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16 Years Ago Today: The Lanjisu Fire That Changed China’s ‘Wangba’ Era

The tragic Lanjisu fire led to a nationwide crackdown on internet cafes in China.

Manya Koetse

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A Beijing internet cafe fire that killed 25 young people in 2002 has become part of China’s collective memory: it was a shift in China’s internet cafe era. Today marks the 16th anniversary of this tragic event.

On June 16, 2002, at 2:40 a.m., a devastating fire broke out at a second-story Internet cafe (wangba 网吧) in Beijing’s Haidian, the city’s university district.

News of the tragic fire shocked the entire nation. The fire had instantly killed twenty people and severely injured 17, of whom five later died in the hospital.

All of the dead and injured people were students; 12 of them were from the prep school of the Beijing University of Science and Technology (Wang 2009, 86).

Lanjisu fire, June 16 2002.

Although it did not take long for firefighters to arrive that night, the fire at the Lanjisu (蓝极速, ‘Blue speed’) internet cafe was mainly so disastrous because windows were firmly secured with iron burglar-proof bars, leaving no option for people to escape. The only door was locked; it happened more often that wangba owners would (illegally) operate overnight behind locked doors (Qiu 2009, 33).

Investigators later ruled arson as cause of the fire at the cafe, which was located at Xueyuan Road 20. Traces of gasoline were discovered at the scene, and two teenage male suspects (13-year-old Zhang and 14-year-old Song) were arrested two days later.

The teenage boys were middle school students who used to play games at the internet cafe, but had gotten into a quarrel with other visitors and were not allowed to come in. To take ‘revenge’, they had purchased 1.8 liter of gasoline at a nearby gas station just 3-4 hours before they committed arson.

One of the suspects in 2002 (people.com.cn).

It was later revealed that the two boys both came from poor and shattered families, involving drugs and crime (Lifeweek 2003; Qiu 2015).

In August of 2002, a Beijing court sentenced the 14-year-old boy (Song X.) to life imprisonment, while the 13-year-old was sent to a juvenile re-education center as he was under the age of 14.

A third person, a 17-year-old female also named Zhang, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for being an accomplice; she gave the boys money to buy the petroleum, and knew what they were up to. A fourth minor, a 14-year-old boy by the name of Liu, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for being part of the arson plan. The internet cafe owner was sentenced to 3 years in prison for breaching business and safety rules. The gas station was fined 50,000 yuan for selling gasoline to two minors (Lifeweek 2003; Sina 2008).

 

A turning point in the wangba boom

 

The Haidian Lanjisu fire had a big impact on China’s booming internet cafe culture. Internet cafes had been mushrooming in China since the mid and late 1990s. It was the time of Tencent’s highly popular instant messaging software OICQ and multiplayer online games. By 2002 there were thousands of wangba across Chinese cities, many of them unlicensed and illegal, with no fire control equipment.

Internet cafe in 1990s (new.qq.com).

The Lanjisu fire made the problem of China’s wangba a national concern. Not just the unsafe conditions were a reason for worry, but also the impact the internet cafes had on China’s youth, with students spending days on end playing online games in these smoky rooms, leading to a rise in school absence and internet addiction. Beijing’s vice mayor Liu Zhihua condemned internet cafes as “opium dens” for the country’s youth.

The fire led to a huge crackdown on illegal internet cafes. The Beijing authorities launched a campaign that would stop the development of new internet cafes and that would screen all existing wangba one by one, and to close all unlicensed businesses immediately and to confiscate their operational tools (Wang 2009, 87). Across the country, approximately 400,000 internet cafes were closed (Sina 2008).

Second hand confiscated wangba computers (http://www.hkcd.com/).

It also led to the implementation of new rules, such as that there could no longer be internet cafes within a 200-meter radius of schools, that minors were not allowed to enter, and that they had to be closed between midnight and 8 am (Venkatesh 2006, 55)

Since 2005, the remnants of the Lansiju internet cafe have been on display at the Haidian Safety Museum.

Image via People.cn.

The fire is remembered in China as the “6.16 Wangba Big Fire” (6·16网吧大火), and is still being discussed on Chinese social media to this day.

By Manya Koetse

References

Qiu, Jack Linchuan. 2009. Working-Class Network Society
Communication Technology and the Information Have-Less in Urban China
. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Qiu, Jack Linchuan. 2015 (2009). “Life and Death in the Chinese Informational City: The Challenges of Working-Class ICTs and the Information Have-less.” In: Living the Information Society in Asia, Erwin Alampay Alampay (ed), 130-157. ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

Sina. 2008. “北京蓝极速网吧老板今安在.” Sina News, 29 Dec http://news.sina.com.cn/s/2008-12-29/100416941011.shtml [16.6.18].

Venkatesh, P. 2006. “China on the I-way.” In: Strategic Management: Concepts and Cases, Hitt, Duane & Hoskisson (eds), chapter 2. Mason: Thomson Higher Education.

Wang, Xueqin. 2009. “Internet Cafes. What else can be done in addition to rectification?” In: Good governance in China–a way towards social harmony : case studies by China’s rising leaders, edited by Wang Mengkui, Lchapter 8. London & New York: Routledge.

Zhuang, Shan 庄山, Ke Li 柯立, Li Wei 李伟, Wu Ang 巫昂. 2003 (2002). “两个纵火少年和25条生命” [“Two Minor Arsonists and 25 Lives”]. LifeWeek 2002 (26), online April 8 2003 http://www.lifeweek.com.cn/2003/0408/1594.shtml [16.6.2018].

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 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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China Digital

From Tea Farmer to Online Influencer: Uncle Huang and China’s Rural Live Streamers

‘Cunbo’ aka ‘rural livestreaming’ is all the rage. A win-win situation for farmers, viewers, and Alibaba.

Manya Koetse

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This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, originally published in German by Goethe Institut China on Goethe.de: “VOM TEEBAUERN ZUM INFLUENCER: ONKEL HUANG UND CHINAS LÄNDLICHE LIVESTREAMER.” 

The past year has been super tumultuous when it comes to the topics that have been dominating Chinese social media. The Coronavirus crisis was preceded by other big issues that were all the talk online, from the US-China trade war to the protests in Hong-Kong, the swine flu, and heightened censorship and surveillance.

Despite the darker side to China’s online environment, however, there were also positive developments. One of the online trends that became popular this year comes with a term of its own, namely cūnbō (村播): rural livestreaming.  Chinese farmers using livestreaming as a way to sell their products and promote their business have become a more common occurrence on China’s e-commerce and social media platforms. 

mage via Phoenix News (iFeng Finance).

The social media + e-commerce mix, also called ‘social shopping,’ is booming in the PRC. Online platforms where the lines between social media and e-commerce have disappeared are now more popular than ever. There’s the thriving Xiaohongshu (小红书Little Red Book) platform, for example, but apps such as TikTok (known as Douyin in China) also integrate shopping in the social media experience.

Over recent years, China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba has contributed to the rising popularity of ‘social shopping.’ Its Taobao Live unit (also a separate app), which falls under the umbrella of China’s biggest online marketplace Taobao, is solely dedicated to shopping + social media, mainly mobile-centered. It’s a recipe for success: Chinese mobile users spend over six hours online per day, approximately 72% of them shop online, and nearly 65% of mobile internet users watch livestreaming.

Every minute of every day, thousands of online shoppers tune in to dozens of different channels where sellers promote anything from food products to makeup or pet accessories. The sellers, also called ‘hosts’ or ‘presenters,’ make their channels attractive by incorporating makeup tutorials, cooking classes, giving tips and tricks, chatting away and joking, and promising their buyers the best deal or extra presents when purchasing their products.                

Livestreaming on Taobao goes on 24/7 (screenshots from Taobao app by author).

Sometimes thousands of viewers tune in to one channel at the same. They can ‘follow’ their favorite hosts and can interact with them directly by leaving comments on the livestreams. They can compliment the hosts (“You’re so funny!”), ask questions about products (“Does this also come in red?”), or leave practical advice (“You should zoom in when demonstrating this product!”). The product promoted in the livestreams can be directly purchased through the Taobao system.

Over the past year, Alibaba has increased its focus on rural sellers within the livestreaming e-commerce business. Countryside sellers even have their own category highlighted on the Taobao Live app. Chinese tech giant Alibaba launched its ‘cūnbō project’ in the spring of 2019 to promote the use of its Taobao Live app amongst farmers. The most influential livestreaming farmers get signed by Alibaba to elevate Taobao Live’s rural business to a higher level.

One of these influential Chinese farmers who has made a name for himself through livestreaming is Huang Wensheng, a tea farmer from the mountainous Lichuan area in Hunan Province.

Uncle Huang livestreaming from the tea fields (image via Sohu.com)

Huang, who is nicknamed ‘Uncle Farmer,’ sells tea through his channel, where he shows viewers his work and shares stories and songs from his village. He is also known to talk about what he learned throughout his life and will say things such as: “It is important to work hard; not necessarily so much to change the world , but to make sure the world does not change you.”

With just three to five livestreaming sessions per week, ‘Uncle’ Huang reaches up to twenty million viewers per month, and, according to Chinese media reports, has seen a significant increase in his income, earning some 10,000 yuan (€1300) per week.

Huang is not the only farmer from his hometown using Taobao Live to increase their income; there are some hundred rural livestreamers in Lichuan doing the same.

Some random screenshots by author from rural livestreaming channels, where online shoppers get a glimpse of countryside life

The rural livestreaming category is significantly different from the urban fashionistas selling brand makeup and the latest must-haves: these hosts do not have the polished look, glamorous clothes, or stylish backgrounds. They usually film outside while doing their work or offer a glimpse into their often humble rooms or kitchens.

Viewers get to see the source of the products sold by these rural sellers; they often literally go to the fields to show where their agricultural products grow, or film themselves getting the eggs from their chickens or the oranges from the trees. From fruits to potatoes and flowers, and from fresh tea to home-made chili sauce – a wide range of products is promoted and sold through Taobao Live these days.

Some rural livestreamers are trying to stay ahead of their competition by coming up with novel concepts. A young farmer from Sichuan, for example, recently offered viewers the opportunity to “adopt” a rooster from his farm, allowing them to interact with ‘their’ rooster through social media and even throwing the occasional birthday party for some lucky roosters.

Image via sina.com.

Examples such as these show that although the countryside livestreamers usually lack glitter and glam, they can be just as entertaining – or perhaps even more so – than their urban counterparts.

Who benefits from the recent ‘cūnbōboom? One could argue that the rising popularity of livestreaming farmers is a win-win situation from which all participants can profit in some way. The commercial interests are big for Alibaba. The company has been targeting China’s countryside for years, as it’s where China’s biggest consumption growth will happen while mobile internet penetration is still on the rise. Alibaba earns profits from an increasing number of rural e-commerce buyers, as well as e-commerce sellers.

Alibaba’s early focus on the countryside as a new home for e-commerce has previously also led to the phenomenon of so-called ‘Taobao Villages,’ where a certain percentage of rural residents are selling local specialties, farm products or other things via the Taobao platform with relatively little transaction costs.

Many Chinese villages and farmers are profiting from the further spread of Taobao in the countryside. Not only does Alibaba invest in logistics and e-commerce trainings in rural areas, these e-commerce channels are also a way to directly boost sales and income for struggling farmers.

Chinese media predict that the rural livestreaming trend will only become more popular in the years to come, bringing forth many more influential farmers like Huang.

But besides the commercial and financial gains that come from the rising popularity of rural livestreamers, there is also a significant and noteworthy social impact.  At  a time in which China’s rapidly changing society sees a widening gap between urban and rural areas, these rural channels serve as a digital bridge between countryside sellers and urban consumers, offering netizens a real and unpolished look into the lives of farmers in others parts of the country, and gives online buyers more insight and understanding of where their online products came from.

Taobao Live is actually like a traditional “farmers’ market,” but now it is digital, open 24/7, and accessible to anyone with a mobile phone. It’s the Chinese farmers’ market of the 21st century.

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

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

This text was first published by 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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China Digital

WeChat’s New Emoji Are Here (Including a Watermelon-Eating and Doge One)

WeChat’s new emoji are based on popular memes.

Manya Koetse

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On January 14, Tencent’s Wechat introduced new emoji to its existing emoji set. The new emoji include, among others, a watermelon-eating emoji and a smiling Shiba Inu.

On Weibo, the new emoji have become a topic of discussion under the hashtags “WeChat’s New Emoji” (#微信上线新表情#), “WeChat’s Watermelon Eating Emoji” (#微信上线吃瓜表情#), and “WeChat’s Dog Emoji” (#微信上线狗头表情#).

Different from the Unicode emoji (see Emojipedia), WeChat and Weibo have their own sets of emoji, although there is overlap.

The reason why especially the watermelon-eating and dog emoji are being discussed on social media, is because these emoji are based on popular internet memes.

“Eating watermelon” (吃瓜 chī guā) is an online expression that comes from “watermelon-eating masses” (吃瓜群众 chī guā qúnzhòng), which describes a common mentality of Internet users who have no idea what is actually going on but are still commenting or following online stories for their enjoyment – perhaps comparable to the “popcorn memes” that are ubiquitous on Western social media platforms.

The smiling dog has been around since 2013 and is known as the doge meme, based on a photo of a Shiba inu. The meme was originally spread on social media platforms such as Reddit, but then also became hugely popular in China, where it became a symbol of sarcasm (also read this Abacus article on this topic).

Other new emoji are the “wow” emoji, and others to express “ok,” “add oil,” “emm,” “oh!”

There’s also a “shehui shehui” (社会社会, lit. “society society”) emoji, which also comes from online culture and is a way among friends to (self-mockingly) talk about being ‘gangsters,’ ‘brothers.’ or ‘scoundrels.’

As the new emoji are still in their testing phase, not all WeChat users can use the new emoji yet, so you might have to wait a bit before being able to try them out.

By Manya Koetse, with thanks to @caaatchina
Follow @whatsonweibo

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

©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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