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Alibaba Diplomacy: Jack Ma Says China-U.S. Relations Should Be ‘More Friendly’

The meeting between U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Alibaba chairman Jack Ma on January 9 in New York has got netizens talking. Could Sino-American relations indeed be strengthened through ‘Alibaba diplomacy’?

Manya Koetse

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The meeting between U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Alibaba founder Jack Ma has got Chinese netizens talking. Could Sino-U.S. relations be strengthened through ‘Alibaba diplomacy’?

“Jack and I are going to do great things,” U.S President-elect Donald Trump said after his meeting with Alibaba CEO Jack Ma (马云). The Chinese billionaire immediately added to that: “We are going to focus on small business.”

 

“We think the China-U.S. relationship should be strengthened and should be more friendly.”

 

“It was a productive meeting,” Ma later told the press: “We talked about helping American small businesses to sell things through the Alibaba platform, to China and to Asia.” He further said: “We also think the China-U.S. relationship should be strengthened and should be more friendly.”

Ma called Trump “very smart” and “open-minded”, and indicated that doing business was the path towards stronger Sino-American relations. He also spoke about his plans to create a million jobs in the U.S. by bringing American (agricultural) sellers onto his platform.

The focus on small American business will especially be on the Midwest, with Alibaba facilitating the sales of products like garments, wine or fruits from the U.S. to (Southeast) Asia.

The meeting, that took place in the early morning of January 10 (Beijing time) in the New York Trump Tower, received much attention on Chinese social media, where state media outlets such as People’s Daily reported about the new collaboration.

 

“Jack Ma is one of the few capable Chinese people who can engage in public diplomacy.”

 

In the Chinese Financial Times, Chinas’s Jilin University Foreign Affairs Professor Sun Xingjie (孙兴杰) said that when the traditional foreign diplomacy channels between two countries are somehow strained, it is good to take a different route to kick-start public diplomacy.

“Jack Ma is one of the few capable Chinese people who can engage in public diplomacy,” according to Sun.

The Chinese public opinion towards Trump has been going up and down over the past few months, as I recently also explained on Al Jazeera (see video below).

A generally positive view on Trump when he was elected, shifted to a more negative one after the Taipei phone call and the Fox Interview, in which Trump challenged the One China Policy.

Many called Trump an “idiot” and said he had “zero understanding of how diplomacy works.”

Jack Ma, on the other hand, is the most respected entrepreneur of China. Bookstores have entire sections dedicated to the business magnate, who is not just known as the richest man of China, but also as a welldoer and an influential who keeps, in his own words, “a very good love relationship with the government” (Lee & Song 2016, 33).

 

“Jack Ma should become the Chinese ambassador to the United States.”

 

Could Sino-American relations indeed be strengthened through ‘Alibaba diplomacy’? For now, it seems that the Chinese government supports the Trump-Ma meeting.

Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang responded to the Trump-Ma meeting on Wednesday, saying that China-US trade relations are mutually beneficial and that the potential of successful flourishing cooperations between the two biggest economic powers in the world is “enormous.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated it strongly encourages the strengthening of Sino-American cooperations.

Some netizens wondered what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to do with Jack Ma’s Trump meeting at all, but many found the relevance of the meeting for bilateral relations indisputable: “Of course this is relevant to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs!” some responded, with others even suggesting that Jack Ma should become the Chinese ambassador to the United States.

Many commenters responded to the Trump-Ma meeting with the Chinese idiom “yī mǎ píng chuān” (一马平川), “a horse galloping straight across the flat land”, which means that everything goes smoothly and that there are no boundaries or hurdles.

But the idiom also is a word joke, as it contains the characters of the Chinese names of Trump (川) and Ma (马: literally ‘horse’), which would change the idiom’s meaning to: “Ma galloping straight across Trump”, meaning Jack Ma could knock out Trump in one hit.

 

“When you eat dumplings you need garlic sauce, when you deal with Trump you need Jack Ma.”

 

Different from last December, Weibo users hardly spoke ill of Trump now. Instead, they expressed their admiration for Ma – not just because of his successful business but also because of his English proficiency: “He should become the head of the Foreign Trade Office, he needs no translators, brings his own money, and can speak his mind without needing anyone else,” one commenter says.

Many Chinese web users seemed to take pride in Ma’s meeting with the President-elect. “Ma Yun [Jack Ma] for president!” was a much recurring phrase.

Despite the general positive mood about the Trump-Ma meeting, not all people were happy about it. Some called Ma a traitor to his country. “It’s nice that Jack Ma has said that he would create a million new jobs,” one person responded: “It is just a pity it is not in China.”

But many did see the benefit of taking the Alibaba route in creating friendlier Sino-U.S. relations: “Different situations call for different measures,” one Weibo user from Shandong stated: “When you eat dumplings you need garlic sauce, when you deal with a businessman [like Trump] you need Jack Ma.”

Trump’s pragmatism, unconventionality, and his business background were one of the reasons why many Chinese netizens took a liking to him. Many seem to think that a businessman like Trump also needs a different kind of diplomatic approach – and that Jack Ma is the right person to do it.

 

“Born in China but created for the world.”

 

While Chinese bloggers jokingly call Ma China’s “special ambassador” (特使), Jack Ma’s meeting with Trump ultimately is not a political move but a commercial one.

A closer cooperation with the United States would further strengthen the Alibaba brand, which was created in China with the idea that everyone, no matter where, could be an online seller.

Within China, this has come true with the success of e-commerce platforms like Taobao and Tmall.

But one of the Alibaba slogans states that the brand is “born in China but created for the world,” and thus Ma wants Alibaba to be a stronger international platform.

Alibaba’s promotional video below shows that the platform has boundless international ambitions, with rural families from China now being able to buy fresh fish from New Zealand through Tmall and even having the option to dispatch a New Zealand chef to come and cook it for them.

Tying more American small businesses to Alibaba would further internationalize Alibaba and open up a larger market for Chinese and Asian consumers.

In the end, this might be good for China-U.S. relations, but above all, it is good for Alibaba. When it also serves a diplomatic goal in doing so, it is just killing two birds with one stone; like getting the dumplings with the garlic sauce, and eating them together with Trump.

– By Manya Koetse
Follow on Twitter or Like on Facebook

References

Lee, Suk and Bob Song. 2016. Never Give Up: Jack Ma In His Own Words. Chicago: B2 Books.

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

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

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China Arts & Entertainment

Luo Tianyi and the Booming Virtual Idol Market in China

The virtual entertainment market is exploding in China.

Manya Koetse

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They are featured on China’s biggest TV shows and on the covers of fashion magazines: they’re virtual idols yet their success is very real.

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China, see Goethe.de: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
 

At the Spring Festival Gala of 2021, the Chinese state media’s annual televised event that only invites the country’s top-notch performers, the virtual idol Luo Tianyi (洛天依) made a guest appearance.

It was a big media moment that showed the growing importance of virtual superstars in Chinese pop culture. Luo’s performance was even announced on the show’s promo posters, making this the first time ever for a virtual star to be on the show like this.

Virtual celebrities such as Luo Tianyi are also called ‘vsingers’ and often have an enormous fanbase. What is the story behind Luo Tianyi and the boom of virtual superstars in China, leading to the remarkable appearance of a non-human celebrity in the country’s biggest mainstream TV show?

 
Luo Tianyi: The First Chinese Vsinger
 

Although it was the first time for Luo Tianyi to appear at the Spring Festival Gala, it was not her first big performance. The superstar previously showed up as holograph live at big events such as the Bilibili night, and in 2019 she shared a stage with renowned Chinese pianist Lang Lang.

Promotional poster for the Luo Tianyi and Lang Lang concert.

Such a performance does not come easy. It takes months to design the looks and the moves. The holographic appearance of Luo Tianyi and the spectacular two-hour show took around six months of preparation by around 200 professionals involved in the production of Luo Tianyi.

Luo Tianyi is a so-called ‘vocaloid’ singer – a Mandarin Chinese language virtual character that was originally featured in the voice synthesizer software called VOCALOID developed by Yamaha, using third parties to create the characters. Vocaloid is a commercial product (released in 2004) with the purpose of enabling users to get a singer for lyrics and melodies without needing to hire an actual human singer.

The Shanghai Henian company collaborated with Tokyo-based Bplats in developing Luo Tianyi. The character was based on the winner of a contest that was organized in support of creating the first Chinese Vocaloid. The real-life singer whose voice was used for the creation of Tianyi is Chinese singer Shan Xin (山新).

Luo Tianyi was officially launched in 2012 as a 15-year-old entertainer and vsinger. By now, she has around five million followers on her Weibo account (@Vsinger_洛天依) where she posts about her performances, with thousands of people liking and sharing these posts.

 
Virtual Idol Boom: From Japan to China
 

According to Chinese state media outlet Global Times, 2020 was the year that virtual idols really took off in China, going hand in hand with the growing popularity of livestreaming.

Chinese video-sharing site Bilibili has contributed to the growing success of virtual idols in China. Bilibili is a homebase for many fan communities in China, since it is mainly themed around animation, comic, and games (ACG). It is one of the earliest platforms in China to broadcast virtual idol concerts, and in 2020 it held China’s first concert consisting solely of virtual performers under the title ‘BML-VR 2020’ (link).

The Bilibili concert featured a performance by various virtual entertainers, including the popular Hiseki Erio. Hiseki Erio is not Chinese, but Japanese. So is Hatsune Miki, one of the most famous virtual idols ever.

You could say Japan is the birthplace of virtual idols – a history that goes back to 1996 when Kyoko Date, also known as DK-96 or ‘Digital Kid 1996,’ made her debut as the first virtual talent.

Virtual idols come in various shapes, forms, and subgenres, and they all have their different background stories. Hatsune Miki was released in 2007 as the embodiment of the Vocolaid software developed by Crypton Future, and then there are the popular virtual Youtubers, ‘vtubers’, with virtual talent agencies such as Hololive also thriving in Japan.

The term ‘virtual Youtuber’ came with the arrival of Kizuna AI, who posted her first introduction Youtube video in late 2016. Kizuna, who later became a cultural ambassador for the Japan National Tourism Organization, is still considered one of the most popular vtubers on earth.

With the great popularity of Japanese manga and anime on the Chinese market, Japanese virtual idols also gained a strong foothold in the People’s Republic since around 2017. Hatsune Miki alone already has over 3,4 million fans on Weibo (@初音未来CryptonFutureMedia).

Virtual idols are increasingly popular in China, where Chinese virtual stars are springing up (Luo Tianyi, Ling, Xing Tong, Yousa).

The virtual entertainment market is now exploding in China, where the online ACG culture is flourishing on Bilibili and beyond.

Since Japanese popular culture products began to gain popularity in China in the early 1990s, there have been various developments that have shown the government’s dislike of the ‘Japanese cultural invasion’ in the country. As a counter-reaction, there has been stronger promotion of the production of made-in-China animations and other ACG products.

While China is seeing a steady release of domestic animated films and series, there is now also a wave of new China-born virtual stars, such as the Bilibili idol Yousa (冷鸢), or Xing Tong (星瞳), a virtual idol from Tencent. Chinese gaming company Papergames made the virtual character Nuan Nuan (暖暖) to also live outside of the gaming world; she is now a singer, a stylist, and a popular fashion ambassador.

Ling (right) featured on the cover of Vogue Me.

There is also Ling (翎), the Chinese virtual influencer who loves Peking opera, tea culture, and calligraphy. Ling, who was created by Next Generation studio and Shanghai AI startup Xmov, appeared on the CCTV show Bravo Youngsters (上线吧华彩少年) and was featured on the cover of Vogue Me in February 2021 alongside actual real-life celebrities.

Chinese virtual influencer Ling.

The number of Chinese virtual celebrities is expected to grow along with the growing market. In October of 2020, the Chinese variety show Dimension Nova (跨次元新星) first aired as a talent show scouting new virtual talent.

 
Virtual Commercials and Controversies
 

The growing influence of the virtual entertainment economy and culture in China is becoming more and more noticeable in pop music, commercial culture, and even in the sphere of politics.

Virtual celebrities are so popular that brands are also jumping in on this craze by hiring them as brand ambassadors or by creating their own cyber stars. Tencent’s Xing Tong, for example, modeled for Levi’s and sportswear brand Li Ning. Nuan Nuan, among others, was featured in a commercial for hair care brand LUX. Luo Tianyi appeared in campaigns for Huawei, Pizza Hut and KFC.

In January of 2021, McDonald’s China announced their own virtual idol “Happy Sister” (开心姐姐) as a brand ambassador. They are not the only one: there are over thirty companies in China now using a virtual brand ambassador. The new McDonald’s idol was welcomed by Weibo users, where the news of her launch received 200 million views.

McDonald’s China announced their own virtual idol “Happy Sister” (开心姐姐) as a brand ambassador.

The virtual idol influence also became apparent when Japanese ‘Hololive’ virtual celebrities Akai Haato and Kiryu Coco recently got caught up in a diplomatic row because they referred to Taiwan as a “country” when discussing their YouTube channel analytics during a livestream, leading to controversy among their Chinese fanbase.

In a statement published on Bilibili by Cover (the Japanese company behind the Hololive talent agency that the virtual celebrities in question were under), the agency apologized for what had happened. Nevertheless, both virtual stars involved in the controversy were banned from Bilibili and eventually the entire Chinese Hololive branch was shut down.

This example shows that although virtual idols are generally regarded as a safe option for brands and companies because, unlike real celebrities, they are not likely to get caught up in scandals, it is still possible for them to spark controversy.

Nevertheless, the future looks bright for virtual stars in China with still an enormous market for Luo Tianyi and others to conquer, with plenty of room for growth. From concerts to fashion shows to live streaming channels, from Weibo to Bilibili and beyond, we are bound to see virtual stars increasingly become a part of everyday life in China.

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

 

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

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

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China Digital

From Red Packet to Virtual Hongbao: Lucky Envelopes in China’s Digital Era

Raising virtual cows, shaking with phones – this is the Chinese New Year tradition of giving red envelopes in the digital era.

Things That Talk

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The custom of giving out red paper envelopes has evolved into a world of virtual lucky money and online games. This is the transformation of a Chinese New Year’s tradition, reported by Koen van der Lijn and Xiaojun Zhang.

 
When objects meet social media, two websites meet as well. This is a collaboration between What’s on Weibo and Things That Talk (follow on Insta @thingsthattalk).
 

Ever wanted to raise a digital cow? This year, you can raise your own lucky cow (福牛) for Chinese New Year on Weibo. Through maintaining and raising their virtual cow (or ox), users can participate in this online game to win red envelopes, a well-known and beloved tradition linked to Chinese New Year.

The hashtag “Lucky Cow’s New Year’s Travelogue” (#福牛新春旅行记#) is linked to Weibo’s celebration of Chinese Spring Festival and the Year of the Ox. Users are expected to be active on Weibo daily to raise their cow/ox, similar to the once so popular Tamagotchi. Whilst leveling up their cow, users get the possibility to earn digital red envelopes.

The online game is another development in the story of the red envelopes, known in China as hongbao (红包). Often given during Chinese New Year, the envelopes can also be given at other joyous occasions like weddings. These red envelopes are given to each other by friends and family members to wish each other a happy new year and are always filled with an amount of money.

Red envelopes for sale via Taobao.

The practice of giving money during Chinese New Year goes far back in Chinese history. The earliest form of the red envelope is said to be yasuiqian (压祟钱). In order to keep evil spirits away, called sui (祟), people put money underneath children’s pillow since the evil spirits were said to be warded off by coins.1 These coins were woven together using a string.

Yasuiqian

As time went by and paper money and envelopes became more widespread, string and coins were replaced and the red envelope was created.

Red envelopes are used by Chinese all over the world nowadays. The amount of money inside depends on many factors. Recently, the tradition has left behind its tangible form and entered the digital era.

 

“Adding the thrill of gambling to the practice of giving away red envelopes”

 

In 2014, the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat (微信) launched a new function that allowed users to send virtual red envelopes. Users could send an amount of money directly to another user, or an amount of red envelopes could be sent into a groupchat. When the function launched, users worldwide could shake their phones in order to receive free red envelopes. The amount of money that was given to users surpassed 500 million yuan ($77.5 million).

WeChat’s inventive idea put digital red envelopes on the map in China. During the peak of the event, 800 million shakes were recorded per minute. There were two types of envelopes introduced in 2014 by Tencent, the company that owns WeChat:

1. A regular red envelope that could be sent directly from one user to another.
2. A ‘group’ red envelope, with a limited number to be grabbed and a limited sum of money which can be grabbed by all users in a group if they are fast enough. The sum inside this envelope is randomized, adding the thrill of gambling to the practice of giving away red envelopes.

Other companies also wanted a piece of the digital red envelope cake: Weibo and AliPay combined their strengths a year after WeChat introduced its digital hongbao in order to promote their version of the digital red envelope.

A ‘war’ then broke out between the two companies. AliPay handed out 600 million renminbi ($93 million) worth of red envelopes as a response to WeChat’s 120 million envelopes sent out during the televised celebration of Chinese New Year.2

 

“Digital red envelopes can cross time and place, but cannot replace the method of face-to-face contact”

 

In the years after, the digital red envelope became more and more popular. Weibo and Alipay also came with their version of sending red envelopes online. The companies organized large-scale actions to make users make use of their form of digital red envelopes.

WeChat, for instance, gives users the option to make the red envelopes very personal through adding stickers and personal messages, making the digital red envelope an even more enjoyable experience.

Does this new development of the traditional red envelope make the tangible envelope obsolete?

When asked by the digital newspaper The Paper (澎湃新闻) about whether the digital red envelope might replace its tangible brother, scholar Tian Zhaoyuan (田兆元) of East China Normal University said that the digital red envelope can cross time and place, but cannot replace the method of face-to-face contact. Though friends and family may send one another digital red envelopes, it does not mean that it replaces the tangible red envelopes.3

The tradition of sending red envelopes is and will be inherently linked to Chinese New Year. Though both the paper and digital forms of the tradition remain incredibly popular, the virtual hongbao will definitely win territory once more this year as travel is restricted due to COVID-19. Especially in these times, the digital red envelope is the best digital way of wishing family and friends a happy new year.

Why are ‘lucky envelopes’ not just red, but sometimes also green or purple? Read more via Things That Talk here.

 
By Koen van der Lijn and Xiaojun Zhang

Koen van der Lijn (China Studies, BA) is a ResMa student Asian Studies at Leiden University focused on Chinese history and its international relations. He is a student ambassador at Things That Talk.

Xiaojun Zhang (China Studies, BA) is an MA student Asian Studies at Leiden University focused on contemporary Chinese culture, symbolism and food. For Things That Talk, she currently works on a project about Chinese-Indonesian restaurants in the Netherlands.

This story was made in collaboration with ThingsThatTalk.net – exploring humanities through the life of objects. Things That Talk is an educational digital project where staff and students produce narratives and metadata about objects in Leiden collections and beyond. Check out the story “Hongbao: from paper envelope to digital gift” on Things That Talk here!

 
Footnotes (other sources hyperlinked within the article)

1 Kin Wai Michael Siu. 2001. “Red Packet: a Traditional Object in the Modern World.” Journal of Popular Culture 35 (3), 103.
2 Chen, Liyan. 2015. “Red Envelope War: How Alibaba and Tencent Fight Over Chinese New Year.” Forbes, Feb 19 https://www.forbes.com/sites/liyanchen/2015/02/19/red-envelope-war-how-alibaba-and-tencent-fight-over-chinese-new-year/?sh=1b88bccccddd.
3 The Paper, Zuowei yi zhong “xinnian su”, weixin hongbao hui qudai zhizhi hongbao ma? 作为一种“新年俗”,微信红包会取代纸质红包吗?, https://cul.qq.com/a/20160208/012888.htm.

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

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

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