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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 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

Coronavirus on Chinese Social Media: The 8 Major Trends in Times of the 2019-nCoV Crisis

The 8 main trends defining the online responses to the Wuhan coronavirus on Chinese social media.

Manya Koetse

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Since the outbreak of the new coronavirus becoming big news in China and around the world, there have been few other topics going trending on Chinese social media than those related to 2019-nCoV. What’s on Weibo gives an overview of the most noteworthy online media trends in China regarding the corona-crisis.

 
By Manya Koetse, further research and news-gathering by Miranda Barnes
 

From panic to patriotism, the outbreak of the coronavirus has led to a wide range of different responses from Chinese netizens and online media outlets over the past few weeks.

Although the first reports on the emergence of a pneumonia-like illness in the city of Wuhan came out in late December, it wasn’t until mid-January that the new virus, belonging to the coronavirus family, started dominating the top trending lists on social media in China and beyond.

The hashtag “Nationally Confirmed Cases of New Pneumonia” (#全国确诊新型肺炎病例#) became one of the biggest news-related topics we have ever seen on Weibo, receiving eight billion views by January 25, and reaching a staggering 13,5 billion views by February 2.

As of February 6th, approximately 28,200 cases of the new virus were confirmed, with over 170 cases reported in countries outside of China. The death toll also became much higher than days before, rising to 564. With these numbers, the coronavirus has exceeded the scale of the 2003 SARS outbreak in terms of infected patients.

Along with the quick spread of the new coronavirus across the country, the general mood and direction of the discussions and trends in the Chinese online media environment have also been in constant flux.

At What’s on Weibo, we have been glued to our social media screens, but because editor-in-chief Manya Koetse has been flooded with daily media requests we have not been able to update the site with regular updates (meanwhile, @manyapan did post regular updates on Twitter).

Here, we will highlight some of the main social media trends we spotted during the outbreak of the new Chinese coronavirus, now and over the past weeks.

 

TREND #1:

Online Backlash against the Eating of Wild Game

As an online media panic broke out around January 20, when a third person had died of the new Wuhan virus, one of the main trends to come up on Chinese social media was an online backlash against the eating of wild game (as reported here by Jessica Colwell).

The backlash flooded Weibo after the downtown Wuhan Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market (武汉华南海鲜批发市场), selling a wide range of dead and alive wild animals – anything from snakes and crocodiles to rats, hedgehogs or bats, – was identified as the suspected source of the deadly coronavirus outbreak.

Image posted by Sina Parenting on February 1st.

Since Chinese researchers linked the novel coronavirus (nCoV-2019) to bats, videos and images of bat dishes and people eating bat soon made their rounds on social media.

Many of these videos were actually unrelated to Wuhan, but were used in condemning the practice of eating (illegal/unsafe) wild game in general.

Around January 23, hashtags such as “Support the Banning of Wild Game Markets” (#支持禁绝野味市场#), “Refusing Eating of Wild Game Starts with You” (#拒吃野味从我做起#), “Control Your Mouth, Refuse Wild Game” (#管住嘴拒绝吃野味#) went viral on Weibo.

As images or videos of people eating bats or other exotic animals soon also spread to Twitter and other non-Chinese social media, some English-language media labeled them as “xenophobic” or “racist” – ignoring the fact that the anti-wild game storm actually started in the Chinese online media environment.

Online information leaflet spread by People’s Daily, “Resisting the Consumption of Wild Game Starts with Ourselves”

State media outlets such as People’s Daily, for example, played a role in the online dissemination of information against the eating of wild game and actually hosted some of these hashtag pages on Weibo.

The main argument behind the backlash is that those eating (unsafe, illegal) exotic and/or wild animals could risk their own health and that of their community and that what you eat is also your responsibility in keeping others safe.

A news story of a man hunting wild animals for consumption made its rounds on Weibo this week.

The backlash against the eating of wild game and online anger against people hunting or illegally buying wild animals for consumption is still ongoing, with some directing their anger against Wuhan people in specific.

This has also triggered discussions on Weibo about discrimination – not against Chinese people in general, but against Chinese netizens discriminating against Wuhan people or even against people from the Hubei province.

 

TREND #2:

Fake News and Censorship

Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo are tightly controlled online environments. When certain sensitive topics pop up, such as the anniversary of the Tiananmen protests, the Hong Kong demonstrations in their early phases, or big political events, virtually all related posts and news sharing will sometimes be removed by online censors.

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, this was not necessarily the case. From the start, there was a lot of reporting, sharing, and discussion of the virus online.

However, there certainly has been ongoing censorship of the topic. This was mainly done in the case of netizens reposting videos of chaotic situations in streets or at hospitals, but also in the case of ‘fake news’ posts (mostly called “starting rumors”).

Posts that could potentially trigger unrest or panic also were censored. One hashtag that made its rounds around January 22 was “Escaping Wuhan” (#逃离武汉#), with people trying to leave Wuhan before the city would go on lockdown. That hashtag page was soon completely removed from Weibo.

The comments sections of some posts reporting on controversial or sensitive news were also completely turned off (such as this report addressing local authorities in Wuhan allegedly taking donated face masks).

One Weibo user (@魔女小稀), an alleged nurse, posted a video of people in a hospital hallway on January 24th, claiming that “three [dead] bodies” had been lying in a Wuhan hospital for the entire afternoon covered in white sheets without being removed.

The post and the Weibo user were completely removed from the platform on January 25. By that time, however, the video and allegations were already picked up and reposted internationally.

According to Sina News, the post had been completely false; there were no bodies lying around this Wuhan hospital. If there were people covered in white sheets, it was merely people sleeping in the hallway after waiting for a long time.

This is but one of many examples of ‘fake news’ floating around Chinese social media over the past two weeks, with images and videos being placed in a misleading context, people claiming that patient or deceased numbers were much higher than those reported by the official media, and some even bringing up conspiracy theories about the source of the coronavirus (e.g. that the Americans started it, that it leaked from a biolab in Wuhan, etc).

The problem in this issue is, of course, when do we call it ‘fake news’ and when do we call it ‘censorship’? Amid the chaos and uncertainty of the coronavirus outbreak, it is not always easy to separate the two.

This is also a contributing factor in the general distrust in official media reports that clearly surfaced on Weibo over the past weeks. “I don’t believe it,” is a sentence popping up everywhere on social media.

Spreading online “rumors” is a crime under China’s Criminal Law and is punishable by up to seven years in prison. Although some foreign media outlets, such as this one, make it seem as though it is illegal to share fake news about the coronavirus in particular, it is actually illegal in China to share fake news in general.

 

TREND #3:

Virus Vigilantism

Another trend we noticed on social media during the wake of the coronavirus outbreak is not just a distrust in official media and authorities, but also distrust in fellow citizens.

One clear example that blew up on Weibo is that of a young woman from Wuhan who posted about her traveling to France – and enjoying nice food – despite suffering from a fever and cough. Because she took fever reducers, she claimed to have passed airport temperature monitors without issue.

The post sparked great anger among Chinese netizens and triggered the so-called ‘human flesh search engine,’ with people digging into her personal details.

The incident even led to the Chinese embassy in France investigating the matter. The woman turned out not to have been infected with the virus.

But there are many examples of people exposing and doxing those who allegedly are hindering the collective goal of minimizing the risk of a further spreading of the virus, for example by not self-isolating after visiting Wuhan.

There’s also been widespread online condemnation of people stealing tissue paper from public elevators. Many apartment buildings around China now provide a box of tissue paper for hygienic reasons so that people do not need to touch the elevator buttons.

Surveillance videos of people stealing these boxes have been making their rounds on Weibo and WeChat, such as this lady in an elevator in Chongqing, with thousands of netizens expressing their anger over their behavior – and sometimes naming and shaming them.

 

TREND #4:

Social Media as a Practical Communication Tool

Soon after the scale of the coronavirus outbreak started to become clear, social media platforms such as Weibo were started to be used as practical communication tools for authorities, (medical) organizations, and individuals to spread information or to ask for help.

Social media is now widely used as a practical communication tool for very general matters in the coronavirus crisis (e.g. providing information on how to avoid getting the virus), but also for more specific issues.

Various hospitals in Wuhan, for example, spread digital leaflets online summing up their specific shortages in supplies (face masks, surgical gloves, etc), and how people and organizations can contribute.

Another example is how authorities at various times use social media to search for people who were on board of certain trains or where passengers were later diagnosed with the virus.

But we have also seen individuals reaching out through social media. One woman, for example, reached out to netizens online after she and her husband fell ill and needed someone to look after their children.

Through the help of social media, there are now also local volunteers who help taking care of people’s pets while they are unable to return home to feed them.

One of the hashtags increasingly receiving attention online since early February is “Rescuing the Pets Left Behind in Wuhan Homes” (#武汉滞留家中宠物救援#).

Since January 26, Tencent’s WeChat has also opened a special “epidemic supervision” channel within its app where WeChat users can go to get the latest local information about the virus in their area or ask for medical help.

 

TREND #5:

Propaganda, Pride and Patriotism in Times of Crisis

The outbreak of the coronavirus coincided with the most important holiday of the year in China: the Spring Festival. On Friday, January 24, the CCTV broadcasted its annual Spring Festival Gala (Chunwan), a 4-hour long show that has been airing since 1983. The show is the biggest live TV event in the world, with a viewership of one billion.

The show is usually meticulously planned up to every second – with rehearsals starting months before -, but this year, for the first time ever, it included a segment on the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak. It showed scenes from inside a Wuhan hospital, and the show’s main presenters paid their respects to all the medical workers working day and night.

The event became trending on Weibo under the hashtag “For the First Time in History, ‘Chunwan’ Includes a Non-Rehearsed Segment” (#春晚历史上首次没有彩排的片段#)

It was during this time, with twenty million people under travel lockdown, that the sentence “Jiayou Wuhan, Jiayou Zhongguo” (“Come on Wuhan, Come on China”) was propagated by state media and became widely used on Chinese social media.

By now, the hashtag “Go Wuhan!” (#武汉加油#, hosted by Party newspaper People’s Daily) has over 12 billion views on Weibo.

“1.4 billion Chinese salute you”

Starting from the Spring Festival weekend, Chinese state media began to propagate more positive, patriotic, and nationalistic messages online during the corona crisis, focusing on the unity of China and the dedication and resilience of common Chinese people, with a specific emphasis on medical and army staff.

It is not uncommon, or actually rather common, for Chinese authorities and state media to propagate nationalism in times of hardship (also see our article on online propaganda during the Hong Kong protests).

 

TREND #6:

Quarantine Boredom: From Panic to Humor

From late January, the first humorous memes and videos starting flooding Chinese social media in light of the coronavirus.

Around January 25, there were over forty confirmed deaths due to the new coronavirus and over 1380 known infected patients. Along with the travel lockdown, most of the major tourist attractions across China had shut down, and driving bans were implemented in the city of Wuhan to restrict people’s movements in efforts to contain the outbreak.

What was supposed to be a time of joy and reunion and entertainment (the Chinese New Year) turned into a time of fear and self-isolation for many families in Wuhan and beyond.

Practically locked up in their homes, some people used humor as a ‘defense mechanism’ in times of coronacrisis.

The videos embedded in the thread below are some examples of people making the most of their times in lockdown.

But besides the creative solutions of people avoiding boredom inside the home, there were also many memes going around WeChat and Weibo making fun of the extreme measures taken by people and authorities, such as this photo below that was allegedly taken at a station in Yiwu, Zhejiang, saying: “Some people got off the train in Yiwu but thought they’d ended up in Saudi Arabia.”

There was also this viral image below of an office canteen where people were self-isolating for safety reasons, saying: “Eating at the cantine of my unit now feels more like taking an exam.”

Videos and images of people using sanitary pads, bras, plastic bags, or even fruit to protect their faces due to a scarcity of face masks also continue to make their rounds on social media, with people sometimes mocking neighbors, their friends or family, or even themselves in the extreme and sometimes silly measures they are taking to avoid getting the coronavirus.

 

TREND #7:

Anger against Local Authorities and Illegal Lock-Ins

As panic over the spreading coronavirus has become bigger over the past few weeks, the voices criticizing local authorities and organizations for mishandling the situation have also grown louder.

While loud criticism of the central government is usually censored before triggering bigger discussions, there has been ample criticism of provincial, city, and county authorities and organizations – and not without consequence.

In Hubei, local authorities have been criticized for, among others, initially censoring reports of an emerging new illness in December of 2019.

The mayor of Wuhan, Zhou Xianwang, became a major target of netizens’ anger. In late January, Zhou admitted that he had failed in disclosing information in a timely manner and also “did not use effective information” to improve the local government’s work.

The Hubei branch of the Red Cross Society of China (RCSC, 中国红十字会) also received massive criticism online in early February when it turned out that, while the public donated medical supplies and money, most of it remained in the Red Cross warehouse.

On February 4, Chinese state media reported that the Hubei Red Cross deputy director had been removed from office and dismissed from the leading Party members group of the RCSC branch.

On village and prefecture-level, there has also been public condemnation of how authorities are handling the corona crisis.

Some videos going around social media showed how people, seemingly against their will, were locked up inside their own homes by local authorities after returning from Wuhan (“武汉返乡人员”).

China Youth Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Youth League of China, also condemned these practices as “illegal” and “inhumane” in an article that has since been deleted.

Through a new WeChat function mentioned earlier in this post, Chinese netizens can now also report any mishandlings of the coronavirus situation.

At the time of writing, there seems to have been some increased censorship, but nevertheless, criticism on local authorities keeps flooding Weibo.

“While people are busy helping themselves and each other, what are the leaders of Hubei and Wuhan doing?”, some people wonder: “Supplies in the hospitals are still scarce, there are still people who are unable to receive help!”

 

TREND #8:

Corona Panic Buying

It was around January 21st when the coronavirus panic reached a peak in China; a third infected patient had died of the virus the day before, the first cases were confirmed outside of China, and several big travel platforms had started to offer refunds or change flights via Wuhan.

Similar to the SARS outbreak in 2003, news of the coronavirus led to waves of “scare shopping” – a trend that also became very visible on social media.

Medical face masks soon sold out in Chinese pharmacies and on e-commerce platforms: around 80 million face masks were sold on Alibaba’s Taobao platform alone on January 20 and January 21st. Those (online) shops still offering face masks exploited the shortage of face masks, and would only sell them at exorbitant prices.

Twenty dollars for a face mask?

Although Alibaba soon announced it would remove sales of face masks from shops that were selling them at unstable prices, the sales and availability of (disposable) N95 masks is still an issue across China, with netizens complaining about it on Weibo every single day.

Another example of consumer panic followed the Jan 31st reports by two medical research institutions on the TCM oral medicine Shuanghuanglian, which would allegedly be effective in combating the new coronavirus.

Shortly after the reports came out, the herbal remedy sold out in stores across the country.

Chinese state media now warn people against “irrational purchases,” saying that the effectivity of herbal remedies such as Shuanghuanglian is still unsure.

Panic buying is a trend that is not just visible on Chinese social media, it is a trend that also seems to be triggered through social media, with rumors and reports of existing shortages of certain products leading to panic.

A clear example is the February 5 run on toilet paper in Hong Kong after rumors spread that the coronavirus outbreak would lead to insufficient supplies.

 

As there are still many new developments and news reports coming out concerning the coronavirus, we will keep on publishing more on What’s on Weibo about what’s trending on Chinese social media. (Also read: Distrust and despair on WeChat and Weibo after the death of Wuhan whistleblower Li Wenliang).

If it’s quiet here, please also follow us on Twitter here and here.

By Manya Koetse, additional research and news-gathering by Miranda Barnes
Follow @whatsonweibo

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Backgrounder

‘Good Doctor’, Digital Hospitals: How Mobile Apps Are Alleviating China’s Healthcare Problems

With the rapid digitalization of China’s healthcare, Chinese patients now have more ways than one to receive medical assistance.

Manya Koetse

Published

on

China’s healthcare industry is facing some serious challenges. As Chinese society is rapidly digitalizing, mobile apps now provide innovative solutions to alleviate pressing problems in the country’s health services sector.

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, originally published in German by Goethe Institut China on Goethe.de: “Good-Doctor Apps und Digitale Krankenhäuser.” 
 

Social Credit System, artificial intelligence, surveillance cameras; these are some of the hottest topics making headlines in mainstream Western media when discussing China-related developments recently.

With the rapid digitalization of Chinese society, these topics certainly have come to play a more important role in social media discussions within the People’s Republic of China (PRC). But if there is one issue that seems to concern Chinese social media users the most, it is not facial recognition nor their ‘Sesame score’: it is the topic of healthcare.

In December of 2017, a photo showing a crying mother kneeling down beside a toddler on the sidewalk in front of a Shanghai hospital went viral overnight. The moment was captured on camera by a reporter who was visiting Shanghai’s Children’s Hospital.

The photo of Guo Yinzhen and her son that went viral in China (image via NetEase, source: https://3g.163.com).

The mother, Guo Yinzhen, is a single parent who had traveled from a remote village to seek medical help for her 3-old-son, who was suffering from congenital hydrocephalus or ‘water on the brain.’ Already having traveled to the city multiple times and spending all her money on medical bills, Guo could not afford the additional 100.000 yuan (€ 12.600) for medical procedures needed to save her son’s life.

Guo’s story struck a chord with Chinese netizens, who continue to share the heartbreaking photo on social media to this day. It has become emblematic of China’s healthcare problems.

 

Crowded Hospitals and ‘Healthcare Disturbance’

 

The key to an adequate healthcare system, no matter where in the world, is that there is a right balancing in the “iron triangle” of efficiency/cost containment, high quality care, and patient access.[1] China, however, struggles with all three sides of this triangle.

Guo’s case is an extreme example, but many people in China dealing with less serious health issues and needing basic medical services also struggle to afford and access the healthcare they need.

Over 95% of people in China have health insurance, but people from different regions do not enjoy the same benefits and their out-of-pocket expenses can vary greatly. Uncovered medical costs can sometimes be catastrophic and simply unaffordable for patients and their families.

As more money flows are going to healthcare facilities in China’s cities, there is also the issue of varying levels of providers’ medical education and the overall healthcare quality, with the substantial majority of modern hospitals still existing in urban areas.

Easy access to the right kind of healthcare can be especially problematic for China’s rural population, as people often need to travel long distances and have to go through the lengthy process of registering and waiting for their doctor’s appointment, which sometimes requires them to stay in the city overnight.

For all of these reasons, China’s bigger public hospitals can get super crowded, sometimes resembling shopping malls on an end-of-season sales day. On social media, both patients and medical workers often complain about the stress brought about by the huge crowds and the shortage of doctors in hospitals across the country.

Perhaps it is no wonder that China even has a word to describe outbursts of violence between patients and doctors: ‘Yī nào’ (医闹, literally: “healthcare disturbance”).

Weibo user ‘Sunscreen’ complains about the crowds at Huashan Hospital.

One major problem within China’s healthcare conundrum is the lack of local family or primary-care doctors, which often makes bigger hospitals the first stop to any kind of medical treatment for Chinese patients.

The reasons for this issue are manifold. There is a general lack of trust in private and smaller local healthcare clinics, for example, and patients often choose to go directly to a bigger hospital to avoid making extra costs.

This makes it extra difficult for many community health care centers – that are already struggling – to make enough money and to retain qualified staff. In a society that is rapidly aging, the challenges facing China’s healthcare industry are only becoming more pressing.

 

A Doctor Today, Just an App Away

 

As China’s online environment is thriving, new innovative online apps are popping up on a daily basis. Some of these apps, that have found their ways into China’s most popular app rankings, are offering solutions to some of the country’s most pressing healthcare problems.

One of these apps is Ping’an Good Doctor (平安好医生), which was developed by health insurance provider Ping’an in 2015 and calls itself China’s “one-stop healthcare ecosystem.”

“Ping’an Good Doctor” promotional image by Ping’an.

Employing some 1000 medical staff in its in-house team, contracting over 5,200 external doctors, and collaborating with 3000 hospitals and thousands of pharmacy outlets across the country, the app is somewhat of an “online hospital.”

Through the app, users can look through an online database of medical professionals, order medicine at nearby pharmacies, get 24/7 online medical consultancy, search for information about both Western and Chinese Traditional Medicine, etc., but they can also use Ping’an Good Doctor as a fitness app to track their own health.

Screenshot of Ping’an app screen, by author.

When looking for a specific doctor for a one-on-one consult, the app first lets users select an area of expertise (e.g. dermatology or gynecology), and then offers a list of different specialists in various price categories.

Doctors from well-known hospitals, for example, or those with excellent ratings, have a one-time consultation fee of 100 yuan (€ 12,60). Other doctors can be consulted starting from 30 yuan (€3,70). All costs can be paid efficiently via online payment apps.

Doctors to pick from within the app’s various price categories.

Ping’an Good Doctor uses an AI-driven system to ask patients various questions about their symptoms and to automatically create a user’s medical record to save time. Based on the AI-generated record and the conversation with the patients – files such as photos can also be uploaded to the app -, the doctors can prescribe medicine or refer the patient to a hospital for an offline appointment if needed.

Ping’an recently announced that its number of registered users exceeded 300 million users, with 62 million monthly active users. Because the app keeps building on its AI-driven system, Ping’an Good Doctor can be expected to only become a ‘smarter’ smart health app the more popular it gets.

Although Ping’an is now leading within China’s medical app category, there are many other apps providing similar services, such as Chunyu Yisheng (春雨医生), Haodafu Online (好大夫在线), or DingXiang Doctor (丁香医生).

The emergence of these apps is just one of the many ways in which China’s digital developments, online media, and tech giants are impacting the healthcare industry, profoundly changing how patients receive healthcare information and access medical services now and in the future.

List of recommended medical apps in the Tencent app store.

In a way, China’s medical consultation apps fill the void in offline primary care. Patients who would otherwise turn to hospital care as their first stop can now  access medical consultations any time, any day, at a relatively low cost. Those who suffer from relatively harmless conditions could be diagnosed by a medical specialist via the app and get the medicine they need within a matter of minutes. With the growing popularity of these kinds of apps, many patients no longer need to visit a hospital at all.

Are smart health apps such as Ping’an Good Doctor the solution to China’s healthcare problems? No, they’re not. Struggling mums like Guo Yinzhen will not find the help they need there. But they do contribute to a more efficient healthcare environment where crowd flows in hospitals can be reduced, and patients do not need to spend a lot of time and money to stand in hour-long queues to get five minutes of their doctor’s time.

Although smart health apps could not help Guo Yinzhen and her son, social media apps could. As soon as their story went viral in late 2017, Shanghai Children’s Welfare Foundation Xiaoxingxin offered to cover medical treatments for the little boy, with a notable pediatric neurosurgeon operating the child. According to the latest updates, the boy’s situation was “looking good.”

Hopefully, the same holds true for the challenging sides of China’s healthcare industry.

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

[1] Burns & Liu, 2017: 3-4.

References/Linked Sources

Burns, Lawton Robert, and Gordon G. Liu. 2017. “Introduction.” In China’s Healthcare Industry: A System Perspective, Lawton Robert Burns and Gordon G. Liu (eds), pp-1-116. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Economist, 2017. “China needs many more primary-care doctors.” The Economist, May 11 https://www.economist.com/china/2017/05/11/china-needs-many-more-primary-care-doctors [20.10.19].

Zhou, Viola. 2018. “Does China Have Universal Healthcare? A Long (And Better) Answer.” Inkstone, Oct 10 https://www.inkstonenews.com/health/china-translated-does-china-have-universal-health-care/article/2167579

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

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