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Chinese Netizens Voice Concerns over Molly the Elephant, Call for Animal Performance Boycott

Molly the elephant has become a powerful symbol for hundreds of other performing elephants in China.

Manya Koetse

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The fate of Molly, an elephant born in the Kunming Zoo and separated from its mother at the age of 2, has become a topic of public debate in China. As viral photos show the elephant being forced to perform tricks, calls for an animal performance ban in China are growing louder.

A little elephant named Molly is a big topic of discussion on Chinese social media this week. There are various hashtags about Molly on Weibo, where the elephant also has several fan forums (‘supertopics’) dedicated to her.

There are Molly artworks, Molly videos, Molly gifs, Molly cartoons, but most of all, there are the calls from netizens to ‘rescue Molly the little elephant’ (#救救小象莫莉#).

Molly’s Chinese name is Mòlì (莫莉), an Asian elephant born on March 20 in 2016 in the Kunming Zoo in Yunnan. The baby elephant was initially nicknamed “Little Princess” (小公主). When she turned one year old, the Kunming Zoo invited the public to help come up with a name for her.

On her first birthday, the popular ‘Little Princess’ received her official name and a special big elephant birthday cake. The celebration was covered by local media at the time.

Although Kunming Zoo initially seemed to take pride in their baby Molly, they separated her from her mother at the age of two in April of 2018. Molly was then transferred from Kunming Zoo to Qinyang, Jiaozuo, in Henan in exchange for another elephant.

Over the past few years, Molly the elephant has allegedly been trained to do tricks and performances and to carry around tourists on her back at the Qinyang Swan Lake Ecological Garden (沁阳天鹅湖生态园), the Qinyang Hesheng Forest Zoo (沁阳和生森林动物园), the Jiaozuo Forestry Zoo (焦作森林动物园), and the Zhoukou Safari Park (周口野生动物世界).

Netizens started raising the alarm about Molly’s welfare when they spotted her chained up and seemingly unhappy, forced to do handstands or play harmonica, with Molly’s handlers using iron hooks to coerce her into performing.

Posts about Molly being abused started to gain more online attention in the summer of 2021, and photos showing the stark difference between Molly at the age of one and at the age of five years old circulated online.

After so many netizens expressed concerns about the elephant’s mistreatment, the local zoo and authorities issued a statement in September of 2021 saying Molly was not being maltreated. But because no further clarification was given, netizens kept pushing for the elephant to be rescued and reunited with its mother in Kunming.

One of the reasons why Molly became a big topic on social media again this week is because her case was pushed forward on the social media platform Xiaohongshu, after which it also gained renewed attention on Weibo due to various big accounts posting about ‘Save Molly’ and calling for an elephant performance ban in China.

One of these influentiual people expressing concerns over the elephant is Taiwanese actress Chen Qiao’en (陈乔恩), who posted about Molly on Weibo on April 24, using the #SaveMollytheElephant hashtag:

It’s heartbreaking to see Molly covered in wounds. She shouldn’t be treated like this. Please reject animal performances, please don’t abuse animals, please save Molly the elephant.”

Chen’s post received over 90,000 likes and a lot of attention, leading to more netizens voicing their concerns about the elephant and joining online groups about Molly’s case.

As voices speaking up for Molly grew louder, some of the groups and hashtags related to the ‘Save Molly’ movement were taken offline by Weibo censors.

“There are many ‘Molly’s’ in this world, the more you try to silence us, the louder we will get,” one Weibo commenter wrote.

A Maze of Conflicting Regulations

Beyond Molly’s situation, there is a somewhat confusing web of laws, regulations, and standards about wildlife protection and animal performances in China.

China’s Wildlife Protection Law (WPL), the national legislation for animal protection, was enacted in 1989. Throughout the decades, the law was widely criticized for not doing enough to actually protect animals and promoting the use of wildlife for human benefit. Although the law was revised in 2015, it still facilitated the commercial use of wildlife and there is no anti-cruelty legislation that might penalize cruelty to animals in zoos, wildlife parks, or other venues where wild animals are kept in captivity (Li 2021, p. 227).

When it comes to China’s zoos and safari parks, there are two regulatory bodies that play an important role: China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (住房城乡建设部, MHURD), and the Chinese State Forestry and Grassland Administration (国家林业和草原局, SFGA).

The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MHURD) is the relevant organ overseeing Chinese zoos, which are usually owned and managed by municipal or regional governments. The MHURD also hosts the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens (中国动物园协会, CAZG), which is an organization that most of China’s larger zoos are members of.

China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development banned animal performances in China over a decade ago in 2011, although the rule excluded performances at aquariums and did not specify penalties (China Daily 2012). In 2013, the MHURD also issued the “National Zoo Development Outline” (“全国动物园发展纲要“) which strictly prohibited all animal performances in zoos.

Nevertheless, many zoos and wildlife parks have still continued shows featuring cycling bears, jumping tigers, and dancing elephants since then – and not necessarily illegally.

One of the reasons why there are conflicting regulatory regimes is because “zoos” and “wild animal parks” fall under different jurisdictions in China.

The MHURD 2011 administrative national ban on animal performance was unable to stop animal performances at China’s privately-owned wild animal parks, safari parks, or circuses, since they are administered by the Chinese State Forestry and Grassland Administration (SFGA), which also regulates the holding of all exotic species, including those in city zoos. The SFGA, however, does not consider the welfare of these animals its responsibility (see Arcus Foundation 2021, p. 99; Li 2021, p. 227).

City zoos can theoretically still subcontract animal performances to private companies within special areas of the zoo as long as their contract was signed before 2011, and can also still sell or trade animals with these parks. Dozens of zoos with performance programs have therefore continued animal performances, sometimes also in violation of policies in place (Arcus Foundation 2021, p. 99; Li 2021, p. 19).

In line with the WPL, the SFGA is able to provide permits that allow animal parks to hold animal “exhibition and performances.” The Qinyang Swan Lake Ecological Garden, where Molly is, also has a permit to “showcase wildlife” (展演野生动物), basically giving them a green light to put on performances.

Beyond Molly

On April 27, the Kunming Zoo responded to the online storm over Molly, claiming that the elephant is in good condition and that the zoo in question has since long stopped animal performances.

Chinese media outlet Phoenix News also published an article about Molly on April 30, aimed to uncover the truth about the conditions in which Molly is currently being kept at the Qinyang Hesheng Forest Zoo.

The report concluded that Molly was kept in good living conditions, and that the elephants at the park were not participating in any (circus) performances. The person in charge of the Qinyang Hesheng Forest Zoo, Shi Baodong (史保东) reportedly claims the park has stopped all animal performance activities as of April 2019, with Shi denying all claims of animal abuse taking place.

Staff members also said that some of the footage and images circulating online in relation to the Molly incident are not of Molly at all, instead showing elephant training in Thailand, India and other countries.

But many Chinese netizens believe the zoo is not speaking the truth, since social media users said they still saw Molly performing and carrying zoo visitors on her back in 2021. Even if Molly is not performing at this moment, many still think that media reports and statements cover up the truth of how the elephant is really doing.

For others, the ‘Save Molly’ hashtag is not just about Molly anymore, as the elephant has come to represent hundreds of other elephants who are living in captivity in China and are forced to perform. They hope the government can prohibit elephant performances entirely and introduce better laws and regulations to prohibit animal performances and mistreatment.

“One person doesn’t have a lot of power, but as a group we have more power,” the description for one Molly supertopic on Weibo says (小吉象莫莉).

Underneath one of the Weibo threads about Molly’s current situation, a top commenter replies: “This is not just about Molly anymore, we want to protect all of the ‘Molly’s’ out there.”

“Reject animal performances, don’t turn suffering into entertainment.”

This is not the first time netizens come into action to get justice for zoo animals that are suffering. In 2017, visitor photos of a mouth-foaming, lethargic-looking panda at Lanzhou Zoo also caused outrage on Weibo. In 2016, netizens also jumped to the aid of a polar bear by the name of Pizza after he was found living in deplorable conditions at an aquarium in the Grandview Mall in Guangzhou. He was later removed from the mall.

UPDATE MAY 17 2022: MOLLY RETURNS TO KUNMING ZOO

To follow more updates regarding Molly, check out Twitter user ‘Diving Paddler’ here. We thank them for their contributions to this article.

To read more about zoos and wildlife parks causing online commotion in China, check our articles here.

By Manya Koetse

References (other sources linked to within text)

Arcus Foundation (Ed.). 2021. State of the Apes: Killing, Capture, Trade and Ape Conservation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

China Daily. 2012. “Animal Rights Groups Seek Performance Ban.” China Daily, April 16 http://www.china.org.cn/environment/2012-04/16/content_25152066.htm [Accessed May 1 2022].

Li, Peter J. 2021. Animal Welfare in China: Culture, Politics and Crisis. Sydney: Sydney University Press.

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©2022 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

Press Conference on Chinese Student’s Death: Hu Xinyu Left Message on Voice Recorder

These are the most important details shared during the 2.2.23 press conference on the disappearance and death of Hu Xinyu.

Manya Koetse

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The disappearance and death of the Chinese 15-year-old Hu Xinyu has become one of the biggest topics on Chinese social media recently, with dozens of hashtags related to the story receiving millions – sometimes even billions – of views.

Hu Xinyu went missing from school on Oct. 14, 2022. The boy’s whereabouts were a mystery for 106 days, during which family, friends, police, and dedicated search teams searched for the student all across the Yanshan County region in Jiangxi Province and beyond.

On Jan 28., 2023, Hu’s remains were found by a local guard on the premises of a grain warehouse not far from the school. For a full timeline of Hu’s disappearance and the details surrounding his death, see our previous article here.

A voice recorder was also found near Hu’s remains, but the data on the small 4GB recorder initially seemed to be unretrievable, and it was sent back to the manufacturer for analysis.

On the morning of Feb. 2, 2023, local authorities and the dedicated task force organized a live-broadcasted press conference on the case and the latest findings.

The most important pieces of information provided in the press conference on February 2nd are as follows:

◼︎ Hu Xinyu’s death has been ruled a suicide by hanging. Hu used shoelaces, which were removed from the shoes found near Hu’s remains.

◼︎ As previously reported, Hu was found at a nearby grain warehouse. It has now been clarified that the area where Hu’s remains were found is a grain reserve depot area. The grain reserve depot area is prohibited to enter and is guarded 24/7. It is a very large plot of land that includes a zone (over 8000 square meters) with twenty buildings on it – including warehouses and living quarters, – and a forest area of approximately 9300 square meters. Although the area is encircled by a wall, some parts of the wall are lower due to uneven ground. Hu’s body was found in the wooded area, hanging from a tree near the wall, close to one of the spots where the wall height was significantly lower.

School area (top circle) and the grain reserve depot area (lower circle).

◼︎ The location where Hu’s remains were found is just 226 meters away from the Zhiyuan Middle School and it had been searched before, not only through the use of thermal drones, but also by search teams on four different occasions in October and November of 2022. Although all the buildings in the area were searched along with other parts of the zone, the specific wooded area where Hu was later found was not searched. There were also no clues that led search teams to believe Hu Xinyu had walked a specific route through dense vegetation surrounding the grain depot area.

People’s Daily released a 3D video visualising the situation in the area where Hu’s remains were found. Due to uneven ground / piled-up mud, the high wall is relatively easy to jump over from outside. Inside the wall (which is on the grain reserve depot grounds) there is a wooded area.

Hu Xinyu’s body was found hanging from a tree at the interior of the wall, in a place that was not clearly visible.

◼︎ The voice recorder plays a major role in this case. It was previously known that Hu Xinyu had purchased a voice recorder and that it could not be located after Hu Xinyu went missing. Although earlier reports stated that the data on the recorder could not be retrieved as the device had been exposed to sun, rain, moist, etc., it has now been announced that the audio files have been retrieved and that Hu Xinyu recorded two messages on Oct. 14, 2022, at 17:40 and 23:08, in which he expressed the will to commit suicide.

◼︎ The involved experts in this case have also concluded that through analysis and based on Hu’s own notes and other evidence, the 15-year-old boy was struggling with his mental health and emotional disorders related to loneliness, insecurity, and lack of communication. Hu also experienced additional stress when he was getting lower grades, and he suffered from insomnia, difficulty concentrating, abnormal eating patterns, and an overall sense of hopelessness.

During the press conference, reporters were allowed to ask questions related to the case. In response to a question related to the many rumors the Hu Xinyu case has attracted over the past months, one official declared that at least two persons have been arrested for fabricating videos and purposely spreading false rumors about the case.

After Thursday’s press conference, it has once again become clear just how big the social media attention is for this case. The hashtag “Content of Hu Xinyu Voice Recorder” (#胡鑫宇录音笔内容#) received over 390 million views on Weibo; the hashtag “Hu Xinyu Expressed Will to Commit Suicide on Voice Recorder” (#胡鑫宇录音笔中音频表达自杀意愿#) received over 640 million views; the hashtag “Hu Xinyu Died due to Self-Hanging” (#胡鑫宇系自缢死亡#) received over 950 million views.

Among the many responses, there are those who argue that schools should offer more channels to provide support to students dealing with mental health issues. Others hope that Hu Xinyu can now finally rest in peace.

 
For information and support on mental health and suicide, international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.
 

By Manya Koetse 

 

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China Insight

What Happened to Hu Xinyu? Disappearance and Death of 15-Year-Old Student Attracts Widespread Attention in China

Although Hu Xinyu’s school had 119 cameras, his disappearance remained a mystery for 106 days. Near Hu’s remains, a voice recorder was found.

Manya Koetse

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After 106 days of searching, Hu Xinyu’s parents now know their son has passed away. The student’s remains were found at a grain warehouse near his school, but questions still linger on what happened to the 15-year-old and why it took so long to find him.

The case of a Chinese 15-year-old student named Hu Xinyu (胡鑫宇) has been trending on Chinese social media over the past few days. Ever since October of 2022, Hu Xinyu’s case has been a much-discussed topic.

The young man from Jiangxi was missing for 106 days before his body was discovered, leaving many unanswered questions surrounding his death and why search teams were unable to find Hu in the months before.

One of the reasons why Hu Xinyu’s disappearance has been attracting widespread attention is because many people believe there are some details or occurrences surrounding Hu’s case that are purposely being hidden or not revealed to the public.

 
Hu Goes Missing: A Timeline

The story begins on Oct. 14, 2022, when Hu Xinyu, a student at the Zhiyuan Middle School (致远中学), first went missing in Yanshan County, Shangrao City. The Zhiyuan Middle School is a private school where students live in the dorms, only going home to their families on days off. Hu allegedly had good grades as a student at Zhiyuan.

The incident attracted attention due to the peculiar circumstances surrounding it. It was first reported that security cameras allegedly had not recorded the student leaving the school’s premises and that Hu’s family suspected that the security camera system had been tampered with. The school reportedly has a total of 119 cameras installed on its premises.

Later reports claimed that security cameras did in fact capture how Hu left the dorms at 17:51 that day, but there was no footage of him actually leaving the school premises.

On Oct. 15, after unsuccessful attempts by friends and family to locate Hu Xinyu, he was reported as a missing person at the local police office.

On Nov. 20, when Hu had already been missing for over a month, local authorities set up a joint task force to try and speed up efforts to find Hu and further investigate his disappearance. Hu’s social media and bank accounts reportedly had zero activity since he went missing.

On Nov. 22, 2022, Chinese media reported that rescue and search teams still had not found a single clue about where Hu might be. Meanwhile, his parents were gradually losing hope of finding their son back alive.

Missing person posters for Hu Xinyu (via 163.com).

On Nov. 29, 2022, 46 days since Hu went missing, a chemistry teacher by the name of Wang was called in for questioning but he was later released. Weeks later, on Jan. 1, the police informed Hu’s relatives that – despite rumors – they ruled out the possibility of school staff being involved in Hu’s disappearance.

On Dec. 25, 2022, Hu Xinyu’s mother shared some more information via social media about some contents in her son’s old notebooks, in which Hu allegedly had noted how he felt that it was not easy for him to adapt to his living environment at the school and that he felt hindered by his introvert personality. These contents were later deleted again.

After Jan. 7, 2023, the search for Hu continued, including teams with search dogs, and thousands of people volunteered to join.

On Jan. 28, 2023, a body was found hanging near the woods in the Jinji mountain area in the town of Hekou. A voice recorder was also found at the scene.

The body was reportedly found by a local guard who was near the premises with his dog to look for a chicken that had wandered off. The dog started barking at something, and the guard then discovered the remains, which were not immediately clearly visible.

One day later, on Jan. 29, Chinese media reported that DNA research confirmed that the remains belonged to Hu Xinyu. He was wearing his school uniform when his remains were found. Hu’s parents decided to have a post-mortem examination of the body to determine the cause of death. The voice recorder found near Hu’s body was sent for analysis.

The hashtag “Hu Xinyu’s Remains Found” (#胡鑫宇遗体被发现#) was viewed over two billion times on Weibo.

 
The Latest Details Surrounding Hu Xinyu’s Death

Chinese news outlet The Paper reported that the location where Hu’s remains were discovered is a large grain warehouse area just about 300 meters or a 5-minute walk southeast of the Zhiyuan Middle School.

According to a spokesperson of the search & rescue team, the area where Hu was found had been previously included in search efforts (#搜救队曾去胡鑫宇被发现地周围搜寻#).

The biggest questions that remain and that are asked by so many on Chinese social media are: how is it possible that search teams previously did not find Hu if this is where he was all along? Is the place where Hu was found a crime scene or not? How is it possible that security cameras did not capture Hu beyond the dorms?

Some details that surfaced over the past few days provide further information on the case.

On Jan. 31, Chinese media reported that one of Hu’s teachers had discovered something written down by Hu Xinyu on the last page of his notebook: “What would it be like if I’m not longer here?” (#胡鑫宇曾写如果我不活了将会变得怎么样#).

It has also become known that Hu Xinyu purchased the voice recorder that was found with his remains. He purchased the 4GB-capacity recorder on October 4, 2022.

At the time of writing, the data on the recorder was not able to be retrieved (#胡鑫宇购买录音笔数据删除后无法恢复#). A recording device such as the one found near Hu’s body might become damaged due very low or high temperatures or by moist and liquid (#胡鑫宇录音笔已送深圳检测#).

A recording device that allegedly is similar to the one found near Hu Xinyu.

If the original manufacturer would be able to get the data on the recorder, Hu’s relatives finally might get some of the answers they have been waiting for for so long.

According to Hu Xinyu’s father, search and rescue staff previously had in fact been inside the grain warehouse premises, but apparently did not come to the exact location within the warehouse area where Hu was later found (#胡鑫宇父亲称未到达遗体发现点#).

On February 2nd, 2023, a press conference on the latest developments is planned to take place in Yanshan county in Shangrao at 10:00 AM. (Update: read about the press conference here).

 
Societal Distrust, Armchair Detectives, and Social Media

There are multiple reasons why the Hu Xinyu case is attracting such wide attention, and in some ways, the case is similar to the 2021 ‘Chengdu 49 Middle School Incident.’

At the time, the death of 16-year-old Lin Weiqi (林唯麒) also attracted nationwide attention and led to a wave of online rumors and theories on what might have happened to him.

Although Lin never went missing – he fell to his death from the school building, – there was also online speculation about corporal punishment and abuse taking place in the school, with one theory suggesting Lin had been hurt by a chemistry teacher. Just as in the Hu Xinyu case, netizens speculated that the school was trying to cover up the incident.

According to a joint statement later issued by the local propaganda department, police, and the Education Bureau said that they had come to the conclusion that the student had taken his own life due to personal problems.

The Lin Weiqi story sparked concerns at a time when security cameras had become a part of everyday lives. The fact that there were blind spots in the surveillance footage and that cameras never captured how and if Lin actually took his own life triggered doubts among Lin’s relatives and netizens alike.

The case surrounding Lin’s death also attracted nationwide attention in May of 2021.

Many reasoned that since there are security cameras all over the school, there must be a cover-up going on if the incident was not captured on camera. A similar thing happened in the case of the Tangshan BBQ Restaurant Incident in which female customers were assaulted and beaten by a group of men. Although the beating incident was captured by security cameras, the last part of the incident occurred at a nearby alley and was not captured by the outdoor security cameras. This led to a lot of speculation on what happened there and if local government officials were covering something up.

Another factor that plays a role is that there have actually been stories about schools or other institutes covering up scandals in recent years, such as in the RYB Education incident of 2017 that shocked the nation and did not help in improving trust in educational institutes.

Social media also plays an important role in how and why the Hu Xinyu case received so much attention. For some online communities of armchair detectives, identifying suspects and uncovering clues becomes like solving a puzzle, while following the latest details in these high-profile cases also becomes like a form of infotainment for others – comparable to the online sleuthing and major attention for the case of Gabby Petito in the U.S.

Furthermore, those who are closely related to the case also use social media to attract more attention. In Hu Xinyu’s case, his family members personally turned to social media and media reporters to ask for help or update with information. This also makes social media users more involved since they get the feeling they know the family, and sympathize with them. Very different from just reading a headline in the local newspaper, social media users feel involved and get involved.

For now, many social media users would like to see some clarity in this case and a conclusion so that Hu’s family can finally get some of their questions answered.

While many think it is highly likely that local authorities will soon come out with a statement that Hu committed suicide, others think there might still be other outcomes.

“It’s lasted long enough now,” some Weibo commenters write: “What is most important now is to finally know the truth.”

READ UPDATE TO THIS STORY HERE.

By Manya Koetse 

with contributions by Miranda Barnes

 

Get the story behind the hashtag. Subscribe to What’s on Weibo here to receive our newsletter and get access to our latest articles:

 
For information and support on mental health and suicide, international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.
 

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.

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