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Baihang and the Eight Personal Credit Programmes: A Credit Leap Forward

“The personal credit era has arrived,” some netizens say.

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Baihang Credit has received ample coverage in Chinese press recently as it was launched as “the first unified personal-credit information firm” of the PRC. It joins forces with Alibaba, Tencent, and six other big companies in further building on China’s credit-based society. What’s on Weibo provides an overview of the developments that have led to the formation of this powerful credit platform.

Three years after eight commercial firms were granted permission by the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) to start their pilot programmes in operating personal credit systems in 2015, none of them have received a license.

Instead, they’ve now become shareholders and active contributors to a new unified platform that has access to an enormous number of personal credit data. At the so-called ‘trust alliance’ (信联) Baihang Credit (百行征信), state level and commercial organizations join forces in further developing China’s credit systems.

How they can share data without harming Chinese recent laws on privacy, however, remains vague.

Some background

An important moment within this development started over twelve years ago (to be precise: on March 20 of 2006), when the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) began operating its own independent Credit Reference Center. The goal of the brand-new center was to set up the reliable credit checking platform which China was still lacking at the time.

At its core, it was tasked with managing a national commercial and consumer credit reporting system, to enable financial institutions to assess borrowers’ creditworthiness.

Screenshot of The Credit Reference Center website.

In November of 2013, during the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Congress, new plans were adopted to also “establish and improve a social credit system to commend honesty and punish dishonesty” (USC 2013), putting more pressure on the formation of a solid credit checking system in China.

Months later, in 2014, the Chinese State Council issued an official notice concerning the construction of a nationwide Social Credit System that was to be rolled out by 2020 (Creemers 2014).

 

Three Years of the “Credit Leap Forward”

 

It is perhaps no coincidence that not too long after the formal announcement of these plans, that would lead to a more credit-based Chinese society, the PBOC Credit Center opened its doors to eight Chinese companies to work on trial programmes to prepare for operating their own personal credit information businesses.

At the time, in 2015, the PBOC’s Credit Center had been around for nearly a decade, yet still ‘only’ covered 25% of the Chinese population, leaving ample risks in the control process of Chinese financial services (Yang 2017).

You could say that 2015 was an important year in which competition for China’s multi-billion personal credit investigation market really began, along with the flourishing of China’s Internet population and the growing demand for personal online data information (Jun 2015). A recent Caixin column by Xinhai Liu (刘新海), associate researcher at the Credit Reference Center, even calls the 2015-2018 period the “Credit Great Leap Forward” (“征信大跃进的三年”).

Besides that new personal credit rating tech firms started to pop up, the year 2015 was also the year when misconceptions arose in foreign media regarding these existing credit systems.* ACLU called it “nightmarish,” falsely claiming that all Chinese would be “measured by a score between 350 and 950, which is linked to their national identity card” and that “the government has announced that it will be mandatory by 2020.”

As explained in our recent article about this issue, these discussions – that continue in foreign media to this day – often blur the lines between the national Social Credit system and a number of private programs. (To understand more about the difference between the government’s Social Credit system and the commercial ones, please read the previous article we featured on this topic.)

These misunderstandings partly come from the fact that both the government’s plans on introducing their ‘Social Credit System’ (社会信用体系) and the Central Bank’s endeavors to build a stronger personal credit industry (个人征信行业) were major developments in the period from 2013-2015 up to the present.

 

The Eight Programmes

 

With such a strong demand for solid credit rating systems, why have none of the eight approved tech firms received their license, over three years after starting pilot operations?

One of the main problems with commercial services such as the well-known ‘Sesame Credit’ is, according to PBOC spokesperson Wan Cunzhi, that they are all “isolated islands” (“信息孤岛”) of non-shared data, that they are lacking in independence, and that their data management is not strong enough (Yang 2017).

The coming-together of these “islands” solves this problem and forms one solid platform under the ‘Baihang’ label. Which eight companies does this concern? An overview:

1. Sesame Credit (芝麻信用)

This is the best-known commercial personal credit score programme, implemented by Alibaba’s Ant Financial. Sesame Credit already had 520 million users as of 2017.

Sesame Credit example scores explained, from 385 being in the low range to 731 being in the ‘good’ range.

Sesame Credit was launched in 2015. Because it is part of the Alibaba family, Sesame Credit has an enormous amount of data at its disposal, from e-commerce sites to finance products (Taobao, Tianmao, Alipay, etc), through which it compiles users’ own scores, going from 350-950, for those who have opted into the program. The scores are based on a number of things, including people’s payment history, their contacts and network, and online behavior.

2. Tencent Credit (腾讯征信)

Since the Tencent company currently hosts 55% of China’s mobile internet usage on its platforms (Marr 2018), it has also an enormous amount of data at its disposal. Similar to Sesame Credit, Tencent Credit works with a 300-850 score system. It officially launched a trial of its score programme in January of 2018, but then took it down shortly after.

3. Kaola Credit (考拉征信)

Koala Credit is an independent third-party credit company established by the Shenzhen-based Lakara (拉卡拉) financial services company. Koala Credit was launched in May of 2015, around the same time as Sesame Credit launched its program. Lakara has strategic and powerful partnerships with China Unionpay, five major banks, and hundreds of other financial institutions. Lakara and Koala Credit jointly founded a pioneering lab in China that focuses on big data models. The University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences is involved in this project (Zhuo et al 2016, 299).

4. Pengyuan Credit (鹏元征信)

Established in 2005, Pengyuan Credit is amongst the oldest personal credit investigation firms of the eight selected by the PBOC. The company states on its website that its main goal since 2005 has been to “create a credit reporting ecosphere on the Internet,” shifting from traditional credit rating systems to online credit rating methods.

5. Sinoway Credit (华道征信)

The Beijing Sinoway Credit was established in 2013 by four large financial companies. As explained by BJReview (2016), Sinoway is among those companies (such as Zhima and Tencent) that accumulate data from their business rather than using traditional algorithms to collect financial and public data. They have exclusive access to enterprise data (Zhuo et al 2016, 299).

6. Qianhai Credit Service (深圳前海征信)

Qiu Han, CEO of Qianhai.

Another company established in 2013, Qianhai Credit is based in Shenzhen. It was launched by financial giant Pingan. The current CEO is the female big data specialist Qiu Han (邱寒).

7. China Chengxin Credit (中诚信征信)

The Beijing-based China Chengxin Credit company was founded in 2005, established by the China Chengxin Credit Management group. The firm provides personal credit information and companies and market research services. As described by the China Money Network, its database is connected to local administrations for industry and commerce, police, courts, telecom service providers to provide comprehensive credit information.

8. Intellicredit (中智诚征信)

Intellicredit is a Beijing-based independent, third-party credit registry. CEO Li Xuan (李萱) has previously expressed the company’s goal to handle any loopholes that let scammers get away with fraud in China’s online financial environment. The company is experienced in credit industries both in China and abroad, and its team has also worked on the establishment of the credit reporting system of the PBOC (Zhuo et al 2016, 299).

 

Baihang & Allies: An Abundance of Personal Data

 

The formal launch of Baihang Credit (百行征信), the “first unified personal credit information firm” of China, has become big news in Chinese media, with some calling it a personal credit industry game changer.

Lauch of Baihang Credit, May 23 2018 (photo via Weibo).

Baihang Credit is a joint establishment of the aforementioned eight and the China Internet Finance Association.* It received its license in February of this year. The firm officially opened for business on May 23rd of 2018.

While the China Internet Finance association reportedly holds 36% of the Baihang firm, the other eight shareholders each hold 8% (Zhang & Liu 2018).

^

The eight companies are not just financial investors, but also active contributors and sharers of technology, resources, and data for the Baihang firm. The launch of this joint establishment means that both state-level institutions and commercial enterprises combine their efforts in building a strong personal credit investigation and service platform; the new system now links data collected by these powerful firms such as Tencent to the state-level China Internet Finance Association, which in itself is an initiative by the People’s Bank of China.

Besides basic data including personal information, education level, salaries or employer, companies such as Sesame Credit or Tencent also have access to a rich collection of consumer data, ranging from social media, e-commerce purchases, online travel data, to location, phone records and even social connections.

The eight firms will also play an important role in Baihang’s management. Sesame Credit, Tencent Credit, Qianhai Credit, Sinoway and Koala Credit have all entered the company’s board of directors. The other three companies will join the board of supervisors (Sina Finance 2018). The 57-year-old Zhu Huanqi (朱焕启) will be Baihang’s CEO and president; he previously worked at Huida Asset Management.

The PBOC told Caixin Global that all parts of the eight companies that previously dealt with personal credit ratings will now be incorporated into Baihang. The other parts can continue to operate as data service providers. In the future, Sesame Credit, for example, will continue to research commercial credit services.

 

Many Questions Linger

 

While the recent alliance has received ample attention in Chinese media as an important moment in China’s transforming alleged ‘credit-based’ society, many questions still linger.

One Nanjing research institute writes on Weibo: “The joining of these companies means they can share big data. This also means that if a person is behind [in payments] on one platform, they will also have no access to loans on any of the others.”

But is it all about sharing personal financial credit information, or is this about the sharing of other data as well? What are the legal implications of Baihang operations? And to what extent, if at all, will the system link to the upcoming nationwide Social Credit System?

Caixin Global noted that Baihang Credit will face challenges regarding Chinese Cybersecurity Law, which imposes strict limits on ‘secondary uses’ of data beyond its original purpose, and requires individual authorization when personal data is transferred from one institution to another (Sacks 2018; Zhang & Liu 2018).

In this Caixin article, the PBOC’s spokesperson would not elaborate on how Baihang will collect and use personal data. He was only quoted in saying only that contributions to Baihang will be handled “according to market rules.”

 

“Personal Credit Era has Arrived”

 

Despite the many articles about Baihang in Chinese media, it has not become a much-discussed topic on social media; netizens discussing Chinese credit systems seem more concerned with the height of their Sesame Credit score.

One Weibo user, however, did write about the Baihang alliance, commenting: “The personal credit era has arrived” (“个人信用时代到来”).

Other people worry about the impact of this alliance, saying: “You’ll see that if you have a negative balance on your bank account, you won’t be able to use the public bathroom anymore.” (Recently, various cities in China are upgrading their public toilets, integrating AI features such as facial recognition for people to receive free toilet paper.)

Some commenters simply call the companies that have joined under Baihang “a pile of trash.”

Although Sesame Credit will not receive a license to operate its personal credit investigation business, it is highly probable that users of their credit programme will still be able to enjoy the perks of, among many other things, entering libraries for free or riding rental bikes without deposit with a high score.

“I’ve just arrived in Hangzhou and can do many things for free,” one person wrote: “I feel like my Credit Score is omnipotent.”

Baihang’s recent alliance is about to make Chinese personal credit scores even more omnipotent – the ‘Credit Leap Forward’ is well underway.

By Manya Koetse


Directly support Manya Koetse. By supporting this author you make future articles possible and help the maintenance and independence of this site. Donate directly through Paypal here. Also check out the What’s on Weibo donations page for donations through creditcard & WeChat and for more information.

 

* In an article from December of 2015, for example, The Independent suggested that “China has created a social tool which gives people a score for how good a citizen they are,” describing how “China” had put forward “a concept straight out of a cyberpunk dystopia” named Sesame Credit.

* The Chinese Internet Finance Association, also known as the NIFA (National Internet Finance Association) was established in March of 2015 upon approval by the Chinese State Council and Ministry of Civil Affairs. It is a state-level organization.

References (others linked directly within text)

Creemers, Rogier. 2014. “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014-2020).” China Copyright and Media, 14 June China https://chinacopyrightandmedia.wordpress.com/2014/06/14/planning-outline-for-the-construction-of-a-social-credit-system-2014-2020/ [10.6.18].

Creditchina. 2018. “百行征信入场,8家股东剥离个人征信业务.” CreditChina.gov, 4 June http://www.creditchina.gov.cn/gerenxinyong/gerenxinyongliebiao/201806/t20180604_117132.html [10.6.18].

Huang, Zhiling. 2016. “Six Obstacles to Producing Reliable Big-Data Credit Reports.” BJ Review, 15 December http://www.bjreview.com/Business/201612/t20161212_800074419.html [9.6.18].

Jun, Wang. 2015. “Road to Credit.” Beijing Review, 3 August http://www.bjreview.com.cn/business/txt/2015-08/03/content_698269.htm [9.6.18].

Marr, Bernard. 2018. “Artificial Intelligence (AI) In China: The Amazing Ways Tencent Is Driving It’s Adoption.” Forbes, 4 June https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2018/06/04/artificial-intelligence-ai-in-china-the-amazing-ways-tencent-is-driving-its-adoption/#5130d54b479a [10.6.18].

Sacks, Samm. 2018. “New China Data Privacy Standard Looks More Far-Reaching than GDPR” CSIS, 29 January https://www.csis.org/analysis/new-china-data-privacy-standard-looks-more-far-reaching-gdpr [9.6.18].

Sina Finance. 2018. “百行征信揭开面纱 芝麻信用腾讯征信等五家入董事会.” sina Finance, 4 January http://finance.sina.com.cn/money/bank/bank_yhfg/2018-01-05/doc-ifyqinzs8775295.shtml [10.6.18].

USC. 2013. “Decision Of The Central Committee Of The Communist Party Of China On Some Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening The Reform, November 12, 2013.” USC, 12 November https://china.usc.edu/decision-central-committee-communist-party-china-some-major-issues-concerning-comprehensively [10.9.18].

Yang, Felix. 2017. “Is Xinlian the answer to the Individual Credit Checking System in China?” Kapronasia, 25 Aug https://www.kapronasia.com/china-banking-research-category/item/886-is-xinlian-the-answer-to-the-individual-credit-checking-system-in-china.html [10.6.18].

Zhang, Yuzhe, and Liu Xiao. 2018. “Launch of Unified Platform Boots Private Firms From Personal Credit Business.” Caixin Global, May 28 https://www.caixinglobal.com/2018-05-28/launch-of-unified-platform-boots-private-firms-from-personal-credit-business-101258187.html [10.6.18].

Zhuo Huang, Yang Lei & Shihan Shen. 2016. “China’s personal c>edit reporting system in the internet finance era: challenges and opportunities.” China Economic Journal (9:3): 288-303.

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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Backgrounder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Recent Examples of Chinese Political Satire on Social Media

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Creators Behind the Artwork

 

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

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

 
‘WUHEQILIN’ 乌合麒麟
 

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

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

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

‘A Pretender God’ by Wuheqilin.

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

‘G7’ by Wuqihelin.

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

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

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

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

 
‘HALF BOTTLE OF OLD SOUP’ 半桶老阿汤
 

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

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

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

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

‘That’s What U.S. Did’ by 半桶老阿汤

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

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

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

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

 
OTHERS & INTERTEXTUALITY
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In Between Censorship and Propaganda

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

> Digital Art & Nationalism

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

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

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

> Building Communities

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

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

> A Fine Line

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

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

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

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

 

By Manya Koetse (@manyapan)

With special thanks to Piervittorio Milizia.

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Backgrounder

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scene from A Love for Dilemma.

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

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

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

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

 
What Is ‘Involution’?
 

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

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

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

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

 
The Involution Concept in the Chinese Context
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
‘Involution’ Discussions on Chinese Social Media
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Manya Koetse

References

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

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

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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