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China’s Celebrity Diplomats: The Online Fan Culture Surrounding Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin

The fan culture surrounding Wang Wenbin comes at a time when China’s ‘diplomat dream team’ already has a steady fanbase on social media.

Manya Koetse

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From TikTok fan videos to Weibo super topics – there’s a lively fan culture surrounding China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin. He is not the only ‘celebrity spokesperson’ on Chinese social media. Fans see China’s diplomats as national heroes and online idols.

In December of 2022, Wang Wenbin, top diplomat and the 32nd spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was spotted out and about at Huangshan Mountain by Chinese netizens.

Soon, videos of Wang spread on Weibo and Douyin, where many people expressed excitement about seeing the top diplomat at the popular tourist spot and outside of the usual formal setting.

Wang Wenbing (汪文斌, b. 1971) is the Deputy Director of the Foreign Ministry Information Department of China. He studied at China’s Foreign Affairs University, majoring in French and economics, and has been working for China’s Foreign Ministry since 1993. Wang previously also took up the post as ambassador in Tunisia from 2018 to 2020.

Wang was in Huangshan, Anhui, to attend a visit of various international VIP guests from the IMF, World Bank, OECD, etc. on the occasion of the Seventh “1 6” Roundtable, which convened in the province of Anhui. Wang Wenbin originally is from Xindu village in Tongcheng, Anhui.

The fact that Wang was spotted in Anhui at that time was noteworthy. It was the first time since Covid that various Chinese officials welcomed and entertained international guests, marking an end to China’s zero-Covid era; and it was all taking place in Wang’s home province, where he is also known as “Anhui’s pride.”

Wang Wenbin, top diplomat and spokesperson for China's MFA, was out and about in Anhui, and many people were happy to see him IRL and posted their videos of him on social media,calling him “the pride of Anhui, the pride of China.”

The 2022 excitement on Chinese social media surrounding the new Wang Wenbin videos went far beyond ‘Anhui’s pride’ alone; it showed the wider popularity of the top official on Chinese social media and signaled a broader trend of Chinese diplomats becoming online celebrities.

From fan videos on Douyin (TikTok) and Bilibili to discussion threads on Zhihu, Chinese diplomats have become idolized on social media over the past few years. Besides all the fan accounts on various Chinese social media platforms, Wang Wenbin also has dedicated ‘super topic’ communities on Weibo, which are forums focused on particular topics or celebrities.

There is the “Wang Wenbin Super Topic” page and also the “Wang Wenbing Exchange” (汪文斌交流) and the Wang Wenbin’s Bin’s Sweets” forum (汪文斌的斌糖). These public online forums contain thousands of posts dedicated to Wang.

One of the supertopic forums on Weibo dedicated to Wang Wenbin.

The Wang Wenbin supertopic pages are all about content featuring Wang in his role as the spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry, replying to various questions during regular press conferences. Netizens are creative in editing images of Wang, adding quotes or drawings, and they make special fan videos.

Some of these videos have added texts or special effects, showing Wang Wenbin surrounded by sparkles and floating hearts as a sign of affection. Commenters praise Wang for being “so simple, so assertive,” while others complement the diplomat on being so “hard-working,” “concise and comprehensive.”

Wang Wenbin ‘fan art’ on one of the supertopic pages.

There are also those who praise Wang’s looks and expressions, saying his facial features are “handsome,” “cute,” “adorable,” and saying that ‘Uncle Wang’ is just too “cool.”

At a time of growing U.S.-China tensions and recurring international hot issues including China’s stance on the war in Ukraine and the Taiwan question, Wang Wenbin and his immediate colleagues Mao Ning (毛宁) and Hua Chunying (华春莹) are featured more prominently on social media by official media accounts that highlight answers given during the regular Foreign Ministry press conferences, which are held five times per week.

As Wang Wenbin is given greater visibility on Chinese social media by state media accounts, the online fan communities dedicated to Wang grow more lively as they have more material to express their enthusiasm about the Foreign Ministry spokesperson.

 

DIPLOMAT DREAM TEAM

Chinese Diplomats Becoming Celebrities

 

Wang is not the first Chinese top official or diplomat to become an online celebrity. Former Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian (赵立坚) previously also became very popular among Chinese netizens.

Zhao rose to popularity in 2020, the year he started his job as the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), and many netizens loved him for his “disarming smile” and because of his demeanor, as many joked Zhao often looked like he could not wait to get off work.

An online meme culture developed around Zhao, who often repeated certain phrases or expressions during press conferences. Among them was the expression “shìmù yǐdài” (拭目以待), to eagerly wait for something to happen, literally meaning “to wipe one’s eyes and wait” (e.g. he used it in 2022 in the context of China waiting to see if Pelosi would actually dare to visit Taiwan or not). Phrases such as these became widely known and were used in affectionate online jokes about Zhao.

Shìmù yǐdài 拭目以待, to eagerly wait for something to happen, literally “to wipe one’s eyes and wait,” is one of Zhao Lijian’s famous phrases.

Even though Zhao was moved from his position as spokesperson and transferred to the Boundary and Ocean Affairs department earlier in 2023, there are still online communities dedicated to him where new posts with Zhao-related images, gifs, and videos keep flooding in.

Even though Zhao has left his post as spokesperson, the online communities dedicated to him are still lively.

Before Zhao’s rise to fame, China’s MFA spokespeople and other diplomats had already gained an online fanbase. Around 2017, the concept of China’s “diplomat dream team” (外交天团) started to be used more frequently by Chinese media and social media users.

This was around the same time when Hong Lei (洪磊), Geng Shuang (耿爽), Lu Kang (陆慷), and Hua Chunying (华春莹) served as spokespeople for the Foreign Ministry and when their remarks on diplomatic events carried a more assertive and confrontational tone of voice facing heightening tensions with the U.S. over trade, the South China Sea, and human rights.

For example, China Daily ran an article about the “wonderful responses” from China’s diplomat dream team in 2017 (link) and they ran another similar one in 2018 (link).

An early example of China’s “Diplomat Dream Team.” Left: China’s top diplomat Wang Yi, former spokesperson Hong Lei, spokesperson Hua Chunying, diplomat Lu Kang, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Qin Gang.

But it was not until 2020 when China’s top diplomats and the “spokesperson top team” (发言人天团) really garnered online attention as they were often featured in headlines and created a stir.

Not only was 2020 the year that ‘celebrity diplomat’ Zhao Lijian joined the spokesperson team, it was also a year of complex international developments including the Covid outbreak and worsening diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China driven by ‘eye for an eye’ strategies; one day after the Chinese consulate in Houston was forced to close, China also ordered the American consulate in Chengdu to shut its doors.

In July of 2020, Wang Wenbin joined the ‘top team’ of Chinese diplomats, which was praised online as China’s “strongest diplomatic mission.”

China’s “diplomat top team,” image via Zhihu blogger.

In 2021, the top-level US-China talks in Alaska further contributed to the social media frenzy surrounding China’s diplomatic corps. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, also nicknamed the ‘captain’ of the diplomatic team, traveled to Anchorage with Chinese top diplomat Yang Jiechi (杨洁篪) for the tough meeting. Before entering a session of the high-level talks, the diplomats were filmed walking together when Wang asked Yang if he had lunch, with Yang then answering: “Yes, I had instant noodles.”

‘Noodle gate’ blew up on Chinese socials, where many saw the incident as a sign of American inhospitality and rude treatment of the Chinese top diplomats. The incident also added to the popularity of Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi.

There are various reasons why Chinese diplomats and MFA representatives have become particularly popular over the past few years.

Some of the main causes related to the celebrity culture surrounding Chinese modern-day diplomats lies in (1) their new role in China’s (online) media environment, (2) the way they have become an example to ordinary people, and (3) the shift in Chinese diplomacy that has turned them into ‘wolf warrior’ heroes.

 

1. CHINESE DIPLOMATS & SOCIAL MEDIA

Chinese Diplomacy in the Age of Social Media

 

The growing fame of Chinese diplomats and spokespeople is very much an online phenomenon, and so their surge in popularity goes hand in hand with the rise of (China’s) social media.

The role of social media is crucial in three ways. First, Chinese official accounts and state media use social media as an important channel to spread official propaganda and narratives. Although China’s MFA spokespersons are meant to be the face of China to the world, their role is just important – and perhaps even more weighty – for the audiences at home as symbols of China’s foreign policies.

Second, social media is also increasingly used by Chinese diplomats individually as a platform to voice the stances they represent. In an article titled “China’s Internet Celebrity Diplomats” (2020), Christian Shepherd described how Zhao Lijian used social media to build “a personal brand that is rare for a Foreign Ministry spokesperson” as China’s most high-profile official on Twitter.

In our 2020 article about this topic, What’s on Weibo found that there was a significant surge in Chinese official accounts arriving on Twitter in 2019 and in early 2020. The first surge of Chinese diplomatic accounts happened in 2019 at the time of the Hong Kong Protests; a second peak in Chinese official accounts joining Twitter took place in the period of January to March 2020 during the international Covid-19 crisis.

At the time of writing, Zhao has over two million followers on Twitter (@zlj517). Zhao Lijian is also active on Weibo (@赵立坚个人微博), where he has over 8 million fans. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying is not active on Weibo, but she has two million followers on Twitter (@Hua Chunying 华春莹).

Wang Wenbin, Geng Shuang, Wang Yi, Hua Cunying, Zhao Lijian.

Third, social media platforms allow for communities to form around Chinese diplomats in a way that would be unthinkable in the pre-social media era.

There has been a lot of attention for celebrities taking on diplomatic roles, but less so for diplomats taking on celebrity roles. Studies about diplomats or politicians becoming internet celebrities often focus on those who are also active on social media themselves, making them more accessible and relatable.

But diplomats such as Wang Wenbin are an exception: Wang Wenbin does not have an official Twitter account, nor is he active on Weibo or any other popular social media platforms. Nevertheless, there are thriving online communities surrounding him that help bridge the divide between the top level diplomat and ordinary people, creating connections between diplomats and Chinese people in novel ways.

In the Chinese social media environment, the fan culture surrounding China’s top diplomats is fuelled by the dynamics of the official propaganda apparatus and state media campaigns disseminating hashtags and videos that underline the main messages of China’s Foreign Ministry. Although it often builds on official media content, the online fan culture itself is non-official and functions in similar ways as other idol fan communities do.

 

2. CHINESE DIPLOMATS & THE PEOPLE

The Person Behind the Diplomat

 

There is another dimension to the online interaction between netizens and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokespersons and diplomats. They are not just being idolized, they are also being humanized.

Besides the more serious patriotic and nationalist videos, it is often the small flaws and funny interactions that go trending on social media and make China’s diplomats more likeable to the audience.

Fans of Wang Wenbin or Zhao Lijian like to create images or videos that highlight the moments in which the diplomats share a quick smile, make a little mistake, or are caught in a situation that is different from their usual role as spokesperson.

It might be as small as a strand of hair sticking out during a speech, a misunderstanding with a journalist, or how Wang Wenbin is fiddling with his translation headset during an international conference. These kind of moments are not highlighted to ridicule the diplomat; on the contrary, netizens treasure these moments in which diplomats become more likable and relatable.

Another way in which netizens like to catch a glimpse of the private person behind the public diplomat is by sharing old photos and getting to know more about them in their younger years.

Wang Wenbin in his younger years.

On Weibo, Bilibili, and Douyin, there are dozens of videos comparing photos of Chinese diplomats, including Wang, in their younger years versus now (e.g. 外交天团年轻的样子).

For many fans, Chinese diplomats also serve as an inspiration. “I love them, they’re my role models,” one Weibo blogger writes, posting photos of diplomats such as Wang Yi, Hua Chunying, Zhao Lijian, Hong Lei, Geng Shuang, and Lu Kang.

For many, Wang Wenbin especially is a role model because of his language skills. Wang speaks several foreign languages including English and French. He previously also attracted attention for sending out new year’s wishes in 11 different languages.

“I really like him because he encourages me to do well in my studies,” one fan account (@是汪叔和赵叔啊) writes.

 

3. CHINESE DIPLOMATS & THE WORLD

Wolf Warrior Heroes

 

The widespread admiration for Chinese diplomats and MFA spokespersons has various social, cultural, and historical reasons, and nationalism also plays a big role in this, as their growing online popularity is accompanied by the rise of so-called “wolf-warrior diplomacy” and the soaring cyber nationalism that comes with it.

The term “wolf warrior diplomacy” (战狼外交) became a buzzword for China’s diplomacy since around 2020 (Dai & Luqiu 2022). It is a reference to the highly successful Chinese blockbusters Wolf Warrior (战狼, 2015) and Wolf Warrior II (战狼2, 2017), and basically means a style of diplomacy that uses a much harsher and more confrontational rhetoric – which poses a contrast to a more restrained and softer tactic in foreign diplomacy.

Hua Chunying and Zhao Lijian were among the most visible wolf warrior diplomats as they were the main MFA spokespersons in early 2020 and were both active on Twitter, where they also actively confronted external criticism of China.

Zhao Lijian also became known for tweeting out a photoshopped image of an Australian soldier murdering a child, alluding to a report on unlawful killings of Afghan civilians and prisoners by Australian troops. His controversial post led to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanding an apology from China (read more about this kind of political visuals in our article here).

In a 2022 article titled “Why Have Chinese Diplomats Become So Aggressive?,” author Nien-chung Chang-Liao argues that China’s more aggressive style of diplomacy is not just meant to persuade foreign audiences to accept Chinese narratives in international relations, but could also be viewed as a way to appeal to nationalist attitudes at home, while also demonstrating loyalty to the Party and Xi Jinping – who emphasizes the need for confidence in China’s new era.

The approach seems fruitful: over 70% of respondents to a survey by Global Times allegedly indicated that they thought a ‘wolf-warrior’ style diplomacy improves China’s global image. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying also indicated that she had no issue with the ‘wolf warrior’ label and even embraces it (Chang-liao 2022, 179-181).

While Zhao Lijian was known as the real ‘wolf warrior diplomat,’ Wang Wenbin’s style is perceived as being more “calm,” “scholarly,” and “refined,” even though he he still seen as critical and assertive.

Recently, it was Wang Wenbin who slammed U.S. claims that China might arm Russian troops in the war in Ukraine, saying “it is the United States and not China that is endlessly shipping weapons to the battlefield.” Wang also called the shootdown of the alleged Chinese spy balloon “100 percent hysteria,” and he recently urged the United States to give up its “hegemonic” approaches to international affairs.

For many Wang Wenbin fans, this style of assertive yet ‘refined’ foreign policy strikes a chord, as they support how Wang shapes China’s image abroad: “It’s the perfect interpretation of being a great and elegant great power.”

“Today’s problems are complex and manifold, but Uncle [Wang] is organized and clear and answers with a smile. From beginning to end, I always admire him,” one comment says.

One Weibo blogger writes to Wang: “You’re so busy, you must be tired. I hope you can also take some time to rest. I just wish you all the best.”

Another fan writes: “Uncle, you work so hard, you are not afraid of facing the ‘hail of bullets’ fired at you by foreign media in the blue room, you defend our country, you are our hero!”

By Manya Koetse 


 

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References

Chang-Liao, Nien-chung. 2022. “Why Have Chinese Diplomats Become So
Aggressive?” Survival, 64:1: 179-190.

Dai, Yaoyao, and Luwei Rose Luqiu. 2022. “Wolf Warriors and Diplomacy in the New Era.” China Review 22 (2): 253-283.

Shepherd, Christian. 2020. “China’s Internet Celebrity Diplomats.” Australian Financial Review, Dec. 10, page 27.

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.

©2023 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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

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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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China Insight

Red Cross Society of China in Bad Light Due to Online Rumors after Gansu Earthquake

Even though the rumors surrounding the Red Cross might be false, the public concerns surrounding charity efforts are real.

Manya Koetse

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A handwarmer for 500 yuan ($70), a tent for 2200 yuan ($308), a blanket for 100 yuan ($14)? An online list detailing items supposedly procured by the Gansu Red Cross for earthquake relief efforts has ignited controversy on Chinese social media in recent days. Although the Red Cross has denied all rumors, the incident underscores public skepticism towards the organization.

After the devastating 6.2-magnitude earthquake struck Jishishan (积石山), a county in China’s Gansu Province’s Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture, on December 18, Chinese social media platforms were flooded with news related to the disaster. The overnight earthquake killed at least 148 people and left hundreds injured.

News of the earthquake resonated deeply throughout the country, and the ongoing search and rescue operations and relief efforts, hindered by landslides, ruined infrastructure, and freezing temperatures, have attracted major attention online.

While much of the discourse revolves around the goodness of the people contributing to charities and doing all they can to help victims in the affected areas, there is also public distrust surrounding the motives of some charities or helping organizations that might use the disaster as an opportunity to make a profit.

One hotly debated topic revolves around the Red Cross Society of China, after a list surfaced online of items allegedly purchased by the Gansu Red Cross for relief efforts in the aftermath of the Gansu Earthquake.

Image published on Weibo via Red Cross Society of China (@中国红十字会总会).

The procurement list raised controversy due to the high prices of the common items listed, and because of a supposed “management fee” (管理费) of 1.6 million yuan ($224k).

In response, the Red Cross refuted these claims, asserting that they had not issued any such list (#甘肃红十字称没发布任何物资清单#). On December 24, the Gansu Red Cross took to Weibo (@甘肃省红十字会) to clarify that the circulating information was “grossly inaccurate.” They assured the public that all donations would directly aid earthquake relief efforts, without incurring management fees.

The Red Cross statement on Weibo.

Even though the procurement list might be false, the public concerns surrounding charity efforts are real.

“Why does the Red Cross end up in the top trending lists every time?” one commenter wondered: “Their information should be more transparent and timely.”

Others also suggested that merely denying the rumors was not enough, and that they hoped that the Red Cross would provide more details and information to show netizens, of whom many donated money, how their charity money is being spent to help relief efforts in the affected areas in Gansu and Qinghai.

The fact that the Red Cross Weibo post did not allow any commenting did not help: “Why are you afraid to let us openly discuss this?”

 
Red Cross Society of China: Tainted by Suspicion
 

The Red Cross of China, the nation’s largest charitable organization, continues to grapple with a tarnished reputation that partly stems from the 2011 “Guo Meimei Incident.”

Guo Meimei (郭美美), whose real name is Guo Meiling, became an infamous internet celebrity in the summer of 2011 after flaunting her excessive wealth online whilst claiming to work as a “commercial general manager” for the Red Cross Society of China.

The issue severely eroded the society’s credibility, which has been designated by the government as the central public donation organization during times of disasters (Cheng 2016). From luxury handbags to sports cars, the 19-year-old Guo showed off her money on Weibo, and quickly went viral on various message boards as people were angered over corruption and potential misuse of charity money.

Guo Meimei

Despite efforts by the Red Cross Society to debunk these rumors and distance itself from Guo, speculations persisted. Many speculated about Guo’s potential ties to the organization, even if she did not officially work there. As highlighted by Cheng (2016), the public’s negative sentiment toward the Red Cross triggered “a chain of credibility crises” and even spread to other charitable groups in China.

During the 2020 Wuhan Covid outbreak, the Red Cross faced scrutiny for allegedly stockpiling public donations of medical supplies in warehouses rather than promptly distributing them to frontline medical personnel facing shortages.

The current allegations against the Red Cross of China in the aftermath of the Gansu Earthquake also echo other past controversies, such as the one they dealt with after the 2008 Sichuan quake. Red Cross officials were then also accused of misusing donations by purchasing needlessly expensive tents and vehicles.

 
Donations for the ‘Underdog’: The Han Hong Foundation
 

The growing public distrust towards the Red Cross has arguably paved the way for other Chinese charities to gain prominence. A prime example is the Han Hong Love Charity Foundation (韩红爱心慈善基金会), established in 2012 by renowned Chinese folk singer Han Hong (韩红, 1971).

Although Han Hong has been engaged in charity for many years, during which she invested a lot of her own money, the charity she established became more known after the Han Hong Love Charity Foundation was committed to aid efforts during the Wuhan Covid outbreak in 2020 and the Henan floods in 2021.

Han Hong (center), picture via Xiaohongshu fan of Han Hong.

After the earthquake in Gansu on December 18th, Han Hong’s organization immediately organized rescue teams and provided people in the affected areas with clothes and (medical) supplies. Hang Hong was able to rake in millions thanks to her reputation of being compassionate and altruistic, as well as through her strong network in China’s entertainment industry, leading numerous Chinese celebrities to support her relief efforts.

But Han Hong’s organization is also affected by the public distrust surrounding charity in China. On December 23, it was rumored that her Charity Foundation was officially asked to leave the disaster area as well as to hand over a portion of their donations.

The foundation refuted these claims by issuing a statement on December 25 (#韩红基金会辟谣#).

Statement by Han Hong Love Charity Foundation refuting rumors that their charity work was hindered by officials.

In the public view, there seems to be a big difference between perceptions of large entities like the Red Cross and other ‘official’ charitable organizations versus smaller, more independent initiatives like the Han Hong foundation, which operates as a private charitable entity.

Reflecting on the rumors surrounding both the Red Cross and Han Hong’s foundation, one Weibo commenter noted: “These rumors come into existence because so many of these so-called charitable foundations actually treat charity as their business. And so, they become ‘competitors.’”

Meanwhile, Han Hong’s organization stresses that it operates under the guidance and oversight of the party and government, and only provide emergency support through their support.

In online discussions on the power of the Red Cross versus Han Hong’s organization, some commenters suggest that it is time for the government and authorities to reflect on why a private organization would be more trusted than the Red Cross, a government organized NGO.

One Weibo commenter wrote: “What Han Hong does is true charity instead of business.” Another person replied: “The biggest disaster here is actually the erosion of public trust.”

By Manya Koetse

References

Cheng, Yang. 2016. “Social Media Keep Buzzing! A Test of Contingency Theory in China’s Red Cross Credibility Crisis.” International Journal of Communication, June 2016: pp. 3241+.

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