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China’s E-Learning Revolution: The 10 Hottest Chinese Online Education Companies of 2016

The latest digital developments in the booming business of e-learning in China, and the 10 hottest players in the field in 2016.

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China’s rapid digital developments have greatly impacted people’s lives in many ways. It has not only changed how people talk, shop, pay, or even date – it has also changed how they learn. The increasing popularity of cyber schools is bringing about major changes in China’s education system. What’s on Weibo covers the latest developments in the booming business of e-learning in China, and introduces the 10 hottest players in the field. 

Online learning has become increasingly popular in China over the past few years – it is arguably one of the hottest topics in China’s tech industry today. The rise of e-education (在线教育) has made it possible for people to study any topic they like, no matter how old they are, where they live, or what they do. Moreover, compared to traditional education, online education is relatively cheap, making education more affordable and accessible to people from all layers of Chinese society. In this way, online education is a source of opportunities – both for e-learners and e-learning companies.

Education is generally deeply valued in China – a fact that is backed up by the numbers. In the PRC, education is in the top things that households generally spend the most money on, besides spending on housing and medical services. A large part of that education money is now being spent on digital education (Zi 2016, 36).

78 million online learners

Although China’s online education providers have been around since as early as 1998, it wasn’t until the 2011-2013 period that the market really exploded. There are now around 2.6 new schools coming online every single day, which has made China’s online learning market grow from around 500 institutions in 2012 to well over 4200 – and counting – in 2016. According to The China Online Education Report 2015-2020, the number of people studying online in 2014 was estimated at a staggering 77,97 million.

But experts say the popularity of online education in China is nowhere near its peak yet. With less than 30% of Chinese netizens currently using online education, an ever growing internet population, and a rising middle class, the market is expected to continue to grow an annual 15%. The coming decade will therefore be pivotal for China’s e-learning business (Sohu 2016; Zi 2016, 36).

Getting into the MOOC

The so-called MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) are an important part of the online education business. MOOC are live-broadcasted classes that can be followed by a large audience of online students at the same time. Classes are often free, providing high-quality teaching. Students can sometimes get certificates upon completion when they pay a fee.

For universities, MOOC platforms give them a channel to raise their (international) profiles and prestige, to showcase their top professors, and share their own perspectives and methodologies with a worldwide audience (Confederation Swiss 2014). MOOC give e-students the opportunity to follow courses from prestigious universities like Harvard of Stanford, no matter where they are.

Although the first MOOC were already held since 2001 in the USA, they didn’t become especially popular until 2012, which was hailed as ‘The Year of the MOOC’ by the New York Times. What 2012 was for MOOC in the West, is what 2013 meant for MOOC in China, when local MOOC (幕课) platforms started to mushroom.

TopU.com (顶你学堂) was the first purely Chinese platform, set up in October of 2013. Other big Chinese MOOC players are Kaikeba (开课吧) and Xuetang X (学堂在线), and Coursera Zone – a collaboration between China’s Netease and American MOOC giant Coursera.

China’s biggest MOOC platform is the MOOC Academy (@MOOC学院) by Guokr (果壳网). Guokr closely collaborates with various Chinese and international MOOC providers.

A good year for cyber class?

According to recent news articles, 2016 has again been a specifically booming year for online education in China. By now, 42% of all Chinese netizens are allegedly planning to pay for online education now or in the future, and many companies are not afraid to invest large amounts of money in this fruitful market.

Although the booming market is tempting for many young start-ups, and 2016 has proven to be a good year for many e-learning companies, more start-ups are also closing down now that their business models turn out to be unprofitable.

A report from China’s Internet Education Research Institute has revealed that only 5% of mainland online education firms earned a profit in 2015, and that most online education companies need to be able to sustain losses for their first years of business before becoming profitable. Those who do succeed, however, can grow very big very soon.

China’s hottest online education companies

Big Chinese tech companies like Tencent or China Mobile are eager to invest in promising startups. This is a top ten of Chinese online education companies who are currently the most well-funded and most promising startups of the first half of 2016 (Netease Tech Report 2016; Education Net 2016; Sohu 2016):

1. 51 Talk (无忧英语)

Lina

Known as the “No.1 online English school in China”, 51talk was founded in 2011 and has since become the largest online English education platform in China, both for adults and children. Run by CEO Huang Jiajia (黄佳佳), 51Talk provides one-to-one teaching services for approximately 15 RMB (2.2US$) per class. The company currently has 10,000 part-time and full-time teachers, of which the majority is based in the Phillippines. Students can choose their private online teachers through the 51talk app, which also reflects the ratings of the tutor. The company has recently done some smart marketing moves by turning popular Chinese tennis star Li Na, who is known for her well-spoken English, into 51Talk’s official ambassador.

2. Koolearn (新东方在线)

Koolearn profile

Run by CEO Sun Chang (孙畅), New Oriental’s Koolearn was established in 2000. The online education network offers over 1,200 online courses to over 8.5 million registered users. New Oriental currently is the largest provider of private educational services in China, based on the program offerings, student total and geographic presence. Their courses cater to a large audience, from graduate students to middle school kids. Topics vary from different languages to medicine and finance. A beginner’s online Japanese course is available from 1980RMB (±300US$).

3. XS Teach (郉帅教育, literally ‘Xing Shuai Education’)

xsteach

Named after founder Xing Shuai (郉帅), Guangzhou-based XSteach started in 2008 as a website for learning Photoshop. It then quickly expanded and is currently offering 300 courses in 20 subjects, mostly in the areas of graphics, images, video, and design. The company profited from the rising popularity of vocational schools in China, as it gives younger generations the hope for better jobs and better incomes. XSTeach offers live-broadcasted lessons, online videos and VIP courses.

4. Yuanfudao (猿辅导)

yuandaofu

Online education startup Yuanfudao is aimed at Chinese middle and high school students who are preparing for exams. According to Technode, the company was recently boosted with 40 million US$ by Chinese tech giant Tencent. E-learners can use the Yuanfudao app to connect students with tutors, who livestream through the app. Courses are priced as low as 1 RMB ($0.15 USD) for a one-hour lecture. Yuanfudao claims on their homepage that they currently cater to over 1.6 million students.

5. Lao-A E-Commerce Platform 老A电商学院

1390

This is China’s ‘most qualitative’ training program for people who want to learn about the world of e-commerce and selling on Taobao. This online e-commerce education platform offers courses in becoming successful on Taobao or in market analysis. CEO Wu Yuanshi (吴元轼) received a 140 million RMB (±21 million US$) investment earlier this year from Guotai Junan.

6. Crazy Teacher (疯狂老师)

crazyteacher

Crazy Teacher, also known as Entstudy, is an after-school tutoring platform that allows parents to find a tutor for their children who will then come to their home to teach. The platform also has a live streaming teaching app with paid courses that students can follow from their homes. The company recently raised an investment of 120 million RMB (18 million US$) by Greenwoods Investment with participation of existing investors Tencent and Yuanxi Capital. According to Edweek, the money will be used for the development of a new livestreaming platform called Dingdang Classroom.

7. ABC360

abc

“The best online English School in China!”, and “aiming to become the best and largest leading professional online English lesson provider to young and motivated professionals in China” – this is how ABC360 advertises itself. The English school, headquartered in the Philippines, was founded by Li Jing (李晶) and his wife in 2011. They recently received a 15 million US$ investment from capital firm Guo Jin Capital.

8. Sanhaowang (三好网)

sanhao

Sanhaowang is probably the company name that has been least well-known until now, and has been hardly (or not) mentioned by English media yet – although it is considered a rising star in the world of online education. Particularly aimed at middle school students, Sanhaowang provides a one-on-one digital education platform that revolves around its desktop platform where students and teachers can log in to meet online. Both teachers and students have a writing tablet with a camera aimed at it, so that both sides can see what the other is writing [see their introduction video on Youku]. CEO He Qiang (何强) received a total of 75 million RMB (±11.2 million US$) in investments this year.

9. XDL or ‘Lamp Brother’ (兄弟连)

xdl

XDL, founded by Li Chao (李超), currently is the leader in China’s online IT education. It also one of the online education companies that has been around for the longest time; it celebrated its 10-year-anniversary this year. The company offers courses in Android technology, mobile gaming, Java, iOs and more.

10. Zhiyou Education (致优教育)

zhiyou

Founded by Ren Yanghui (任洋辉, former CEO assistant at Xueda Education), Zhiyou Education is a digital tutoring company that trains students one-on-one, both online and offline – teachers will also give classes at students’ home. The teaching cycle of Zhiyou uses the iPad as its main tool, which records student’s learning data and teachers’ teaching data with an online system. Zhiyou also offers live-streaming classes to rehearse lessons. Legend Capital invested 60 million RMB (US$9.2 million) in the company earlier this year.

Start of a revolution

Besides the top 10 of online education companies that are currently most booming, there are a myriad of other successful startups and established Chinese e-learning companies. While China’s domestic online education continues to grow steadily, an entire new generation is now growing up while learning to count and read through games on tablets and mobile phones. As Sanhaowang’s CEO He Qiang recently said in an interview: “Communicating through screen has become part of the nature of the post-2000 generation.”

‘Mobile’ is one of the key words when talking about the future of digital education in China. Right now, China has 710 million internet users. Approximately 92% of people connect to the web through their mobile phone and a quarter of them solely access the internet through mobile. This means that digital education companies will start working more and more through only apps and/or tablets, which is what companies like Zhiyou Education are already doing. Chinese media outlet Investment Bulletin recently reported on Weibo that already over 59% of China’s online education users are mobile-based, indicating that mobile education is becoming mainstream within the online education market.

Big data and data technology are other important keywords for the future of online education. By analysing specific student groups and education materials, companies can continue improving their platforms and keep on customizing learning content to suit the (age) groups they are catering to.

With an ever-growing user group, greater technological possibilities and the new tech-savvy generations who practically grew upo with a phone in their hand, the past decade has only shown us what online education might be; this is just the beginning of China’s education revolution.

– By Manya Koetse

References

Confederation Swiss (Embassy of Switzerland in China). 2014. “Situation Analysis: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in China.” http://www.swissnexchina.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2014/08/MOOCS-in-China.pdf [6.8.16]

Education Net. 2016. “十大知名的网络教育网站排行榜 [Top Ten Most Well-Known Online Education Platforms].” 7CXK, January 5. http://www.7cxk.net/Article/xinxihua/201601/57651.html [7.8.16].

iWeb Choice. http://www.iwebchoice.com/html/class_38.shtml?3Months

Netease Tech Report. 2016. “中国在线教育2016上半年融资前10强出炉.” Netease Technology, July 7. http://finance.ce.cn/rolling/201607/12/t20160712_13749319.shtml [7.8.16].

Sohu. 2016. “2016中国十大教育辅导机构排名榜 [].” Sohu, April 29. http://mt.sohu.com/20160429/n446860195.shtml [7.8.16]

Sohu Education (搜狐教育). 2016. “2016年中国在线教育行业市场现状及发展趋势分析 [China’s 2016 Online Education Market State and Development Trend Analysis].” Sohu Education, July 6. http://www.54hei.com/newweb/jsp/news8.jsp [6.8.16].

Tian Feng. 2014. “China in the Mass Consumption Stage.” In: Peilin Li (ed), People’s Livelihood in Contemporary China: Changes, Challenges and Prospects, 71-85. London: World Scientific.

Zi Tong (子瞳). 2016. “在线教育红海中的厮杀 [Online Education: The Fight in the Red Sea]”. 新商游 [The New Traveling Merchant], July 8: 35-43.

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. John

    August 10, 2016 at 5:56 pm

    Very informative, thank you!

  2. Wytse

    August 10, 2016 at 6:19 pm

    Great read, thanks!

  3. Tony Diepenbrock

    December 13, 2016 at 9:08 pm

    Awesome, thank you! As a startup in the space, this is really helpful.

  4. Starc

    February 24, 2021 at 7:30 am

    online education in china is still big and keep performing. What are the latest Marketing strategies to reach Chinese Rich Mothers?

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Backgrounder

Digital Art or Visual Propaganda? China’s New Wave of Online Political Satire

Political, patriotic art mocking Western leaders is welcomed by social media users and propagated by Chinese officials.

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Image by What's on Weibo, highlighting various digital artworks by @乌合麒麟, @半桶老阿汤.

A specific genre of political satire has been gaining popularity on Chinese social media lately, with some images even making international headlines. While political satire mocking Chinese authorities is generally soon taken offline, these online works are brought to the limelight by Chinese official channels. Is it grassroots digital art? Or is it official visual propaganda?

When the parody image ‘The Last G7’ went viral on Chinese social media in June of 2021, it made international headlines for insulting the G7 summit, the West and Christianity, ridiculing ‘double-faced’ Australia, bashing Japan over Fukushima water, and offending India’s COVID19 situation. There was enough satirical symbolism and detail in the image to offend virtually any country that was -implicitly- portrayed in it.

Some media headers suggested the image was created by Chinese state media, others said it was done by ‘Chinese trolls’ or Chinese authorities.

The image was actually created by a Chinese computer graphics illustrator from Beijing who is active on social media, where he also sells his digital art online.

Online political satire in China has been around since the early start of social media in China and is often seen as a form of online activism. In media articles and academic literature focused on online political satire in China, the phenomenon is often discussed within the framework of censorship and dissidence, as a practice of resistance against Chinese authorities. Political satire can exist in many forms, from funny word jokes to catchy songs, from viral gifs to sophisticated cartoons.

Renowned Chinese political cartoon artists such as Badiucao (巴丢草), Hexie Farm (蟹农场), Kuang Biao (邝飚), and Rebel Pepper (变态辣椒) were previously active on Chinese social media platform Weibo, and their accounts were shut down dozens of times before publishing their work within China’s online environment became virtually impossible.

These artists are known for drawing cartoons that criticize and mock Chinese leaders, the central government, or their policies. Their work fits the narrative of online political satire being used as a weapon to resist authoritarian rule in spite of the highly censored online climate they exist in (Shao & Liu 2019, 517).

What exactly is political satire? It is “a specific form of criticism that ridicules political figures, events, or phenomenon” (ibid). Visual political satire is especially relevant within the context of Chinese social media because images allow for a creative form of expression, an outlet to critique political events, that is harder to detect by online censors than the use of potentially sensitive words and terms.

But what if political satire does not critique the Chinese party-state at all? What if it actually does not conflict with party ideology, or even suits the narratives that are propagated by Chinese officials?

 

Recent Examples of Chinese Political Satire on Social Media

 

In late December of 2020, a photoshopped image of an Australian soldier murdering a child stirred controversy on social media and beyond. The soldier, who is holding a knife to the throat of a child, is standing on an Australian flag, the shadows of bodies can be discerned lying on the floor. The image – which alluded to the report regarding unlawful killings of Afghan civilians and prisoners by Australian troops – was shared on Twitter by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian. The controversial post led to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanding an apology from China.

The computer graphic by Wuheqilin that was shared on Twitter by a Chinese official.

In January of 2021, around the time of Biden’s inauguration, another satirical work was shared on Twitter by a senior producer of CGTN (@Peijin_Zhang) and others. Like the earlier image, this political satire was also full of details and symbolism. It shows American President Biden holding a bomb in front of a White House background, while Trump is taken away by officers and Kamala Harris is standing by an open grave reserved for Biden – shovel in hand. The text underneath the image says: “What a paradise of freedom, democracy, and sweet air.”

Artwork titled ‘失乐园·末日余晖’ ‘Paradise Lost-Afterglow’ created by ‘半桶老阿汤’ aka ‘Half Bottle Of Old Soup.’

At the time of the online controversy over the Xinjiang cotton ban by the BCI in March of 2021, another digital illustration titled “Blood Cotton Initiative” made headlines for featuring (BBC) journalists in KKK-style hoods interviewing a scarecrow in a field, cotton-picking slaves in the background.

The image is a response to the allegations of forced labor and human rights abuses in Xinjiang, which various Chinese officials and state media have condemned as being ‘false,’ ‘manipulative,’ and ‘hypocritical’ in light of many western countries’ own human rights records. The image was shared on Twitter by, among others, the official account of China Daily Asia (@Chinadaily_CH) and China Daily Hong Kong (@CDHKedition).

“Blood Cotton Initiative” (血棉花) by Chinese artist Wuheqilin.

In June of 2021, another political satire made headlines, as mentioned earlier in this article. It was the image mocking the G7 members who issued a summit communique that called on China to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms,” especially in relation to Xinjiang and Hong Kong autonomy, and also pushed for a new inquiry into the origin of the Covid-19 virus (link to pdf). The image, which is a parody of The Last Supper mural painting, is titled ‘The Last G7’ (最后的G7).

Image ‘The Last G7’ created by ‘半桶老阿汤’ aka ‘Half Bottle Of Old Soup.’

The image shows various animals sitting around the table, supposedly to represent Germany (left), Australia, Japan, Italy, US, UK, Canada, France, and India. Behind them are oxygen tanks, while the elephant on the right (India) is still receiving IV treatment and is not participating in the table talks. The Akita dog (Japan) is serving a green drink from a radioactive tea cattle while the bald eagle in the middle (US) is turning toilet paper into money. The beaver (Canada) is tightly holding on to a Chinese doll – a reference to Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou who has been in Canada ever since she was arrested during a stopover by Canadian police in 2018. On the table, there is a cake with the Chinese flag on it. 

“Through this we can still rule the world,” the words above the image state, while the text on the wall in the image says: “We have freedom and democracy.” State newspaper Global Times shared and explained the political satire in an article on June 13.

 

The Creators Behind the Artwork

 

Recent Chinese political satire images circulating on social media have been labeled as ‘propaganda’ by many commenters on Twitter, who assume the images were originally published by Chinese state media outlets. But although these images were often shared by official (media) accounts, their creators are seemingly unaffiliated with state media.

Chinese social media has seen a surge of (CG) artists dedicated to creating patriotic art and political satire mocking Western powers. At this time, the two most noteworthy names are Wuheqilin and Bantong Laoatang.

 
‘WUHEQILIN’ 乌合麒麟
 

The aforementioned Australian piece and the ‘Blood Cotton Initiative’ image both were created by Wuheqilin (乌合麒麟), a professional computer graphic (CG) artist with over 2.8 million followers on his Weibo account, which he opened in 2009. Wuheqilin’s real name is Fu Yu (付昱, 1988) – a business owner and art director from Harbin.

Although Wuheqilin became especially famous for his controversial Australia image of November 2020, his work was featured by Chinese state media before that time. In June of 2020, Global Times (English version) called him a “Wolf Warrior artist” who “strives to use new art to spread truth and inspire patriotism.”

Wuheqilin published his first political artwork on his social media account in 2019, at the time of the Hong Kong protests. In this work, titled ‘A Pretender God,’ the artist takes a critical stance towards the demonstrators, showing them bowing to a monster-like figure resembling the Statue of Liberty.

‘A Pretender God’ by Wuheqilin.

Another one of Wuheqilin’s recent viral pieces is titled ‘G7’, an old-looking photograph that was a satirical comparison of the G7 foreign ministers to the leaders of the Eight-Nation Alliance that invaded northern China in response to the Boxer rebellion in 1900. This image was also shared and explained by Global Times.

‘G7’ by Wuqihelin.

Wuheqilin clearly focuses on showing the dark side, hypocrisy, and supposedly bad intentions of Western powers in international politics. Noteworthy enough, he often uses English phrases in his work to emphasize his point, which may suggest he also intends for his art to be noticed by media and politicians outside of China.

Although Wuheqilin is most famous for political satire mocking Western powers, he also makes non-satirical patriotic art, such as the piece he dedicated to Chinese agronomist Yuan Longping (袁隆平), China’s ‘Father of Hybrid Rice,’ who passed away in May of 2021.

“I Always Had Two Dreams” “我一直有两个梦想” by Wuheqilin.

Over the past year, Wuheqilin and his work are often praised by Chinese official media outlets. It is often shared by English-language state media, or retweeted by Chinese officials or media accounts that are active on Twitter. Together with the fact that Wuheqilin uses English in his artwork, his work has gained major attention both in- and outside of China.

 
‘HALF BOTTLE OF OLD SOUP’ 半桶老阿汤
 

The creator of ‘The Last G7’ image and the White House image is active on social media under various names. On Weibo, where he has over 39,000 followers, the artist is known as @半桶老阿汤 (Bàntǒng lǎo ā tāng). On Twitter, he has an account under the name ‘Half Bottle Of Old Soup’ (@Half_soup), a direct translation of his nickname. The artist also has a site under the name Henry Yu. His webshop is under the ‘Laoatang’ nickname, which we will use here.

Laoatang is a concept designer and computer graphic artist from Beijing. On his Weibo account, the artist has been sharing artwork by himself and others for years. Like Wuheqilin, he has an online cloud link where people can download artworks for free, but he also has a site where people can support him by buying digital art files for the small price of 10-15 yuan ($1.5-$2.5).

Like Wuheqilin, Laoatang’s artwork is also often focused on mocking the supposed hypocrisy of Western powers regarding international affairs involving China. ‘The Last G7’ was the first work by Half Soup to make (international) headlines, but he previously did many other works in response to political affairs.

His work ‘That’s What U.S. did'(‘这是你们的愚蠢行径,我们不会’) was published at the time when news over the BCI [Better Cotton Initiative] Xinjiang cotton ban over forced labor concerns made waves in China.

‘That’s What U.S. Did’ by 半桶老阿汤

The image is part of a computer graphic video that shows black slaves working in American cotton fields while singing ‘My Lord Sunshine Sunrise.’ The next scene shows how one black man is held at gunpoint by a white hooded figure, a scarecrow with a BCI logo showing in the foreground. The words “That’s what U.S. Did, Not Us!” come up while two black figures can be seen hanging from the gallows.

In a different style, Laoatang has also created various other political satire illustrations. One from June 2021 is called ‘Investigate Thoroughly! Except Here’ (‘彻查!除了这儿’). It shows members of the WHO research team standing in front of the American army biochemical lab at Fort Detrick which is closed and guarded by Biden. In the background, there’s the scenery of a happy and open Wuhan city.

‘Investigate Thoroughly! Except Here’ (‘彻查!除了这儿’) by 半桶老阿汤 / Half Bottle of Old Soup

The illustration is a response to U.S. calls for a thorough investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus in China, while a possible link between the Fort Detrick institute and the COVID19 pandemic are allegedly ignored. This image was also shared by the Communist Youth League on social media.

 
OTHERS & INTERTEXTUALITY
 

Online creators such as Wuheqilin and Laoatang move in certain Chinese social media circles of artists producing work in similar genres who share each other’s work and comment on it. At times, there is also some kind of intertextuality or connection between these artworks.

A good example of this intertextuality is the work by the artist who is active on Weibo under the name ‘钢铁时代2011’ (Gangtie Shidai 2011). In December of 2020, they published the artwork below that reflects on the international commotion involving the Australian soldier image by Wuheqilin, which was tweeted out by Chinese official Zhao Lijian.

“Damn it, they know what we’ve done” by @钢铁时代2011 [Gangtie Shidai 2011].

The image shows artist Wuheqilin holding up one of his artworks relating to the alleged Australian war crimes in Afghanistan, while Zhao Lijian is holding up the other image by Wuheqilin. In the front, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is depicted turning his back to the images, with the sentence: “Damn it, they know what we’ve done.”

During the controversy over the BCI ban on Xinjiang cotton, there was also an outpour of online (unofficial) political art. Beijing illustrator Yang Quan @插画杨权 (1990) is also among those creating online political/patriotic art. He published an image titled “Cotton is Soft, but China is Strong.”

‘Cotton is Soft, But China is Strong’, by @插画杨权.

The dog has the letters “H” and “M” coming from his bloody mouth, referring to fashion chain H&M which was one of the major Western brands publishing a statement regarding the ban on Xinjiang cotton (read more here). Again, as in most of the recent works produced by the artists in this genre, the message of the image is reinforced through a text in English, suggesting the work is also meant for an international audience to understand.

 

In Between Censorship and Propaganda

 

Propaganda is part of Chinese media, and a ‘new’ kind of propaganda has been part of Chinese social media propaganda efforts over the past few years (also see here, here, here, here).

But separated from those mainstream, more centralized propaganda efforts, the artists mentioned in this article are part of a ‘new wave’ of political satire on Chinese social media because:

– They are independent artists and/or not officially part of state media outlets or the CCP Propaganda Bureau.
– Their style is very different from official (online) propaganda posters and imagery.
– Their works are labeled as ‘art’ and have definite artworks qualities; they are unique, are made with skill and technique, and are filled with symbolism and detail.
– Their works are praised and welcomed by state media outlets and/or government officials, as these are shared and propagated through multiple official channels.
– These artists and their creations are widely celebrated and praised by Chinese social media users.

The phenomenon of artists who are unrelated to official agencies creating political art that is then used as a tool for propaganda is not unique in the history of Chinese propaganda or that of other countries, but it is very noteworthy in the context of the short history of social media in China, where political satire is often targeted at Chinese government officials and policies and therefore censored.

Perhaps you could say it is not surprising at all that the political satire we see most in Chinese social media today is directed at foreign leaders and Western powers, since any images mocking the Chinese government would be censored immediately.

But to solely interpret these political images through this one-dimensional view would not do justice to the artwork, the artists, nor to the art aficionados, since there are several influences at play within the creation of this genre.

> Digital Art & Nationalism

There are many young artists in China today who are patriotic and nationalistic, and who use art as a way to express their political views. They do so in various ways, through personal websites, social media, cloud downloads, etc, providing an alternative to official, controlled media sources. Propaganda sometimes becomes art, and art sometimes becomes propaganda. These dynamics do not automatically turn these artists into ‘Chinese trolls,’ as some foreign media labeled them.

Artists such as Wuheqilin or the aforementioned artist named Yang Quan all belong to the post-80 generation. In this current, post-Mao generation, you find a “fourth generation” of nationalism, as described by Peter Hays Gries in China’s New Nationalism. This nationalism is very much alive in China’s online environment, and it is fused with anti-western sentiment that partly builds on the “one hundred years of humiliation” of China at the hands of the West (Zhang 2012, 2). Although this generation, that grew up amid China’s rapid economic growth, did not directly experience the past humiliations upon which their nationalist narratives are constructed, this history remains central to understandings of Chinese national identity and its place in the world today (Wang 2-11).

As pointed out by Tao Zheng (2012), the articulation and promotion of nationalist views by individuals and groups independent of the state have been a significant part of Chinese online culture for many years, with several online movements and campaigns focusing on pointing out “western arrogance and prejudice.” The current wave of political digital art is just another form of expression of this type of “cyber nationalism.”

> Building Communities

Another reason why it would be too crude to simply label China’s recent online political satire as ‘propaganda’ is because it has emerged from a dynamic digital environment where netizens engage in a participatory activity of creating, sharing, commenting, recreating, connecting, etc. – and it is through these practices that the artworks become meaningful.

In ‘The Networked Practice of Online Political Satire in China’ by Guobin Yang and Min Jiang (2015), the authors argue that the sharing and circulation of online political satire in China is a “networked social practice” that is actually more important than the meaning and significance of the content itself. It is a grassroots political expression that, in their mode of unofficial network operation, could be seen as “popular mobilizations against power” (216). Yang and Jiang also emphasize the social function of political satire, where the reception is just as relevant as the production.

> A Fine Line

In the end, the question of whether these works are grassroots digital artworks or official propaganda pieces is perhaps not one of either/or: they are both. They saw the light as digital artworks and then became tools within a framework of official propaganda once they were praised, shared, and used by Chinese state media and officials to project their own strategies.

The creators of these artworks, however, walk a fine line. When their artworks no longer suit the strategic interests propagated by official channels, they are still at risk of being censored within the highly controlled digital environment they operate in. In that case, their online influence, magnified by official actors, could actually be held against them.

For now, artists such as Wuheqilin are thriving on Chinese social media. In his last post, Wuheqilin drew his own conclusion about the current state of China’s online environment, writing:

For the public intellectuals and those with vested interests who once held on to the power of speech, these are perhaps the darkest times, because their “decade-long campaign for Enlightenment has been lost.” But for ordinary Chinese netizens, for those who love this country and believe in it, we have unprecedented confidence, creativity, and cohesion. These are the best of times, and we are marching towards the brightest future.”

 

By Manya Koetse (@manyapan)

With special thanks to Piervittorio Milizia.

References

Gries, Peter Hays. 2004. China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy. Berkely and London: University of California Press.

Shao Li, Liu Dongshu. 2019. “The Road to Cynicism: The Political Consequences of Online Satire Exposure in China.” Political Studies 67(2): 517-536.

Yang, Guobin and Min Jiang. 2015. “The Networked Practice of Online Political Satire in China: Between Ritual and Resistance.” The International Communication Gazette 77(3): 215-231.

Zhang, Tao. 2012. “Anti-CNN and ‘April Youth’: Anti-Western Sentiment in Youth-oriented Chinese Online Media.” In Hernandez, L. (ed.), China and the West: Encounters with the other in Culture, Arts, Politics and Everyday Life,
Cambridge Scholars, 1-16.

Zheng Wang. 2012. Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations. New York: Columbia University Press.

Featured image created by What’s on Weibo, highlighting and using parts of various digital artworks by @乌合麒麟, @半桶老阿汤.

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Backgrounder

The Concept of ‘Involution’ (Nèijuǎn) on Chinese Social Media

Nèijuǎn (involution) has become a commonly used term on Chinese social media, but what is it?

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Chinese TV drama A Love for Dilemma (“小舍得”) has reignited an ongoing debate about the problem of ‘involution’ in Chinese society today.

A scene from the Chinese TV drama A Love for Dilemma (“小舍得”) has reignited online discussions on the concept of nèijuǎn 内卷, “involution,” which was also a top buzzword in China in 2020.

A Love for Dilemma is a 2021 TV drama directed by Zhang Xiaobo (张晓波), who also worked on other hit series including Nothing But Thirty. This season’s popular TV drama A Love for Dilemma is themed around family, parenting, and China’s competitive education system.

In the series, two stepsisters compete against each other over the school results of their children. The family’s ‘grandpa’, played by famous actor Zhang Guoli (张国立), tries to create harmony around the dinner table between his daughter and stepdaughter, but the rivalry between the two and how they raise their children intensifies nevertheless.

Scene from A Love for Dilemma.

While stepsister Tian Yulan urges her little son to work hard in school and focus on his grades so that he can go to the best high school and university, sister Nan Li places more emphasis on the general development of her children and wants them to enjoy their childhood. Both mothers, however, question their own choices when facing challenges with how their children perform at school.

The specific scene that has ignited current discussions is a dialogue between the husbands of the sisters, who sit outside to talk about the education system and how it sometimes feels like everyone is in a theatre watching a show together until one person stands up from their seat. This makes it necessary for other members of the audience to also stand up, until everybody is standing.

The dialogue continues, with the two talking about how it does not stop at the people standing up. Because then there are those who will take it a step further and will stand on their seats to rise above the others. And then there are even those who will grab a ladder to stand higher than the rest. But they are still watching the same show and their situation has actually not changed at all – except for the fact that everybody is now more uncomfortable than they were before.

Many netizens found it striking how this dialogue explains how the term ‘involution’ is used in China nowadays. After the show aired, the hashtag “How to commonly explain involution” (#如何通俗解释内卷#) became a trending topic in the week of April 19, receiving 260 million views in a few days.

 
What Is ‘Involution’?
 

As explained by Jialing Xie in this top buzzword article on What’s on Weibo, involution describes the economic situation in which as the population grows, per capita wealth decreases. Since recently, this word has come to be used to represent the competitive circumstances in academic or professional settings in China where individuals are compelled to overwork because of the standard raised by their peers who appear to be even more hardworking.

The term ‘involution’ and how it is used today comes from a work by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz titled Agricultural Involution – The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia (1963). In this work, Geertz explores the agricultural dynamics in Indonesia during the colonial period’s Cultivation System, where a radical economic dualism existed within the country: a foreign, Dutch economy and a native, Indonesian economy (p. 61-62).

Geertz describes how the Javanese faced a deepening demographic dilemma as they saw a rapidly growing population but a static economy, while the Dutch, who organized Javanese land and labor, were only growing in wealth (69-70). Agricultural involution is the “ultimately self-defeating process” that emerged in Indonesia when the ever-growing population was absorbed in high labor-intensive wet-rice cultivation without any changing patterns and without any progress (80-81).

When Geertz used the term ‘involution’ to describe the dynamics in Indonesia, he built on the work of another American anthropologist, namely Alexander Goldenweiser, who also used the term to describe “those culture patterns which, after having reached what would seem to be a definitive form, nonetheless fail either to stabilize or transform themselves into a new pattern but rather continue to develop by becoming internally more complicated” (Geertz 1963, 81).

 
The Involution Concept in the Chinese Context
 

The popular use of the Chinese translation of ‘involution’, nèijuǎn 内卷, started to receive attention in Chinese media in 2020. It is deviating from the original use of the term and is meant to explain the social dynamics of China’s growing middle class.

As suggested in the article “‘Involution’: The Anxieties of Our Time Summed Up in One Word” by Zhou Minxi (CGTN), the popularity of the term comes from “a prevalent sense of being stuck in an ever so draining rat race where everyone loses.”

China’s ever-growing middle class is now facing the question of how they and their children can remain in the middle class in a situation where everyone is continuously working harder and doing all they can to rise above the rest. Xiang Biao, a professor of social anthropology at Oxford University, is quoted by Zhou:

The lower class still hopes to change their fate, but the middle and upper classes aren’t so much looking upward, and they are marked by a deep fear of falling downward. Their greater fear is perhaps losing what they already have.”

The term ‘involution’ often comes up together with criticism on China’s ‘996’ work system (working from 9am-9pm, 6 days a week). Although Alibaba founder Jack Ma once called the 12-hour working day a “blessing,” the system is a controversial topic, with many condemning how Chinese (tech) companies are exploiting their employees, who are caught in a conundrum; they might lose their sanity working such long hours, and might lose their job and future career prospects if they refuse to do so.

But the term also comes up when discussing China’s education system, where competition starts as early as kindergarten and the pressure on children to succeed in the ‘gaokao’ college entrance exam starts many years before it takes place.

This image shows the “juan” 卷 character from ‘nei juan’ (involution) changing into a person on their bike with laptop. Image via http://www.bajieyou.com/new/431e6ef39aac4a6da232671122f66ff4

This discussion also came up with a now-famous image of a student riding his bike while also working on his laptop, using every moment to study. This was then also called “Tsinghua Inversion” (清华内卷), referring to one of China’s top universities, where competition is so vicious that students must double their efforts to catch up with others.

 
‘Involution’ Discussions on Chinese Social Media
 

By mid-2020, ‘involution’ attracted the attention on Weibo when popular academic accounts started discussing the term. Recently, ‘involution’ is used so often on Chinese social media that it has already gone beyond its original context, leading to many people discussing its meaning.

“We are forced to work overtime and are unable to resist, and yet it seems that everyone is doing it out of free will,” one Weibo user says, with another person adding: “The abnormal state of inversion has already become our normal state.”

A popular legal blogger (@皇城根下刀笔吏) on Weibo writes:

It is an internal bottomless vicious cycle of competition. For example, everyone used to work eight hours per day, five days per week. Then one company comes up where people work twelve hours per day, six days per week. Then this company will have major competitive strength in the market economy. But the outcome is that other companies are also compelled to do the same in order to compete. As time goes by, all companies will shift to a twelve-hour workday, six days a week, and job applicants entering the market can’t find any eight-hour workday positions for five days a week anymore. So, if another company wants to beat its competitors, it will have to introduce a seven-day workweek. And then other companies will need to follow in order to make a living. That is involution.”

By now, there are various images and memes that have come to represent the meaning of ‘involution’ in present-day China, such as one cram school sign saying: “If you come we will train your kids, if you don’t come, we will train the competitors of your kids.”

“The society’s resources are in short supply and to obtain the limited supplies, people are all madly practicing their skills to obtain them – regardless if they need them or not,” another Weibo user says.

Most comments relating to the discussion of ‘involution’ on Chinese social media express a sense of fatigue with an ongoing rat-race in the education and employment market.

On the interest-based social networking platform Douban, there are even some support groups for people who feel stuck in ‘involution’ and are looking for a way out. The “Center for Victims of Involution” (内卷受害者收容中心) group has over 3000 members, with smaller groups such as “Let’s Escape Involution Together” (我们一起逃离内卷) having a few dozen participants.

The generation that is mostly affected by this sense of socioeconomic stagnation is the post-90 generation. In 2020, a record high of 8.74 million university graduates entered the job market, but their chances of finding a job that suits their education and personal expectations are slim; many industries are recruiting fewer people than before in an employment market that was already competitive before the COVID19 pandemic. It leaves them facing a troubling Catch 22 situation: they will be stressed and pressured if they do not find that top job, but when they do, they are often also stressed and pressured.

It is a recurring topic on social media. Five years ago, a song by the Rainbow Chamber Singers (彩虹室内合唱团) titled “The Sofa Is So Far” immediately became a hit in China. Many young Chinese recognized themselves in the hardworking and tired people described in the lyrics, which started with: “My body feels empty / I am dog-tired / I don’t want work overtime.”

How to get away from the involution rat race is also a much-discussed topic on Weibo, where the hashtag page “How can young people resist involution” (#年轻人如何反内卷#) has received over 280 million views.

Some suggest the answer to ending the vicious cycle is to find a way to get rich fast, others suggest that not getting married and staying child-free is also a way to alleviate the pressure to participate in this zero-sum game.

Tech blogger Sensai (@森赛), who has over 2 million followers on Weibo, advises young people to find their true interest and to invest in it before the age of 30. Doing something that sparks joy, such as learning a new language or working on art, might start as a hobby but could turn into a valuable side business later, Sensai says.

For some, however, that goal seems unattainable. “I am already working 15 hours a day, how could I ever do that?!”

“This is just bringing us into a whole other level of involution,” others write.

In order to watch A Love for Dilemma (小舍得), the show that started so many of these discussions this month, you can go over to iQiyi or YouTube.

By Manya Koetse

References

Geertz, Clifford. 1963. Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Zhou Minxi. 2020. “‘Involution’: The anxieties of our time summed up in one word.” CGTN, Dec 4 https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-12-04/-Involution-The-anxieties-of-our-time-summed-up-in-one-word-VWNlDOVdjW/index.html [20.4.2021].

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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