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Behind the Headlines: China’s Media Landscape (Liveblog)

Live blog on the The Hague Conference on the Chinese Media on May 15th, at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, Clingendael.

Manya Koetse

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Conference on The Chinese Media and Relations with Europe

Date: May 15, 2014.
Place: The Hague, Clingendael Institute
By: Dutch think tank Clingendael and the Modern East Asia Research Centre (MEARC)
Blogged by: Manya Koetse 

What’s going on behind China’s headlines? How have the dramatic reforms in China over the past decades impacted China’s media landscape? And how relevant are these changes for Europe’s perspective on China? These are questions that will be addressed at this event. Today’s conference will give a view on China’s current media landscape and the practice of journalism in the PRC. Check out any updates on the conference on this page (Don’t forget to ‘refresh’ the page every now and then by clearing the cache – something new should come up every 30 minutes). Update: live-blog now closed. See the full report below:

 

Chinese Media in Europe and Media Dialogues (Session One)

10:50-12:45
Chair:
Jan Melissen (Clingendael Insititute)
Speakers:
Vincent Ni (BBC World Service)
Wang Bei (Radio Netherlands Worldwide)
Pal Nyiti (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)

Discussant:
Odila Triebel (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen)

11:00

“Chinese journalists are lagging behind on their international colleagues when it comes down to media coverage on Europe”, says Vincent Ni, Multimedia Producer at the BBC Chinese, BBC World Service. There are multiple factors that affect the way Chinese are ‘doing’ journalism on Europe. There are practical issues, such as language barriers, but there are also flaws in the journalistic system and attitudes towards Europe. Ni explains how some Chinese journalists have the idea that European news is just “not that exciting”, making many Chinese people working in the media industry think that American news is just more interesting and important. One factor that might contribute to this idea is that many Chinese journalists have a lack of understanding on how European government systems work and what the EU actually does. There are things that journalists on the European side can do to help Chinese media institutes, but eventually, Chinese media institutes should make a collaborate effort to educate journalists on Europe and its economic and political background. All in all, “Europe deserves more attention from Chinese press,” Ni concludes.

 

“How does one ‘sell’ news on Europe to a Chinese audience that thinks European news is just ‘not so exciting?'”

 

“Our audience is picky about news,” says Bei Wang, Chief Editor at the China Desk Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW). That is why RNW works in a way that is appealing to its (young) audience; not just ‘story-telling’ but ‘experience-telling’. RNW does this by using personal stories that give a different perspective on news. Currently, Chinese state media is expanding its presence in the world. They are presenting China to the world, but are also presenting the rest of the world to China. But the information they are giving is limited- there is a lack of authentic and unpolished information about Europe in Chinese language. Although China does need it, Wang agrees with Vincent Ni that news on Europe just does not ‘sell’ as well as news on, for example, America. So how does one ‘sell’ news on countries such as the Netherlands to a Chinese audience? By telling them the stories they are interested in. This is why RNW focuses on personal stories and social issues. If the Chinese audience is interested in Dutch healthcare or welfare, then this is the kind of news RNW will bring them.

Pal Nyiri is currently writing a book on Chinese correspondents abroad. Pal talks about Chinese media correspondents in Europe, their backgrounds and news focus. It is clear that the presence of Chinese journalists in the worlds is on a dramatic rise. Nyiri lays out the numbers: People’s Daily currently has about 70 overseas bureaus , Xinghua News has 140 international offices and CCTV has 70 foreign locations. China’s media bureaus have many European correspondents (some freelancing), and they struggle with a major challenge: how to make European news interesting to China. What one generally sees happening in the news is that Chinese journalists approach Europe as an exotic place where people enjoy life. ‘How the Dutch ride their bike’ would be a quite funny but realistic example of a Chinese news report on Europe. Due to various circumstances, such as relatively low wages, foreign postings are not as attractive to Chinese journalists as working within the Mainland- this is why many foreign correspondents are rather young. Through their deliverance on the news, a new picture of Europe is emerging in China. What one sees currently happening is that whatever is the news of the day within China, will be the news that is brought on Europe. Issues of environment, welfare and society are particularly popular- these news items are used as a foil to reflect back on what is going on in China.

 

“Chinese international media are not truly international- there is always a Chinese angle to global news.” 

 

During the after-discussion of this first part of the conference, that has focused on Chinese media in and on Europe, Vincent Ni of the BBC expresses his critique of Chinese international media. “There is not one Chinese official media that is truly international,” he says: “Global news is consumed by a global audience. What Chinese media does, is giving a Chinese angle to international news. This is why my current job at BBC is so different from my previous job at Caixin News. At BBC, we are actually reporting news on the world, to the world.”

One discussant from the audience remarks that this part of the conference has discussed Chinese correspondents abroad and international news in China, but where is the narrative on the foreign correspondents working in China?

Journalist and researcher Garrie van Pinxteren remarks that the situation for foreign correspondents working in China is getting harder. Not only because of practical issues, such as visa, but also because more Western media are now also working with Chinese correspondents to report from within China, instead of using foreign correspondents working from China.

 

“In China, I hardly see newspapers, and I only see people playing games online [and not reading the news], so where is all this news actually going?!” 

 

Another discussant from the audience, Frank Kouwenhoven from Chime Foundation, remarks that if one visits China, one hardly sees any newspapers at all. Upon entering an internet cafe, everybody seems to be playing games. So, the discussant asks, “Where is all this news we have been talking about actually going?”

“There are readers, and there will always be,” says Bei Wang from China Desk Radio Netherlands Worlwide: “Chinese citizens are actually bombarded with news every day, and there are always consumers. Think about social media such as Weibo or Weixin (Wechat)- people are increasingly sharing news through social media. The audience is getting more versatile, and so are the ways in which the news is brought to them.”

12:50 update: Time for lunch break, will keep you posted again after 13.30.

 

The State of Chinese Journalism Today (Session Two)

13:30-15:00

Chair:
Jan Melissen (Clingendael Insititute)
Speakers:
Hugo de Burgh (University of Westminster)
Florian Schneider (Leiden University)
Daniela Stockman (Leiden University)

13:40

How can we explain the Chinese media? Hugo de Burgh, director of the China Media Centre and writer on investigative journalism (specializing in Chinese affairs), remarks how Chinese journalism is often perceived negatively by the English-speaking world. “It is as if there are two types of investigative journalism”, he says: “The Western and the Chinese way.” But according to De Burgh, there are in fact many things the West can learn from Chinese media. Anglophones often demonize Chinese media for various biased reasons. According to De Burgh, Chinese media is actually not a ‘flawed’ edition within some universal media system. “There is no such thing as Western media,” he says. It is not an issue of Chinese media versus Western media, but more so an issue of anglophone media versus non-English media. Chinese media actually have a lot in common with other non-English media. It is useful to make comparisons between the media from different countries- but not when it is continuously approaching the other media form (in this case: Chinese media) in a biased way. Not everything is awful in the Western media, says De Burgh, neither is everything about Chinese media positive. It is about making a more honest balance in the study or critique of the state of Chinese journalism. The best framework for approaching Chinese media? It is a simple “respect for differences”.

14:00

 

“Chinese Media – it’s not just a simple narrative, there is an entire network of actors that collaboratively determine the dynamics of Chinese media today.”

 

Florian Schneider, lecturer of Politics of Modern China at Leiden University and editor of Politics East Asia stresses that there is indeed a lot of bias when talking about Chinese media. There are many people who think that the political control over Chinese journalists is so strong that they are nothing more than a mouthpiece for Xi Jinping and the Party. This is not the case, Schneider says. It makes more sense to talk about what is happening in China in the form of governance from the Party to state vis-à-vis society, and the private actors that also influence China’s cultural sphere. Schneider shows that the discourse of the state of Chinese journalism is complex, and approaching this subject in a ‘political control’ framework is not only biased, but also far too narrow. “People assume it’s a simple narrative,” Schneider says, but leave out all the dynamics that contribute to the state of journalism in China today. Within journalism, there are now a myriad of players besides the State; think of companies as Sina News or Baidu, that have greatly influenced China’s mass communication. Schneider advocates for a change in how we think about Chinese media. There is more than the Party and the State- there is an entire network of actors that collaboratively determine the dynamics of Chinese media today.

14:20

Stockmann

Daniela Stockman, writer of Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China, addresses the question of how Chinese media fits in the political system of today’s China. Stockman does not believe in a one-way state-to-society power relation. Instead, she argues that the state and society can mutually reinforce each other, as long as the state can walk the fine line between tolerance and control – the state actually walks this line on a daily basis. There’s a myriad of examples on how Chinese government is both maximizing control while bringing about more liberalization. It is the impact of market forces in the media that contribute to this mechanism of control and liberalization, Stockman says. Media marketization has boosted the credibility of today’s journalism – because new media sources are branded in a certain way, people assume it is not propaganda and thus have more trust in these types of media. Chinese readers have a preference for ‘non-official’ papers, because they generally believe these are more credible than the ‘official’ ones. Note that Stockman says that there actually are no 100% ‘non-official’ papers, although they are addressed in this way. Stockman’s research has pointed out that ‘non official’ papers are more effective in changing people’s opinions due to their credibility, and in this way, somewhat contradictory, do help propagating authoritarian rule in China.

During the audience Q&A, Peter Gries, US-China Issues Director&Professor at University of Oklahoma, addresses his question to Hugo de Burgh, noticing that on one hand De Burgh is advocating for perceiving Chinese media in a balanced way – yet his own frame of reference in doing so is the demonization of Chinese media in the ‘western world’. “How do you escape this political space that is central to this type of discourse?” Gries asks. Another attendee talks about how this conference has stressed the anglophone ‘demonization’ of Chinese journalism, and wonders if there is also such a phenomenon as the Chinese ‘demonization’ of Western media.

15.10-15.30 break, the final session on China’s 21st century journalists will start after the break.

 

China’s 21st Century Journalism: A Chinese View (Keynote Session)

15:30-17:00

Chair:
Garrie van Pinxteren
Speakers:
Wu Gang (The Global Times)
Michael Anti (Blogger & Internet Journalist)

15:40

Michael Anti (also known as Zhao Jing) internet journalist and renowned Twitterer (you can follow him on @mranti), starts off the keynote session by remarking how time is the biggest problem for scholars who write on China and media. Developments in China go too fast for scholars to keep up. “The academic world should work together with bloggers,” Anti says.

 

“Weibo is no longer the Weibo it was. The Golden Days of Chinese social media ended in 2012.”

 

China’s Internet policies are getting stricter, Anti states. It has become easier for reporters and bloggers to end up in jail. Nevertheless, social media can change China to a more liberal and democratic society. “Sometimes we have freedom just because someone allows us to. When they don’t allow it- the door is closed,” says Anti. He explains that it is often allowed for netizens to criticize local governments. As long as one keeps to one rule: do not direct your criticism towards the central government. Anti calls the years up ’til 2012 the “Golden Years” of Chinese media- it was in these times (roughly from 2009-2012) that netizens enjoyed the most freedom to write what they wanted. Weibo is no longer the Weibo it once was- because of the implementation of new laws and online guidelines, people are scared to write what they want; they can be detained if the government decides their social content is not allowed. But China moves fast, Anti says, and we can now see that online movements are shifting from Weibo to Weixin (Wechat), where groups can connect and organize themselves in a more secret way. But, when netizens are quick, the government is quick to follow. Comments within the seemingly private Weixin app are already being checked by censors. This makes it harder for journalists to do their work. “My industry is dying,” Anti says. The fear for detainment (“I have a very beautiful wife”) has lead Anti to shift his focus towards international news, which is less censored by authorities.

 

“We are not innovative because of governmental censorship, we are innovative in spite of it.”

 

Anti encourages the western audience to really interact with Chinese media: “We need your support to understand China better. You should not just read China Daily. Get a Wechat account. Engage with the Chinese people. Whatever the government does, Chinese people are nice. Like me.” Ending his talk, Anti remarks the inventive nature of Chinese netizens and journalists: “We are not innovative because of governmental censorship, we are innovative in spite of it.”

16:10

Global-Times-as-real-newspaper-medium1

Gang Wu, news editor and deputy director at the English Edition of the Global Times, talks about the development of the Global Times and the complexity of Chinese media- news editors are often walking a fine line in deciding what (not) to cover. Wu tells about an important turning point in the influence of the Global Times in China. The year 1999 was important because of the bombing of the Chinese embassy in BelgradeThe event evoked many angry reactions from Chinese citizens, who threw eggs and stones at the US consulate in Beijing. (“I would’ve thrown a stone myself,” Wu says: “But I couldn’t find any..”). Global Times thoroughly reported on the developments of the story. Following the growing circulation of the Global Times, changes have been made in reports and decisions on what to cover, and how to cover it. Wu remarks how the attention is gradually shifting towards domestic news now, which is more controversial. “Talking about domestic politics is really dangerous,” Wu states. He explains how writing about national politics, compared to covering international events, is always a tricky matter. In covering Chinese politics, the media source might be perceived as being a mouthpiece for the government, or of speaking against the government- which are both dangerous territories. Global Times does not want to speak for the government or the elite; it aims to speak for China’s mainstream audience. 

The reality of Chinese media is that any media office can be closed at any time. Nevertheless, Global Times has had breakthroughs in reporting sensitive topics. Journalists have to be careful with the tone of their narratives, and sensitive news has to be taken step by step- in this way, the government, hopefully, can slowly get used to the pace of China’s current media coverage.

16:50

mranti.jpg

 

“Who will arrest the government?”

 

During the Q&A, Wu Gang addresses the difference between himself and Michael Anti when speaking of Chinese media. Wu states that Anti is more critical than him about governmental issues. Wu Gang does have the hope and the belief that Chinese media and the government can collaborate and work side by side within the Chinese media landscape. Since the government is particularly strict about the publication of so-called ‘false rumors’, Wu feels that journalists need to be especially careful that the news they bring is absolutely factual. Anti expresses his dissatisfaction with China’s law on the start of ‘false rumors’ – “what happens when the government says something which is not true,” Anti says: “Who will arrest the government?” Democracy, Anti adds, actually suits any country. There are those who say democracy is not for China. “That is racist,” Anti says: “Democracy is just as good for China as it is for any other country.”

17:10

Huub Wijfjes, Professor of Journalism Studies and Media History at the University of Groningen, takes on the closing remarks. Today we have learned that from the western view, one tends to discuss Chinese media within one’s own framework. ‘Chinese media’ is often seen as being identical to the governmental voice, and is associated with Party control. “There’s more to Chinese media,” Wijfjes says. We should look beyond propaganda and think deeper about how the Chinese media system works, without denying the fact that there is still authoritarian rule and dictatorship, deeply affecting the current landscape of Chinese media.

This live blog is now closed. For any remarks or questions, feel free to email at manya@whatsonweibo.com,
or contact the blogger through Twitter at @manyapan.

 

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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More Than Just a Visit: Explaining the Chinese ‘Cuànfǎng’

‘Cuànfǎng’ became a popular word on Chinese social media and in official Chinese discourse this year. But what is it?

Jin Luo

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Since Pelosi’s stopover in Taiwan, the word ‘cuànfǎng’ has been all over Chinese social media to refer to this controversial visit. But ‘cuànfǎng’ is more than just ‘visiting’ alone. Jin Luo explains.

It was a sleepless night for many Chinese people when U.S. House Speaker Pelosi flew to Taiwan on August 2nd of 2022. A new Chinese word created in recent years, cuànfǎng (窜访) appeared in the official statement that was issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry at 11 pm that night, and subsequently it appeared all over social media.

Meanwhile, a pop song released more than 30 years ago titled “Tonight, Are You Coming or Not” (“今夜你会不会来”) suddenly became a Weibo hot topic before it was taken offline. What is this word lost in translation, and why did people suddenly get nostalgic over an old romantic song?

 
Cuànfǎng: A ‘Sneaky Visit’
 

Here is the original wording in Chinese and the official translation to English from the statement of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on the evening on 2 August:

In disregard of China’s strong opposition and diplomatic discontent, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited China’s Taiwan region” (“美国国会众议长佩洛西不顾中方强烈反对和严正交涉,窜访中国台湾地区.”) The word ‘visited’ in Chinese that is used here is “cuànfǎng” 窜访.

While the English verb “visit” is a neutral word by itself, the Chinese “cuànfǎng” 窜访 has much stronger connotations. According to the Wiktionary, the word is a derogatory, officialese way to say “to visit.” But it is not an easy word to translate, as there is no direct equivalent in English, and both the literal and implied meaning of the word need to be understood.

Cuànfǎng is actually a compound word: cuàn 窜 refers to fleeing, escaping, hiding, or running away; fǎng 访 refers to inquiring, seeking, or visiting.

Cuan as a compound character (Sohu).

To make matters more complicated, cuàn by itself is also a compound character. It is written as ‘竄’ in traditional Chinese: the top radical ‘穴’ means ‘hole,’ and the lower part is the character ‘鼠’ which means ‘mouse.’ The character, having the shape of a mouse hiding in a hole, therefore has the meaning of ‘hiding’ and ‘escaping.’

The origins of the character ‘cuan’ explained, image via Sohu.com.

The mouse or rat is an animal that is more often associated with negative things in Chinese culture. They are often considered sneaky, dirty, running around everywhere, and able to reproduce quickly. With mice so often carrying a negative association, cuàn ‘窜’ also refers to a kind of hiding and escaping that is negative or objectionable.

The second character fǎng 访 is a neutral word that simply means “to visit.”

At the New York Times, Chris Buckley captured the underlying meaning of this word in writing: “The Chinese word used in the official statements for ‘visit’ — cuanfang — connotes a sneaky or illicit encounter, not an aboveboard meeting.”

 
The Evolution of Cuànfǎng
 

Although it is a relatively new word, cuànfǎng already existed before the Pelosi incident and was not created in light of this controversial visit.

Since the word’s first appearance, translators have had some difficulties in properly translating the term into different languages.

Research papers in translation studies and international relations in China suggested that cuànfǎng is a “new derogatory term invented in recent years, specifically for the purpose of maintaining national security and unity, and condemning and exposing the national separatists” and “demonstrated the big wisdom of Chinese diplomatic discourse users; vividly described the image of the separatists, that they go on the run sneakily, just like thieves and mice” (source, in Chinese).

Other sources interpret it as “the unjust, improper visit conducted in order to reach hidden political agenda, to agitate and peddle the separatist ideas,” and:

1. You went somewhere where you were not supposed to go;
2. The visit was not accepted or welcomed by the (Chinese) government;
3. The purpose is to shake justice and create conflicts
” (source, in Chinese).

Cuàn was mainly meant to add an emotional aspect to the term and shows the contempt of the person who uses it.

Image via Wainao.

The word was first prominently used in Chinese official discourse when the Foreign Ministry in 2006 referred to the Dalai Lama’s visit to Israel. Since cuàn has the meaning of fleeing, it is especially suitable when referring to political dissidents who went into exile overseas.

Since then, it has been used again for further visits of the Dalai Lama to other countries (US 2014, Mongolia 2017), as well as for Rebiya Kadeer, Lee Teng-hui, Shinzo Abe, Joshua Wong, and others.

Although it is clear that the term is not only applied to Chinese dissidents, it is generally applied to those who conducted visits that were perceived to be hostile towards China, with Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit serving as a clear example.

Since the Dalai Lama has been living outside of China and conducted numerous visits to other countries, cuànfǎng was previously mostly used in this context until Pelosi’s visit, which ended up being good for more than 80% of the search results of cuànfǎng on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website.

If cuànfǎng is a word with such strong emotional connotations, why was it simply translated as “visit” in official English-language documents? Some say it is because of the mere difficulty to translate this word, while others say it is the routine sanitization of English translations by the Foreign Ministry.

David Gitter, president of the Center for Advanced China Research based in Washington D.C., said that the external goal of Beijing can be different from the internal goal towards the nationalist domestic audiences, and that “more accurate yet counterproductive translations … [often] breach normal diplomatic language.”

At this point, it remains up for debate whether this is a linguistic constraint or a political choice.

 
Tonight, Are You Coming or Not?
 

While the term cuànfǎng has been widely used in official discourse, it has also become a popular online word. Chinese netizens seemed to be as passionate as the Chinese Foreign Ministry – and perhaps even more so –  in condemning Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and demanding radical countermeasures.

Chinese netizens were watching the entire event unfold with mixed feelings – on the one hand, there was a strong sense of patriotism and anger, on the other hand, the massive attention to the event also turned it into something that was almost as exciting as a celebrity drama.

On that specific evening of Pelosi’s nearing arrival in Taipei, Chinese netizens were doing two things: watching real-time tracking of Pelosi’s flight, and listening to a classic pop song released in 1991 titled “Tonight, Are You Coming or Not” (今夜你会不会来) (video). Back in the previous century, Hong Kong singer Leon Lai expressed the emotions of someone waiting for his lover to arrive in this melodic song, singing:

“你是否愿意为我停留

Would you be willing to stay for me

今夜你来告诉我

Tonight, you tell me

你是否愿意陪我走过我的梦

Are you willing to accompany me through my dream?

我的所有

My everything

(Chorus)

今夜你会不会来

Tonight, are you coming or not?

你的爱还在不在

Is your love still there or not?

如果你的心已经离开

If your heart has left already

我宁愿没有未来

I would rather not have a future

今夜你会不会来

Tonight, are you coming or not?

你的爱还在不在

Is your love still there or not?

别让我所有的等待

Don’t let all my wait

变成一片空白

Go all in vain

 

In the middle of the uncertainty about whether Pelosi would come to Taiwan or not, this song served as entertainment for netizens and became a “collective carnival” of people jokingly applying the song to Pelosi, turning her into a ‘mysterious lover’ that might or might not show up. (Later, some were unable to play the song anymore, although it remains unclear if this was due to geographic restrictions or because the song was actually taken offline by censors.)

“Taiwan has been preparing for your cuànfǎng ‘sneaky visit’, are you coming or not tonight?” some netizens wrote, combining the title song with the cuànfǎng term. In doing so, Pelosi became both a ‘sneaky mouse’ and ‘mysterious lover’, both a target of condemnation and subject of fun and banter.

All jokes and cuànfǎng references aside, Pelosi did end up realizing that visit, and its aftermath, including a second Taiwan visit by a U.S. congressional delegation, has had a substantial impact on U.S.-China relations that were already strained before the move.

Will there be more cuànfǎng to Taiwan? It’s likely not an issue of if, but when. For next time, at least we’ve got cuànfǎng covered.

 

By Jin Luo 

Featured image by Alexa from Pixabay

 

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Backgrounder

A Baby for Sale, a Mother Chained Up – How Chinese Netizens Are Pushing Specific Social Issues to the Forefront

The stories of Liu Xuezhou and the Xuzhou mother both developed in real-time while netizens pushed them to the front page, making them too big for state media to ignore.

Manya Koetse

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It only takes a spark to start a wildfire. From Liu Xuezhou to the Xuzhou mother, China’s online spheres have seen multiple major trending topics this year that started with one short video and then caused a social media storm with netizens highlighting and amplifying specific stories to address bigger social problems.

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

It was December 6th of 2021 when a teenage boy posted a short video on Chinese social media. With a straight back, clear voice, and serious face, he looked directly into the camera and said:

Hello everyone, I am Liu Xuezhou and I am looking for my biological parents. I was born in between 2004 and 2006 and around the age of three months old, I was bought by my parents, my adoptive parents, in Datong in Shanxi. I am healthy. I don’t have any congenital physical defects or diseases; I don’t have any obvious birthmarks or scars. At the age of four, my adoptive parents passed away due to an accident. I am now living in Nangong, Xingtai, in Hebei Province. I study in Shijiazhuang. I wish I’d found my biological parents sooner, to make up for what I missed. I hope you can help me spread my message so that those who suspect they might be my parents can see it.

This video would be the start of a story followed by millions of Chinese netizens. It is the story of Liu Xuezhou (刘学州). The search for his parents and his death became one of the biggest topics on China’s social media of the past months.

Why did the tragic story of one teenage boy capture the entire nation? There are multiple reasons. By posting his call for help in finding his biological parents, Liu involved Chinese netizens in his journey from the start, allowing them to follow his story in real-time through his social media and news reports. Another aspect of Liu’s story is the resilience he showed despite his tough life, something that many admired about him.

But more importantly, Liu’s story is part of a recent broader interest in the stories behind the widespread problem of trafficking in women and children in China, with more people raising awareness on the tragedies caused by these practices and demanding justice for the victims.

Besides Liu’s story, the story of a Xuzhou mother-of-eight being tied up and living in abominable conditions in a shed also dominated online discussions for weeks on end.

 

Liu’s Story: Sold, Orphaned, Abandoned

 

After Liu Xuezhou posted the aforementioned video on Douyin, the Chinese version of the popular TikTok short video platform, it soon went viral and various Chinese news sites started reporting on Liu’s search for his biological family.

Liu’s resilience was impressive. In interviews, he said that his story did not define him and that he was determined to make something of his life. Since 2018, the young Liu was working to earn money while also going to school. His plan was to be admitted to university.

Liu Xuezhou, picture posted on his Weibo account.

After his adoptive parents died in a firework explosion, Liu was raised by his grandparents and was sent to boarding school. Liu’s childhood was not a happy one. Being so young without parents, he was a target of school bullies and had to change schools at least four times until, by grade six, he had finally found a school where he could thrive.

Many people supported Liu and wanted to help the teenage boy, who was thought to have been kidnapped as a baby and then bought by his adoptive parents through an intermediary at a Datong hotel for 30,000 yuan ($4735).

Although Liu’s birth certificate said he was born in September of 2005, nobody was sure how old Liu actually was, and his grandparents did not remember the details surrounding his adoption. By late 2021, as a 16-something-year-old, Liu felt it was time to get some answers and find his biological parents. How did he end up being adopted? Was he abducted? Were his parents still out there searching for him?

Through his own efforts – sped up by finding his vaccination records – and with some help of the police, Liu was able to trace down his biological parents. On the evening of December 15, Liu sent a message to a journalist reporting on the case: “I found my mum and dad.”

His parents’ story, however, was not what Liu had expected at all. After DNA tests confirmed that they were in fact his biological parents, Liu was ready to meet them. But what was supposed to be a happy reunion turned out to be a bitter disappointment.

Liu’s biological parents, who were living in Datong, were not together anymore. Liu soon learned that he had not been abducted as a child, but that he had been sold on purpose by his father. His parents were unmarried when they had him, and Liu’s father turned out to have used the money they earned by selling their baby to marry Liu’s birth mother. They married and had another son, but then ended up divorcing. Both remarried again, and Liu’s father even got divorced two more times after that.

Although some of the unhappy circumstances surrounding Liu’s reunion with his parents came out through his posts on social media throughout January of this year, most of the details surrounding his situation only became clear when Liu posted a farewell letter on his Weibo account on January 24th, just a few minutes past midnight.

Liu Xuezhou’s last Weibo post including a farewell letter.

Titled “Born with little, return with nothing,” Liu posted a lengthy letter explaining his situation.

In this letter, Liu said that besides being sold as a child and becoming an orphan at the age of four, he was also severely bullied by classmates and molested by a teacher at school. His aunt, whom he loved as a mother, also left him behind after she moved away due to a broken marriage.

As he spiraled into depression, Liu felt a spark of hope when he saw the news about Sun Zhuo (孙卓), whose story became one of the major trending news stories of 2021. In 2007, when Sun was only four, he was stolen off the street by a human trafficker. His biological parents never gave up hope they would find their son again and sacrificed everything to be able to fund their search efforts. The Chinese film Dearest (亲爱的) was partly based on their story.

After a years-long search, Sun was found in 2021 due to the help of authorities and face recognition technology that helped trace the person suspected of abducting him. In an unexpected twist, Sun stated that he would prefer to stay with his adoptive parents, who had raised him for a decade. The story triggered many online discussions and raised more awareness on the issue of the trafficking of children in China in times of the country’s one-child policy. Sun’s biological father spoke to the media saying: “For 2022, my biggest wish is that all the abducted children can finally be found.”

Image of the reunion of Sun Zhuo with his parents, who never stopped searching for him (image via Sohu).

It was Sun Zhuo’s story that inspired Liu to search for his own parents, and it was also Sun Zhuo’s story that brought more attention for Liu’s initial video, which struck a chord with many who hoped that he could also be reunited with his parents and actually stay with them.

Liu described how his biological father did not seem happy when Liu first contacted him, and seemed reluctant to meet. His biological father eventually did come to see him, but their communication afterward was not smooth. When his father told Liu that he was sold as a baby so that he could pay for the bride price to marry Liu’s mother, Liu was heartbroken and could not sleep for several days: he was not kidnapped, and his parents never searched for him.

Liu and his biological father on December 26, 2021.

His mother also was not elated that her biological son had found his way back to her. Liu felt unwanted, again, and was also searching for a home to live and was not sure who to turn to anymore. After he asked his biological father for help in buying or renting a place to live, he was blocked on WeChat. Liu then decided to take his parents to court.

Sharing screenshots on social media of the developments between him and his parents, Liu was condemned and bullied by netizens, who accused him of only wanting to find his biological parents for financial gains.

It was all too much for the teenage boy. In his farewell letter, he expressed the hope that the traffickers and biological parents would be punished for their deeds. Liu was later found to have committed suicide at a beach in the city of Sanya, and could no longer be rescued. Liu passed away within a month after meeting his biological parents at the age of just 15 years old.

By now, Liu’s farewell letter has been shared approximately 174,000 times on Weibo, it was ‘liked’ over 2,4 million times and has received thousands of comments.

The topic of Liu’s death exploded on social media and led to national outrage. Many people sympathized with the boy and were angry at all who failed him: “Poor child, abandoned and sold off by his parents, bullied and humiliated by his schoolmates, molested and discriminated by his teacher, cyberbullied by keyboard warriors. Now he’s dead!”

The injustice of Liu’s situation – starting with how he was sold as a child – is what angered people most. China Digital Times recently described how on the Weibo page of Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the doctors who raised the alarm about the coronavirus outbreak, many people also mention Liu Xuezhou. Dr. Li Wenliang was one of the eight so-called ‘whistleblowers’ who tried to warn his colleagues about the Wuhan virus outbreak in late 2019, but was censored and reprimanded by local police for making “false comments.” He later became infected with the virus himself while working at the Wuhan Central Hospital and passed away on February 7th of 2020, sparking a wave of anger and sadness on social media.

Illustration that went viral on social media at the time of Dr. Li’s death (read more here).

Over the past two years, Dr. Li’s Weibo page has become a digital Wailing Wall where people send little messages to remember Dr. Li, tell about their own anxieties and worries, but also address social injustices. As recorded by China Digital Times, one among thousands of comments said:

Two years ago today, I had a sleepless night because of you, and my Weibo account once got shut down because I posted something about you. Over the past two years, I’ve often wondered: will this world become a better place? But between the Liu Xuezhou incident and the woman in Xuzhou with eight kids, I’ve been disappointed time and time again. If you happen to see Liu Xuezhou, please be good to him.

Looking at Dr. Li’s Weibo account today, it is not just Liu Xuezhou who is brought up by commenters; ‘the woman in Xuzhou’ is also mentioned by dozens of people as someone experiencing injustice. But who is she?

 

The Chained-Up Mother in Xuzhou

 

In late January of 2022, right around the same time when Liu Xuezhou was one of the biggest topics on Chinese social media, a TikTok video showing a woman chained up in a shed went viral online and triggered massive outrage with thousands of people demanding answers about the woman’s circumstances.

The video, filmed by a local vlogger in the village of Huankou in Xuzhou, showed how the woman was kept in a dirty hut without a door in the freezing cold. She did not even wear a coat, and she seemed confused and unable to express herself.

Other TikTok videos that came out around the same time showed how the woman’s husband, a man by the name of Dong Zhimin (董志民), was playing and talking with their eight children in the family home right next to the hut where the mother was confined.

The video caused a storm on social media. Many netizens worried about the woman’s circumstances. Why was she chained up? Was she a victim of human trafficking? Was she being abused? How could she have had eight babies? Was she forced to have so many children? While netizens were speculating about the case and venting their anger, Weibo shut down some of the hashtags dedicated to this topic, but the topic soon popped up everywhere, and people started making artworks and writing essays in light of the case.

Following public demands, local authorities started looking into the case. An initial statement by Feng County, where the village of Huankou is located, was issued on January 28 and it said that the woman, named Yang (杨), married her husband in 1998 and that there was no indication that she was a victim of human trafficking.

The woman was dealing with mental problems and would display sudden violent outbursts, beating children and older people. The family allegedly thought it was best to separate her from the family home during these episodes, letting her stay chained up in a small hut next to the house.

The first statement raised more questions than it answered and more people, including influential Weibo bloggers and media insiders, started investigating the case. Meanwhile, it became clear that husband Dong Zhimin was giving interviews to other vloggers flocking to Huankou. Besides talking about his eight children (seven sons, one daughter) as future providers for the family, he also used his newly-acquired ‘fame’ to make money through social media. This only led to more online anger about Dong exploiting his wife and children.

Screenshots from the original Douyin (TikTok) video.

As the social media storm intensified, more official statements ensued. On January 30, Feng County local officials responded to the controversy in a second statement, in which the Xuzhou mother was identified as Yang *Xia (杨某侠) who allegedly once was “a beggar on the streets” in the summer of 1998 when she was taken in by Dong family and ended up marrying their 30-something son Dong Zhimin.

Local officials did not properly check and verify Yang’s identity information when registering the marriage certificate and the local family planning department also made errors in implementing birth control measures and following up with the family. The statement said that Yang had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was now receiving treatment.

A third, fourth, and even fifth statement issued by authorities on February 7th, 10th, and 23rd confirmed what many on Weibo had suspected all along, namely that Yang had indeed been a victim of human trafficking. Xuzhou authorities said their investigation had brought them to the village of Yagu in Yunnan, a place that was mentioned on Yang’s marriage certificate.

Yang was identified as Xiaohuamei (小花梅), born and raised in Yagu. Yang’s DNA had been compared to that of the family of Xiaohuamei, and the DNA match confirmed that Yang was indeed Xiaohuamei. According to the statements, Xiaohuamei married and moved to another city in 1994, but she divorced and returned to her village two years later, which is when she allegedly also showed signs of mental illness.

Her parents, now deceased, then allegedly ordered a female fellow villager to take their daughter to Jiangsu to get married there. According to the woman, she took Xiaohuamei with her on a train from Yunnan to Jiangsu’s Donghai, but she allegedly ‘went missing’ shortly after arrival. The woman never reported her as missing to the police and she never notified the family.

That woman, along with another man and Dong Zhimin, are now held criminally responsible for illegal detainment and human trafficking. Xiaohuamei was reportedly sold to a man in Donghai for 5,000 yuan ($790) in 1998. Though Xiaohuamei managed to escape, she was sold twice again, eventually ending up with the Dong family.

One of the many images shared on Chinese social media to raise awareness of the case of the Xuzhou mother and other women like her.

While details surrounding the case of the ‘chained Xuzhou mother of eight’ are still being discussed on Chinese social media, it has become clear that by now, ‘Yang’ has come to represent many more women like her. Over the past few weeks, the stories of other women who also might be a victim of human trafficking have surfaced, and the public outcry demanding justice for trafficked women is ongoing.

 

One Social Media Spark Starting a Wildfire

 

Both in the case of Liu Xuezhou and the Xuzhou mother, it should be noted that their stories initially did not catch the public’s attention because official news media reported them, but because of first-hand videos being posted on TikTok (Douyin) and then being picked up and shared by bigger accounts.

Both Liu’s video and the short video featuring the mother of eight were posted on accounts that were not necessarily very popular: starting as a small spark in an online environment with over 900 million social media users, they were shared, commented on, and then spread like wildfire.

Both stories developed in real-time while netizens were following the case, both stories eventually became too big for Chinese state media to ignore, and both Liu and Yang highlighted bigger social issues in contemporary China, mainly those relating to human trafficking.

Since these cases went viral, there has been a heightened focus on the problem of human trafficking, which mostly occurs in China’s poorer areas with weak governance. The trafficking of especially women and children has various purposes, including forced marriage and illegal adoption in areas where there is a shortage of women (along with a preference for baby boys).

China Daily recently reported that lawmakers and advisers are now pushing for heavier punishment for human trafficking crimes, suggesting that the current penalties imposed on the buyers of women and children are too weak; the maximum prison sentence for those who purchase abducted women and children is three years.

In the case of the Xuzhou mother, there has been online censorship but the ongoing intense public outrage eventually did lead to higher-level research into the case. The mother was rescued from her terrible situation, the human traffickers involved are being held responsible, and so are 17 officials, who will be punished by authorities for their wrongdoings in the case.

As for Liu Xuezhou, his adoptive family members have recently filed a request at the Sanya Public Security Bureau to launch another investigation into his case. Their request was accepted on February 23rd, with multiple people being suspected of criminal offenses, eventually leading to his death. On Weibo, many people are now demanding punishment for Liu’s biological parents.

In late January of this year, following the tragic ending to Liu’s story, Chinese state media1 emphasized how the widespread attention for these kinds of stories in the social media era is also changing how government agencies should interact with the public.

According to Dr. Liu Leming, associate professor at East China University’s Political Science faculty, government agencies need to follow up and respond more quickly to social incidents like these in the internet era: “When public issues emerge, people who are involved in social problems or incidents want to know, more than anything, whether their requests have been seen and who will handle their concerns.”

In light of these recent stories, the public is happy that actions have been taken, but they are not satisfied with how these cases were handled. Many argue that authorities have failed in being transparent, that local governments have not done enough to prevent these cases from happening, and that China should do more to put an end to human trafficking.

And so, they are still posting the stories of children like Liu and women like Xiaohuamei to keep raising awareness and to keep pressuring local authorities and lawmakers to take more action to eradicate these practices.

As Liu is no longer alive and Xiaohuamei, still hospitalized, cannot defend herself, Chinese netizens keep raising their voices for them. In doing so, they have not just impacted how authorities dealt with these specific cases, but they are also changing how cases such as these will be handled in the future.

One Weibo user discussing Liu and the Xuzhou mother wrote: “We need to get to the bottom of these kinds of stories: who is to blame, who made mistakes, and where do we go from here?”

In the meantime, online posts, videos, and artworks honor both Liu and Xiaohuamei, so that their stories will not be forgotten. “Dear little one, springtime has come,” one among thousands of messages still flooding Liu Xuezhou’s Weibo page says: “You have endured too many things that you should have never experienced. It should have been us, the adults, taking care of these things for you. You please go and rest now, we will finish the rest for you.”

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

For information and support on mental health and suicide, international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

1 Cao Yin and Li Yang. 2022. “Policymakers, Lawmakers Respond to Opinion Voiced Online.” China Daily Hong Kong, January 28, Page 1-2.

Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.

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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