Connect with us

Backgrounder

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.

Manya Koetse

Published

on

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 founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

Continue Reading
4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    John

    August 10, 2016 at 5:56 pm

    Very informative, thank you!

  2. Avatar

    Wytse

    August 10, 2016 at 6:19 pm

    Great read, thanks!

  3. Avatar

    Tony Diepenbrock

    December 13, 2016 at 9:08 pm

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

  4. Avatar

    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?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Backgrounder

Explainer: Ten Key Terms and Concepts of the 20th CPC National Congress

Take a look at the essential keywords and concepts surrounding the 20th Party Congress.

Manya Koetse

Published

on

What are the key terms and concepts mentioned in Xi Jinping’s speech that are propagated all over Chinese social media this week? Here, we explain ten important concepts and keywords that you are probably going to see much more of in the coming five years.

It is the week of the 20th CPC National Congress, China’s quinquennial major political event that is all about discussing and deciding on important Party issues, appointing Party leadership and officially announcing new governance concepts, thoughts and strategies proposed by the CPC Central Committee.

The Party Congress opened on Sunday, October 16, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivered his nearly two-hour-long speech reflecting on the recent past and the future of the Communist Party and the country at large, signalling the direction China will be heading.

In our earlier article covering Xi Jinping’s speech, we focused on how Chinese official channels turned parts of the work report into hashtags that were promoted on social media and then became trending topics.

Here, we will go over some of the terms and words that were used in the political report delivered by Xi and were propagated on Chinese social media as ‘key terms’ through general hashtags such as “Understanding These Key Terms from the 20th Party Congress Report,” “Studying the Essence of the 20th Party Congress” or “The New Era and Journey of the 20th Party Congress” (#看懂二十大报告中这些关键词#, #学习二十大精神#, #党的二十大新时代新征程#).

During the 19th CPC National Congress in 2017, Party newspaper People’s Daily published a vocabulary list containing 100 relevant words and terms. That list included terms such as “5G Era” (5G时代), “Sharing Economy” (分享经济), “The 20th anniversary of Hong-Kong’s return to China” (香港回归祖国20周年), “Made in China 2025” (中国制造2025), and other key terms that were deemed relevant in 2017 for China’s nearing future.

This Congress, there has not been a comparable official vocabulary list, but there have been various shorter lists and hashtags encouraging netizens to study key terms that are important to this year’s Congress and the Party goals. Many of these terms are visualized in infographics or explained in online posts and articles.

We’ve gathered some of these key terms from Xi’s speech here that are important to understand, not just for the fact that they are mentioned in Xi’s speech but also because they are specifically highlighted by various official channels.

 

1. Modernizing the Chinese Way 中国式现代化

This concept was mentioned at least five times throughout Xi Jinping’s address and it is one of most important themes of this Party Congress: “Chinese modernization” or “Chinese-style modernization” (中国式现代化 Zhōngguóshì xiàndàihuà).

While the 19th Party Congress was all about China’s ‘new era’ (新时代), this 20th Party Congress term grasps the idea of further modernizing the country in a ‘Chinese way,’ meaning a type of modernization in which typically Chinese features and characteristics (“中国特色”) are maintained.

This is a relatively new term. A tool that shows searches on the Chinese search engine Baidu indicates that it did not receive any significant amount of searches before spiking during the week 20th Party Congress.

Baidu trend search shows that the term “Chinese-style modernizarion” “中国式现代化” did not receive any significant searches before October 2022.

The concept, however, did pop up in Chinese official media discourse since late 2021, such as in one article published by Xinhua News on September 27 in 2021 titled “Grasping the Main Features of the New Path of Chinese-Style Modernization” (把握中国式现代化新道路的主要特征)

The idea of Chinese-style modernization is closely related to other key concepts such as “common prosperity for all” (全体人民共同富裕 quántǐ rénmín gòngtóng fùyù) and “harmony between humanity and nature” (人与自然和谐共生 rén yǔ zìrán héxié gòngshēng).

 

2. The Central Mission 中心任务

The term “central mission” (中心任务 zhōngxīn rènwù) was mentioned at least once in Xi Jinping’s address to convey how the central task of the CPC is to “unite and lead the people of all nationalities to build a strong socialist modern country,” and to “promote the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation with Chinese-style modernization.”

Although the term “central mission” itself is not particularly tied to the 20th Party Congress at all, it is now because of how it is being used in the new context of the Party’s ‘main goal’ in China’s ‘new era.’ People’s Daily also promoted a hashtag including this term: “The Communist Party of China’s Central Task from Now On” (#从现在起中国共产党的中心任务#”).

 

3. Top Priority 第一要务

The key term ‘top priority’ (第一要务 dì yī yàowù) refers to the Party pursuing the kind of “high-quality development” (“高质量发展”) that will lead to the further modernization of the country.

“High-quality development” was also mentioned in the 19th Party Congress report in 2017 to indicate a shift and a new phase in China’s economic development from a focus on high-speed growth to a focus on more high-quality development, which is also outlined in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025).

This means, among others, that there will be more focus on innovation-driven industries and technological advancement.

 

4. The “Two-Steps” Strategy “两步走”战略安排

In the segment of Xi’s speech where he addresses China-style modernization in the new era, he also mentions the “two steps” strategy (“两步走”战略安排 “liǎng bù zǒu” zhànlüè ānpái). This is not a new term and it has been previously introduced as part of China’s journey to becoming a strong, rejuvenated country – making China great again.

The two steps of this strategy are to realize ‘socialist modernization’ by 2035 and then to enter the next phase from 2035-2050 to build China into a “strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious and beautiful socialist modernization country.” The year 2049 will mark the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, and this is the moment when China’s “great rejuvenation” should be completed.

 

5. The Road to Follow 必由之路

At the end of Xi Jinping’s speech, he mentioned “the road to follow” (必由之路, bìyóuzhīlù) five times. On social media, the “road to follow” has been reiterated multiple times as well by official channels, including in a propaganda video published by CCTV.

The five ‘roads to follow’ mentioned in the Party Congress and in the state media videos are the following that are together presented as “the only road” the country and the Party must take. They are all linked together and are actually somewhat circular, namely:

– to develop socialism with Chinese characteristics, they must adhere to the overall leadership of the Party
– to achieve the “great rejuvenation” of China they must stick to socialism with Chinese characterics
– to reach this historic undertaking, they must be united in struggle
– to allow China to grow and develop in the ‘new era,’ they must implement the new concepts for development
– to be able to take this new road together & keep the Party full of vitality, they must follow the way of comprehensive and strict Party governance

 

6. Building Beautiful China 建设美丽中国

In the 20th CPC National Congress report, the idea of “building beautiful China” (建设美丽中国, jiànshè měilì Zhōngguó) was mentioned in the segment dedicated to the “green development” of China as part of its overall modernization. This includes environmental protection, pollution control, carbon reduction, and climate change awareness.

‘Beautiful China’ as a concept was first introduced during the 18th Party Congress in November of 2012 as part of China’s long-term environmental protection plan within the context of people’s welfare and the future of China.

 

7. Whole-process People’s Democracy 全过程人民民主

This concept of ‘whole-process people’s democracy’ (全过程人民民主, quán guòchéng rénmín mínzhǔ) is mentioned at least five times in Xi Jinping’s 20th Party Congress speech and it is one of the political concepts and terms proposed by Xi himself as part of Xi Jinping’s Socialist Thought with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. It was mentioned in the speech Xi gave during the celebration of the Party’s 100-year anniversary in 2021.

This so-called ‘whole-process people’s democracy’ is officially presented as a ‘process-oriented’ democracy that, despite being different from Western democracy, supposedly “covers all aspects of the democratic process and all sectors of society” through a combination of elections, consultations, decision-making, management and oversight.

This idea of China having its own particular kind of democracy – or perhaps having invented a Chinese version of what ‘democracy’ actually means – also suits the idea of Chinese-style modernization, in which China’s path to the future will not be like the route Western countries are taking, but instead combining modernization with Chinese features.

 

8. Socialist Culture 社会主义文化

‘Socialist Culture’ (社会主义文化, shèhuì zhǔyì wénhuà) comes up at least four times in the 20th Party Congress report. The term represents a cultural side of China’s modernization, and emphasizes that, in order to build a strong socialist country, there must also be a strong socialist culture.

Although not explicitly stated, official media propaganda inescapably plays an important part in the cultivation of a strong ‘socialist culture’ that is all about cultural self-confidence, cultural innovation, creativity, and ‘spiritual energy.’

At time of writing, the Baidu Trends tool did not have enough information to show any relevant data on the search engine interest in this particular term, but the idea of ‘socialist culture’ is by no means a new one. “Socialist culture with Chinese characteristics” was already proposed by Jiang Zemin (江泽民) at the 15th CPC National Congress in 1997.

The idea that building a strong socialist culture is important for the further development of China has been further cultivated over the past few years under Xi’s leadership. Also read this article in English titled “How to build a strong socialist culture” in Qiushi, the CPC Central Committee bimonthly.

 

9. Improve the Distribution System 完善分配制度

This phrase comes up once in the part of the 20th Party System report that disusses a fairer economic system with more equal employment & income opportunities and regulated wealth accumulation, encouraging hard work to get rich.

Although it is the first time that a regulation of wealth accumulation has come up in this way (and it is not explained what this actually means), the idea behind these concepts of the distribution system and wealth accumulation standardization is that of ‘common prosperity,’ one of the most important concepts guiding China’s recent policymaking.

‘Improve the distribution system’ (完善分配制度, wánshàn fēnpèi zhìdù) was explicilty mentioned as one of the key concepts for this week’s meeting by various channels, but it mainly is ‘the regulation of wealth accumulation’ that is featured in social media hashtags (#中国将规范财富积累机制#).

 

10. Focus 着力点

Many of the words or phrases propagated as ‘key terms’ for this 20th Party Congress are insignificant by themselves but are merely used to represent a bigger body of thoughts. The aforementioned “Top Priority,” “Central Mission,” and “Road to Follow” are all just words that only mean something within the context of Xi Jinping’s speech.

Another example is “Major Principles” (“重大原则” zhòngdà yuánzé) which is also included by CCTV in this list of most important keywords, but which actually just goes back to the same ideas that are referred to in the other terms, namely strengthing the overall leadership of the Party, adhering to the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics, emphasizing people-centered ideology, etc. – which is similar to the idea behind the “Road to Follow” (必由之路) keyword.

Explanation of ‘Major Principle’ concept in English and Chinese by People’s Daily, posted on Weibo.

Then there is the keyword “focus,” 着力点 (zhuólìdiǎn), which is about the focus of China’s economic development.

In China’s coming years, the economic focus should be placed on the real economy (实体经济). This literally is also a hashtag promoted on Weibo by CCTV this week (“Put the Focus of Economic Development on the Real Economy” #把发展经济的着力点放在实体经济上#).

Different from the Financial Economy, the Real Economy is the realm of economy that is about businesses, production, and the direct exchange/purchase of goods or services.

Also part of this ‘focus’ is China’s new industrialization, manufacturing, product quality, aerospace, transportation, new technology, and digital China. Another related term that is proposed as one of the keywords of this Party Congress is ‘innovation’ (创新, chuàngxīn).

Please check in with us again this week as we will keep an eye on social media trends surrounding the CPC National Congress. Don’t forget to subscribe. For previous posts on the Party Congress, check here.

By Manya Koetse 

 

Get the story behind the hashtag. Subscribe to What’s on Weibo here to receive our newsletter and get access to our latest articles:

Images via Weibo account of Communist Youth League, CCTV, and People’s Daily.

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.

©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Continue Reading

Backgrounder

“Guarding the Green Horse” – How China’s Health Code System Provided Solutions and Generated Problems

The Health Code system and the ‘Green Horse’ meme have become part of everyday life in a zero-Covid China.

Manya Koetse

Published

on

Since 2020, China’s Health Code apps have become utterly ingrained in everyday life as a pivotal tool in the country’s ongoing fight against Covid-19. What is the health code system, what are its implications, and why have so many Chinese netizens become obsessed with holding on to their ‘green horse’?

 

This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, forthcoming publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yì Magazin here.

 

There is the Grass Mud Horse,1 the River Crab,2 and now another mythical animal is living in China’s social media jungle: the Green Horse. The Green Horse is a cute bright green horse-like animal, a treasured creature that will protect you during your travels and keep you safe from quarantines and lockdowns at a time of China’s zero-Covid policy. The Green Horse will watch over you, but in return, you have to do everything you can to defend it.

‘Green Horse’ in Chinese is 绿马 lǜmǎ, which sounds exactly the same as the word for ‘green code’ (绿码), referring to the green QR code in China’s Covid health apps, which have become a part of everyday life in China since 2020. In a social media environment where homophones and online puns are popular and ubiquitous, it did not take long for the ‘green code’ to turn into the ‘green horse.’

The Green Horse, image via Weibo.

China’s health code system was designed as a solution to resume work and daily life during the pandemic and is widely praised in the country as a pivotal tool in combating the spread of the virus. But it has also given rise to new problems and has triggered resistance against a new kind of digital governance.

 

A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO CHINA’S HEALTH CODE SYSTEM

 

In February of 2020, when China was in the midst of the fierce battle against the novel coronavirus, the country’s tech giants competed over who would be the first and the most efficient in providing digital solutions to aid the anti-epidemic fight.

Within eight weeks after the start of the initial Wuhan Covid outbreak, Alibaba (on Alipay) and Tencent (on WeChat) developed and introduced the ‘Health Code’ (jiànkāngmǎ 健康码), a system that gives individuals colored QR codes based on their exposure risk to Covid-19 and serves as an electronic ticket to enter and exit public spaces, restaurants, offices buildings, etc., and to travel from one area to another.

Scanning a green code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

Hangzhou, Alibaba’s hometown, and Shenzhen, Tencent’s home base, were the first cities in China to introduce the Health Code in early February of 2020, and other cities soon followed in collaboration with either Tencent or Alipay. By late February, a nationwide health code system was first embedded in WeChat (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Now, people can receive their Covid-19 QR codes via ‘mini programs’ in Alipay or WeChat, or via other provincial government service apps. Apart from the personal health code apps, there is also the ‘Telecommunications Big Data Travel Card’ (通信大数据行程卡), better known as the ‘green arrow code,’ which tracks users’ travel history and is also available inside WeChat or can be downloaded as a standalone app. Its goal is to track if you’ve been to any medium or high-risk areas over the past 14 days.

The Green Arrow Code is used to track people’s travel history of past 14 days (Image via 人民视觉).

The health code system is not as centralized as you might expect it to be. Instead, it is fragmented and sometimes complicated. There are basically two kinds of Health Codes in China. One is the ‘Health Information Code’ (防疫健康信息码) provided by China’s national government service platform (link) which can also be used by those without mainland ID cards (including people from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan).

The other kind of Health Code, which is the one that is most used across China, is the local version of the health code system provided by each province/municipality. There are at least 31 different regional health code applications, from Beijing’s ‘Health Kit’ (北京健康宝) to Shanghai’s ‘Suishenma’ (随申码), from Jiangsu’s ‘Sukang Code’ (苏康码) to Anhui’s ‘Ankang Code’ (安康码). There are sometimes also separate health code apps being used within one province (e.g. in Shenzhen both the local Shen-i-nin 深i您 app as well as the Yuekang Code 粤康码 are being used).

These local Covid health apps are developed by different provinces and cities, and they are not always compatible with each other. This means that those traveling to different provinces or municipalities need to go through the inconvenient process of applying for different local health code apps depending on where they go. Although one single centralized system has been proposed ever since 2020, the process to unify the system is not easy since the various apps have varying functions and are managed by different local government departments (JKSB 2022; Lai 2022). In early September of 2022, China’s National Health Commission announced that it was working with relevant departments to improve the interoperability and mutual recognition of health apps across the country.

Do you get a Green, Yellow, or Red QR code? That all depends on personal information, self-reported health status, Covid-19 test results, travel history, and more – the health code system operates by accessing numerous databases. The Green color means you’re safe (low-risk) and have free movement, the Yellow code (mid-risk) requires self-isolation and the Red color code is the most feared one: it means you either tested positive or are at high risk of infection. With a red code, you won’t have access to any public places and will have to go into mandatory quarantine. Once the quarantine is finished and you’ve consecutively tested negative, the code will switch back to green again.

Three color codes in the Health Code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

By the end of 2020, around 900 million Chinese citizens were using Health Code apps and although there are no official records of the latest numbers, virtually anyone visiting or traveling anywhere within China will now use the health code system. Besides keeping records of your latest nucleic acid test results, the Health Code app also includes Covid vaccination records since 2021.

 

LEAVING THE ELDERLY BEHIND

 

Despite the efficiency of China’s health code system, it has not been without controversy. One major issue is that it basically forces Chinese citizens to have a smartphone and to download and properly use these apps. This creates a problem for younger children, those without access to smartphones, or those with lower levels of digital skills, including senior citizens.

Although the use of smartphones, the internet, and QR codes are widespread in China, where mobile payments are far more common than cash, more than 60% of Chinese aged 60 years and over still did not use the internet in June of 2020. In China’s ‘Zero-Covid’ era, it is becoming almost impossible for China’s digital illiterate to live a ‘normal’ life.

Chinese authorities have attempted to simplify things for Chinese seniors by making platforms more user-friendly and introducing alternative ways to enter venues, such as offline codes. But at a time when systems differ per region and some venues do not have the tools to check offline (paper) codes, many elderly still struggle (see Gu & Fan 2022).

“They did nucleic acid testing in my grandma’s community compound today,” one woman from Shanxi writes on Weibo: “There are many elderly people in my grandma’s area, and I saw that so many of them had no smartphones, just senior mobile phones, but now they have to swipe a code to make an appointment for testing. One grandpa asked a staff member what to do without a smartphone, they just said it would be better to bring your son or daughter to do it for you. But all results also are processed digitally, so there’s no way for them to see it, and it’s really not easy for them to go to public places.”

On Chinese social media, there are many stories showing the difficult situations that some senior residents are caught up in because they do not have a smartphone or do not know how to get a Health Code.

In August of 2022, there was one viral story about an elderly man from Shandong walking ten kilometers every day because he could not take the bus without a health app. There was also another story about a visually impaired Hengyang resident who was unable to set up the code and was barred from using public transport. In May, a 70-year-old man got stuck inside the Wuxi train station for three days because he had no smartphone and had to scan a code in order to leave.

In another video that went viral, an old man got on a bus in Shanghai but had a hard time using his mobile phone to do the ‘venue check-in’ (场所码). When the bus driver got impatient, the man eventually got off the bus, saying he felt bad about delaying the other passengers.

“Heartlessness is scarier than the epidemic,” some Weibo commenters wrote in response.

 

RED CODE: CONTROVERSIAL DIGITAL GOVERNANCE

 

Another problem that concerns netizens in this Health Code era is that the code could pose an infringement of privacy and could be abused to limit citizens’ freedom of movement for reasons that are unrelated to Covid-19. There are still unclarities surrounding the app, such as what kind of information is exactly being collected, who is authorized to access the data, and how the data is processed and stored (Zhang 2022, 2).

Some people complain on social media that they do not understand why their Health Code is changing colors: “After I did a Covid test the other day, my Health Code was green. The day after, I woke up to a yellow code and after I had done my nucleic acid test again, it was still yellow. On the third day, it turned green. In the afternoon it turned yellow again. On day four, it was green again. Besides doing tests, I’ve been at home all this time. I’m stupefied.”

One incident where people who came to the city of Zhengzhou to protest suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red sparked major outrage on Chinese social media in June.

Earlier this year, thousands of Chinese depositors struggled to recover their savings in light of a major banking scandal in Henan Province. When dozens of affected depositors traveled to the provincial capital of Zhengzhou in June of 2022 to demand their money back, they suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red. The red code was unexpected and strange, considering that there were no new reported Covid cases in their vicinity. Accompanying family members who made the exact same journey reportedly did not see their Health Codes change, raising suspicions that the duped depositors were specifically targeted and that their Health Codes were being manipulated.

“Who is in charge of changing the Health Code colors?” became a much-asked question on social media platform Weibo, with many blaming local Henan authorities for abusing their power and trying to stop rural protesters from raising their voices in Zhengzhou. Although Henan authorities claimed they did “not understand” what had happened, five local officials were later punished for their involvement in assigning red codes to bank depositors without authorization (Wu 2022).

The incident sparked more discussions on the legal and privacy risks surrounding the health code system. Although many people in China support the use of Health Code apps (also see Chen et al), there is also a fear that a lack of transparency and management could allow the health code system to turn into a surveillance tool used by the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

The influential media commentator Hu Xijin also gave his view on the matter, saying that Health Codes across the country should only be used for “pure epidemic prevention purposes.”

“The fact that Henan can make the health codes turn red of people who come to the city to protest says a lot about the power of the IT,” one Weibo tech blogger wrote. Another Weibo user wrote: “As ordinary people, we have voluntarily given up too much of our personal privacy and rights in order to cooperate with the epidemic prevention. The current abuse and misuse of health codes have caused serious infringement on the legal rights of citizens (..) The state should quickly incorporate health codes into a unified system and place it under strict management, and once the epidemic is over, the health code system should stop running immediately.”

 

A GREEN HORSE FUTURE?

 

But will the Health Code and the ‘Green Horse’ ever disappear from daily life in China? And if so, how would the collected data be handled? Although the pandemic era is not over yet (and the question remains what would qualify as ‘the end’), local Chinese governments and tech firms are already looking to see how the health code system could be implemented and how its uses could be expanded in a post-pandemic future (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Back in 2020, the China Healthcare platform (健康界) already published an article exploring the post-pandemic use of the health code system as a digital health passport and information system that could continue to play a significant role in medical care, social security, public transportation, and tourism.

On social media, some people worry that the health code system – and everything that comes with it – is here to stay indefinitely. One Henan-based blogger wrote: “In the future, I hope my son will visit my grave and tell me, ‘dad, now we no longer need our Health Code, nucleic tests or masks when we go to the malls and take trains or airplanes.'”

“If I would wake up tomorrow in a world without health codes, travel codes, Covid tests, lockdowns, wouldn’t that be great,” another person wrote on Weibo, another netizen adding: “My health code is normal. My nucleic acid test is normal. It’s just my mental state that has become abnormal.”

The fears of receiving a ‘Red Code’ are also palpable. Earlier in summer, videos showed people in Shanghai fleeing out of a local mall once they heard that someone in the building had received notice of an abnormal test result.  The same happened at a local IKEA store. Afraid of Health Codes turning red and getting locked in, people rushed to get out as soon as possible. Some even compared the scenes to a ‘zombie apocalypse.’

People fleeing from a local IKEA store after someone in the building got an abnormal test result.

Although there are serious concerns regarding the health code system, social media users also make light of it through the ‘Green Horse’ meme. The phrase “Bàozhù lǜmǎ” (抱住绿码/马) is often used on Chinese social media, a wordplay meant to mean both “Keep your code green” as well as “Hold on to your Green Horse.”

Selection of ‘Holding on to the Green Horse’ memes.

Following the trend, Wuhan set up a giant green horse at a public square in the city, which soon became a popular place for people to take selfies. The meme is also a profitable one for businesses. On Chinese e-commerce sites, you’ll find there are ‘Green Horse’ keychains, stickers, toys, mooncakes, and coffee mugs.

Green Horse merchandise on Taobao.

As cases of Covid surged again in Chengdu, Shenzhen, and elsewhere in late August and September, worries over ‘keeping the green code’ grew again among those living in affected regions. One local Weibo blogger wrote: “I just couldn’t sleep the past few days, I kept checking my green code and latest Covid test results. It makes me anxious.”

“I feel safest at home,” others write: “This is where I can guard my Green Horse.”

“I hope this epidemic will go away soon,” one netizen wrote: “I hope we can all have our Green Horse and just keep it.”

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

 

1 Grass Mud Horse or Cǎonímǎ (草泥馬) is one of China’s social media ‘mythical creatures’ and an online meme. It is a word play on the vulgar Mandarin term càonǐmā (肏你媽), which literally means “f*** your m*m.”

2 River Crab is another ‘mythical creature’: Héxiè (河蟹) is literally ‘river crab’ but sounds the same as héxié (和谐),”to harmonize,” referring to online censorship.

 

References (other sources linked to inside the text)

Chen, Wenhong. Gejun Hang, and An Hu. 2022. “Red, Yellow, Green, or Golden: The Post-Pandemic Future of China’s Health Code Apps.” Information, Communication & Society 25 (5): 618-633.

China Healthcare 健康界. 2020. “国家卫健委推行”一码通”健康码未来不止于”通行.”” CN Healthcare, 21 December https://www.cn-healthcare.com/article/20201221/content-547951.html [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Gu, Peng and Yiying Fan. 2022. “In ‘Zero-COVID’ China, the Elderly Are Becoming Ever More Marginalized.” Sixth Tone, 9 Aug https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010908/in-zero-covid-china-the-elderly-are-becoming-ever-more-marginalized [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

JKSB 健康时报网 [Health Times]. 2022. “国家健康码和地方健康码区别何在?专家:国家平台更接近理想状态.” JKSB, August 27 http://www.jksb.com.cn/html/redian/2022/0827/177853.html [Accessed 1 Sep, 2022].

Lai, Xianjin. 2022. “Unified Health Code Can Bring More Convenience, Efficiency.” China Daily, April 6 https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202204/06/WS624ccc73a310fd2b29e55269.html [Accessed 31 August].

Liang, Fan. 2020. “COVID-19 and Health code: How Digital Platforms Tackle the Pandemic in China.” Social Media + Society (Jul-Sep): 1-4.

Wu, Peiyue. 2022. “Zhengzhou Officials Punished Over Red Health Code Saga.” Sixth Tone, 23 June https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010627/zhengzhou-officials-punished-over-red-health-code-saga- [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Zhang, Xiaohan. 2022. “Decoding China’s COVID-19 Health Code Apps: The Legal Challenges.” Healthcare 10 (1479): 1-14.

 

Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

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.

Continue Reading

Popular Reads