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CCTV Airs Program on Xinjiang’s ‘Vocational Training Centers’: Criticism & Weibo Responses

A noteworthy episode of CCTV “Focus Talk” marks the first time Chinese state media extensively reports on the existence of vocational education programs in Xinjiang. Weibo reactions are mixed.

Manya Koetse

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A recent CCTV “Focus Talk” TV program themed around an “educational training center” in Xinjiang, along with other Chinese state media articles on ‘training facilities’ in northwest China, has triggered the attention of foreign media this week. Many reporters interpret the latest Xinjiang publicity as a way for the Chinese government to create a “new narrative” to defend its policies in the region.

On Tuesday, October 16 2018, the CCTV prime-time program ‘Focus Talk’ (焦点访谈) dedicated a 15-minute episode to the topic of Xinjiang’s ‘vocational skills educational training centers’ (职业技能教育培训中心), marking the first time for Chinese state media to extensively report on the existence of these controversial programs in Xinjiang.

‘Focus Talk’ is a renowned news program that has been aired by China’s state broadcaster since 1994. It is generally themed around various societal issues, and provides background analysis of various topics through interviews with officials and the public. The show’s official Weibo account has over 1,8 million fans.

Noteworthy is that the special Xinjiang-focused episode was aired hours after Xinjiang governor Shohrat Zakir (雪克来提·扎克尔) issued a statement to fend off international criticism on government-operated ‘Muslim internment camps,’ characterizing them as “people-oriented” facilities built to “fundamentally eliminate the environment and soil that breeds terrorism and religious extremism.”

Earlier this year, United Nations’ human rights experts said they had received credible reports that up to one million Muslim Uighurs may be held in extra-legal political detentions in Xinjiang, and called for them to be released.

Since 2014, China has implemented several measures to keep religious expressions to a minimum after a string of attacks allegedly committed by Chinese Muslim extremists. In March 2014, a knife attack at the Kunming railway station left 29 civilians dead. In May, 43 were killed when a Urumqi market was bombed. On June 22, attackers drove into a Kashgar police building and set off explosives. The list goes on.

The government responded to the increasing violence in 2014 with an ongoing crackdown that, at the time, resulted in more than 380 arrests within one month, and public controls on religious expression. In 2015, a ban on wearing burqa’s, or ‘face masking veils’ (面罩袍), was legally approved and went into effect on February 1st. In 2016, there were reports of local governments ordering restrictions on fasting during Ramadan. That same year also saw reports on the existence of “ideological training camps.”

This week’s efforts of Chinese media to highlight Xinjiang’s “educational centers” as a humane, positive, and constructive solution to defeat terrorism and extremism in the region (both in written state media and by state broadcaster CCTV) have made headlines in international media.

“China defends Xinjiang camps for Muslim citizens,” the Financial Times reported; “China admits to locking up Uyghurs, but defends Xinjiang crackdown,” CNN headlined; “China defends its ‘people-oriented’ Muslim reeducation program as job training,” Washington Post wrote.

On Twitter, New York Times reporter Chris Buckley tweeted about the CCTV episode, writing: “Dispelling any doubts that the Chinese government is trying to create a new narrative about its indoctrination camps in Xinjiang, CCTV on Tuesday broadcast a primetime program praising the camps.” Reporters from other newspapers also described the latest Xinjiang publicity as a “new narrative.”

 

The “Source Governance” Episode

 

On October 16, CCTV aired the episode in question. At the start of the program, the talk show host introduces the topic as follows:

Terrorism and extremism are the public enemy of civilized society, and are the enemy of the international community. Since the 1990s, the ‘Three Evils’ of domestic and foreign ethnic separatist forces, religious extremist forces, and violent terrorist forces, have schemed and organized the execution of thousands of violent terrorist incidents in Xinjiang, victimizing a great number of innocent people, leading to the deaths of hundreds of public security forces, and causing incalculable damage.”

The crackdown on terrorism and extremism is a global problem. To tackle this problem, Xinjiang has carried out the exploration of ‘source governance’ (源头治理) through the means of vocational skills educational training (职业技能教育培训), in accordance with the relevant laws and regulations. What is the result of this training? Let’s take a look.”

The show then shifts from the studio to the footage show in Xinjiang, with the voice-over saying:

Recently, our reporters went to Xinjiang’s Hotan (和田市) to visit a vocational skills educational training center, just in time for the smooth graduation of some students.”

Mayor Alken Aili of the city of Hotan, a major oasis town in southwestern Xinjiang, then talks to reporters, saying:

There are criteria for our students to complete the course. Firstly, they need to reach the qualified standards in the spoken and written national common language. Then they need to qualify in legal and regulatory knowledge, and then in their training and employment ability. Once they reach the standard, and qualify for it, then they can complete the course.”

A student named Abdul then speaks to the reporter, saying:

Through my studies, I’ve deeply realized my mistakes. I will continue to study hard once I’m back. I’ll be a good citizen, and influence the people around me.”

In the program, the mayor of Hotan then explains the main contents of the learning center as learning standard Chinese, studying various laws (including criminal law, national security law, anti-terrorism law, etc.), and then learning vocational skills.

A female student tells reporters:

Before, I couldn’t understand the language and struggled to get by. Now, if I continue to study hard, I’ll be able to work and make money anywhere.”

The voice-over continues to explain that many of the students at the Xinjiang training center do not master standard Chinese, have a “weak sense of the rule of law,” and face employment difficulties due to a lack of skills, leaving them extra vulnerable to turn to terrorism and extremism.

Another female student by the name of Turenisha Abdulla then says:

If I wouldn’t have come here, I can’t imagine what would have happened. Perhaps I would have joined those religious extremists and take the criminal path. The Party and government have found me in time and saved me, giving me a chance to reform and start anew. I am very grateful.”

The voice-over explains that, looking at local needs and industrial development, the training center educates its students in various skills from beauty salon skills to food processing, and more “skills specific to ethnicity” (“民族特色的手工艺技能”), such as carpeting or making flatbread.

The program then further zooms in on the importance of education, and how teaching skills to students (of which some reportedly have been “eroded by religious extremism”) gives them better opportunities and a brighter future, and have “significantly improved the sense of security and happiness” in the region.

Throughout the episode, the CCTV voice-overs or commentators not once mention ‘Islam’ or ‘Muslims.’ They also do not label the educational center’s students as belonging to any particular religions. Instead, the program only mentions “terrorism” and “religious extremism.”

This is noteworthy because while foreign media have consistently reported about “Xinjiang camps for Muslim citizens” or “Uighur Muslims,” Chinese state media evade this issue by not mentioning any specific religion at all, but only mentioning the issue of extremism and terrorism.

 

Mixed Reactions on Weibo

 

The CCTV episode in question has triggered hundreds of comments on Chinese social media this week, which were quite mixed; many commenters expressed positive sentiments on the episode and its contents, but there were also others who were critical of the ‘educational centers.’

Comments in favor of the Xinjiang centers praised the government’s policies, with one micro-blogger writing: “Go and watch this episode of ‘Focus Talk’! It explains Xinjiang’s vocational education centers, which have been criticized as ‘transformation camps’ (转化营) by the West. They’re very real, very feasible, very effective, and very good.”

“Foreign journalists are distorting the facts,” others said: “I just came back from a business trip to Xinjiang, and it’s really much better there now than a few years before, so I need to support this.”

“We have to help a large number of Muslims to quit their Islam addiction,” another popular comment read: “It’s a quite frightening disease.”

“We can only adopt the correct extreme measures to combat the evil of extremism,” some in favor of the Xinjiang ‘education centers’ wrote in other threads discussing the program.

The negative comments often used sarcasm in their reactions, writing things as: “This is quite fantastic! Do they get winter- and summer holidays? When can they graduate? Can we visit there? And will we come out alive if we do?”

And: “What a great educational programme, we should implement it all across the country, so that we can all be treated this well!”

“But, isn’t this just exactly the same as a prison?”, one commenter said. “It’s really frightening, they all look like robots,” another person responded.

There are also Weibo users who simply want to know more about the ‘centers’, writing: “I want to know the reason for them to go there. And what if they do not qualify the standards [to complete], will they continue to stay there indefinitely?”

Some netizens indicate that what is happening in Xinjiang today might also happen in other provinces in China with a large Muslim population. Although Muslims live all over China, the majority lives in the northwestern regions of Xinjiang, Ningxia, Gansu and the Qinghai provinces.

“Xinjiang’s present-day is Ningxia’s tomorrow,” one Weibo user predicts.

Watch the full episode by CCTV here (no subtitles).

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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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China Books & Literature

From “Voice of the People” to “Traitor of China”: The Rise and Fall of Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary

How a Weibo journal got caught up in pandemic politics: the Wuhan Diary controversy explained.

Manya Koetse

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Fang Fang’s critical online account of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan was widely celebrated before it was strongly condemned. This is a look into one of the biggest controversies in China’s online media spheres this spring, and a breakdown of how this acclaimed Chinese novelist went from an ally in times of lockdown, to a traitor during pandemic politics.

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China (forthcoming), see Goethe.de: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
 

As China is gradually getting back to business after the COVID-19 crisis, the coronavirus crisis is still dominating social media discussions. But the way the virus comes up in online debates has changed over the past few weeks, as the global health crisis has become increasingly politicized. Rather than a show of global solidarity, the pandemic has spawned a lot of finger-pointing in online media and on social networking sites across the world.

Who is to blame for the spread of the virus? Who is doing more, which leader is doing better, where is the crisis mismanaged? What is fake news, what is truth? Who writes or says what for which reason?

Somewhere within these corona media wars and political games, there’s the controversy regarding Wuhan Diary, which recently became a heated topic of debate on Weibo and beyond. 

 

FANG FANG AND WUHAN DIARY

“Fang was saying the things so many people wanted to say, and was asking the questions so many wanted answers to”

 

Wuhan Diary (武汉日记[1]) is written by the 65-year-old acclaimed Chinese author Wang Fang, better known as Fang Fang (方方).[2] It is an online account of the 2020 Hubei lockdown, originally published on WeChat and Weibo.

Throughout the lockdown period in January, February, and March, Fang Fang wrote about life in quarantine in province capital Wuhan, the heart of the epicenter, documenting everything from the weather to the latest news and the personal stories and tragedies behind the emerging crisis.

Fang’s 60-post diary was published on her Weibo account (@方方), which had some 3,8 million followers at the time, from late January shortly after the lockdown began, until late March when the end of the lockdown was announced.

Shortly after starting her online account, Fang’s daily journal gained wide traction. Amid the panic and uncertainty of the early days of the lockdown, social media flooded with rumors, fake news, and misinformation. Chinese web users were looking for alternative reliable sources to find out what was really happening in Wuhan.

Fang’s online journal provided people with information regarding the new coronavirus, but it also captured the emotions and struggles of the people in Wuhan. She soon became a go-to first-hand account of what was going on in the city; she was the voice of a quarantined city in distress. At a time when people were craving unfiltered information and distrusting official media, her words became an anchor for many in a sea of confusing news flows.

The fact that Fang is a respected author contributed to the popularity of her online writings. With her compassionate representations of everyday life in Wuhan, she has since long been an important author for the regional literature. Her writings have drawn attention ever since the 1980s, when she won an award for the best National Novella (Landscape 风景, 1987). She has remained a relevant author throughout the years, even receiving the prestigious Lu Xun Literary Prize in 2010.

In documenting life in Wuhan during the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, Fang touched upon many sensitive issues. Besides writing about problems such as overcrowded hospitals and mask shortages, she also directly questioned how authorities were handling the crisis and warned other writers for propaganda manipulation.

With the death of ‘whistleblower’ doctor Li Wenliang on the night of February 6, Chinese social media saw an outpouring of anger at Chinese authorities and state media. The public’s anger showed itself at other moments too, both online and offline.

While many of Fang’s publications on social media were censored and her Weibo account was temporarily blocked, the online Wuhan Diary only gained more attention, with the daily entries (or screenshots) spreading across WeChat like wildfire. “Dear internet censors, you should let Wuhan people speak,”[3] Fang wrote in February.

By demanding more transparency and accountability from Chinese (local) leadership, Fang was saying the things so many people wanted to say and was asking the questions so many wanted answers to.

 

CHANGING US-VERSUS-THEM DYNAMICS

“Whose side is she on, anyway?”

 

It did not take long for Fang’s online journal to gain international attention. In mid-February, news articles covering the ‘forbidden diary’ from Wuhan also appeared in foreign media.

Although Fang’s online writings received some backlash before – her critics mainly disliked how much of her diary entries were not fact-based but “merely hearsay” -, it wasn’t until April when public opinion really shifted against Wuhan Diary after it became known that an international edition of her diary was on presale through Amazon.

First, there was the announcement of the English version with the title “Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from the Original Epicenter” (later changed to “Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City”, translation by Michael Berry) published by Harper Collins; then, a German edition translated by Michael Kahn-Ackermann and issued by Hoffman Camp Press.

The criticism that Fang Fang has since been facing on Chinese social media is unprecedented. Rather than a Wuhan ally, many of her online readers now think of her as a “traitor” to China[4], saying she is airing China’s dirty laundry to make a profit, and that she only writes about negativity and darkness to play to the tune of those countries slamming China. The author has seen an online stream of death threats and violent comments.

Fang Fang arguably would not have received as much backlash if China had not come to face such international scrutiny in light of the global spread of COVID-19. At the time of the early coronavirus outbreak and Fang’s first diary entry, the corona crisis was still a national one, and to some extent even a regional one. Many saw Fang, a Wuhan native and acclaimed author, as a spokesperson for the people in times of fear, uncertainty, and collective suffering.

But as China increasingly came under international pressure over how it handled the epidemic in its early phases, anti-foreign and nationalistic sentiments grew by the day. With China being blamed for causing the pandemic – American President Trump even suggesting it did so deliberately – waves of angry nationalism flooded Chinese social media, and Wuhan Diary was caught in the changing us-versus-them dynamics of China’s COVID-19 crisis.

In the eyes of many Chinese web users, a translated version of Fang’s critical account of the Wuhan outbreak would only provide opponents of China with more ammunition. The upcoming translation’s description on Amazon by itself was a source of outrage for many, allegedly putting too much emphasis on China’s mishandling of the early outbreak. The fact that the original title of the book emphasized that COVID-19 started in Wuhan[5] was also something many netizens found offensive.  ‘Whose side is she on anyway?’, they wondered.

“Western countries are attacking the motherland, and Fang Fang is knowingly giving them the bullets in advance,” one Weibo commenter from Beijing wrote.

 

AN ONGOING ISSUE

Your Wuhan Diary will only worsen Western misconceptions about China!”

 

The Wuhan Diary controversy seems to be an ongoing one. By early May, it was reported that at least two Chinese academics were reprimanded for speaking out in support of Fang Fang. Online discussions continue. By now, the Weibo hashtag “Fang Fang Diary” (#方方日记#) has received over 670 million views, with other scattered hashtags also drawing in thousands of responses.

On Fang Fang’s Weibo page, now followed by more than 4,6 million web users, the author has responded to the recent controversy and allegations in multiple lengthy posts, claiming that most of her attackers, who blame her for only writing negative things, did not even read her diary. She argues that her written account is one of a trapped Wuhan resident in the middle of a catastrophe and that it should not be taken out of its this context.

Fang Fang is not the first Chinese writer to face online backlash for how ‘China’ is represented to the outside world. Besides the fact that Chinese literature is virtually inseparable from politics, there is an enormous number of Chinese web users ready to be outraged about China being misconstrued, ridiculed, humiliated, or otherwise suffering foreign insult.

This kind of angry nationalism often surfaces on the Chinese internet, and it has done so since the early days of social media in China. According to Ying Jiang, the author of Cyber-Nationalism in China, the roots of this “angry nationalism” expressed by today’s Chinese netizens can be traced back to China’s modern history, and more specifically to the “Century of Humiliation” (mid-1800s until after WWII) during which China faced many hardships brought about by foreign powers.

This history has been an important component of Chinese education campaigns for decades, and along with the economic prospering of China, the country has seen the rise of a more patriotic populace that is nationalistic in a way that is also increasingly anti-foreign.

Especially during noteworthy times such as the coronavirus outbreak – an opportunity for China to establish more international leadership -, negative media representations of the country, its government, and how it handled the COVID-19 crisis are sensitive and prone to controversy. A telling example is that three journalists of The Wall Street Journal were expelled from China in February over the paper’s refusal to apologize for a published opinion article titled “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.”

The online anger over Fang’s translated work will not die out any time soon. On Weibo, discussions continue. “Fang Fang, your Wuhan Diary, that’s merely hearsay and overly subjective, will only worsen Western misconceptions about China, and will only make more Western people discriminate against Chinese! You’ll go down in history as a disgrace!”, one Weibo user writes in early May.

Although many will not agree on how Wuhan Diary will be remembered, all the commotion and criticism has only increased the public’s awareness about the book’s existence; it will surely go down in the history of the COVID-19 impact in China, and the online media wars that came with it.

The English translation of Wuhan Diary is expected to be released via Amazon on May 19 (link), the English audiobook on May 28 (link) the German translation is expected June 9. On the China Digital Times website, Josh Rudolph has also translated parts of Fang’s work.

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

For more COVID-19 related articles, please click here.

 

[1] Also known in Chinese as: 武汉封城日记.

[2] Fang Fang is the pen name of Wang Fang.

[3] Zhao, Kiki. 2020. “Opinion: The Coronavirus Story is Too Big for China to Spin.” The New York Times, Feb 14 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/14/opinion/china-coronavirus-social-media.html [5.2.2020].

[4] Mainly using Chinese terms汉奸 and 卖国贼, both meaning “traitor” or more specifically “traitor to China.”

[5] Also see the original German title of the translation: “Wuhan Diary – Das Verbotenen Tagebuch aus der Stadt, in der die Corona-Krise began” [The Forbidden Diary from the City where the Coronacrisis Began].

Sources and further reading

Adlakha, Hemant. 2020.”Fang Fang: The ‘Conscience of Wuhan’ Amid Coronavirus Quarantine.” The Diplomat , March 23 https://thediplomat.com/2020/03/fang-fang-the-conscience-of-wuhan-amid-coronavirus-quarantine/[5.3.2010].

Fumian, Marco. 2020. “To Serve the People or the Party: Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary and Chinese Writers at the Time of Coronavirus.” MCLC Resource Center Publication (April 2020) https://u.osu.edu/mclc/online-series/marco-fumian/?fbclid=IwAR32HvM6WO0JHIhFFIY85bd-qyOzGEfXrZpp6S0SxbiTQrGCjwe_n-jL63Y [5.1.2020].

Leung, Laifong. 2016. Contemporary Chinese Fiction Writers: Biography, Bibliography, and Critical Assessment. New York & London: Routledge.

Rudolph, Jodh. 2020. “Translation: Backlash To Wuhan Diary “Reveals A Serious Problem Society Must Correct.” China Digital Times, April 21 https://chinadigitaltimes.net/2020/04/translation-backlash-to-wuhan-diary-reveals-a-serious-problem-society-must-correct/ [5.2.2020].

Wu, Yuwen. 2020. “Chinese propagandists don’t want you to read this diary on the coronavirus lockdown in Wuhan.” The Independent, March 2 https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/coronavirus-wuhan-lockdown-fangfang-diary-china-dr-li-a9368961.html [3.2.2020].

Ying Jiang. 2012. Cyber-Nationalism in China: Challenging Western Media Portrayals of Internet Censorship in China. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.

Zhao, Kiki. 2020. “Opinion: The Coronavirus Story is Too Big for China to Spin.” The New York Times, Feb 14 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/14/opinion/china-coronavirus-social-media.html [5.2.2020].

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

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

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China Digital

From Tea Farmer to Online Influencer: Uncle Huang and China’s Rural Live Streamers

‘Cunbo’ aka ‘rural livestreaming’ is all the rage. A win-win situation for farmers, viewers, and Alibaba.

Manya Koetse

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This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, originally published in German by Goethe Institut China on Goethe.de: “VOM TEEBAUERN ZUM INFLUENCER: ONKEL HUANG UND CHINAS LÄNDLICHE LIVESTREAMER.” 

The past year has been super tumultuous when it comes to the topics that have been dominating Chinese social media. The Coronavirus crisis was preceded by other big issues that were all the talk online, from the US-China trade war to the protests in Hong-Kong, the swine flu, and heightened censorship and surveillance.

Despite the darker side to China’s online environment, however, there were also positive developments. One of the online trends that became popular this year comes with a term of its own, namely cūnbō (村播): rural livestreaming.  Chinese farmers using livestreaming as a way to sell their products and promote their business have become a more common occurrence on China’s e-commerce and social media platforms. 

mage via Phoenix News (iFeng Finance).

The social media + e-commerce mix, also called ‘social shopping,’ is booming in the PRC. Online platforms where the lines between social media and e-commerce have disappeared are now more popular than ever. There’s the thriving Xiaohongshu (小红书Little Red Book) platform, for example, but apps such as TikTok (known as Douyin in China) also integrate shopping in the social media experience.

Over recent years, China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba has contributed to the rising popularity of ‘social shopping.’ Its Taobao Live unit (also a separate app), which falls under the umbrella of China’s biggest online marketplace Taobao, is solely dedicated to shopping + social media, mainly mobile-centered. It’s a recipe for success: Chinese mobile users spend over six hours online per day, approximately 72% of them shop online, and nearly 65% of mobile internet users watch livestreaming.

Every minute of every day, thousands of online shoppers tune in to dozens of different channels where sellers promote anything from food products to makeup or pet accessories. The sellers, also called ‘hosts’ or ‘presenters,’ make their channels attractive by incorporating makeup tutorials, cooking classes, giving tips and tricks, chatting away and joking, and promising their buyers the best deal or extra presents when purchasing their products.                

Livestreaming on Taobao goes on 24/7 (screenshots from Taobao app by author).

Sometimes thousands of viewers tune in to one channel at the same. They can ‘follow’ their favorite hosts and can interact with them directly by leaving comments on the livestreams. They can compliment the hosts (“You’re so funny!”), ask questions about products (“Does this also come in red?”), or leave practical advice (“You should zoom in when demonstrating this product!”). The product promoted in the livestreams can be directly purchased through the Taobao system.

Over the past year, Alibaba has increased its focus on rural sellers within the livestreaming e-commerce business. Countryside sellers even have their own category highlighted on the Taobao Live app. Chinese tech giant Alibaba launched its ‘cūnbō project’ in the spring of 2019 to promote the use of its Taobao Live app amongst farmers. The most influential livestreaming farmers get signed by Alibaba to elevate Taobao Live’s rural business to a higher level.

One of these influential Chinese farmers who has made a name for himself through livestreaming is Huang Wensheng, a tea farmer from the mountainous Lichuan area in Hunan Province.

Uncle Huang livestreaming from the tea fields (image via Sohu.com)

Huang, who is nicknamed ‘Uncle Farmer,’ sells tea through his channel, where he shows viewers his work and shares stories and songs from his village. He is also known to talk about what he learned throughout his life and will say things such as: “It is important to work hard; not necessarily so much to change the world , but to make sure the world does not change you.”

With just three to five livestreaming sessions per week, ‘Uncle’ Huang reaches up to twenty million viewers per month, and, according to Chinese media reports, has seen a significant increase in his income, earning some 10,000 yuan (€1300) per week.

Huang is not the only farmer from his hometown using Taobao Live to increase their income; there are some hundred rural livestreamers in Lichuan doing the same.

Some random screenshots by author from rural livestreaming channels, where online shoppers get a glimpse of countryside life

The rural livestreaming category is significantly different from the urban fashionistas selling brand makeup and the latest must-haves: these hosts do not have the polished look, glamorous clothes, or stylish backgrounds. They usually film outside while doing their work or offer a glimpse into their often humble rooms or kitchens.

Viewers get to see the source of the products sold by these rural sellers; they often literally go to the fields to show where their agricultural products grow, or film themselves getting the eggs from their chickens or the oranges from the trees. From fruits to potatoes and flowers, and from fresh tea to home-made chili sauce – a wide range of products is promoted and sold through Taobao Live these days.

Some rural livestreamers are trying to stay ahead of their competition by coming up with novel concepts. A young farmer from Sichuan, for example, recently offered viewers the opportunity to “adopt” a rooster from his farm, allowing them to interact with ‘their’ rooster through social media and even throwing the occasional birthday party for some lucky roosters.

Image via sina.com.

Examples such as these show that although the countryside livestreamers usually lack glitter and glam, they can be just as entertaining – or perhaps even more so – than their urban counterparts.

Who benefits from the recent ‘cūnbōboom? One could argue that the rising popularity of livestreaming farmers is a win-win situation from which all participants can profit in some way. The commercial interests are big for Alibaba. The company has been targeting China’s countryside for years, as it’s where China’s biggest consumption growth will happen while mobile internet penetration is still on the rise. Alibaba earns profits from an increasing number of rural e-commerce buyers, as well as e-commerce sellers.

Alibaba’s early focus on the countryside as a new home for e-commerce has previously also led to the phenomenon of so-called ‘Taobao Villages,’ where a certain percentage of rural residents are selling local specialties, farm products or other things via the Taobao platform with relatively little transaction costs.

Many Chinese villages and farmers are profiting from the further spread of Taobao in the countryside. Not only does Alibaba invest in logistics and e-commerce trainings in rural areas, these e-commerce channels are also a way to directly boost sales and income for struggling farmers.

Chinese media predict that the rural livestreaming trend will only become more popular in the years to come, bringing forth many more influential farmers like Huang.

But besides the commercial and financial gains that come from the rising popularity of rural livestreamers, there is also a significant and noteworthy social impact.  At  a time in which China’s rapidly changing society sees a widening gap between urban and rural areas, these rural channels serve as a digital bridge between countryside sellers and urban consumers, offering netizens a real and unpolished look into the lives of farmers in others parts of the country, and gives online buyers more insight and understanding of where their online products came from.

Taobao Live is actually like a traditional “farmers’ market,” but now it is digital, open 24/7, and accessible to anyone with a mobile phone. It’s the Chinese farmers’ market of the 21st century.

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

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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