“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.
Lee, Suk and Bob Song. 2016. Never Give Up: Jack Ma In His Own Words. Chicago: B2 Books.
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After More Than a Decade, the Human Flesh Search Engine Is Still Raging Across Chinese Social Media
At times unjust, excessive, or even illegal – but the Human Flesh Search still is an inherent part of Weibo.
While surfing Weibo, a Changsha police officer named Hu Hanlin (@老囧货) recently came across an article titled “Violent Murder of Golden Retriever.” The article discussed a video posted on the afternoon of December 31st, 2017, showing a Changsha police officer bludgeoning a golden retriever. The article caught Hu off guard – it was about him.
As Hu wrote in a January 2nd Weibo post; “I was surprised to find that [the article] included my official position, work photo, name, phone number, and even described me as this event’s perpetrator.”
Hu Hanlin is a victim of what has been called the “Human Flesh Search Engine” (renrou sousuo yinqing 人肉搜索引擎), the Chinese term for the phenomenon of netizens distributing the personal information of individuals people feel ‘deserve’ public interest or scorn.
In Hu Hanlin’s case, the attack was unjust. As Hu wrote on his Weibo account: “I was not at all involved (..) For quite some time I have only investigated crimes through video footage, I have never directly responded to 110 calls.” In Hu’s case, as with many other instances of Human-Flesh-Searching, a viral online video had instigated netizen’s search for the culprit, at which point they mistook Hu’s picture for the man in the video.
Human-Flesh-Searching: Identifying the ‘Culprit’
‘Human-Flesh-Searching’ is a group endeavor to reveal someone’s identity and personal details online. Targets are often individuals who have disrupted public order in some way and have angered netizens for their behavior and actions; such as a Ms. Luo, who was recently caught on camera blocking a train door and fighting off a conductor as she refused to allow a high-speed train to depart from Hefei station – she was determined to let her tardy husband get on board.
While online outcry directed at the individual is the norm, the result of a Human Flesh Search can also come to personal confrontations, or to netizens sending unsavory items, such as cockroaches or funerary objects, to a person’s personal address.
Media have been reporting about the Human Flesh Search phenomenon since the early beginnings of Chinese social media. One of the first big cases from 2006 involved a video that spread through chatrooms of a woman purposely killing a kitten with the sharp point of her high heel. Enraged netizens soon came into action to search for the identity and personal information of this so-called ‘Hangzhou Kitten Killer,’ and discovered she was a 41-year-old nurse named Wang Jue. She was later suspended from her job.
Digging further back into China’s internet history, Human-Flesh-Searching first became popular in 2001 on MOP, one of China’s most influential online forums, when a netizen posted a photo of his alleged girlfriend that turned out to be model Chen Ziyao. Her personal information was publicized to prove he was lying.
One explanation of the practice’s jarring name is that it originally referred not to the hunt for an individual per se, but to how the information is collected. Instead of entering their question into a search engine, netizens who want to ‘activate’ the ‘Human Flesh Search Engine’ call on the online community to find the answers for them in a collective effort. Online community members usually gather this kind of information from their personal resources and networks. “Human Flesh” therefore actually refers to the searchers – not the searched.
From Animal Cruelty to Media Bias
Human Flesh Searches are often used in cases involving animal cruelty. A case that recently made headlines occurred in the capital of Sichuan province. On December 12th, a woman’s Corgi dog ‘Lion’ went missing and was found by another woman named He Hengli who then blackmailed the owner over its release.
When the ‘hostage’ negotiations reached a deadlock, the dog’s owner finally went to He’s apartment to fetch her dog with police offers and reporters. While they knocked the door, Lion was thrown to his death from He’s sixth story apartment.
The story caused huge outrage on Chinese social media, where details of He were released online, including her phone number and (work) address, leading to netizens harassing and threatening her at her home.
But besides coming into action with cases that involve animal cruelty, there are countless of other types of cases in which it also happens.
Just last week, the huge ‘Tang Lanlan’ case on Weibo ignited an ‘online war’ between netizens and the media over reports of a decade-old sexual abuse case. When many netizens felt that journalists reporting the case were biased and favored the suspects over the victim, personal details of the reporters were gathered by netizens and leaked online.
Voices Calling for More Privacy Laws
While 2018 has already seen several viral cases of Human-Flesh-Searching, these fly in the face of current Chinese internet privacy laws.
Voices calling for more privacy laws grew stronger in late 2014, when a Guangzhou shopkeeper named Ms. Cai was sentenced to one year in prison for instigating a Human-Flesh-Searching campaign over an alleged case of theft that resulted in the suicide of an 18-year-old high schooler.
Becoming the (unjust) target of a Human Flesh Search can ruin people’s lives and careers, as well as jeopardize their safety. Whether it concerns alleged theft, animal abuse, or an extramarital affair, the ‘culprits’ will be hit equally hard by the impact of the ‘online mob’.
Ma Rong, the ex-wife of Chinese celebrity Wang Baoqian, was slandered online in 2016, with people exposing her phone and address when news of her secret love affair went viral. Do a thief, an unfaithful wife, and a kitten killer all deserve the same scorn, and should it be up to the online community to punish them for their alleged deeds? While some support the human-flesh-search-engine approach for those who abuse animals and show off their violence, others point out its dangers.
In a further effort to limit Human Flesh Searching, legal punishment for the practice grew stricter last year. The Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate released a joint statement clarifying that, depending upon the severity of the invasion and dispersion of personal information, a perpetrator could be sentenced to up to 7 years in jail.
An Alternative Punishment
These previous legal warnings, however, have not seemed to stop individuals from exposing other people’s personal information; neither has it stopped individuals from acting upon available details. Some argue that Human Flesh Searching plays a valuable societal role in China’s online community.
One Weibo blogger (@灰鸽叔叔) concluded a post on the subject by writing: “Some people don’t do bad things because they have a kind heart. Some people don’t do bad things because they are unwilling to bear the responsibilities of doing bad things. If you don’t allow people to suffer [the humiliation of Human Flesh Searching] they will begin to feel that they are above the consequences…If the law is momentarily unable to solve this problem, then netizens using human-flesh-searching, or even collectively speaking ill of them surely can supply this kind of punishment.”
This blogger is not the only one arguing that Human Flesh Searching is an important way to battle social injustice; many other netizens also say that when the law cannot punish people for their deeds (f.e. China lacks a solid legislation against animal cruelty), a Human Flesh Search is an alternative form of retribution.
As for the case of Officer Hu – in the two days after being falsely accused he received more than a thousand texts. The texts contained messages such as “I wish Hu Hanlin a 2018 full of death for him and his whole family by evisceration…,” or “Hu Hanlin’s body should fester in the wilderness, to be slowly consumed by wild dogs.”
On Weibo, meanwhile, despite a seeming majority of people supporting the practice of the Human Flesh Search Engine, there are more and more voices opposing it. One netizen pleads: “No matter for what purpose you do it, no matter what kind of evidence you are trying to get, the Human Flesh Search method is undoubtedly the most stupid and the most dangerous – please stop this crazy criminal behavior.”
For Hu, however, any movements against the practice come too late. For him, the Human Flesh Search has even resulted in netizens coming to his house. The funeral flowers and funeral money on his doorstep are a reminder of how far the Human Flesh Search Engine can go.
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Growing Virtual Bamboo for Real Pandas: Weibo’s Panda Movement
There is a giant panda movement happening on Weibo, and there are two sides to it.
Last month, the account ‘Panda Guardians’ (@熊猫守护者) sent out a video on Weibo focused on the topic of saving pandas in Shaanxi by planting more bamboo. In a month, the video gained around 1,5 million views and much online support.
The video by the ‘Panda Guardians’ was the follow-up to a Weibo-based game where users can gain points which can be used for “growing bamboo” for a virtual panda – which actually funds the planting of real bamboo in Shaanxi.
In the game, which received much online appreciation, a virtual panda pet gets ‘fed’ with the bamboo grown by the points users receive by getting registered for the game, posting it on Weibo, inviting friends, etc. Players also get a cute panda badge on their Weibo account for ‘raising’ their own virtual panda.
For every 10,000 hours of time Weibo netizens collectively raise their virtual panda, the China Virescence Foundation (中国绿化基金会, China’s organization for planting trees) promises to foster and plant actual bamboo trees in the Qinling mountain range in Shaanxi, one of the regions where most of China’s remaining wild pandas live.*
“Chinese netizens can play a role in giant panda conservation – even if the scientific community may not be fully onboard.”
The panda game is just one of many ways in which Weibo’s ‘panda movement’ manifests itself. Weibo user Kyle Obermann (@欧阳凯kyle), an environmental photographer in China, recently posted a short documentary on Weibo about panda conservation in the forests of Sichuan, which gained over 500,000 views in a few days time.
“The whole issue of panda conservation and what it means to be a ‘panda guardian’ in real life and online is all over Weibo right now,” Obermann told What’s on Weibo: “It’s an interesting example of how Chinese netizens can play a role in giant panda conservation – even if the scientific community may not be fully onboard.”
What Obermann refers to, is that besides the positive comments to online initiatives taken by organizations as the ‘Panda Guardians’ and their Weibo game, there is also some criticism from the environmental community for the focus on “planting bamboo” as a solution for the problem of the panda’s vulnerability of extinction.
“It is not so much the lack of bamboo that is the panda’s problem, it is the lack of a natural living environment that is undisturbed by human intervention,” they said.
But, according to Obermann, the online ‘panda movement’ does make a difference in raising awareness for the protection of the wild giant panda, and also in creating a wider understanding amongst social media users for those people who spend their time plowing through the forests through wind and rain in doing their jobs monitoring and protecting the giant panda.
“There are dozens of accounts on Weibo dedicated to the giant panda and its conservation.”
Besides the ‘Panda Guardians’ and people such as Obermann, there are dozens of other accounts on Weibo dedicated to the giant panda and its conservation. On the iPanda channel (@iPanda熊猫频道), people can watch live streams and videos of the pandas at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda (@中国大熊猫保护研究中心).
The great interest in pandas on Chinese social media just shows that the giant panda really is China’s most beloved animal. It the cultural symbol of China, and is generally called a ‘national treasure’ (国宝).
Its well-being and protection, both in the wilderness as in captivity, has been a state priority since the 1960s, when China’s first wild animal protection reserve focused on panda protection was opened in northern Sichuan (Wanglang Reserve, 1965).
Apart from the pandas that are kept at China’s various panda reserves, there are also pandas in zoos across China, from Beijing to Chongqing, and from Guilin to Guangzhou.
Over the past few years, it is the circumstances of some of the pandas in Chinese zoos that have caused multiple controversies. Previously in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, netizens posted photos of the apparent unhealthy pandas at specifically the Lanzhou Zoo, and expressed concerns and outrage over their well-being.
“I’m furious to see some netizens even slandering our base for not providing enough food for the pandas.”
At times, the love of Weibo’s fierce and protective panda might go too far. This week, the famous Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base was collectively accused of cruelty on social media networks when visitors claimed its bears were ill and mistreated.
The accusations started when people posted images online that showed some pandas at the Research Base with white scabs around their eyes.
The Straits Times reports that an article that went viral on January 23 also accused the Chengdu base of using their pandas for commercial gains, not giving them enough food, and that it violated the wellbeing of the animals by allowing visitors to take pictures and hug with a giant panda in exchange for donations.
On January 24, the research base denied all rumors of mistreatment of its pandas and explained that three of its pandas recently contracted an eye disease that is now being treated by its experts. It also denied that its pandas were being used for commercial gains.
The Straits Times quotes Zhang Zhihe, chief of the Chengdu Research Base, in saying: “I’m furious to see some netizens even slandering our base for not providing enough food for the pandas.”
Zhang also said it was not true that the research base allows people to hug pandas and charge money for it. “That never happened once,” he said.
“We understand your love for the giant pandas, but we all have our own way of expressing it.”
There are two sides to Weibo’s ‘panda movement’. On one side, the love of Chinese netizens for their ‘national treasure’ goes so far that everybody seems to have become a panda expert – quick to point their fingers at researchers and shout abuse when a panda seems unwell to them.
In January of 2017, the China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Panda (中国大熊猫保护研究中心) addressed this kind of criticism on Weibo in January. While they thanked Chinese online panda lovers for their concerns, they also asked them to stop posting abusive comments towards them and their employees. They wrote:
“We understand your love for the giant pandas, everyone here at the China Giant Panda Conservation Research Center loves them, but we all have our own way of expressing it. For you it means you raise your concerns by posting blogs in the middle of the night, for us it means that our employees work night shifts taking care of the pandas, watching the monitors and keeping records.”
Despite that these online movements at times arguably may go too far, the silver lining is that they help in making people more aware of the importance of the conservation of the panda and environmental protection at large.
The Weibo-game by the ‘Panda Guardians,’ also backed by popular celebrities such as the members of Chinese boy band TFBoys (12.9 million fans on Weibo), has succeeded in creating an online buzz in which Weibo users are trying to reach a collective goal that helps the panda conservation movement.
By now, the hashtag ‘Panda Guardians’ (#熊猫守护者#) has reached the top three of top public causes on Weibo.
“Together we can do it, help grow bamboo and help the pandas,” many netizens post. If anything, this kind of panda movement at the very minumum shows that netizens are hopeful that their online efforts will actually make an offline change.
* How the money for this ‘virtual to actual bamboo’ campaign is actually raised is not explained by the organization, although it might make sense that both Sina Weibo and its advertisers are involved as they profit from social media users spending more hours on the Weibo platform by playing this game. If you have more insights into this specific topic, we would like to hear from you.
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