in the platform economy,” International Journal of Communication, volume 13, pp. 5,225–5,245, and at https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/11378, accessed 23 August 2021.
Larry M. Wortzel, 1987. Class in China: Stratification in a classless society. New York: Greenwood Press.
Biao Xiang, 2018. “Working abroad: Commercialization, bureaucratization, and the ‘society people’,” lecture at Tsinghua University (20 December), at https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_2758412, accessed 23 August 2021.
Yu Xie and Xiang Zhou, 2014. “Income inequality in today’s China,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, volume 111, number 19 (13 May), pp. 6,928–6,933.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1403158111, accessed 23 August 2021.
Guobin Yang, 2009. The power of the Internet in China: Citizen activism online. New York: Columbia University Press.
Peidong Yang and Lijun Tang, 2018. “‘Positive energy’: Hegemonic intervention and online media discourse in China’s Xi Jinping era,” China: An International Journal, volume 16, number 1, pp. 1–22.
Samson Yuen, 2015. “Becoming a cyber power: China’s cybersecurity upgrade and its consequences,” China Perspectives, number 2, pp. 53–58.
doi: https://doi.org/10.4000/chinaperspectives.6731, accessed 23 August 2021.
Xin Zhao and Russell W. Belk, 2008. “Politicizing consumer culture: Advertising’s appropriation of political ideology in China’s social transition,” Journal of Consumer Research, volume 35, number 2, pp. 231–244.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1086/588747, accessed 23 August 2021.
Yongnian Zheng, 2008. Technological empowerment: The Internet, state, and society in China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Received 28 March 2020; revised 22 February 2021; accepted 23 February 2021.
Copyright © 2021, Jiaxi Hou. All Rights Reserved.
A platform for underclass youth: Hanmai rap videos, social class, and surveillance on Chinese social media
by Jiaxi Hou.
First Monday, Volume 26, Number 9 - 6 September 2021