When Dota 2’s premier tournament, The International, started on Monday night, the English-language broadcast featured an analyst desk full of experts. Among them was Croatian analyst Dominik “Lacoste” Stipic, who was wearing a Pepe the Frog pin. Considering that The International 2019 is being hosted in Shanghai, that pin is more important than you might think.
Pepe the Frog has a very complicated history. In America, and much of the English-language internet, he’s gone from a harmless meme to a hate symbol and back — depending on whom you ask. In Hong Kong, his recent history has been just as complicated, albeit in a different direction. Over the last several months, Hong Kong protesters have adopted the meme as a symbol of resistance.
To help you understand why this pin is a big deal, we’ve put together an explanation of Pepe and why this fashion choice was a quietly radical gesture, whether it was supposed to be or not.
What is Pepe the Frog?
Pepe is a cartoon frog. Originally created by Matt Furie for his comic Boy’s Club, Pepe exploded in popularity online as a meme that spread through 4chan, Tumblr, MySpace, and other destinations. The character was also popular on Twitch as an emote. Because of his simple but distinctive design and color palette, artists quickly realized you could transform Pepe into almost anything.
On Twitch, this started small, with versions of Pepe in various emotional states from frustration to elation to despair. Other online communities started taking Pepe’s transformations more seriously, creating more and more ridiculous and aggressive variations of the cartoon frog, using him as a symbol for whatever they wanted to.
What does Pepe represent?
That depends. Pepe’s infinite morphability is both its greatest feat as a meme and its most controversial problem. It has the ability to absorb context and become a symbol for almost anything. Most notably, Pepe achieved meme infamy when the so-called alt-right attempted to adopt it as a pseudo-mascot.
The “alt-right” has often attempted to promote itself by associating with and co-opting popular iconography and symbols. Whether it’s the “OK” hand gesture, a band, or a meme, the goal is to take something common and claim association with it so often that it becomes accepted as fact. In Pepe’s case, that meant using the frog’s blank-canvas design to create versions of the meme that promoted, among other things, racism and anti-Semitism. In fact, the Anti-Defamation League still has Pepe — that is, any version of Pepe, not just the explicitly hateful ones — listed as a hate symbol, though it’s been helping Pepe’s creator bring the character back to its wholesome origins over the last several years.
Eventually, the use of Pepe by the “alt-right” began to fade, replaced by other memes. But, while some people don’t see it as an explicit symbol for hate, that’s what Pepe will always represent for others. As with all memes, Pepe itself has no definitive context, so it’s easy for creators or viewers to assign that themselves.
So what’s happening in Hong Kong, China?
To understand the importance of Pepe in China, we first need to understand a little bit of the context around the current Hong Kong protests. While Hong Kong is a part of China, it maintains semi-autonomous operation — with a capitalist economic system, and its own administrative governance for domestic affairs — and is set to do so until at least 2047, 50 years after it changed hands from the U.K. to China. However, many of Hong Kong’s citizens feel that its government too often bends to the will of the Chinese government, rather than respecting the wishes of the people that actually live there.
The breaking point came with the introduction earlier this year of amendments to existing law. The revised law would allow extradition of suspected criminals to countries with which Hong Kong does not have a formal extradition agreement — most notably, to mainland China. The bill’s opponents worry that it will give China free rein to target political dissidents and have them sent across the Hong Kong border to be tried in the Communist Party-controlled courts of mainland China. The Hong Kong government, led by chief executive Carrie Lam, suspended the bill in June in an attempt to quell the protests but refused to take it off the table completely. Since then, the protests have grown in size and scope.
How does Pepe fit in?
Many of the most active participants in the Hong Kong protests have been young people. As with young people in any other part of the world, they have an incredible fluency in memes.
They have adopted the frog as a symbol of protest. They’re spray-painting Pepe’s face on walls, and giving it new contexts in the messaging apps where the meme has always been popular. (It’s worth mentioning here that Pepe has never had the same racist or anti-Semitic associations in Hong Kong that it has had in the West.) The protesters are also creating their own versions of Pepe, complete with the yellow hard hats that have also become symbols of their resistance movement.
Was Stipic wearing a Pepe pin in support of the Hong Kong protests?
Stipic hasn’t commented on his Pepe the Frog pin. On the one hand, it’s one of the most popular memes on Twitch and elsewhere online. On the other, he wore one of the most recognizable symbols of the Hong Kong protests live during an esports tournament in Shanghai. For what it’s worth, Lacoste only had the pin on for one segment. When the stream came back to the desk, the Pepe pin was gone, replaced with a different one.
Whatever the reason behind his Pepe pin, memes have power and they can be political, especially in China.
Will China crack down on Pepe and other memes?
China has a history of trying to stamp out memes that criticize its government.
The gaming space saw this firsthand earlier this year when a Pooh meme was discovered within the indie horror game Devotion, developed by the Taiwan-based studio Red Candle Games. The mocking meme, which unfavorably compares Chinese president Xi Jinping to Winnie the Pooh, is taken very seriously in China. Red Candle pulled the game from Steam after Chinese players review-bombed it; the country later revoked the business license of the game’s publisher, Indievent.
And as several people have mentioned on the Hong Kong subreddit, Pepe isn’t the only Dota 2-related meme popping up on The International broadcast. On the official English Twitch channel, many viewers have been spamming the phrase “free Hong Kong” in chat as well. According to the subreddit, this phrase seems to be fine, but viewers are reportedly being banned for using phrases such as Winnie the Pooh and Tiananmen Square.