The news of Beijing’s first-ever red smog alert travels fast on Monday evening. People tell each other the news in downtown bars while Weixin keeps bleeping.
“I heard of the news because my students asked me if we still have class tomorrow,” Beijing teacher Ryan Myers says: “But I am not sure, because private schools do not necessarily need to follow what is issued for public schools. We are now discussing on Weixin amongst teachers if we should go in or not tomorrow.”
“I will go to work anyway,” Beijinger Leo Lee says: “The buses will drive so there is no excuse for me not to go. But it scares me. And my skin gets terribly bad in this air.”
On Weibo, the topic became trending on Monday evening under the hashtag “Red Smog Alert” (#污染红色预警#). Many people have questions about the first-time ever red alert and what it means. Some wonder which cars are allowed on the roads (even or uneven numbers), and others ask if they still have to go to school tomorrow.
“What about universities?” one netizen asks: “Aren’t university students humans too?”
One student shares screenshots of the school’s announcement that they will close for three days, and the happy reactions of fellow students who cannot believe their luck with this sudden ‘holiday’; as happy as a panda in the snow, or, panda in the smog, that is.
On the morning of December 8, about one hour after the red alert period has officially started (7.00), the area around Beijing’s Workers Stadium looks like the picture below [picture by author/whatsonweibo].
On Weibo, the red alert became one of the most popular topics nationwide on Tuesday morning, viewed over 7 million times.
Some media accounts share the information leaflet on what the red alert entails (image below). It says, amongst other things, that children, elderly and sick people should remain indoors; that outside activity should be avoided for anyone; primary schools and kindergartens should be closed, and that large traffic is not allowed on the roads for the coming 72 hours.
There are also Weibo users who can see some fun in the use of a face mask, like the user who posted the image below.
– By Manya Koetse, reporting from Beijing
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Growing Virtual Bamboo for Real Pandas: Weibo’s Panda Movement
There is a giant panda movement happening on Weibo, and there are two sides to it.
Last month, the account ‘Panda Guardians’ (@熊猫守护者) sent out a video on Weibo focused on the topic of saving pandas in Shaanxi by planting more bamboo. In a month, the video gained around 1,5 million views and much online support.
The video by the ‘Panda Guardians’ was the follow-up to a Weibo-based game where users can gain points which can be used for “growing bamboo” for a virtual panda – which actually funds the planting of real bamboo in Shaanxi.
In the game, which received much online appreciation, a virtual panda pet gets ‘fed’ with the bamboo grown by the points users receive by getting registered for the game, posting it on Weibo, inviting friends, etc. Players also get a cute panda badge on their Weibo account for ‘raising’ their own virtual panda.
For every 10,000 hours of time Weibo netizens collectively raise their virtual panda, the China Virescence Foundation (中国绿化基金会, China’s organization for planting trees) promises to foster and plant actual bamboo trees in the Qinling mountain range in Shaanxi, one of the regions where most of China’s remaining wild pandas live.*
“Chinese netizens can play a role in giant panda conservation – even if the scientific community may not be fully onboard.”
The panda game is just one of many ways in which Weibo’s ‘panda movement’ manifests itself. Weibo user Kyle Obermann (@欧阳凯kyle), an environmental photographer in China, recently posted a short documentary on Weibo about panda conservation in the forests of Sichuan, which gained over 500,000 views in a few days time.
“The whole issue of panda conservation and what it means to be a ‘panda guardian’ in real life and online is all over Weibo right now,” Obermann told What’s on Weibo: “It’s an interesting example of how Chinese netizens can play a role in giant panda conservation – even if the scientific community may not be fully onboard.”
What Obermann refers to, is that besides the positive comments to online initiatives taken by organizations as the ‘Panda Guardians’ and their Weibo game, there is also some criticism from the environmental community for the focus on “planting bamboo” as a solution for the problem of the panda’s vulnerability of extinction.
“It is not so much the lack of bamboo that is the panda’s problem, it is the lack of a natural living environment that is undisturbed by human intervention,” they said.
But, according to Obermann, the online ‘panda movement’ does make a difference in raising awareness for the protection of the wild giant panda, and also in creating a wider understanding amongst social media users for those people who spend their time plowing through the forests through wind and rain in doing their jobs monitoring and protecting the giant panda.
“There are dozens of accounts on Weibo dedicated to the giant panda and its conservation.”
Besides the ‘Panda Guardians’ and people such as Obermann, there are dozens of other accounts on Weibo dedicated to the giant panda and its conservation. On the iPanda channel (@iPanda熊猫频道), people can watch live streams and videos of the pandas at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda (@中国大熊猫保护研究中心).
The great interest in pandas on Chinese social media just shows that the giant panda really is China’s most beloved animal. It the cultural symbol of China, and is generally called a ‘national treasure’ (国宝).
Its well-being and protection, both in the wilderness as in captivity, has been a state priority since the 1960s, when China’s first wild animal protection reserve focused on panda protection was opened in northern Sichuan (Wanglang Reserve, 1965).
Apart from the pandas that are kept at China’s various panda reserves, there are also pandas in zoos across China, from Beijing to Chongqing, and from Guilin to Guangzhou.
Over the past few years, it is the circumstances of some of the pandas in Chinese zoos that have caused multiple controversies. Previously in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, netizens posted photos of the apparent unhealthy pandas at specifically the Lanzhou Zoo, and expressed concerns and outrage over their well-being.
“I’m furious to see some netizens even slandering our base for not providing enough food for the pandas.”
At times, the love of Weibo’s fierce and protective panda might go too far. This week, the famous Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base was collectively accused of cruelty on social media networks when visitors claimed its bears were ill and mistreated.
The accusations started when people posted images online that showed some pandas at the Research Base with white scabs around their eyes.
The Straits Times reports that an article that went viral on January 23 also accused the Chengdu base of using their pandas for commercial gains, not giving them enough food, and that it violated the wellbeing of the animals by allowing visitors to take pictures and hug with a giant panda in exchange for donations.
On January 24, the research base denied all rumors of mistreatment of its pandas and explained that three of its pandas recently contracted an eye disease that is now being treated by its experts. It also denied that its pandas were being used for commercial gains.
The Straits Times quotes Zhang Zhihe, chief of the Chengdu Research Base, in saying: “I’m furious to see some netizens even slandering our base for not providing enough food for the pandas.”
Zhang also said it was not true that the research base allows people to hug pandas and charge money for it. “That never happened once,” he said.
“We understand your love for the giant pandas, but we all have our own way of expressing it.”
There are two sides to Weibo’s ‘panda movement’. On one side, the love of Chinese netizens for their ‘national treasure’ goes so far that everybody seems to have become a panda expert – quick to point their fingers at researchers and shout abuse when a panda seems unwell to them.
In January of 2017, the China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Panda (中国大熊猫保护研究中心) addressed this kind of criticism on Weibo in January. While they thanked Chinese online panda lovers for their concerns, they also asked them to stop posting abusive comments towards them and their employees. They wrote:
“We understand your love for the giant pandas, everyone here at the China Giant Panda Conservation Research Center loves them, but we all have our own way of expressing it. For you it means you raise your concerns by posting blogs in the middle of the night, for us it means that our employees work night shifts taking care of the pandas, watching the monitors and keeping records.”
Despite that these online movements at times arguably may go too far, the silver lining is that they help in making people more aware of the importance of the conservation of the panda and environmental protection at large.
The Weibo-game by the ‘Panda Guardians,’ also backed by popular celebrities such as the members of Chinese boy band TFBoys (12.9 million fans on Weibo), has succeeded in creating an online buzz in which Weibo users are trying to reach a collective goal that helps the panda conservation movement.
By now, the hashtag ‘Panda Guardians’ (#熊猫守护者#) has reached the top three of top public causes on Weibo.
“Together we can do it, help grow bamboo and help the pandas,” many netizens post. If anything, this kind of panda movement at the very minumum shows that netizens are hopeful that their online efforts will actually make an offline change.
* How the money for this ‘virtual to actual bamboo’ campaign is actually raised is not explained by the organization, although it might make sense that both Sina Weibo and its advertisers are involved as they profit from social media users spending more hours on the Weibo platform by playing this game. If you have more insights into this specific topic, we would like to hear from you.
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“Dreaming of Warmth” – China’s Anti-Coal Measures Leave Villagers out in the Cold
While coal heating is being banned, many villagers are left in the cold as they have no access to electric or gas heating systems.
Recent measures by the Chinese government that limit coal burning in the winter in northern China, while encouraging the use of natural gas, are aimed at improving the country’s air quality.
But as many people – mainly villagers and migrant workers – in China’s northern provinces such as Shanxi or Hebei still depend on coal for their residential heating, and with natural gas resources both scarce and increasingly costly, some households or schools simply have no option but to endure the cold.
“This is a predicament that northerners have not encountered before: people are prohibited to burn coal, but natural gas is expensive and scarce.”
On WeChat, an article about the situation by ‘Brother News’ (新闻哥), a well-read news blog, has been widely shared since December 6. The article was pulled offline on Thursday.
“It’s December and winter is here. But the heating, that is often envied by many people in the South, has not arrived as scheduled. In Shaanxi, Shanxi, Hebei, and other regions in the North, people are caught in cold circumstances as they are unable to warm up [their houses].“
“This is a predicament that the northerners have not encountered before: people are prohibited to burn coal, while natural gas is expensive and often limited, which means that they cannot use it – even if they want to. Some people complain that they can’t sleep at night because of the freezing cold, while here in Beijing, some hundred kilometers away, my problem is that I can’t sleep at night because the central heating is too hot.”
“The real situation at hand, which I learned about from dozens of readers, is really heartwrenching.”
In the article, ‘Brother News’ reports about a small kindergarten and primary school in a village in Shanxi where the use of coal heating is no longer allowed this winter – the coal heating systems were already demolished last summer. But the building, that only has three classrooms, cannot be supplied with gas heating. The use of electric heating is also impossible, as it trips off the electricity.
In order to stay warm, the school can only burn wood alcohol (methyl alcohol) as a last resort. “But that costs us about 400 to 600 dollars a day [3000-4000 yuan],” one of the kindergarten teachers said.
“I long for blue skies and smog-free air, but if it means that so many people have to freeze out there, I don’t want it.”
Teachers have started to take their children outside during school time, as it is warmer there than inside the building when the sun is out. But as the temperatures are dropping below 1 degree celsius, the situation is getting more difficult – especially for the teachers and the older children who also live in the on-campus dorm rooms.
For people who do have access to natural gas heating, the costs are often too high. If a household would be heated 24 hours a day, the minimal costs are 60-70 yuan (±9-10$) per day. Considering the monthly and seasonal costs for heating, people would have to spend thousands on heating, something which is simply unattainable for many ordinary people with a moderate monthly income.
On Weibo, one news account based in Binzhou (Shandong), writes that gas boilers have already been installed in some parts of the town, but that there is no gas yet. “And we also cannot burn coal, so now we just have to endure the cold.”
The ‘Brother News’ article concludes that people do want to support the transition from coal to gas that will reduce air pollution, but that it is difficult to support these measures when there are people suffering from the freezing cold: “I long for blue skies and smog-free air,” he writes: “But if it means that so many people have to sacrifice their warmth and freeze out there, I don’t want it.”
“I also don’t hope,” the article says: “that we have to rely on our dreams to keep ourselves warm.”
“Same thing, different era.”
Authorities have now responded to the freezing predicament facing many households and public buildings in northern China by allowing the use of coal to those who have no access to electric or gas heating.
In an “urgent notice” (“特急件”) the environment ministry said that “villages that have not converted to gas may still use coal for heating, or other substitute fuels,” as reported by Financial Times. The ministry also called for a “stable gas supply” to areas in the northern regions that had already converted to gas.
Many people on Weibo are skeptical about the notice. “What about the coal furnaces that have already been taken away,” one person asks on Weibo: “Will they be brought back? (..) And what about the people who have already been freezing cold for a month, how can they be compensated?”
Other people also wonder about all the coal heating systems that have already been removed from homes and buildings, asking if people should now install new ones to keep themselves warm this winter.
There are more people on Weibo who criticize the anti-coal measures, comparing it to measures taken by the Chinese regime from 1958 to 1962. One netizen from Shanxi writes: “Isn’t this just like the people’s communes during the Great Leap Forward? In those days the pots and pans of people were smashed, and they were told to have their meals in the communes where they went hungry. Now you no longer allow farmers to have their coal furnaces and tell them to use gas while the installations are not properly set up, letting them freeze. It’s the same thing, it’s just a different era.”
There are also those who just care about the temperature in their room: “I have been without heating for five days. It 10 degrees [celsium] in my house. I’m slowly starting to freeze out here.”
For many, the urgent notice has not brought the warmth back yet. “The only way to keep myself warm is by trembling,” one netizen writes.
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