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Beware: 10 Scams in China To Watch Out For

What’s on Weibo has compiled a list of 10 scams in China that are recently trending on social media or in China’s newspapers, victimising hundreds of people every day.

Manya Koetse

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on

As times change, so do scams. In an age of smartphones and social media, Chinese scammers are more prone to abandon old tricks and use new technology for their swindling business. But apart from new media and online fraud, there are still scammers who use people’s inexperience and desperation to earn money by simply fooling them on the streets. What’s on Weibo has compiled a list of 10 scams that are recently trending on social media or in China’s newspapers, victimising hundreds or thousands of people (including tourists) every day. 

Also see our 2018 Top 8 Scams in China list!

 

PAYING A HIGH PRICE FOR UNIVERSITY

1. College Entrance Scam

Recently, Weibo netizens and Chinese media have been reporting on College Entrance Enrollment Scams (高考招生骗局): “Mr. Lu from Anhui always hoped his son would attend a good university,” Anhui Daily writes: “but his grades were not ideal. This is when Mr. Zhou appeared, who introduced himself as an official from an academic institution with the right means to make sure Mr. Lu’s son would be admitted to Hefei University of Technology, but he needed money for it.”

Worried about his son’s future, and fully trusting, Mr. Lu invested 125.000 RMB (over 20.000 US dollar) to get his son enrolled. Because his son initially received a (fake) admission letter from the university, the Lu family did not immediately discover they were scammed. When they did, their money was gone, and the son was not registered at any university at all.

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The Lu family is not the only one to get victimised by this scam. Around this time of year, the results of the annual College Entrance Exams are released. Prospective students and their family feverishly look to get admitted to a good university. But because it is all about the grades, the prospects look grim for those who did not get a good score on their exam. This makes them vulnerable victims for these kinds of scams. “This time of year is the peek of all kinds of criminal activities related to the College Entrance Exams,” Anhui Daily writes: “Students and their parents should not be fooled.”

 

BLINDED BY JEALOUSY

2. “I Am Your Husband’s Mistress” Scam

An incoming message on your phone says: “Hi, I am your husband’s mistress. I love him and want to marry him. You can see our picture for yourself, if you don’t believe me.”

The message is a shock to many women, who do not hesitate to immediately click the link provided in the text message. Unknowingly, by clicking the link, their phone gets infected with a trojan horse virus. Many Chinese have installed apps on their phone such as Alipay (Chinese equivalent to Paypal). The virus enables scammers to access private information, and transfer money from their victim’s accounts.

So how do scammers know the person they send a message to is a married woman? Actually, they don’t. By sending the same message to as many people as possible, they enhance their chances of sending it to those that are female and married – vulnerable to clicking the link in the text.

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Similarly, scammers also send out messages telling people that their daughter is a prostitute, providing them with a link for pictures as (non-existent) proof [one of our female Harbin friends was called by her father in the middle of the night, worried sick about his daughter].

Another version of this scam is the message from the school administration, telling parents to click the link to see their child’s latest report card. Scammers will even say they are their children’s English or maths teacher, boosting the chances of parents clicking the link provided.

The only way to handle these messages is to immediately delete them, without clicking the link attached. If in doubt, call school/daughter/husband to verify (although in some odd cases, the latter may happily say it is a scam when it is actually not..).

 

NOT MY CUP OF TEA

3. The Tea Ceremony Scam

The tea ceremony scam has been a common scam in China for years. It is aimed at tourists who are new to China, and are eager to experience something typically ‘Chinese’. Although the tea scammers are also active in Beijing (report), they famously operate around Shanghai’s People’s Park.

The scam usually involves two or three nice-looking young ladies who present themselves as “students” when approaching western tourists. What starts as small talk, soon leads to the girls inviting the tourist(s) to a traditional Chinese tea ceremony, where they will taste about eight different teas within fifteen minutes or so in a closed room in a backend alley teahouse. The tourists are led to believe that the tea that is served is inexpensive, but will later be presented with a bill of 650-2000 RMB (100-330 US dollar) or even more.

Tourists often do not even realise they have been scammed until the very end. Even a booking.com manager from New Zealand, though an experienced traveler, recently was scammed by the tea ceremony.

 

HANGING WITH THE WRONG CROWD

4. The WeChat Group Scam

WeChat (in Chinese: Weixin) is the most popular app in China. It is not just a way to connect to friends individually or by group chat, it is also an app that is used for making phone calls, ordering taxi’s, and doing money transactions. (For more on Weixin, read: China’s Weixin Revolution.) For many Chinese, the app has become an essential tool for everyday communication.

Recently, it has become more and more common for people to be asked to join a group of friends they do not know on Weixin, People’s Daily writes. Because these groups have names such as ‘finances’, or ‘entertainment’, many people agree to add themselves to the group, as it is quite normal to ‘follow’ various groups on Weixin. After doing so, they learn the group consists of hundreds of people posting spam, emoticons and vile words. When asking to exit the group, they soon discover they cannot withdraw.

The group also cannot be set to ‘do not disturb’ mode, making every message that pops up visible on your phone screen. Somebody in the group will then send you a message asking if you want to be removed from the group. If so, you will have to give him a so-called ‘red envelope’ (红包): a payment worth 8,88 RMB (1,5 US dollars). After paying, you will be removed from the groups within a couple of minutes.

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Although victims of this scam will only lose a little bit of cash, this is now happening on such a large scale that these scammers are making large amounts of money. Tencent, the creator of WeChat, has responded that this specific scam is only happening to IOS users due to a software incompatibility. Users of iOs and WeChat are advised to update both their WeChat and their iOS version.

 

KEEPING THE DOCTOR AWAY

5. Beijing’s Hospital Scalpers

So-called hospital scalpers have been a problem in China for a long time. Hospital scalpers (医托) are people who earn their money by enticing people to obtain medical care at a certain hospital or clinic. As described by medical journalist Michael Woodhead from China Medical News (2014):

“The scalper is friendly and solicitous initially, advising the patients and family members that the official clinic is expensive and extremely busy and the service is poor. Sometimes they say the doctor on duty has a poor reputation or that the clinic is dirty and has poor hygiene. They then tell the victim that there is a better clinic nearby where they have connections and can get a quick appointment.The scalper then personally escorts the victim to the nearby clinic, where the ‘doctor’ and staff do many unnecessary expensive tests and prescribes some very common and cheap medicine but charges a high price.”

1436121770_tcps10A hospital scalper in action at Beijing West Station (Sina 2015).

Earlier this month, Sina News reported about hundreds of people being victimised by one group of scalpers that mainly operate in and around Beijing’s West Station, Jishuitan Hospital, Fu Wai Hospital, Peking Union Medical Hospital Clinic and the 301 Hospital. The group, consisting of around sixty scammers, are active every day from early morning ’til afternoon, looking for inexperienced patients who come to Beijing to see a doctor, and are either just arriving, or are waiting in one of the long lines at the hospital.

The scammers wear costumes and look like professional staff members, asking people about their health problems and then referring them to the centrally located Baidetang Clinic near Beijing’s Pinganli Subway (Yude hutong).

According to the article, one patient, coming from Xi’an, was waiting at the Union Medical Hospital when she was approached by a woman who informed about her medical problems. When the patient told the woman that she suffered from menstrual problems, the scammer told her that the specialist she needed was currently available at the qualified Baidetang Clinic. The patient, like many others who were victimised, ended up getting a short consult and some expensive medicine, spending 10.000 RMB (1630 US dollars). According to an undercover journalist, hospital scalpers receive 70% of the amount a patient spends at the clinic.

U7107P1T1D32075641F1395DT20150706031939The Baidetang Clinic near Beijing’s Pinganli Subway Station (Sina 2015). 

 

MONEY FLIES

6. “Canceled Flight” Message

This year, multiple Chinese media and netizens reported about the “canceled flight scam” (航班取消骗局). After booking a flight, passengers receive a text message from a 400-number saying that there has been a change in their flight, or that the flight has been canceled. In order to get their money back, passengers have to provide their name, ID information and bank account number.

Later on, passengers will discover that money is taken from their bank account, and that the text message they received was fake.

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Anqing News Centre advises passengers to be careful with 400-numbers. After receiving similar messages, people should always first check with the official customer information number of their airline.

 

HIGH INTERESTS

7. Major Bank Scam

Over the last year, several large-scale bank scams made the headlines in China. Although putting money in the bank is generally considered the safest option to protect one’s money, many Chinese netizens say that they are losing trust in China’s banking system because large amounts of people’s savings that were kept in state-owned banks have gone missing.

The scammers involved are people who work at the bank. They attract depositors by offering them high interests. Instead of annual interest rates of 2–5%, these employees will tell depositors that they can give them interests of 10%, up to 20% or even higher. In such scams, the depositors often have to sign the terms of service, which include that they have to refrain from checking the account. After the swindle is exposed, the bank usually states that it is the client’s responsibility for believing such high interests; even if the scam took place within the bank itself and clients assumed they were dealing with an honest employee.

Many netizens have expressed their astonishment over this scam. One Weibo netizen said: “If we keep money in the bank, the bank should be responsible for our savings. Since the scammer is an employee of the bank, the bank should take the responsibility for his behavior.”

The only way to avoid this scam: if it is too good to be true, it usually is. Double check with other bank staff, and properly read the terms of service. A bank can never make a client refrain from checking their own accounts.

 

DOUBLE RENT

8. Landlord Message Scam

A common scam, similar to the ‘mistress’ text message and the ‘canceled flight’ one, is a message from your landlord, who says that he has changed phone numbers, and that this month’s rent needs to be transferred to the account of his wife or another bank number.

In the end, it turns out that this message is fake – but meanwhile, many people already transferred the money to the wrong account. They discover they’re duped when they receive a message from their actual landlord who has not received the month’s rent.

These kind of text messages are sent out randomly. Because the message is send out to many people, there are always those who actually need to pay their rent and are used to communicating with their landlord in this way.

 

NO HAPPY END

9. Massage Parlor Scam

Like with the Tea Ceremony scam, Massage Parlor scammers are focused on western tourists – men in specific. Basically, the scam involves somebody talking you into a massage on the streets. The ‘normal’ massage soon turns out to be a bit more erotic, and before you know it, the massage parlor big boss arrives, the door closes, and you have to pay up a large sum of money. As this tourist describes on Tripadvisor:

“I was offered a foot massage in Shanghai then was taken to a building where a different type of massage was offered on the body. I was forced to pick a girl then it took 10 minutes before we were done. Before the massage they told me about 300 RMB ($40.00) but after the massage a big guy walked in the room with 2 other guys and gave me a bill for $4200.00 which included room rent. I was shocked. They also knew which hotel I stayed.”


A host of a Dutch undercover show gets scammed in Shanghai (SBS6).

It is a common scam, especially in Shanghai city centre, that could end up becoming very costly.

Similarly, there is the KTV scam where people will lure tourists into nightclubs or karaoke and overcharge them on drinks. Avoiding these scams is simple: just do not trust anyone who approaches you on the street to take you to a club or salon.

 

NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS

10. China’s Pyramid Schemes (chuanxiao)

China’s ‘chuanxiao‘ scheme arguably is the most large-scale and psychological scam of this list. So-called ‘multi-level marketing’ (传销) or ‘pyramid schemes’ are quite commonplace in China, especially in certain provinces (Anhui, Hunan). New members are always is introduced to these schemes through old friends, former classmates, or relatives.

Chuanxiao are almost like cults, where people get trained in how to trick their Chinese friends into joining them. As explained in this blog by Nao, chuanxiao schemes are not about selling products, but about getting more people to join. The money people spend to join the group goes to the person above them, and the people above them. People are convinced (brainwashed?) they will eventually become millionaires if they stick to the group long enough.

People in chuanxiao live as a community, and collaborate on how to bond with new people and get them to join – and get their money into the system. Friends are usually invited to come over from other provinces for a business opportunity, or as a holiday, and are then taken into the group. Chuanxiao are psychological games, where people often only realise they have been scammed when it is already too late.

Know more scams you would like to share? Please leave your comment in the comment section below, or email us.

By Manya Koetse

©2015 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.

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15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Avatar

    de Wijs

    July 9, 2015 at 10:23 pm

    In Taiwan there have been scams like a stranger calling you to tell you your child has been abducted. They will even play a tape to ‘prove’ this is indeed the case, and then tell you to hand over a certain amount of money. As with all strange messages/communication, always double check!

  2. Ann

    Ann

    July 9, 2015 at 10:32 pm

    Also I’ve heard of set ups of men intimidating women, and a black cab coming in between as a ‘rescuer’ who turns out to be part of the plot. When the woman goes in the cab, she will be robbed.

  3. Avatar

    aaa

    July 10, 2015 at 4:40 pm

    “taxi’s” should be “taxis”

  4. Avatar

    Johnny Rico

    July 10, 2015 at 7:44 pm

    The 100 yuan note trick: you pay with a 100 note at a corner shop, the owner receives it, swaps it for a fake one under the counter. He then calls you back, telling you that you gave him fake money and he wants a different 100 note.

  5. Avatar

    Jan

    July 11, 2015 at 5:16 am

    I missed the banknote teller machine scam. Say, you pay 1200 RMB, 12 notes of 100 RMB. They put it in the manipulated teller machine and it shows you gave only 11 notes and you need to give one more.

  6. Avatar

    David

    July 9, 2016 at 4:54 pm

    Many thanks for sharing Manya! Some of these scams are really creative and it’s scary imagining how many people are being scammed by them. Thankfully, for travellers/foreigners in China, they are less likely to face some of these scams, but they are not spared by the many other scams such as the one you have raised such as the tea ceremony scam and massage parlour scam. From research (http://travelscams.org/asia/common-tourist-scams-china/), some other scams to look out for are fake money, fake taxis, fake jade, fake traditional chinese medicine shops and even fake bus stops!

  7. Avatar

    Vanlal Dinpuia

    August 13, 2016 at 10:53 pm

    What about red mercury scam in China ?

  8. Avatar

    Keith

    December 13, 2016 at 4:10 pm

    Does anyone know about Gold market scam seems many people are being targeted to invest all savings into spot markets

    • Avatar

      Peng Liang

      January 13, 2017 at 8:53 am

      I got experienced it once on 10th Jan 2017. The lady (seems attractive) been talking to me about it and telling me why choose gold market instead of stocks. She send me a website called goldunitedltd.com and saying it’s under strict hong kong laws and regulations so it can’t be a fraud. She will slowly ice-break with you and then she would say normally she would not do this but she can help you to open a VIP account but you have to keep it a secret as it’s against company’s policy. 50k usd for VIP and just let her know how much I want/can invest and she will help me anytime. 8-10% ROI every month. Well, I’m not a very good investor but that kind of ROI just based on gold binary options, is a high chance fraud. I did not put my money in anyway.

  9. Avatar

    Knee Active Plus quando prenderlo

    January 5, 2018 at 11:35 am

    This is my first time pay a quick visit at here and i
    am truly pleassant to read everthing at one place.

    Website: Knee Active Plus quando prenderlo

  10. Avatar

    Mariette Ashford

    May 3, 2018 at 1:32 am

    One wouldn’t really think much of this, all I really wanted to do was invest and be part of it but the way I was lied by this brokers was terrible, to easily take money from all in the name of investment and when I wanted to make withdrawals every single attempt was fruitless with constant hassle to invest more I really can’t say more than I have already said. I would really consider myself to be one of the very few lucky ones as I was able to have my funds recovered from this scam Binary option brokers, although it was through unethical means as far I am concerned but what can I care after how my hard-earned funds where taken from me, these guys are the best in less than 7days all my funds including bonuses had been recovered, If your broker lost your funds trading Binary options Geminihacks.com are more than able to get your funds back without any traces best of luck people.

  11. Avatar

    Chui

    October 27, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    There are tons of scams all over the internet and in person. I have been in this situation, after falling for the rampant investment scam scourging everywhere. I was devastated but got referred to a firm that helped out to get over 1million HKD back from them.
    You can reach out to the consultant who helped

    maxgale08 atgeemail dotcom

  12. Avatar

    Jaxia Quest

    January 20, 2019 at 1:40 am

    So glad I am never going to travel to China. But still nice to know, so I can watch out for scammers here in the states and online.

  13. Avatar

    MT

    June 12, 2019 at 10:28 am

    Recently I met a Chinese lady in Tinder. She seems to be nice and we chatted for quite some time (almost 1 week). She seems very genuine, telling about her life, what she do, her struggles..etc. She send picture of herself and say we both get along well. Unknowingly along the line she did mention about investing on stocks & forex, even show me her statement how much she earn from it. She said her cousin are financial expert and the one that give the tip to her. I find it bit odd but I believe at first. Now after 1 week of nice chatting, the critical point question came in. She said since she making so much, she can help me. Why don’t I setup an account (she gave me a link) and when she receive latest news then I can follow to buy in. Let’s make money together…

    I am typically very careful with all these things, especially when it comes to money. What I am so sad was that I thought I would have a nice lady as a friend (or maybe more) but my defense instinct kicks in pretty quick when she mention about the investment. I am sad cos I invested my time to chat with her not knowing is all a SCAM! 🙁

  14. Avatar

    San

    September 3, 2019 at 3:32 pm

    One of my nephews was applying to China for further studies and guy name Lee W. Yong was contacted. He promised that he can get him in to well reputed university, Peking University, with monthly stipends and scholarship. He had put his advertising in WeChat. He called his company China Student Consulting.

    Then he starts to demand money for the process. His parents transferred the money with the hope for their son’s better future.

    Once they sent him all the demanded fee, he started to beg for more. He said the customs office is asking money to send the documents. You could tell that he was lying. Once his family started to demand for proof of their son’s admission. He would argue that everything is ready to ship and waiting for demanded extra money. So far he took 6300RMB. And when his parent admanantly asked for proof, he blocked them in WeChat account. Now he is out of reach enjoying his loot of somebody’s hard earned money.

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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.

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Backgrounder

More Than Just a Visit: Explaining the Chinese ‘Cuànfǎng’

‘Cuànfǎng’ became a popular word on Chinese social media and in official Chinese discourse this year. But what is it?

Jin Luo

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Since Pelosi’s stopover in Taiwan, the word ‘cuànfǎng’ has been all over Chinese social media to refer to this controversial visit. But ‘cuànfǎng’ is more than just ‘visiting’ alone. Jin Luo explains.

It was a sleepless night for many Chinese people when U.S. House Speaker Pelosi flew to Taiwan on August 2nd of 2022. A new Chinese word created in recent years, cuànfǎng (窜访) appeared in the official statement that was issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry at 11 pm that night, and subsequently it appeared all over social media.

Meanwhile, a pop song released more than 30 years ago titled “Tonight, Are You Coming or Not” (“今夜你会不会来”) suddenly became a Weibo hot topic before it was taken offline. What is this word lost in translation, and why did people suddenly get nostalgic over an old romantic song?

 
Cuànfǎng: A ‘Sneaky Visit’
 

Here is the original wording in Chinese and the official translation to English from the statement of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on the evening on 2 August:

In disregard of China’s strong opposition and diplomatic discontent, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited China’s Taiwan region” (“美国国会众议长佩洛西不顾中方强烈反对和严正交涉,窜访中国台湾地区.”) The word ‘visited’ in Chinese that is used here is “cuànfǎng” 窜访.

While the English verb “visit” is a neutral word by itself, the Chinese “cuànfǎng” 窜访 has much stronger connotations. According to the Wiktionary, the word is a derogatory, officialese way to say “to visit.” But it is not an easy word to translate, as there is no direct equivalent in English, and both the literal and implied meaning of the word need to be understood.

Cuànfǎng is actually a compound word: cuàn 窜 refers to fleeing, escaping, hiding, or running away; fǎng 访 refers to inquiring, seeking, or visiting.

Cuan as a compound character (Sohu).

To make matters more complicated, cuàn by itself is also a compound character. It is written as ‘竄’ in traditional Chinese: the top radical ‘穴’ means ‘hole,’ and the lower part is the character ‘鼠’ which means ‘mouse.’ The character, having the shape of a mouse hiding in a hole, therefore has the meaning of ‘hiding’ and ‘escaping.’

The origins of the character ‘cuan’ explained, image via Sohu.com.

The mouse or rat is an animal that is more often associated with negative things in Chinese culture. They are often considered sneaky, dirty, running around everywhere, and able to reproduce quickly. With mice so often carrying a negative association, cuàn ‘窜’ also refers to a kind of hiding and escaping that is negative or objectionable.

The second character fǎng 访 is a neutral word that simply means “to visit.”

At the New York Times, Chris Buckley captured the underlying meaning of this word in writing: “The Chinese word used in the official statements for ‘visit’ — cuanfang — connotes a sneaky or illicit encounter, not an aboveboard meeting.”

 
The Evolution of Cuànfǎng
 

Although it is a relatively new word, cuànfǎng already existed before the Pelosi incident and was not created in light of this controversial visit.

Since the word’s first appearance, translators have had some difficulties in properly translating the term into different languages.

Research papers in translation studies and international relations in China suggested that cuànfǎng is a “new derogatory term invented in recent years, specifically for the purpose of maintaining national security and unity, and condemning and exposing the national separatists” and “demonstrated the big wisdom of Chinese diplomatic discourse users; vividly described the image of the separatists, that they go on the run sneakily, just like thieves and mice” (source, in Chinese).

Other sources interpret it as “the unjust, improper visit conducted in order to reach hidden political agenda, to agitate and peddle the separatist ideas,” and:

1. You went somewhere where you were not supposed to go;
2. The visit was not accepted or welcomed by the (Chinese) government;
3. The purpose is to shake justice and create conflicts
” (source, in Chinese).

Cuàn was mainly meant to add an emotional aspect to the term and shows the contempt of the person who uses it.

Image via Wainao.

The word was first prominently used in Chinese official discourse when the Foreign Ministry in 2006 referred to the Dalai Lama’s visit to Israel. Since cuàn has the meaning of fleeing, it is especially suitable when referring to political dissidents who went into exile overseas.

Since then, it has been used again for further visits of the Dalai Lama to other countries (US 2014, Mongolia 2017), as well as for Rebiya Kadeer, Lee Teng-hui, Shinzo Abe, Joshua Wong, and others.

Although it is clear that the term is not only applied to Chinese dissidents, it is generally applied to those who conducted visits that were perceived to be hostile towards China, with Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit serving as a clear example.

Since the Dalai Lama has been living outside of China and conducted numerous visits to other countries, cuànfǎng was previously mostly used in this context until Pelosi’s visit, which ended up being good for more than 80% of the search results of cuànfǎng on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website.

If cuànfǎng is a word with such strong emotional connotations, why was it simply translated as “visit” in official English-language documents? Some say it is because of the mere difficulty to translate this word, while others say it is the routine sanitization of English translations by the Foreign Ministry.

David Gitter, president of the Center for Advanced China Research based in Washington D.C., said that the external goal of Beijing can be different from the internal goal towards the nationalist domestic audiences, and that “more accurate yet counterproductive translations … [often] breach normal diplomatic language.”

At this point, it remains up for debate whether this is a linguistic constraint or a political choice.

 
Tonight, Are You Coming or Not?
 

While the term cuànfǎng has been widely used in official discourse, it has also become a popular online word. Chinese netizens seemed to be as passionate as the Chinese Foreign Ministry – and perhaps even more so –  in condemning Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and demanding radical countermeasures.

Chinese netizens were watching the entire event unfold with mixed feelings – on the one hand, there was a strong sense of patriotism and anger, on the other hand, the massive attention to the event also turned it into something that was almost as exciting as a celebrity drama.

On that specific evening of Pelosi’s nearing arrival in Taipei, Chinese netizens were doing two things: watching real-time tracking of Pelosi’s flight, and listening to a classic pop song released in 1991 titled “Tonight, Are You Coming or Not” (今夜你会不会来) (video). Back in the previous century, Hong Kong singer Leon Lai expressed the emotions of someone waiting for his lover to arrive in this melodic song, singing:

“你是否愿意为我停留

Would you be willing to stay for me

今夜你来告诉我

Tonight, you tell me

你是否愿意陪我走过我的梦

Are you willing to accompany me through my dream?

我的所有

My everything

(Chorus)

今夜你会不会来

Tonight, are you coming or not?

你的爱还在不在

Is your love still there or not?

如果你的心已经离开

If your heart has left already

我宁愿没有未来

I would rather not have a future

今夜你会不会来

Tonight, are you coming or not?

你的爱还在不在

Is your love still there or not?

别让我所有的等待

Don’t let all my wait

变成一片空白

Go all in vain

 

In the middle of the uncertainty about whether Pelosi would come to Taiwan or not, this song served as entertainment for netizens and became a “collective carnival” of people jokingly applying the song to Pelosi, turning her into a ‘mysterious lover’ that might or might not show up. (Later, some were unable to play the song anymore, although it remains unclear if this was due to geographic restrictions or because the song was actually taken offline by censors.)

“Taiwan has been preparing for your cuànfǎng ‘sneaky visit’, are you coming or not tonight?” some netizens wrote, combining the title song with the cuànfǎng term. In doing so, Pelosi became both a ‘sneaky mouse’ and ‘mysterious lover’, both a target of condemnation and subject of fun and banter.

All jokes and cuànfǎng references aside, Pelosi did end up realizing that visit, and its aftermath, including a second Taiwan visit by a U.S. congressional delegation, has had a substantial impact on U.S.-China relations that were already strained before the move.

Will there be more cuànfǎng to Taiwan? It’s likely not an issue of if, but when. For next time, at least we’ve got cuànfǎng covered.

 

By Jin Luo 

Featured image by Alexa from Pixabay

 

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