In the summer of 2016, romantic comedy So I Married my Anti-Fan (所以…和黑粉结婚了) released in theaters across China. Actress Yuan Shanshan (袁姗姗) starred as a scorned journalist who unleashes an online campaign against a Korean pop idol (Park Chanyeol). In the movie, Yuan’s character spends hours leaving insulting comments about the star in her crosshairs, giggling with glee as she argues with his diehard fans.
The role wasn’t entirely fiction for Yuan, who in 2013 became the target of a deluge of online abuse on China’s Sina Weibo.
The actress shared her experience during a TEDx presentation in Ningbo two years later, describing her shock of waking up to thousands of comments and posts criticizing her acting: “Before 2013, I would never in my wildest dreams have imagined that I’d become the internet’s troll-fodder,” she said.
Yuan was not alone. In late 2016, Chinese women’s rights group Chilli Pepper (尖椒部落) published figures obtained from their survey on online harassment, also known in Mandarin as wangluobaoli (网络暴力 – a homonym of ‘online violence’ and ‘online bully’).
The report aimed to show that “Internet harassment is another form of violence.” According to the data, the majority of respondents were female students who had encountered online harassment in the past.
IDEAS ON ‘ONLINE VIOLENCE’ IN CHINA
“Chinese websites tend to blame young people’s ‘impulsive’ and ‘ignorant’ behaviour for the rise in online harassment.”
Discourse on China’s online violence has usually revolved around infamous ‘human flesh searches’ (人肉搜索), a term used to describe the activities of the wangluo baomin (网络暴民 ‘internet mob’) who seek out and share the personal information of people involved in public scandals.
Due to the internet’s comparatively youthful demographic and the aggressive nature of these search campaigns, Chinese Wikipedia-style websites tend to blame young people’s ‘impulsive’ and ‘ignorant’ behaviour for the rise in online harassment.
In contrast, the majority of Chilli Pepper’s survey respondents reported a style of online harassment beyond ‘human flesh searches.’ They also believe the issue is rooted in gender discrimination.
Given the varying opinions between online women’s groups and encyclopedic websites, it begs the question as to whether online platforms like Weibo are becoming a discursive space for issues of gender, abuse, and harassment.
GLOBAL ONLINE VIOLENCE
“Online misogyny is a global tragedy, and it is imperative that it ends.”
The online harassment of young women is not unique to China. Writing for The Guardian, Elle Hunt reported that over three-quarters of women reporting harassment were under 30 years old, according to Australian research.
In 2016, American actress and activist Ashley Judd delivered a TED Talk claiming: “Online misogyny is a global tragedy, and it is imperative that it ends.” The talk was internationally praised and shared on multiple social networking sites including Weibo.
The mechanisms of online violence in Australia and America were consistent with Chilli Pepper’s findings in China; harassment, hyper-sexualised comments, and attacks on appearance. The LGBT community are also regularly targeted worldwide with homophobic and transphobic online attacks.
Other factors such as money, crime, and morality are less likely to be the subject of harassment, despite being the main focus of human flesh searches. This suggests that a form of online violence exists outside of these searches, in contrast with online definitions.
“How many deaths before you’re satisfied?”
Incidents of online harassment against women continue to rise year on year across the world, with severe cases in China and abroad.
In June 2016, a man named as ‘Aidyn C’ was ordered to stand trial in the Netherlands for ‘extortion, internet luring and child pornography’ after the death of Canadian teenager Amanda Todd. The teenager posted a video to YouTube about her online harasser shortly before taking her own life. The case sent shockwaves throughout Canada and the world, leading to calls for stronger laws to combat online harassment.
In China, the death of Chinese singer Qiao Renliang (乔任梁) was also followed by public outcry over online violence. The television actor and singer committed suicide in November 2016 at the age of 28. Qiao’s death was officially attributed to depression, although many netizens blamed the online abuse that stars such as Qiao and actress Yuan Shanshan receive on a daily basis.
In a critical post addressed to online anti-fans, Weibo user @Lun_少女依 wrote: “How many deaths before you’re satisfied?”
Qiao Renliang’s death has never been officially connected to online harassment.
THE VULNERABLE ONES
“A high number of children aged 8-17 in China have undergone negative experiences online, ranking first among 25 countries.”
Despite evidence that young women and public figures are most vulnerable to online harassment, figures obtained by Microsoft in 2012 show that a disproportionately high number of children aged 8-17 in China have undergone ‘negative experiences’ over the internet, ranking first among 25 countries.
Some netizens dispute the reliability of these research projects. After China ranked 8th in internet civility in another study by Microsoft, a netizen wrote: “The software is still in the early stages. The words they search for [in these studies] are only one part of the Chinese language; there are still loads of other words created by internet users.”*
However, China ranked above average for education and formal school policies about online bullying, with almost half of the children surveyed having been made aware of online risks and ‘manners’ by their parents.
Microsoft believes that China demonstrates a high awareness of online bullying, however preventative and punitive measures are yet to receive legislative support.
*(Chinese netizens often create new ways to circumvent censorship or have an own online language. A famous example is the 3-character phrase ‘cao ni ma’ (草泥马), literally meaning ‘grass mud horse’, but pronounced in the same way as the vulgar “f*ck your mother”, which is written with three different characters. Netizens can thus say ‘f*ck you’ without this being picked up as such by software).
TACKLING ONLINE VIOLENCE
“I’m sorry for what I said about you.”
For Yuan Shanshan, the online and media abuse became so overwhelming that she was compelled to take action. Yuan eventually devised a campaign called”“Loving Criticism” (爱的骂骂). Phonetically similar to the phrase “a mother’s love,” Yuan pledged to donate 0.5 RMB to a children’s charity for every comment she received.
After twenty-four hours, she had raised over 50,000 RMB (±7270$). Across her Weibo a similar message was echoed hundreds of times: “I’m sorry for what I said about you.”
Yuan concluded her talk by mentioning the risk of suicide for the victims of online harassment. The actress advised young people to step away from the screens and find support via family, friends, and exercise.
Meanwhile, respondents to Chilli Pepper’s survey were asked for the best methods of combating online harassment. Ranking above answers such as ‘blocking the offender’ or confronting them with the same tactics, the majority favored reporting the harassment to social media platforms or the police. However, the legal parameters of online violence remain open to interpretation.
ONLINE VIOLENCE & CHINESE LAW
“The police suggested that I confront the harasser myself.”
Global laws on internet harassment are often unclear, although attitudes are changing. In 2016 while living in China, I reported an incident of online harassment by a local man to police. The cyber-stalking campaign of abuse and hyper-sexualised messages had lasted almost nine months. With no way to identify him other than several social media accounts, a legal channel seemed difficult to pursue.
After reviewing the messages, local police were sympathetic. However, the abuser had stopped short of directly threatening my life, which would have been a clear crime under law. It was later suggested that I confront the harasser myself. Knowing the abuser ranked collecting pen knives and pellet guns amongst his main hobbies, I maintained radio silence until the abuser went away.
Perpetrators of online violence are by no means immune to prosecution, and they can be prosecuted under existing laws both in China and around the world. In 2014, the South China Morning Post reported the arrest of a 20-year-old man in Hong Kong for posting violent death threats to an online forum regarding the daughter of a police officer.
Other nations in the region have been forced to amend existing laws to cover online crime. For example, Japan added online communications to the legal definition of stalking after the murder of two women. Gota Tsutsui sent malicious emails to one of the women before stabbing them to death in 2011.
In 2015 India also convicted a man for cyber-stalking in a case considered to be a first in the country. The BBC reported similar attitudes from the Indian police to those in the case in Hong Kong and my own in mainland China – a focus on finding evidence of physical threats sent via the internet rather than sexual harassment and stalking. It seems that like many countries, China is undergoing a transformative period in its legal recognition of online violence.
THE ROLE OF WEIBO
“Netizens should not give online violence a chance to flourish.”
Despite China reforming sexual harassment laws in real public spaces, the topic can still be considered taboo. However on Weibo, some netizens have taken to exposing or confronting their abusers, sharing articles and engaging in discussion. Internet anonymity apparently works both ways – masking the perpetrators of online violence, but also encouraging the abused party to bypass social taboos, speak frankly about their experiences, and generate conversation over the issue.
“Insulting people on the internet is against the law and lacking in education. Everyone should be civilized and respect one another. If you see these ‘keyboard warriors’ and ‘flamers’, report them to the police!”, was one comment among many.
Netizens not only feel empowered to call out online violence on Weibo, but also to propose solutions and changes to the law. A video of famed public speaker Wang Fan presenting her thoughts on the issues received thousands of re-blogs and comments:
“I suggest implementing a system that identifies internet users, such as needing your ID number to set up a Weibo account,” said one user.
“You can’t force people into having a good moral character, but you can emphasize the importance of having a good moral character” (source).
“If the big microbloggers get threatened, they can call the police to sort it out. What about us regular folk?” (source).
“I wish the police could sort out these ‘keyboard warriors’, these internet bullies who curse others as soon as they open their mouths – I’ve gathered all the evidence…The People’s Daily said earlier: ‘Keyboard warriors are not outside of the law!'” (source).
While debate over the need for clarity in online violence laws is ongoing, discourse continues to grow on Weibo. There are also indications that netizens aren’t the only ones who use the platform to raise awareness of the pressing nature of the issue, or even to link online violence with gender.
Earlier this year, the Weibo account for the Centre of the Chinese Communist Youth League posted a full copy of women’s rights under Chinese law, finally adding: “Netizens should maintain rationality, post positively, and not give online violence a chance to flourish.”
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Looking at Your Phone While Crossing the Road Will Now Cost You Money in Zhejiang
Pedestrians looking at their phones while crossing the road are getting a red light in Zhejiang.
Zhejiang Province in eastern China has recently launched a new policy: pedestrians crossing the road while looking at their phone risk getting a 50 RMB ($7) fine.
The policy has been attracting the attention of netizens on Chinese social media, where the so-called “Bowed head clan” (dītóuzú 低头族) – a slang word for smartphone-addicted people – has been a recurring hot topic.
People paying more attention to their phone than watching traffic while crossing the road can lead to very dangerous situations. Some graphic videos making their rounds on Weibo today show security camera footage of people getting run over by cars while looking at their phone.
The majority of people responding to the hashtag “Should people be fined for looking down to their phone while crossing the road?” (#低头玩手机过马路该罚款吗#) agree that this kind of behaviour is a risk to traffic safety, but some wonder if a small fine would be effective in combating this problem.
Some cities in China have introduced sidewalks with a “phone lane” and “no phone lane” over previous years, with Chongqing being the first city to do so in 2014.
As of earlier this year, the Pedestrian Council of Australia is also looking to implement a law that makes it possible to fine pedestrians who cross the road while looking at their phones.
In Honolulu, the ‘distracted walking law’ already makes it illegal for people to be distracted by their cellphones while walking in a crosswalk.
“Fine them!”, some commenters on Weibo say: “And also fine those people using their phone while driving their electric bicycles!”
“I’m not sure about the fine,” another person says: “I only know I bumped into a tree today walking looking at my phone..”
For many commenters, however, the issue is a no-brainer: “Just don’t use your phone while crossing the road. Personal safety comes first.”
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‘American Factory’ Sparks Debate on Weibo: Pro-China Views and Critical Perspectives
‘American Factory’ stirs online discussions in China.
Even as China posts its lowest industrial output growth since 2002, Weibo’s ongoing reaction to Netflix documentary American Factory is rife with declarations of the Chinese manufacturing sector’s impending victory over its US rival. This, however, is not the full story.
The first documentary distributed by Higher Ground Productions, owned by former US President and First Lady, Barack and Michelle Obama, American Factory painted a damning picture of Trump’s protectionist policies.
US manufacturing cannot keep up with the brute efficiency of its Chinese competitors. The story of a shuttering American factory revived by Chinese investment and an influx of Chinese workers, opening up a Pandora’s Box of cultural clashes, paints a telling, but pessimistic, picture of the current strategic conflict between the two superpowers, from the ground-up.
Despite the Great Firewall, Chinese netizens found ways to watch the documentary, that was made by Ohio filmmakers Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert. Temporary links to streaming and subtitle services litter the Chinese Internet, making any accurate count of total mainland viewership nigh-impossible. However, one indication of the film’s popularity among mainlanders was the 259,000 views for a trailer posted on Bilibili.
One likely reason for netizens’ interest is that it neatly plays into Chinese state media rhetoric on the US-China trade war.
The inevitability of China’s rise up the global supply chain (and a corresponding decline on the US side) is a recurring theme in opinion pieces penned by the likes of Xinhua and Global Times, but also an increasingly louder cacophony of bloggers.
“American Factory shows that the US will probably lose out to China in manufacturing.”
One Chinese company (Wind资讯) posted on Weibo that “what Obama means in this film, in a very oblique way, is that anti-globalization will produce a lose-lose scenario.”
The official Weibo account of Zhisland, a Chinese networking platform for entrepreneurs around the world (@正和岛标准) posted a review of the Netflix film titled: “Behind the Popularity of American Factory: Time Might Not Be on America’s Side” (“《美国工厂》走红背后：时间，或许真的不在美国那边了“).
It warns the audience right off the bat to “not assume that this film will promote cooperation between China and the United States. In contrast, it will surely stir up mixed feelings among both audiences.”
“American Factory shows that the US will probably lose out to China in manufacturing,” Zhisland writes. The article argues that China will win out due to its lower labor costs, lack of trade unions, and more disciplined managerial styles. “It’s an uneven playing field,” the author continues: “Time may not be on America’s side.”
Toward the end, the author claims: “We are about to enter a new era in which China will gradually become the most dominant player in the global marketplace.”
The fact that many on Weibo shared these kinds of pieces as a reaction to the documentary suggests there is confirmation bias at work here. As is common on Weibo and other social media, comments on the pieces like the above simply rattle unsubstantiated claims, frequently descending into ad hominems.
Another Weibo user (@用户Mr.立早) adds comments when sharing the above article: “The American workers repeat Trump’s mantra, but won’t act on it. They’ve been idling for almost a century. They’re hopeless.”
“American Factory tells you: separate the US economy from China, and the US will go bankrupt.”
Chinese state media also chimed in on how American Factory proved their most important talking points on the ongoing US-China trade conflict.
Xinmin Evening News, an official newspaper run by the Communist Party’s Shanghai Committee, published an article by Wu Jian called “American Factory Tells You: Separate the US Economy from China, and the US Will Go Bankrupt” (“《美国工厂》告诉你：将美国经济从中国分离，美国会破产“).
In this piece, Jian claims that “in the age of globalization, ties between China and the US cannot be cut. Using high tariffs to force U. S. manufacturing return to the States… is simply not realistic. Separate the US economy from China, and the U.S. will go bankrupt.”
The article was also shared widely on Weibo. Thepaper.cn, an online news site affiliated with Shanghai United Media Group, published a review titled “American Factory: The Things that Are Spelled Out and the Things that are Implied” (“《美国工厂》：那些说出来的，和没有说的“).
The author, Xu Le, writes: “What struck me most about the film was the look on the faces of the American workers. All of them … had the same burnt-out expression… Their faces reminded me of photos of people in the late Qing Dynasty. That dull expression reflects a civilization in decline.”
In the film, When American foremen visit a factory run by glass manufacturer Fuyao in China, they are alarmed to see Chinese workers picking up glass shards without safety glasses or cut-resistant gloves.
Xu comments: “Why is it that Chinese workers are able to put up with even more drudgery while being paid far less than their American counterparts? This is something we Chinese are very familiar with.”
“Are you the glory, or are you the cost of the glory?”
Qin Hui, professor of history at Tsinghua University, once argued that China’s economic growth isn’t because of economic liberalism or government oversight, but because of China’s refusal to guarantee certain basic human rights.
In Maoist China, the state stripped the underprivileged of all political power in the name of the greater good dictated by socialist dogma. Post-Mao China continues to exploit the underprivileged, but now for monetary gain. He called it China’s “advantage” of “low human rights.”
Despite the nationalism sentiment fanned by American Factory, it has also provoked reflection on China’s advantage of low human rights summarized by Qin Hui.
Weibo user ‘Zhi21’ (@ZHI2i), a recent college graduate, writes on Weibo: “I just finished an internship at a factory. I worked 12 hours a day. More than 11 hours of every shift was spent on my feet without stopping, just to keep up with the assembly line. It didn’t make sense to me. After watching American Factory, I feel like American workers are lucky to only work 8 hours a day. That’s why the production costs are higher in the States. They pay too much attention to whether or not workers are comfortable.”
Another Weibo blogger (@GhostSaDNesS) notes that “in American Factory, Fuyao employees believe that to work is to live. They defend the interests of capitalists while they are actively exploited. Unions in the West chose human rights, Chinese capitalists chose profit, and Chinese workers have no choice at all.”
Some of these posts were apparently censored; threads that displayed as having over 200 comments only showed 12, and users complained that their posts were being deleted or made invisible to other users by Weibo censors. “They didn’t give any explanation,” one blogger wrote: ” I only expressed that I felt sorry for the people at the bottom. I didn’t question the system. I didn’t ask to change society.”
Views like that of @Crimmy_Excelsior (“I was confused. Which country is the capitalist one and which country is the socialist one?“) are apparently sensitive enough to be taken offline – they touch upon the tension between the CCP’s espousal of Marxist-Leninism and the plight faced by hundreds of millions of Chinese that have their working conditions driven down by capitalist markets.
Many users don’t buy into nationalist interpretations of the film, and argue that economic gain achieved at the expense of human rights is shameful. @陈生大王 raises a poignant question: “This is a glorious time for China, but I hope this film inspires you to think about who you really are as an individual. Are you the glory, or are you the cost of the glory?”
“The cost of the glory” is derived from a quip popular on China’s internet. The Chinese government often urges its citizens to rally together, using the rhetoric, “We must win this trade war at all cost.” Some netizens then twisted the phrase, saying, “We must win this trade war at all cost, and we later find out that we are the cost.”
“China’s prosperity did not just happen overnight – Chinese people worked hard to make it happen.”
Even among those in favor of China’s controversial work ethics, there have been concerns over the status quo. Earlier this year, engineers in the tech industry publicly aired their grievances about their “996” lifestyle. The term refers to a high-pressure work schedule of 9am to 9pm, six days a week. This is the kind of life workers in Fuyao are living, with no hope of improvement – they are that the company would find a replacement in no time, making any form of complaining moot.
Recent events in mainland China only increase the credibility of this representation. Factory workers at Jasic, a maker of welding machinery in Shenzhen, attempted to start a union last year. All those involved were fired. A number of college students and activists who actively supported the workers were detained and persecuted.
According to the “China Labor Movement Report (2015-2017)” by China Labor Bulletin (a NGO based in Hong Kong that promotes and defends workers’ rights in the People’s Republic of China) “intensification of social conflicts, including labor-capital conflicts, has crossed a tipping point, and directly threatens the legitimacy of the regime.”
More conspicuously, there are netizens that don’t buy the narrative that Chinese workers are innately “tougher” than their American counterparts. As user @胡尕峰 observes: “(In the film), a new Chinese CEO explains to his fellow Chinese that Americans have been encouraged too much growing up, and can’t take criticism. Chinese born after 2000 have been raised the same way! In my circle of friends, some mothers nearly faint when their babies are finally able to poop. Is China going to end up the same as America?”
American Factory’s objective portrayal of cultural shocks between American and Chinese workforces clearly generated thoughtful reflections and incisive criticism from a sizeable number of netizens, while also being another reason for Chinese state media to highlight the rise of China in the global market.
The chairman of Fuyao Group, Cao Dewang, made headlines this week with the quote: “China’s prosperity did not just happen overnight – Chinese people worked hard to make it happen.” “We indeed worked hard for it,” some commenters agreed: “That’s definitely true.”
Edited by Eduardo Baptista
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