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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.

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

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15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. 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

    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. aaa

    July 10, 2015 at 4:40 pm

    “taxi’s” should be “taxis”

  4. 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. 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. 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. Vanlal Dinpuia

    August 13, 2016 at 10:53 pm

    What about red mercury scam in China ?

  8. 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

    • 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.

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    January 5, 2018 at 11:35 am

    This is my first time pay a quick visit at here and i
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  10. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Recent Examples of Chinese Political Satire on Social Media

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Creators Behind the Artwork

 

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

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

 
‘WUHEQILIN’ 乌合麒麟
 

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

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

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

‘A Pretender God’ by Wuheqilin.

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

‘G7’ by Wuqihelin.

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

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

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

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

 
‘HALF BOTTLE OF OLD SOUP’ 半桶老阿汤
 

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

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

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

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

‘That’s What U.S. Did’ by 半桶老阿汤

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

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

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

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

 
OTHERS & INTERTEXTUALITY
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In Between Censorship and Propaganda

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

> Digital Art & Nationalism

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

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

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

> Building Communities

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

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

> A Fine Line

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

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

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

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

 

By Manya Koetse (@manyapan)

With special thanks to Piervittorio Milizia.

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Backgrounder

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scene from A Love for Dilemma.

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

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

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

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

 
What Is ‘Involution’?
 

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

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

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

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

 
The Involution Concept in the Chinese Context
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
‘Involution’ Discussions on Chinese Social Media
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Manya Koetse

References

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

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

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

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