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Beyond Climate Change Concerns: Fukushima Fear and Eco-Anxiety in China

“Is our world turning into an apocalyptic survival game?” Fears over Fukushima waste water and other global threats are fueling public anxiety in China.

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While there isn’t a heated ongoing debate about global warming and climate change in China, it doesn’t imply that people are apathetic about the environment and well-being of future generations. Public expressions of ‘eco-anxiety’ and fears for the future are channeled towards different topics in China, where some believe that recent global challenges have transformed their lives into an ‘apocalyptic survival game.’

Over the past ten days, Japan’s decision to release treated nuclear water has ignited waves of anger and concern on Chinese social media platforms. Many netizens express worries about how the Fukushima wastewater might impact the marine ecosystem, while others are deeply concerned about the long-term repercussions of this pollution on their food safety and overall well-being in the coming decades.

The huge public concern over the Fukushima water seemingly poses a stark contrast with that over climate change. As Miranda Barnes recently noted in our Weibo Watch newsletter, the urgent implications of climate change and global warming caused by human activities are a huge topic of debate in Western countries, especially in relation to extreme weather. In China however, the phenomenon of “eco-anxiety” doesn’t resonate among the public in the same manner as it does in Western discourse, despite notable events like China recording historically high temperatures in July, the impact of Typhoon Doksuri, last summer’s wildfires and this summer’s devastating floods.

In a recent Reuters article about the discussions surrounding climate change in China, a Greenpeace senior adviser called it a “big missed opportunity” that Chinese state media and official channels did not connect the recent extreme weather in the country to its own carbon emissions and climate change at large.

China’s limited engagement with the climate change discourse is also noticeable in the realm of social media. Researchers Chuxuan Liu and Jeremy Lee Wallace published a study about “China’s missing climate change debate” (2023), concluding that social media site Weibo does not have very active discussions about the topic of climate change at all. They found that only 0.12% of the unique trending topics on Weibo from June 2017 to February 2021 were related to this theme.

Some news articles suggest that the lack of climate crisis discussions in China relates to the challenges faced by grass-roots environmental movements in contemporary China, alongside censorship.

But climate anxiety is not the only form of eco-anxiety, and it would be a misconception to assume that absence of panic over climate issues means that Chinese people are not concerned about the environment or the well-being of future generations at all. As explained in Eco-Anxiety and Pandemic Distress, various global threats, including climate change, ecological challenges, and pandemics, are interconnected in multiple ways. Pandemics can influence ecological problems, for example, and ecological dynamics and climate factors can also cause outbreaks and shape pandemics (Pihkala 2023, 1).

Climate change, global warming, and environmental activism may not hold as prominent a place in daily social life and online media in China as in the West, but some topics related to global ecological challenges — often communicated by state media and amplified by public responses — actually garner more engagement than in Western countries.

We delve into a few examples in this article. Given the scope of our discussion, we won’t go into the scientific details behind these phenomena; instead, we’ll center our attention on the public anxiety surrounding them.

 
Public Panic over Fukushima
 

Japan’s decision to start discharging treated nuclear water into the Pacific has already become one of the biggest topics on Chinese social media this year. Through Weibo posts, short videos, articles, and memes, people vociferously criticized Japan for what they saw as an irresponsible act of releasing “contaminated water” (污染水) – a concept popularized by official channels highlighting the toxicity of the disposed water, as opposed to the more neutral “treated water” (废水) term.

In the first days surrounding the Fukushima waste water release, a trending topic on Chinese social media highlighted how the move would harm to the oceanic ecosystem, with many people posting photos of dolphins, sealions, whales, fish, and other wildlife that could be affected by water pollution alongside the hashtag “History Won’t Forget.”

This post claimed that “the sea otters will also remember” what Japan has done.

In addition to a surge in anti-Japanese sentiments and concerns about the livelihoods of the Chinese fishing industry, another significant aspect of the viral online responses to the Fukushima wastewater issue has been the discussions regarding strategies for how to survive the perceived crisis.

While in the English-language media sphere, critics dismissed the panic as unwarranted, stressing that the disposal is well within safety limits or that environmental impact is negligible, the release of the treated water caused an outbreak of apocalyptic fears and many people immediately took action to protect themselves and their loved ones in various ways.

These fears are widespread, encompassing notions such as the contaminated water having the potential to induce mutations in marine life and elevate the risk of cancer when consumed by humans.

On the day preceding the wastewater release, Chinese state media outlet China Daily launched a hashtag about how “the nuclear-treated water will reach our seashore in 240 days” (#核废水排放后240天就会到达我国沿岸海域#). This statement was based on a Tsinghua University simulation study into how the tritium will spread.

A screenshot from the video posted by the Weibo account of China Daily about the simulation study, showing that the water will reach China’s seashore after 240 days.

The idea that the contaminated water discharged into the Pacific could reach China within less than eight months quickly gained traction on social media platforms, with many netizens reposting and highlighting the timeline, even planning their “last activities” within these days, such as consuming China-produced seafood or visiting the beach.

Rumors suggesting that the released water would reach the United States long after affecting China and nearby countries also gained widespread online popularity. Some of these analyses led to suspicions that the release of treated water must be a joint conspiracy by Japan and the United States, with the specific aim of targeting the lives of Chinese people.

Guidelines on how everyday practices could mitigate radioactive harm widely circulated. These included recommendations such as taking showers after it rains, identifying makeup products free from radioactive elements, or transitioning to a more vegetarian-based diet. Many of these tips, however, have no scientific basis. One restaurant in Shanghai even started offering anti-radioactive menus.

Meanwhile people began hoarding supplies in preparation for long-term survival. In the coastal city of Weihai, the closest Chinese city to South Korea, four tons of salt were sold in just one hour as citizens queued to stockpile salt on August 24. The salt frenzy stems from collective concerns about the impact of Fukushima water on food safety and that table salt – in the near future and in the decades to come – might also become compromised. There’s also a believe that salt might help in case of radiation pollution (iodized salt, however, is actually no antidote for radiation).

Although muck of the panic buying may have evoked memories of the past Covid years and preparations for the potential next lockdown, people actually also started hoarding salt back in 2011 shortly after the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi in March of that year.

 
Russia’s Anthrax Outbreak
 

Similar to the Fukushima wastewater responses, the same question of “how long does it take to arrive in China” also frequently pops up in the discussions surrounding the spread of anthrax in Russia. Anthrax is a serious infectious disease that occurs naturally in soil and can cause severe diseases to both humans and animals.

While Western media mostly focused on the Prigozhin jet crash incident, news of a mysterious anthrax outbreak in Russia (#俄罗斯一地暴发细菌性炭疽病#) has garnered attention on Chinese social media, causing significant concern. A current hypothesis directly connects climate change and the outbreak by suggesting that the thawing of frozen soil might have exposed people to decades-old infected reindeer carcasses.

A screenshot of the search result on Wechat channels on the topic of Russia’s anthrax, which shows that one related videos received 851,000 likes. Image shared by a netizen on Weibo.

In the comments under reports about the anthrax outbreak, many people are curious about how close the outbreak is to China’s borders. Others are researching anthrax transmission and fatality rates, wondering if it could turn into another global pandemic.

While most people are concerned about the outbreak’s potential impact, some are politicizing it without clear evidence, accusing the US of engaging in new “biological warfare” in Russia.

An image of the game “Resident Evil: Death Island” from a game review article.

The unease about Russia’s anthrax outbreak possibly being linked to “biological warfare” aligns with the public’s anxiety about mutations caused by Japan’s release of radioactive water. These worries amplify existing concerns about environmental changes, drawing parallels with the dystopian world of the Japanese survival horror game “Resident Evil,” where players face environments filled with zombies and other terrifying creatures. In discussions about the anthrax situation, a recurring question emerges: “Why does our reality increasingly resemble an apocalyptic survival game?”

 
Covid-19 Subvariants and Monkeypox
 

Apocalyptic game survival always becomes challenging when there are more than two crises unfolding at the same time. Beyond the concerns about contaminated water and anthrax outbreaks, another issue has captured the attention of the Chinese public recently – the spread of the latest Covid-19 subvariants, EG.5 and BA.2.86.

EG.5 is now the most prevalent in the US and has been detected in at least 52 countries. BA.2.86 is much less widespread, but scientists are alarmed by how many mutations it carries.

While more Chinese social media users are sharing their own experiences of getting Covid a third time, people begin to worry about the possible impact of a massive Covid-19 third wave, referred to as sān yáng (三阳). At the same time, some accounts are giving daily updates on new global cases of BA.2.86, and news reports related to new Covid sub-variants ignite strong reactions from netizens.

“Do not come over” meme used during the monkeypox outbreak.

We have seen similar responses related to news about monkeypox (mpox), with one domestic case of monkeypox occurring in July of this year becoming a top trending topic. Soon after, China saw the world’s fastest increase in cases of mpox, leading to significant concerns expressed by many, with people seeking information on preventive measures to avoid contracting the virus and expressing their hopes that the virus will remain far away from them.

 
Apocalyptic Games
 

“The main task is to stay alive”, concluded numerous netizens on Weibo after listing recent hashtags related to nuclear water, anthrax, and the next Covid-19 subvariant in their posts.

The combination of recent crises involving the environment and public health has made the prospect of impending catastrophe feel distressingly real to many. Half-jokingly, young people on Weibo express their concerns about having shorter lifespans. One netizen even humorously remarks, “Paying into your pension plan under these circumstances is almost like a form of romantic heroism,” suggesting that maintaining the belief that one will live long enough to enjoy their pension is overly optimistic and somewhat naive, especially in the face of present-day global challenges.

Beyond concerns about pension plans, a reluctance to have children has also emerged as a common sentiment, especially after Japan’s release of nuclear treated water. A viral screenshot of a street interview in Hong Kong captures the essence of this sentiment. In the interview, a young person nonchalantly responds that he isn’t worried about contamination of Japanese seafood because he doesn’t plan to have children. While not everyone shares this carefree attitude, many agree that having children in the current climate would be risky and senseless given the state of the world today.

A Weibo user sharing the screenshot of the interview on Weibo and comment that “[This is from] a street interview in Hong Kong. Some citizens said they did not worry about the contamination of Japanese seafood because they did not plan to have children.” The screenshot has now been censored.

Some netizens humorously assume the roles of players in an apocalyptic survival game, assigning different tasks to themselves.

A Weibo user sharing their “tasks” in the survival game.

Under the hashtag ‘What China Can Do When Japan Releases Contaminated Water in the Ocean’ (#日本核污水排海中国怎么办#), one netizen outlines tasks for ‘players’ based on priorities: “Primary task: stay alive; Side-quest: prevent a third-time Covid-19 infection; Special Task: prevent Russia’s anthrax; Hidden task: avoid being deceived by North Myanmar; Important task: avoid consuming seafood from the Pacific Ocean; Final task: eliminate zombies.” Similar tasks have been listed in other posts, reflecting the sentiment that a mass extinction event is looming, making survival increasingly challenging.

 
Eco-Anxiety and a Bleak Future
 

While the term ‘eco-anxiety’ is familiar in Western societies and used by environmental activists, it has yet to become popular among the general public in mainland China, and there is no widely recognized Chinese translation for it. However, this doesn’t mean that only vocal activists are concerned about ecological disasters, or that ordinary people in China are indifferent to global challenges because their concerns are not framed in terms of climate change or expressed through activism.

As numerous studies have shown, ecological anxiety is not exclusive to the West. It’s just that the Western language and framework may have captured this mentality first, making it easy to overlook individuals in other regions who share the same sentiments but express them differently.

Certainly, as elsewhere, mainstream national media in China also contribute significantly to events and incidents that fuel “eco-anxiety” among the public. Moreover, changing political narratives play a pivotal role in shaping these dynamics.

In contrast to the West, Chinese media doesn’t necessarily connect global warming to the nation’s carbon emissions. A recent article published by The Economist discussed official and public discussions being “inward-looking” and avoiding direct engagement with climate change debates.

However, as recently pointed out by Miranda Barnes in our newsletter, additional factors contribute to the distinct responses of Chinese netizens, particularly regarding personal consumption and how individual behavior is connected to climate change. With many people, especially elderly, feeling they bear no responsibility for major pollution or gas emissions, “extreme weather” (“极端天气”) topics on on Chinese social media mostly center around personal safety, self-rescue strategies, and considerations for insurance rather than the collective responsibility of humanity for causing climate change.

Complicating matters further, the presence of low social trust and public skepticism towards official media exacerbates eco-anxiety and other concerns about well-being and the future. People often believe that prioritizing individual self-help and self-protection is the safer option, leading to behaviors like panic buying, even when official sources advise against hoarding.

It is also noteworthy that many of the topics that people are concerned about when it comes to eco-anxiety and public health scares are linked, either directly or indirectly, to foreign countries. While several socio-historical factors contribute to these fears, there are critics who argue that Chinese leaders might exploit public sentiment against Japan or the US to deflect attention from their own internal economic, ecological, and political challenges. On the other hand, some Chinese commentators interpret the Western world’s apparent indifference to these issues as a prioritization of political strategies and capitalist profits over ecological concerns.

A cartoon posted on Weibo showing the US creating a samurai sword for Japan to fight with, mocking the US’s supportive attitude in Japan’s release of treated water.

Eco-anxiety is a collective response to various interconnected issues, including pandemics, disease spread, food security, environmental disasters, and the well-being of future generations. It’s like a complex puzzle where many pieces are intertwined, often involving intricate geopolitical and domestic political dimensions.

After the recent Fukushima fears, one person wrote on Weibo: “A while ago when listening to the BBC, I first heard the English term ‘eco-anxiety’ and I originally did not understand at all, why would people suffer from ‘eco-anxiety’? I hadn’t seen anyone around me with such emotions. But I get it now. I’m already deeply anxious myself.”

By Zilan Qian and Manya Koetse, with contributions by Miranda Barnes

References:

Liu, Chuxuan and Jeremy Wallace. 2023. “What’s Not Trending on Weibo: China’s Missing Climate Change Discourse.” Environmental Research Communications 5 (1).

Pihkala, Panu. 2023. “Introduction” In: Eco-Anxiety and Pandemic Distress. Edited by: Douglas A. Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Oxford University Press.

 

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China Memes & Viral

The Benz Guy from Baoding and the Granny Xu Line-Cutting Controversy

While the public initially supported ‘Grandma Xu’ and criticized the Benz driver from Baoding, the narrative took an unexpected turn.

Manya Koetse

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Following the rapid spread of a video capturing a man and woman involved in a road rage incident, Chinese netizens named and shamed them. But when the situation turned out to be different than it seemed, the focus of the story shifted, emphasizing the responsibility of the so-called ‘melon-eating masses’ actively participating in these kind of hyped-up incidents.

A Baoding license plate with the number 冀F8656Z briefly became China’s most talked-about car tag this week following a road rage incident that was captured on camera (see video). The incident involved the passenger of a black Mercedez-Benz, who went viral on Chinese social media for smashing the hood of another car at a ferry terminal in Zhanjiang. The altercation was triggered by a dispute over line-cutting.

The incident occurred on the afternoon of January 29 at Zhanjiang’s Xuwen Port, where vehicles were queuing up in the car and coach ticket lane. When a Mercedes-Benz Vito attempted to cut into the line, a white Chery car – with an older woman in the passenger seat – refused to yield. In response, the alleged Mercedes owner (male) and another passenger (female) angrily exited their vehicle and scolded the white car’s driver and passenger, as well as slamming their hood and seemingly causing damage to the car.

Meanwhile, the black Mercedes, apparently driven by a third individual, proceeded to cut in line and eventually drove off after the passengers got back in.

The 71-year-old lady in the white car who recorded the incident, Ms Xu or Granny Xu (徐老太), just so happened to have a relatively large social media following on a Douyin account run by her daughter (五莲徐八月). When she posted the video of the incident online, her 500,000 followers (now 800,000) came into action to name and shame the couple who insulted and intimidated her. As a result, the license plate, clearly visible in the footage, became a top trending search query.

This phenomenon, wherein netizens unite to research and expose information about individuals involved in controversial incidents, is also known as the “Human Flesh Search Engine” (人肉搜索) in Chinese (read more).

On January 30, the story started gaining massive attention on Chinese social media and online media sites. What mostly angered people was not just the arrogant and aggressive behavior of the Benz passengers, but also the fact that they acted so rude and entitled toward an elderly lady.

It came out that the aggressive man, the 40-year-old Mr. Wang, is a teacher at Hebei Agricultural University, and people started targeting their anger towards the Agricultural University, the city of Baoding, and even Hebei province as a whole.

The couple triggered China’s meme machine and popped up in various funny edited images.

“Do not cut in line” bumper stickers showing the Benz guy from Baoding.

They even appeared on some online merchandise, namely on bumper stickers warning others not to cut in line.

 
Another Point of View
 

While the public initially supported ‘Grandma Xu’ and criticized the Benz driver from Baoding, the narrative took an unexpected turn. Because in the midst of this controversy, dashcam footage from the Mercedes Benz also surfaced online, along with other images showing the scene from different angles.

This footage offered an alternative perspective, revealing that the Benz driver was attempting a zipper-style merge into the lane but was intentionally blocked by the white car, with the passenger filming the confrontation.

Later on, the surveillance video from the Xuwen Port was also released (video). That 7-minute video showed the entire conflict from the start, and although it showed that the Mercedes driver was at fault for cutting in line and damaging Xu’s car, it also showed that the Chery car was not without fault.

The new information caused a shift in public opinion as people started to think the Ms Xu purposely misrepresented the situation by omitting her role in the traffic altercation. It also became evident that, contrary to initial assumptions, Ms. Xu was not the driver of the white sedan at all; instead, a younger male was behind the wheel.

Bird’s eye view images of Xuwen Port also revealed that in lane 7, where the altercation occurred, all cars eventually merge in a zipper-style pattern.

As a result, both the Benz driver and the elderly lady now faced public condemnation – one for traffic misconduct, the other for distorting the truth on social media.

 
The Role of the Melon Eaters
 

As online discussions about the entire incident are still unfolding, there’s been a change in what people focus on regarding this story.

Initially, the rude and agressive Benz guy and his female companion, a meme-worthy couple, were the main topic of conversation. Then, as people started realizing the role played by the so-called ‘granny’ influencer – who edited and posted the footage in such a way that made her seem like the mere victim, – they were angry at her.

Ultimately, however, some commentators and bloggers noted that it is actually the so-called ‘melon eating masses’ who are responsible for making this story go viral and choosing sides without knowing all the facts. The Chinese term is chīguā qúnzhòng (吃瓜群众), translated as melon-eating masses or peanut gallery, referring to the netizens who are enjoying the spectacle as it unfolds, sharing details or opinions with limited knowledge.

While the story is still simmering online, the the Xuwen County Public Security Bureau has imposed a 10-day administrative detention and a fine of 500 yuan ($70) on Mr Wang for his actions of smashing the hood of the car. Ms Xu reportedly is getting her car fixed, renewing the entire hood of the dented sedan.

The original video that sparked all the controversy has since been removed from Ms Xu’s Douyin account.

In the end, the story has a negative impact on both Wang and Xu, which will probably haunt them for some time to come. The only one benefiting is the seller of ‘please don’t cut in line’ bumper stickers, which have since become a viral success.

Regardless of all disagreements regarding this incident, there’s one thing virtually everyone agrees with, especially during this busy Chinese New Year travel season: bad traffic etiquette and cutting in line is not cool, and resorting to aggression and vandalism is never the solution.

By Manya Koetse

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China Insight

A Snowball Effect: How Cold Harbin Became the Hottest Place in China

Part of Harbin’s enormous success can be attributed to a snowball effect, but the hype is also the result of a well-coordinated campaign.

Manya Koetse

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There is one topic that has been dominating Chinese social media recently: Harbin and its remarkable influx of tourists. How can the buzz surrounding this frosty city be explained?

The new year has just started and Harbin already seems to be the hit of 2024. The capital of China’s Heilongjiang Province, which is famous for its Ice and Snow Festival and Russian heritage, has been dominating trending topics on Chinese social media from late December well into this second week of January.

Every day recently, there’s another hashtag about Harbin that is hitting the hot charts on Chinese social media platforms Weibo, Douyin, and Xiaohongshu. Whether it is about Harbin travel, food, or funny memes, there seems to be an endless stream of stories and topics coming from the city in China’s northeast.

The sudden hype surrounding Harbin is similar to that of Zibo in 2023. The Shandong city, known for its local BBQ culture, became all the rage in spring of last year for its joyful atmosphere and post-pandemic celebratory mood.

Is Harbin the ‘Zibo’ of this 2023-2024 winter season? How come the historical city became such a social media phenomenon?

 
Harbin’s Hottest Festival
 

This year marks the 40th edition of the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival (哈尔滨国际冰雪节), which is the largest ice and snow festival in the world. The official opening ceremony on January 5th not only celebrated the milestone of the 40th edition but also highlighted Harbin’s role as the host city for the 2025 Asian Winter Games. This will also be the first festival after the end of China’s ‘Zero Covid’ policy (the event was previously still held but kept much smaller).

Harbin winters are tough, with temperatures plummeting to as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit) or even colder. The idea for a Harbin ice festival first emerged in the late 1950s, when local officials wanted to cheer up the city and its residents in the dark and gloomy winter days.

They therefore introduced a winter festival centered around the idea of ice lanterns, of which the history goes back to the fisherman on the Songhua River using candles inside frozen blocks to give light on long winter nights. The festival was successful from the start; nearly 250,000 people participated in the 1963 edition (Dewar et al 2001, 524).

First edition of the Snow and Ice Festival in 1963.

After the Cultural Revolution put a halt to the festivities in 1966, local authorities reviewed the festival again in 1984, and revived it as an event to boost the local economy. About a decade later, it had already become one of the biggest of its kind globally, with its ice sculpting competitions and snow sculpture parks, including thousands of ice structures and spectacular lantern venues.

This 2023-2024 season turns out to be another important moment for Harbin and its ice festival. In November of 2023, the city launched a press conference in which they stressed the importance of strengthening the city’s position as an (international) leader in the field of ice and snow tourism in this post-pandemic era and fully focus on turning the season into a “people’s festival” and a “people’s event” (“使冰雪季和冰雪节真正成为人民的节日、百姓的盛会”).

From string quartets to hot air balloons, Harbin is going all out to entertain and impress visitors this year, and all the efforts are paying off.

More than two million people are expected to visit Harbin for this year’s festival, including its ‘Ice and Snow World’ (哈尔滨冰雪大世界) which opened on 18 December and will run until late February. This amusement park is a major attraction within the larger festival, and this 25th edition, with its 810,000-square-meter, is the largest-ever held.

In a time when Chinese domestic travelers are exploring their own country in new ways, from Special Force travel style to show-inspired journeys, the latest buzz surrounding Harbin is something that many simply do not want to miss out on, causing the coldest city to become one of the hottest destinations of the moment.

 
Turning Bad Publicity into Something Positive
 

On December 18, Harbin officially opened its Ice and Snow World to the public, welcoming thousands of visitors. This is also when the city and its festival first started trending on social media, but not necessarily in a good way.

Visitors initially complained that despite making reservations, they had to wait in lines at the entrance for hours, and that the time slot reservation system (分时预约) – introduced in Covid days – actually made things more difficult rather than facilitating a smoother crowd management process.

People also complained when Ice and Snow World issued a notice that they couldn’t accommodate more than 40,000 people and had already reached their limit during the early afternoon, therefore halting further ticket sales on the 18th. The 40,000 people limit seemed strange to many, who commented that other events and venues across China, such as Shanghai Disneyland, could welcome much more visitors.

People who had been waiting in line for hours starting shouting that they wanted their money back, and that incident went viral online as the “ticket refund incident” (#哈尔滨退票事件#, 170 million views on Weibo).

Not only did these incidents generate more public attention for the events taking place in Harbin, Snow World’s response also became a hot topic as they soon issued an apology, swiftly canceled the time slot reservation system, gave ticket refunds, and introduced a ‘first come first served’ system (#冰雪大世界取消预约制#, #哈尔滨冰雪大世界致歉#, 370 million views).

A side effect of this incident and how it was handled was that a so-called “underdog effect” became visible on social media, where many people started defending Harbin and Snow World. Supporters questioned whether visitors would similarly express frustration while waiting in lines at Disneyland or Universal Studios.

One Weibo blogger (@刘成春) wrote: “Please do not dismiss Harbin’s Ice and Snow World just because of some minor shortcomings. A group of simple, honest, hardworking people have spent days on end creating these sculptures with ice taken from the Songhua River at temperatures below minus 20. They’ve been making so much efforts, and Harbin just wants to present these works as gifts and the city’s signature to the people (..) Please don’t discredit the only snow and ice landmark of Northeast China.”

After the incident, this sentiment echoed widely on Chinese social media, where many believed in Harbin’s genuine efforts to make its snow and ice season a success, recognizing the sincerity and goodwill of those involved. The idea that Harbin really deserves to shine this season was further strengthened because of videos emerging on social media of previous Covid years, when the smaller festival looked empty and staff still worked hard to try and entertain the few visitors that were there.

 
Southern Little Potato Hype
 

On New Year’s Eve, videos showing celebrations in Harbin rapidly gained traction online, showing that Harbin was doing everything it could to entertain and create a welcoming atmosphere for its visitors.

These visitors have also become part of the buzz surrounding Harbin this season, mainly the emergence of the so-called “Southern Little Potatoes” (南方小土豆 nánfāng xiǎo tǔdòu). This term refers to the increasing influx of tourists from China’s warmer southern regions who are making their way to the snow-blanketed north.

The term “Southern Little Potatoes” humorously describes these southern tourists, especially women, who are frequently spotted sporting light-colored down jackets and hats. Their short height, distinct travel attire makes them stand out among the typically taller and darker-dressed locals in northeastern cities, leading to the playful potato comparison by northerners.

One of the ‘Southern Little Potatoes’ memes (via 21jingji.com).

As “Southern Little Potatoes” became a trending term online, southern tourists also started using it to make fun of themselves and it came to be used to highlight the warm and sometimes funny exchanges between the north and south.

The “Southern Little Potatoes,” who are not used to not used to ice, snow, and extremely cold weather, are also known to get into tricky situations, needing locals to help them out. On January 9, one tourist from the south went viral for stepping out of the train as he quickly wanted to experience licking a metal pole in freezing temperatures. The moment his tongue got stuck, the train staff kindly helped him get unstuck.

For locals, these silly southern tourists are a great business opportunity. One street seller started offering a supervised metal pole licking experience: you can lick a small metal pole for 5 yuan ($0.70), a bigger one for 10 ($1.40), and the tallest one for 15 ($2) (photo below).

Metal pole licking experience.

The Southern Little Potato trend has set off the online meme machine, as well as sparked a small local economy. Some Harbin taxi drivers, for example, promote themselves as being designated “little potato drivers” to serve their ‘friends from the south.’ Street sellers selling ‘little potato’ plush toy keychains for 15 yuan became all the hype.

Little Potato merchandise sold in the streets of Harbin (via 21jingji.com).

You could say that this general trend has also strengthened ties between the north and south. In Chinese, Harbin (Hā’ěrbīn 哈尔滨) is now affectionately shortened to ‘Ěrbīn‘ by visitors and netizens, with the dropping of the ‘Ha’ reflecting a more casual, friendly familiarity with the city.

 
A Snowball Effect
 

Although part of Harbin’s enormous (online) success can be attributed to a snowball effect that began after December 19/20, with people showing their appreciation for the city and joining the hype, the attention on social media was also a result of a well-coordinated campaign.

As described by Chinese media outlet The Paper (澎湃新闻), Heilongjiang Province’s Cultural and Tourism Department Party Secretary and Director He Jing (何晶) recently stated in an interview: “This year’s popularity [of Harbin] isn’t accidental; we’ve been preparing for a year.” He explained how, since early 2023, they started focusing on new media and social media strategies to promote Heilongjiang and Harbin in multiple ways.

For this season, Harbin Snow World made sure there were several online influencers and celebrities promoting the festivities, such as Chinese influencers Kiki (陈洁Kiki) and Barbin (Barbin.ili芭比) or Olympic champion speed skaters Fan Kexin (范可新), Zhang Hong (张虹), and Zhang Yuting (张雨婷). There are also various brand collaborations, such as with Tencent and its Game for Peace (和平精英). Local official media channels and big state media accounts also collaborate with Harbin in posting a lot of promotional videos related to festivities.

This year, Harbin also introduced all kinds of activities and venues to increase their appeal. The ice-made terracotta warriors, for example, or the hot pot restaurant housed within an ice structure, where even the tables are sculpted from ice. These are just some of the many ‘must-experience’ attractions in Harbin that have garnered attention on Chinese social media (#哈尔滨把火锅玩出了本地特色#).

There is also a 20-meter high snowman wearing a red hat, that has come to serve as a must-go photo opportunity for visitors. The local tourism ambassador, the Exploring Pinguin (淘学企鹅), with its cute appearance and orange backpack, is also one of those things that further adds to the appeal of Harbin and its Snow World.

Local authorities, including the tourism department, also pulled out all the stops to ensure visitors felt welcome and accommodated. They made sure local hotels and other business maintained fair prices despite the surge in tourists and to increase the focus on customer service.

They also made sure to listen to (online) feedback and quickly act on complaints. For example, after so many tourists from the south arrived at Harbin Airport and had to change into warmer clothing in the chilly central hall, they increased the number of airport dressing rooms, equipped with seats, mirrors, and carpets. This kind of attention to detail and drive to serve visitors is a strategy that has greatly contributed to Harbin’s current success.

You now see that the combined efforts of local authorities and businesses in Harbin, both online and offline, have cultivated a unique festive atmosphere. This atmosphere is contagious; it motivates locals to actively contribute to maintain the standards while also encouraging visitors to actively promote the city. This leads to new groups of visitors getting enthusiastic to travel to Harbin.

While this success is partly orchestrated, with authorities and state media being key players, there is also that ‘special something’ — a kind of genuine charm, sincerity, relatability, and likability — which is much harder to schedule through strategies. It’s an organic ingredient that is a major part of the buzz. In this way, Zibo and Harbin are very much alike.

Despite some criticisms about prioritizing short-term fame and social media hype for Chinese tourist destinations, it seems that Harbin’s success will be long lasting. As some social media users say: “I can’t make it this year, but I definitely will go to Harbin for the next season. I’ve never even seen snow in my life.”

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Ruixin Zhang and Miranda Barnes

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References

Dewar, Keith, Denny Meyer, and Wen Mei Li. 2001. “Harbin, Lanterns of Ice, Sculptures of Snow.” Tourism Management 22 (5): 523-532.

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