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Another Apology to China? One Taiwanese Model and China’s Angry Cyber-Nationalism

Public anger and displays of cyber-nationalism often end with a public apology “to China.”

Manya Koetse

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When a Taiwanese model recently scolded people from the mainland on social media, it triggered a wave of comments from netizens who took it as a personal insult and an attack on China. Anger has become a recurring display of Chinese cyber-nationalism. Controversies often end with a public “apology to China”.

Popular Taiwanese model ‘Stella’ (史黛拉) stirred controversy on Chinese social media on September 29 for calling mainlanders ‘426‘, a Taiwanese term for scolding people from the PRC.

The pronunciation of ‘426’ [死阿陆] sounds similar to ‘damned mainlanders‘ [死大陆人] in Taiwan’s Hokkien dialect.

stella

The model made the remarks as she posted pictures on her Facebook page that show her working at the Shanghai International Automobile Fair: “Can you let me take a selfie?! Masses of ‘426’ (damned mainlanders) want to take pictures with me, and Arabic people, Japanese and all kinds of bastards secretly photographing me and asking my number,” she complained.

stellafb

The model’s remarks triggered hundreds of reactions on Sina Weibo. Many Chinese saw the post as an indication of Taiwanese attitudes towards mainland China. Some netizens wrote: “Resist Taiwan bastards from earning money in China and then scolding mainlanders. Trash!”

“Taiwanese people have no inner qualities,” another Weibo user commented.

“Can’t the government take measures against people who insult mainlanders?”, another netizen said.

Similar controversies frequently surface on Chinese social media. Last August, Chinese netizens were furious after footwear brand K-Swiss launched a commercial that depicted an alleged Chinese character in a way that was called “insulting” and “humiliating” to China.

Popular Korean actor Park Bo Gum, who featured in the commercial, received a storm of criticism. Many Chinese netizens blamed him for ridiculing their country.

China’s Angry Cyber-Nationalism

News of ‘China’ getting its “feelings hurt” by foreign celebrities or institutions frequently pops up in Chinese media, leading to an angry display of Chinese cyber-nationalism.

According to Ying Jiang, the author of Cyber-Nationalism in China (2012), the roots of the “angry nationalism” expressed by today’s Chinese netizens can be traced back to China’s “Century of Humiliation” that took place from roughly the mid-1800s until after WWII.

During this period, China faced a great deal of hardships brought about by foreign powers. The Opium Wars and unequal treaties led to an economic and military decline, and ultimately caused China to weaken.

In the postwar 20th century, the rise of Chinese nationalism has gone hand in hand with an intensification of anti-foreign sentiments. A new wave of nationalism came about in the 1990s when Western influences on China were considered to negatively influence Chinese traditional culture. It was also the time when the government launched an extensive propaganda campaign of patriotic education, that especially impacted China’s younger generations.

Although China’s post-1990s generation is generally known for having a strong sense of internationalism, they also have a distinct sense of patriotism.

Author Zheng Jiawen recently wrote how the term ‘little pinkos’ (小粉红) nowadays refers to a high-profile group of Chinese young female netizens who go online to defend their patriotism. Taking action against foreign “insults” is part of their movement. They are not alone; the sentence “never forget national humiliation” (勿忘國耻) is ubiquitous on Chinese social media.

A Year of Apologies

China’s angry cyber-nationalism has become very apparent in 2016, a year in which China has received multiple apologies for “hurting the feelings of the Chinese”. Many of these incidents occured during the Rio Olympics.

One of the controversies involved an inaccurate Chinese flag. Chinese Olympic viewers were offended when a wrong version of the Chinese flag was used during several medal ceremonies. While the Chinese embassy in Brazil subsequently rushed to have accurate versions of the Chinese flag made by local manufacturers, netizens started a petition demanding an apology from the Rio Olympic organization.

_90879762_cctvwrong2Subtle difference. This is the incorrect flag. The correct Chinese flag has one large star and four small stars, each of whose points angle towards the main star. See image below by Daily Mail.

3700a45200000578-3729719-image-a-2_1470670139662

The flag mishaps continued. During the medal ceremony where Chinese swimmer Fu Yuan Hui shared the bronze with Canada’s Kylie Masse, the Chinese flag was seen hanging below the Canadian one. Many netizens viewed this as a sign of disrespect. Then there was Australia’s Channel 7 flag mix up where China was mistakenly represented by the Chilean flag, leading to furious reactions with another online petition demanding an apology from Channel 7.

Another noteworthy incident involved the Canadian media. When Canadian Olympic TV commentator Byron MacDonald thought his microphone was off, he insulted a Chinese athletic swimmer and caused outrage on Weibo. The presenter apologized shortly after.

The list does not end here. Back in January of this year, 16-year-old Taiwanese K-pop singer Chou Tzuyu got into trouble for waving a Taiwanese flag on a Korean reality show. Netizens criticized the singer for supporting Taiwan’s independence by waving the flag, which prompted Chou to release a video on the eve of Taiwan’s presidential elections to apologize for her actions.

chou

Later in April, two cast members from No Other Love, a popular Chinese romantic film, also got into trouble for “insulting” China. Taiwanese lead actor Leon Dai was even removed from the film for his alleged support to the Taiwanese independence movement. American-born Japanese actress Kiko Mizuhara was criticized for being anti-Chinese for liking an Instagram photo that offended the Chinese.

_90427647_weibo

She later apologized in a 5-minute video on Weibo.

‘Apologize to China Contest’

According to some commentators, the sensitivity over “hurt feelings” sometimes becomes problematic. Last July, Japanese vlogger Kinoshita Yuka, known for eating large quantities of food on camera, came under fire after she posted a video of herself eating 137 bananas. Chinese netizens wondered if Kinoshita was eating bananas that originated from the Philippines, and if the 137 bananas were an allusion to China’s 1.37 billion population, as a revenge in reference to the South China Sea verdict.

imgres

The YouTube video soon triggered another war of words between Chinese and foreign netizens, as many Chinese netizens viewed the act as a deliberate insult aimed at China .

One comment read: “At a sensitive time like this, you release this video of you eating 137 Philippine-grown bananas to insult the Chinese, are you dumb? Do you think the Chinese are easily bullied?”

In the same month, Lady Gaga caused a ‘bad romance’ between herself and China after she met with the Dalai Lama. For many netizens, it marked the end of her career in China: “I like your songs, but I choose my country over you.”

Seeing this trend of Chinese people easily getting their “feelings hurt”, an activist in Taiwan named Wang Yikai started an “Apologize to China” contest in the summer of 2016. The contest soon went viral and attracted the attention of netizens from all over the world, including from China.

The contest received many creative apologies in all shapes and forms, from pictures to videos. The winning apology came from a Hong Kong group and was a parody of the song “Sorry Sorry” by Super Junior. In the parody, the group sings they are sorry for not loving China enough because they don’t own a made-in-China iPhone clone.

sorry

It seems that Taiwanese model Stella has chosen the wrong year to upset Chinese netizens. By now, she has removed her comments from her Facebook page, but the screenshots have already gone viral on Chinese social media.

“Go back to your own island!” many netizens say.

“Why are you Taiwanese always so disgraceful?” another Weibo user comments: “Good for us that you don’t call yourselves ‘Chinese’ when going abroad, otherwise you would give us all a bad name.”

The model has not responded to the controversy yet. Perhaps she can start by registering for next year’s ‘Apologize to China’ contest.

– By Manya Koetse and Chi Wen

References

Ying Jiang. 2012. Cyber-Nationalism in China: Challenging Western media portrayals of Internet censorship in China. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.

©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.

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Avatar

    John Rain

    September 30, 2016 at 2:31 am

    I don’t know whether Chinese people’s thin skinned nationalism is more funny or pathetic. China, as a nation, is a sulky 2-year old.

    • Avatar

      Wang Wei Guo

      October 1, 2016 at 9:38 am

      When foreign barbarians and raiders burn down your national monuments, rape your children, loot your history and tarnish your culture you can complain about our “thin skinned nationalism”, until then know that we forget not and we forgive never. 勿忘國耻, 以身报国

      • Avatar

        John Rain

        October 2, 2016 at 8:43 am

        “burn down your national monuments, rape your children, loot your history and tarnish your culture” This also describes the Communist Party under Mao, yet both the party and Mao are held in very high regard today, how is this possible if you “forget not and […] forgive never”?

    • Avatar

      Silver Sterling

      October 1, 2016 at 6:17 pm

      John Rain,

      And it concerns aWestern degenerate accursed breed like you ……because?

      Oh yeah, I know, as a an accursed bloodthirsty breed you guys are ALWAYS looking for trouble stirring up shit when it does not concern you. Westerners , as a breed, are inflammatory, savages always looking to start shit from physically bombing and hijacking other countries to playing the Big Brother – always have a need to dissed others PROACTIVELY.

      • Avatar

        John Rain

        October 2, 2016 at 8:47 am

        It concerns me because the Chinese government used “hurt feelings” to censor things they don’t like outside China’s borders. I don’t know about you, but I’m a fan of free speech and free media. I hope alluding to the fact that China has neither won’t hurt your feelings even more?

    • Avatar

      John Rain

      October 2, 2016 at 8:39 am

      Thanks to both Wang Wei Guo and Silver Sterling for proving my point better than I could ever hope to. Thank you, both of you!

  2. Avatar

    Silver Sterling

    October 1, 2016 at 6:24 pm

    Btw, the Taiwanese “model” look like those plastic surgery whore-wannabe-model. In HK this type of “leng-mo” is a source of joke and ridicule. Basically slut -like clowns.

    Dress and act like a slut with those fake ass ,pouty 3 year old demeanor, then crap about lusty hounds wanting to approach her? Anyone wanna wager her breast is implants and those features are cosmetic surgery?

  3. Avatar

    Erisadesu

    December 7, 2016 at 7:15 pm

    oh well.. it seems that everyone in this world is more sensitive, you can’t make sarcasm or ironic remarks or tell a joke because you don’t know who you will offend any more…but all those people who want to use china for making money should be more carefull on what they are saying….

  4. Pingback: "Xi Jinping Winnie the Pooh Moron" Found In Devotion; Game Is Being Review Bombed By Chinese Players

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China Books & Literature

From “Voice of the People” to “Traitor of China”: The Rise and Fall of Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary

How a Weibo journal got caught up in pandemic politics: the Wuhan Diary controversy explained.

Manya Koetse

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Fang Fang’s critical online account of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan was widely celebrated before it was strongly condemned. This is a look into one of the biggest controversies in China’s online media spheres this spring, and a breakdown of how this acclaimed Chinese novelist went from an ally in times of lockdown, to a traitor during pandemic politics.

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

As China is gradually getting back to business after the COVID-19 crisis, the coronavirus crisis is still dominating social media discussions. But the way the virus comes up in online debates has changed over the past few weeks, as the global health crisis has become increasingly politicized. Rather than a show of global solidarity, the pandemic has spawned a lot of finger-pointing in online media and on social networking sites across the world.

Who is to blame for the spread of the virus? Who is doing more, which leader is doing better, where is the crisis mismanaged? What is fake news, what is truth? Who writes or says what for which reason?

Somewhere within these corona media wars and political games, there’s the controversy regarding Wuhan Diary, which recently became a heated topic of debate on Weibo and beyond. 

 

FANG FANG AND WUHAN DIARY

“Fang was saying the things so many people wanted to say, and was asking the questions so many wanted answers to”

 

Wuhan Diary (武汉日记[1]) is written by the 65-year-old acclaimed Chinese author Wang Fang, better known as Fang Fang (方方).[2] It is an online account of the 2020 Hubei lockdown, originally published on WeChat and Weibo.

Throughout the lockdown period in January, February, and March, Fang Fang wrote about life in quarantine in province capital Wuhan, the heart of the epicenter, documenting everything from the weather to the latest news and the personal stories and tragedies behind the emerging crisis.

Fang’s 60-post diary was published on her Weibo account (@方方), which had some 3,8 million followers at the time, from late January shortly after the lockdown began, until late March when the end of the lockdown was announced.

Shortly after starting her online account, Fang’s daily journal gained wide traction. Amid the panic and uncertainty of the early days of the lockdown, social media flooded with rumors, fake news, and misinformation. Chinese web users were looking for alternative reliable sources to find out what was really happening in Wuhan.

Fang’s online journal provided people with information regarding the new coronavirus, but it also captured the emotions and struggles of the people in Wuhan. She soon became a go-to first-hand account of what was going on in the city; she was the voice of a quarantined city in distress. At a time when people were craving unfiltered information and distrusting official media, her words became an anchor for many in a sea of confusing news flows.

The fact that Fang is a respected author contributed to the popularity of her online writings. With her compassionate representations of everyday life in Wuhan, she has since long been an important author for the regional literature. Her writings have drawn attention ever since the 1980s, when she won an award for the best National Novella (Landscape 风景, 1987). She has remained a relevant author throughout the years, even receiving the prestigious Lu Xun Literary Prize in 2010.

In documenting life in Wuhan during the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, Fang touched upon many sensitive issues. Besides writing about problems such as overcrowded hospitals and mask shortages, she also directly questioned how authorities were handling the crisis and warned other writers for propaganda manipulation.

With the death of ‘whistleblower’ doctor Li Wenliang on the night of February 6, Chinese social media saw an outpouring of anger at Chinese authorities and state media. The public’s anger showed itself at other moments too, both online and offline.

While many of Fang’s publications on social media were censored and her Weibo account was temporarily blocked, the online Wuhan Diary only gained more attention, with the daily entries (or screenshots) spreading across WeChat like wildfire. “Dear internet censors, you should let Wuhan people speak,”[3] Fang wrote in February.

By demanding more transparency and accountability from Chinese (local) leadership, Fang was saying the things so many people wanted to say and was asking the questions so many wanted answers to.

 

CHANGING US-VERSUS-THEM DYNAMICS

“Whose side is she on, anyway?”

 

It did not take long for Fang’s online journal to gain international attention. In mid-February, news articles covering the ‘forbidden diary’ from Wuhan also appeared in foreign media.

Although Fang’s online writings received some backlash before – her critics mainly disliked how much of her diary entries were not fact-based but “merely hearsay” -, it wasn’t until April when public opinion really shifted against Wuhan Diary after it became known that an international edition of her diary was on presale through Amazon.

First, there was the announcement of the English version with the title “Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from the Original Epicenter” (later changed to “Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City”, translation by Michael Berry) published by Harper Collins; then, a German edition translated by Michael Kahn-Ackermann and issued by Hoffman Camp Press.

The criticism that Fang Fang has since been facing on Chinese social media is unprecedented. Rather than a Wuhan ally, many of her online readers now think of her as a “traitor” to China[4], saying she is airing China’s dirty laundry to make a profit, and that she only writes about negativity and darkness to play to the tune of those countries slamming China. The author has seen an online stream of death threats and violent comments.

Fang Fang arguably would not have received as much backlash if China had not come to face such international scrutiny in light of the global spread of COVID-19. At the time of the early coronavirus outbreak and Fang’s first diary entry, the corona crisis was still a national one, and to some extent even a regional one. Many saw Fang, a Wuhan native and acclaimed author, as a spokesperson for the people in times of fear, uncertainty, and collective suffering.

But as China increasingly came under international pressure over how it handled the epidemic in its early phases, anti-foreign and nationalistic sentiments grew by the day. With China being blamed for causing the pandemic – American President Trump even suggesting it did so deliberately – waves of angry nationalism flooded Chinese social media, and Wuhan Diary was caught in the changing us-versus-them dynamics of China’s COVID-19 crisis.

In the eyes of many Chinese web users, a translated version of Fang’s critical account of the Wuhan outbreak would only provide opponents of China with more ammunition. The upcoming translation’s description on Amazon by itself was a source of outrage for many, allegedly putting too much emphasis on China’s mishandling of the early outbreak. The fact that the original title of the book emphasized that COVID-19 started in Wuhan[5] was also something many netizens found offensive.  ‘Whose side is she on anyway?’, they wondered.

“Western countries are attacking the motherland, and Fang Fang is knowingly giving them the bullets in advance,” one Weibo commenter from Beijing wrote.

 

AN ONGOING ISSUE

Your Wuhan Diary will only worsen Western misconceptions about China!”

 

The Wuhan Diary controversy seems to be an ongoing one. By early May, it was reported that at least two Chinese academics were reprimanded for speaking out in support of Fang Fang. Online discussions continue. By now, the Weibo hashtag “Fang Fang Diary” (#方方日记#) has received over 670 million views, with other scattered hashtags also drawing in thousands of responses.

On Fang Fang’s Weibo page, now followed by more than 4,6 million web users, the author has responded to the recent controversy and allegations in multiple lengthy posts, claiming that most of her attackers, who blame her for only writing negative things, did not even read her diary. She argues that her written account is one of a trapped Wuhan resident in the middle of a catastrophe and that it should not be taken out of its this context.

Fang Fang is not the first Chinese writer to face online backlash for how ‘China’ is represented to the outside world. Besides the fact that Chinese literature is virtually inseparable from politics, there is an enormous number of Chinese web users ready to be outraged about China being misconstrued, ridiculed, humiliated, or otherwise suffering foreign insult.

This kind of angry nationalism often surfaces on the Chinese internet, and it has done so since the early days of social media in China. According to Ying Jiang, the author of Cyber-Nationalism in China, the roots of this “angry nationalism” expressed by today’s Chinese netizens can be traced back to China’s modern history, and more specifically to the “Century of Humiliation” (mid-1800s until after WWII) during which China faced many hardships brought about by foreign powers.

This history has been an important component of Chinese education campaigns for decades, and along with the economic prospering of China, the country has seen the rise of a more patriotic populace that is nationalistic in a way that is also increasingly anti-foreign.

Especially during noteworthy times such as the coronavirus outbreak – an opportunity for China to establish more international leadership -, negative media representations of the country, its government, and how it handled the COVID-19 crisis are sensitive and prone to controversy. A telling example is that three journalists of The Wall Street Journal were expelled from China in February over the paper’s refusal to apologize for a published opinion article titled “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.”

The online anger over Fang’s translated work will not die out any time soon. On Weibo, discussions continue. “Fang Fang, your Wuhan Diary, that’s merely hearsay and overly subjective, will only worsen Western misconceptions about China, and will only make more Western people discriminate against Chinese! You’ll go down in history as a disgrace!”, one Weibo user writes in early May.

Although many will not agree on how Wuhan Diary will be remembered, all the commotion and criticism has only increased the public’s awareness about the book’s existence; it will surely go down in the history of the COVID-19 impact in China, and the online media wars that came with it.

The English translation of Wuhan Diary is expected to be released via Amazon on May 19 (link), the English audiobook on May 28 (link) the German translation is expected June 9. On the China Digital Times website, Josh Rudolph has also translated parts of Fang’s work.

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

For more COVID-19 related articles, please click here.

 

[1] Also known in Chinese as: 武汉封城日记.

[2] Fang Fang is the pen name of Wang Fang.

[3] Zhao, Kiki. 2020. “Opinion: The Coronavirus Story is Too Big for China to Spin.” The New York Times, Feb 14 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/14/opinion/china-coronavirus-social-media.html [5.2.2020].

[4] Mainly using Chinese terms汉奸 and 卖国贼, both meaning “traitor” or more specifically “traitor to China.”

[5] Also see the original German title of the translation: “Wuhan Diary – Das Verbotenen Tagebuch aus der Stadt, in der die Corona-Krise began” [The Forbidden Diary from the City where the Coronacrisis Began].

Sources and further reading

Adlakha, Hemant. 2020.”Fang Fang: The ‘Conscience of Wuhan’ Amid Coronavirus Quarantine.” The Diplomat , March 23 https://thediplomat.com/2020/03/fang-fang-the-conscience-of-wuhan-amid-coronavirus-quarantine/[5.3.2010].

Fumian, Marco. 2020. “To Serve the People or the Party: Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary and Chinese Writers at the Time of Coronavirus.” MCLC Resource Center Publication (April 2020) https://u.osu.edu/mclc/online-series/marco-fumian/?fbclid=IwAR32HvM6WO0JHIhFFIY85bd-qyOzGEfXrZpp6S0SxbiTQrGCjwe_n-jL63Y [5.1.2020].

Leung, Laifong. 2016. Contemporary Chinese Fiction Writers: Biography, Bibliography, and Critical Assessment. New York & London: Routledge.

Rudolph, Jodh. 2020. “Translation: Backlash To Wuhan Diary “Reveals A Serious Problem Society Must Correct.” China Digital Times, April 21 https://chinadigitaltimes.net/2020/04/translation-backlash-to-wuhan-diary-reveals-a-serious-problem-society-must-correct/ [5.2.2020].

Wu, Yuwen. 2020. “Chinese propagandists don’t want you to read this diary on the coronavirus lockdown in Wuhan.” The Independent, March 2 https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/coronavirus-wuhan-lockdown-fangfang-diary-china-dr-li-a9368961.html [3.2.2020].

Ying Jiang. 2012. Cyber-Nationalism in China: Challenging Western Media Portrayals of Internet Censorship in China. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.

Zhao, Kiki. 2020. “Opinion: The Coronavirus Story is Too Big for China to Spin.” The New York Times, Feb 14 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/14/opinion/china-coronavirus-social-media.html [5.2.2020].

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

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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

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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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