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Critical Essay: “The Hype Surrounding Zibo BBQ is a Sign of Social Wasteland”

The essay suggests that the recent popularity of Zibo BBQ is a symptom of a society that’s all about consumerism and empty social spectacle.

Manya Koetse

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Fast, fun, BBQ travel is a major topic on Chinese social media these days. One WeChat essay recently attracted attention for arguing that the hype surrounding Zibo barbecue is a symptom of a “sick society” in which people are disconnected from meaningful topics. While serious social issues are muted and superficial marketing tricks are blasted all over the internet, China’s “hypocritical youth” actively participate in the societal emptiness they say they reject.

Everyone is talking about Zibo. The old industrial city in Shandong suddenly became the hottest city in China earlier this year when big groups of young people hopped on trains to seize the post-Covid travel opportunity and enjoy a BBQ-filled weekend.

As described in our previous article on Zibo, the town achieved hit status through a combination of factors: its appealing local barbecue culture, the city’s hospitality to students in difficult zero Covid times, the 2023 spring travel craze, smart city marketing, and the social media trends surrounding Zibo which further fueled the hype.

The Zibo BBQ craze. Image via 163.com.

Ever since April and throughout this Labor Day holiday, Zibo managed to crawl into Chinese social media’s top trending lists on a daily basis. And now Zibo has also become part of a bigger travel trend by Chinese younger generations that is all about fast, frugal fun (read here).

But despite all the videos showing BBQ parties, travel excitement, and smiling visitors, the Zibo hype is not all about roses, and there are also voices criticizing the craze.

One of these voices is that of the author of a recent article titled “The Hype Surrounding Zibo BBQ is a Sign of Social Wasteland” (“淄博烧烤走红是社会荒芜的表现”), which was posted by Chinese Professor of Journalism and Communication Liu Yadong (刘亚东).

Liu Yadong is a senior journalist and former editor-in-chief of Science and Technology Daily (科技日报). He is now a professor at Nankai University and the Dean of School of Journalism and Communication.

Although the article is attributed to Liu in most Weibo discussions, the article originally appeared on the WeChat account Jiuwenpinglun (旧闻评论), authored by ‘Picture-Taking Master Song’ (照相的宋师傅), pen name of prominent Chinese journalist Song Zhibiao (宋志标).

The article includes some hot takes on China’s recently hyped Zibo travel culture, which is strongly connected to social media governance and city marketing initiatives. The aurthor argues that the Zibo craze is a symbol of “societal illness” that uses temporary hypes, facilitated by social media, to cover up existing problems and, most of all, is a sign of a society that is devoid of true value.

It also criticizes those netizens/young people that jump in on the hype. Despite claiming to go against various top-down policies, they willingly and collectively are driving the hypes that are supposedly also part of dynamics that are strategically used by those in power to maintain influence.

Here, we provide a full translation of the short essay, translated by What’s on Weibo. Some parts are loosely translated or slightly edited for clarity, the Chinese original is included for your reference.

 
“The Hype Surrounding Zibo BBQ is a Sign of Social Wasteland” [TRANSLATION]
 

“Zibo barbecue has gone viral overnight, and with giant steps, we’re seeing a preposterous scene unfold: crowds of people are flocking to Zibo, long lines are forming in front of the BBQ stalls, the municipal government is making emergency preparations in various ways to facilitate “two-way travel” for young people coming to the city. This immersive scene is unfolding at the barbecue grills, while we are seeing Zibo’s ‘northeasternisation’ (东北化)* and the accelerated desolation of society. *[‘Dongbei-ization’ or ‘northeasterisation’ is a term used to refer to the phenomenon where people are leaving the northeastern provinces of China and moving to other provinces or regions which are then ‘northeasternized.’]

This desolation of society does not refer to a lack of people or empty streets. On the contrary, the contemporary social wasteland is crowded, grimy, and lively. The youth, in particular, are unconsciously marching in the same direction, and with fervor, they are chewing on Zibo BBQ ‘soul food’ as if they were devouring their own souls. In this existence, we are witnessing the demise of certain parts of themselves and our own.

Many people really want to explore the reasons why Zibo became such a hype, and they can list various factors, but they all stay at the instrumental level and do not go beyond it. This kind of result of up-and-down marketing of [China’s] cultural tourism industry is not so much because of collusion between local officials and traffic-generating mechanisms, as it is a random and hollow expression of society’s desolation. Society is sick, and the hyping of things like barbecue is just a symptom of that.”

淄博烧烤一夜走红,正在大踏步铺陈一副荒诞景象:成群结队的外地人蜂拥前往,烧烤摊前排满长队,市政府正在从各个方面应急建设,以奠基淄博与年轻人的“双向奔赴”。这是发生在烧烤架边上的沉浸式场景,淄博东北化,而社会加速荒芜化。

这里的社会荒芜并不是指人流量稀少,或街面荒凉,相反,现在的社会荒芜群集、油腻且热闹,尤其是年轻的躯壳无意识地追求整齐划一的动作,以饱满的热情,像吞噬自己灵魂一样咀嚼淄博烧烤的“灵魂三件套”。这样的存在,见证了自己和他人某些部分的死亡。

有人很想探究淄博烧烤走红的成因,罗列各种因素,但都停留在工具的层面,而没有往前更推进一步。这种文旅行业乍起乍落的营销成果,与其说是主政者与流量制造机制的合谋,莫若说是社会荒芜化随机的、空洞的表现。社会病了,烧烤等走红是它的症状。”

 

It’s especially the young people that are unconsciously moving in the same direction and, full of enthusiasm, they are chewing on Zibo BBQ ‘soul food’ as if they were devouring their own souls.”

 

Pulling stunts like turning barbecue into an online sensation and tourism bureau directors dressing up etc., help places to be covered by a huge filter, and it enables local authorities’ supervisory departments to shift their cultural and creative thinking to the short video era. One of the characteristics of the short video era is the shrewd operation that appears to conform to the lifestyle of the lower classes, grabbing their attention and using large-scale deception to cover up the rapid social barrenness of everyday life.

In this everyday life, a large number of more valuable topics are first decoupled from power, and then detached from the people closely related to them. In this process, these meaningful topics receive blows from two directions: firstly they are restrained and smeared by authorities, and then they are ridiculed and abandoned by the public. The erosion of our basis of values is similar to the process of desertification, and it is achieved through manipulation and conformation.

It seems that we can’t regard the people in this social wasteland purely as tools. They happily laugh in front of the barbecue stalls, they skillfully jumble up words and use special characters on social media to be influenced and influence others. For a moment, they forget about the ubiquitous risk of unemployment, and without a sense of history or awareness of problems, they fantasize about the next paradise.

The satirical thing is that while the young generation prides itself in ‘lying flat’ and in rejecting the policy lines [that encourage them] to have more kids, struggle, buy houses, etc, they vigorously participate in a movement to create a landscape of social desolation. The social wasteland provides them with a life kit where one thing after the next comes dashing up and then speeds away. This makes the wastage of the hypocritical youth especially evident, and because they are overly exploited, they are particularly ill.”

“烧烤网红、文旅局长便装等把戏,让一个地方罩上巨大的滤镜,帮助当局的主管部门从文创思维过渡到视频时代。短视频时代的特征之一,就是以名义上附和底层生活方式的精明操作,收割底层的注意力,以规模化的欺骗掩盖社会急速荒芜的日常。

在这种社会日常中,大量更有价值的议题先是与权力脱钩,再与和议题密切相关的人群脱钩。脱钩过程,价值议题遭到了两个方向的捶打:先是被权力遏制与污化,然后再受到民众的嘲笑与抛弃。价值基础的流失近似荒漠化进程,在操作与附和中达致。

似乎还不能将荒芜社会中人视作完全的工具人,他们在烧烤摊前发出快乐的笑声,他们娴熟地使用掺杂字母、异形字的话术在社交媒体上接承接灌输并灌输别人。一时间,他们忘了四面楚歌的失业风险,没有历史感与问题意识,却在畅想下一个乐园。

讽刺的是,年轻世代一边以躺平自诩,排斥多生、奋斗、买房等政策口径,另一边却精力旺盛地参与社会荒芜化的造景运动。社会荒芜提供了一个个飞奔而来又疾驰而去的生活套件,这让虚伪的年轻人损耗尤其明显,也因为被过度地利用,他们病得特别厉害。

 

“The people in this social wasteland aren’t just tools as they happily laugh in front of the barbecue stalls. For a moment, they forget about the risk of unemployment, and without a sense of history or awareness of problems, they fantasize about the next paradise.”

 

“The short video and click-through economy originated on the internet, and with the aid of the social wasteland, they have given birth to plastic flower-like gardens. The official attitude is very straightforward. On the one hand, they tame the flow of serious topics, directing and filtering their moral assessment; and on the other hand, they utilize it [the short video & click-through economy] to their advantage, harnessing the power of traffic to soften underlying anxieties.

Recently, cultural tourism chiefs in all parts of the country, according to the symbols of their local culture, competed with each other in [online] costume shows put together due to safe traffic flows.* These costume shows, realized for the sake of clicks, ended up straight in the social corner of topics such as the Zibo BBQ stalls – because there are no social topics to compete with, – and similarly resonated with spirit-lacking audiences. *[for more information on this trend, see our article about the cultural tourism chief video hype here.]

The “Zibo BBQ hype” and the trend of “cultural tourism chiefs costume” may appear as noteworthy accomplishments for cultural tourism bureaus, but the growth of such “light industry” is insufficient in addressing real issues, let alone the ongoing financial crisis affecting different regions. It is ineffectual in resolving the predicaments of economic development. While it is hailed in a desolate society, it may only serve as a temporary distraction, numbing the senses and blinding people from reality.

In the process of society becoming more desolate, the concept of “yān huǒ qì” (烟火气)* is almost destined to be emphasized, and it carries a feeling of nationalism and forlorn. Its visual effect is quite impressive, providing the illusion for both young and old in a desolate society, while dulling the strict street order enforced by the city police, giving people a feeling of intoxication. With the twinkling of the neon lights and the smoke filling up the air, the world can be anything.
*[Yān huǒ qì is a 2022 buzzword, initially means the smoke and fire produced from cooking food, but after ‘zero Covid,’ the phrase has come to be used to capture how restaurants and the hospitality sector across China seeing vitality again.]

Not long ago, ‘yān huǒ qì’ was a rhetoric to decorate the facade of the controlled economy, but now its existence has become like a common understanding between the government and the people. This rhetorical resonance, recited from above and echoed from below, has unexpectedly masked the perspective the term ‘yān huǒ qì’ represents, [namely that of] those in power overseeing it.”

“短视频及流量经济是局域网的原创,它们借助社会荒芜衍生出塑料花一样的花园。官方的取态非常干脆,它一方面驯化严肃议题的流量呈现,引导阻击它的道德评价;另一方面,它又滥用“为我所用”的原则攫取流量利益,以柔化深层次的焦虑。

前段时间,各地文旅局长按照当地的标志性文化,竞相登上由到安全流量组装而成的变装秀场。这些冲着流量变现而去的变装秀,因为没有与之竞的争社会议题,它们长驱直入到类似“淄博烧烤摊”的社会角落,与精神贫乏的受众同频共振。

“淄博烧烤走红”,“文旅局长变装”也许可作为文旅局的业绩,但这种“轻工业”的繁荣无法求解真问题,丝毫不减席卷各地的财政危机,更无助于解决经济发展的困境。当然,它们在荒芜社会空间搞出几声官民合唱,兴许可以暂时麻醉神经,遮断望眼。

在社会荒芜化的进程中,“烟火气”这个词得以强调几乎是命中注定,带着某种民族性与悲凉感。它的视觉效果相当可观,为荒芜社会提供了老少皆宜的幻觉,同时钝化了城管严控的街头秩序,令人们获得醉酒般的感受,假如霓虹闪烁,缭绕烟雾,亦可人间万象。

在不久之前,“烟火气”还是装点管控经济门面的修辞,现如今成为官民共识一样的存在。这种上有念叨、下有回声的修辞共鸣,出人意料地掩盖了“烟火气”这个词所象征的权力俯瞰视角,社会的荒芜化不仅蚕食价值议题,也以不知畏惧的憨态吞噬阶级差异。

 

“Have you considered that the desolation of society does not necessarily make it safer? In fact, it may just be another extreme form of a risky society. It is only ignored because the script of click-through traffic plays around the clock.”

 

“Similar to the intensity of a desert storm, the attention span of a desolate society is also brief, and the pace of the attention economy is fast. In a desolate society, the density of life for its members is low, and they can bear with or ignore their quality of life, but they cannot endure a short-lived infatuation. As the Zibo barbecue hype gained momentum, the countdown to the conclusion of the Ding Zhen craze* had already commenced. *[read about the hype surrounding Ding Zhen here.]

Some people believe that eliminating social diversity will also eliminate certain unpopular hidden dangers. However, have you considered that the desolation of society does not necessarily make it safer? In fact, it may just be another extreme form of a risky society that is ignored because the script of click-through traffic keeps playing around the clock. While you can control the click-through traffic, the logic of a decaying society remains uncontrollable.

Ultimately, the Zibo barbecue hype is very boring. It offers little solace to the government’s concerns about development or the public’s pressures for survival, unless we define a drunken and reckless lifestyle as positive. While we cannot fully blame the click-through economy for the desolation of society, it does contribute to numbing society’s awareness of how it operates, and the warning signs of a hollow society are all around us”.

“就像沙漠上的风暴特别强,荒芜社会的注意力也相当有限,注意力经济快速来也会快速去,毕竟荒芜意味着社会成员的生活密度低,他们可以容忍或漠视生活质量,但无法容忍略微时长的钟情。就在淄博烧烤走红的同时,始乱终弃的丁真式命结局就开始倒计时。

有人以为,消除了社会的多元化,就可以消除某些不受待见的隐患。何曾想,社会的荒芜化并不与安全社会划等号,它是风险社会的极端形式之一,只因日夜不停上演的流量剧本被忽视了。流量或许可以驯服,但社会荒芜化却沿着它的逻辑如脱缰之马。

说到底,淄博烧烤走红是非常无聊的事,它既不能真正安慰官方的发展焦虑,也无法减轻大众的生存压力,除非醉生梦死也被定义为积极的生活方式。当然,流量无法为社会的荒芜化负上全部责任,但它在合谋中钝化社会敏感度也是事实,荒芜将警讯紧紧包裹。”

 
Online Responses
 

The short essay is a critique of China’s youth, the online media sphere, and the click culture that goes from one hype to the next. But it is also a serious critique of Chinese authorities and the dynamics in place to mute serious social issues while blasting superficial trends.

The author suggests that everything is becoming less diverse (places like Zibo are ‘northeasternized’) and that society is actually so empty that people are constantly trying to fill the holes of their attention with the next meaningless buzz. Besides Zibo BBQ (link), he also mentions the Cultural Tourism chief cosplay trend (link), and the sudden rise to fame of Ding Zhen (link).

With Zibo and other domestic travel destinations being such a hot topic on Chinese social media recently, Liu’s critical essay – published on WeChat account Jiuwen Pinglun 旧闻评论 on April 17 – has inevitably become a topic of discussion.

By now, the essay has been deleted from Weixin, but online screenshots are still circulating online and have triggered new discussions this Labor Day holiday week (this link and this ifeng link are also still active). Various Weibo threads on the essay received hundreds of likes and comments over the past two days.

Some bloggers on Weibo value Liu’s perspective. As one blogger (@校长梁山) writes: “This is a thoughtful and high-quality article that you rarely come across (..) I have no intention of criticizing the government, but in terms of social management, the views in this article are worth thinking about.”

“Actually, he is right,” another commenter writes: “What he’s expressing is that the current economic downfall cannot be solved by the next barbecue hype, but this is something the media is burying” (the idiom used is yǎn ěr dào líng 掩耳盗铃, meaning covering one’s ears while stealing a bell, burying one’s head in the sand).” Those agreeing with the author suggest that Zibo’s success might be a win for its local cultural tourism department, but actually says nothing about a recovery of other industries and economy at large.

But there are also those who think Liu’s perspective is outdated and that, while talking about a lack of meaning, his own words are actually meaningless: “I have no idea what he is talking about.”

Zibo crowds, image via 163.com.

Some say he is making a big fuss over nothing, suggesting that it is only normal for people to want to seek for entertainment and simple pleasures like eating BBQ skwers, and that it does not represent a bigger problem at all. He is “moaning over an imaginary illness,” one Weibo user wrote (“wú bìng shēn yín” 无病呻吟).

Content deleted on WeChat.

Although not everyone agrees with Liu’s takes, many do agree that it gives food for thought. However, the deletion of the essay itself and the removal of some related online comment threads also prevents further discussions on the topic, which ironically exemplifies one of the issues that the author aimed to address in his essay.

By Manya Koetse

Edited May 19, 2023: An earlier version of this article suggested Liu Yadong (刘亚东) is the original author of the critical essay. Although the article is attributed to Liu on Chinese social media, Liu reposted it and had his own bio under the article, but the original (censored) article is authored by Song Zhibao (宋志标).

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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 Brands, Marketing & Consumers

More than Malatang: Tianshui’s Recipe for Success

Zibo had its BBQ moment. Now, it’s Tianshui’s turn to shine with its special take on malatang. Tourism marketing in China will never be the same again.

Manya Koetse

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Since the early post-pandemic days, Chinese cities have stepped up their game to attract more tourists. The dynamics of Chinese social media make it possible for smaller, lesser-known destinations to gain overnight fame as a ‘celebrity city.’ Now, it’s Tianshui’s turn to shine.

During this Qingming Festival holiday, there is one Chinese city that will definitely welcome more visitors than usual. Tianshui, the second largest city in Gansu Province, has emerged as the latest travel hotspot among domestic tourists following its recent surge in popularity online.

Situated approximately halfway along the Lanzhou-Xi’an rail line, this ancient city wasn’t previously a top destination for tourists. Most travelers would typically pass through the industrial city to see the Maiji Shan Grottoes, the fourth largest Buddhist cave complex in China, renowned for its famous rock carvings along the Silk Road.

But now, there is another reason to visit Tianshui: malatang.

 
Gansu-Style Malatang
 

Málàtàng (麻辣烫), which literally means ‘numb spicy hot,’ is a popular Chinese street food dish featuring a diverse array of ingredients cooked in a soup base infused with Sichuan pepper and dried chili pepper. There are multiple ways to enjoy malatang.

When dining at smaller street stalls, it’s common to find a selection of skewered foods—ranging from meats to quail eggs and vegetables—simmering in a large vat of flavorful spicy broth. This communal dining experience is affordable and convenient for solo diners or smaller groups seeking a hotpot-style meal.

In malatang restaurants, patrons can usually choose from a selection of self-serve skewered ingredients. You have them weighed, pay, and then have it prepared and served in a bowl with a preferred soup base, often with the option to choose the level of spiciness, from super hot to mild.

Although malatang originated in Sichuan, it is now common all over China. What makes Tianshui malatang stand out is its “Gansu-style” take, with a special focus on hand-pulled noodles, potato, and spicy oil.

An important ingredient for the soup base is the somewhat sweet and fragrant Gangu chili, produced in Tianshui’s Gangu County, known as “the hometown of peppers.”

Another ingredient is Maiji peppercorns (used in the sauce), and there are more locally produced ingredients, such as the black fungi from Qingshui County.

One restaurant that made Tianshui’s malatang particularly famous is Haiying Malatang (海英麻辣烫) in the city’s Qinzhou District. On February 13, the tiny restaurant, which has been around for three decades, welcomed an online influencer (@一杯梁白开) who posted about her visit.

The vlogger was so enthusiastic about her taste of “Gansu-style malatang,” that she urged her followers to try it out. It was the start of something much bigger than she could have imagined.

 
Replicating Zibo
 

Tianshui isn’t the first city to capture the spotlight on Chinese social media. Cities such as Zibo and Harbin have previously surged in popularity, becoming overnight sensations on platforms like Weibo, Xiaohongshu, and Douyin.

This phenomenon of Chinese cities transforming into hot travel destinations due to social media frenzy became particularly noteworthy in early 2023.

During the Covid years, various factors sparked a friendly competition among Chinese cities, each competing to attract the most visitors and to promote their city in the best way possible.

The Covid pandemic had diverse impacts on the Chinese domestic tourism industry. On one hand, domestic tourism flourished due to the pandemic, as Chinese travelers opted for destinations closer to home amid travel restrictions. On the other hand, the zero-Covid policy, with its lockdowns and the absence of foreign visitors, posed significant challenges to the tourism sector.

Following the abolition of the zero-Covid policy, tourism and marketing departments across China swung into action to revitalize their local economy. China’s social media platforms became battlegrounds to capture the attention of Chinese netizens. Local government officials dressed up in traditional outfits and created original videos to convince tourists to visit their hometowns.

Zibo was the first city to become an absolute social media sensation in the post-Covid era. The old industrial and mining city was not exactly known as a trendy tourist destination, but saw its hotel bookings going up 800% in 2023 compared to pre-Covid year 2019. Among others factors contributing to its success, the city’s online marketing campaign and how it turned its local BBQ culture into a unique selling point were both critical.

Zibo crowds, image via 163.com.

Since 2023, multiple cities have tried to replicate the success of Zibo. Although not all have achieved similar results, Harbin has done very well by becoming a meme-worthy tourist attraction earlier in 2024, emphasizing its snow spectacle and friendly local culture.

By promoting its distinctive take on malatang, Tianshui has emerged as the next city to captivate online audiences, leading to a surge in visitor numbers.

Like with Zibo and Harbin, one particular important strategy used by these tourist offices is to swiftly respond to content created by travel bloggers or food vloggers about their cities, boosting the online attention and immediately seizing the opportunity to turn online success into offline visits.

 
A Timeline
 

What does it take to become a Chinese ‘celebrity city’? Since late February and early March of this year, various Douyin accounts started posting about Tianshui and its malatang.

They initially were the main reason driving tourists to the city to try out malatang, but they were not the only reason – city marketing and state media coverage also played a role in how the success of Tianshui played out.

Here’s a timeline of how its (online) frenzy unfolded:

  • July 25, 2023: First video on Douyin about Tianshui’s malatang, after which 45 more videos by various accounts followed in the following six months.
  •  Feb 5, 2024: Douyin account ‘Chuanshuo Zhong de Bozi’ (传说中的波仔) posts a video about malatang streetfood in Gansu
  • Feb 13, 2024: Douyin account ‘Yibei Liangbaikai’ (一杯梁白开) posts a video suggesting the “nationwide popularization of Gansu-style malatang.” This video is an important breakthrough moment in the success of Tianshui as a malatang city.
  • Feb – March ~, 2024: The Tianshui Culture & Tourism Bureau is visiting sites, conducting research, and organizing meetings with different departments to establish the “Tianshui city + malatang” brand (文旅+天水麻辣烫”品牌) as the city’s new “business card.”
  • March 11, 2024: Tianshui city launches a dedicated ‘spicy and hot’ bus line to cater to visitors who want to quickly reach the city’s renowned malatang spots.
  • March 13-14, 2024: China’s Baidu search engine witnesses exponential growth in online searches for Tianshui malatang.
  • March 14-15, 2024: The boss of Tianshui’s popular Haiying restaurant goes viral after videos show him overwhelmed and worried he can’t keep up. His facial expression becomes a meme, with netizens dubbing it the “can’t keep up-expression” (“烫不完表情”).

The worried and stressed expression of this malatang diner boss went viral overnight.

  • March 17, 2024: Chinese media report about free ‘Tianshui malatang’ wifi being offered to visitors as a special service while they’re standing in line at malatang restaurants.
  • March 18, 2024: Tianshui opens its first ‘Malatang Street’ where about 40 stalls sell malatang.
  • March 18, 2024: Chinese local media report that one Tianshui hair salon (Tony) has changed its shop into a malatang shop overnight, showing just how big the hype has become.
  • March 21, 2024: A dedicated ‘Tianshui malatang’ train started riding from Lanzhou West Station to Tianshui (#天水麻辣烫专列开行#).
  • March 21, 2024: Chinese actor Jia Nailiang (贾乃亮) makes a video about having Tianshui malatang, further adding to its online success.
  • March 30, 2024: A rare occurrence: as the main attraction near Tianshui, the Maiji Mountain Scenic Area announces that they’ve reached the maximum number of visitors and don’t have the capacity to welcome any more visitors, suspending all ticket sales for the day.
  • April 1, 2024: Chinese presenter Zhang Dada was spotted making malatang in a local Tianshui restaurant, drawing in even more crowds.

 
A New Moment to Shine
 

Fame attracts criticism, and that also holds true for China’s ‘celebrity cities.’

Some argue that Tianshui’s malatang is overrated, considering the richness of Gansu cuisine, which offers much more than just malatang alone.

When Zibo reached hype status, it also faced scrutiny, with some commenters suggesting that the popularity of Zibo BBQ was a symptom of a society that’s all about consumerism and “empty social spectacle.”

There is a lot to say about the downsides of suddenly becoming a ‘celebrity city’ and the superficiality and fleetingness that comes with these kinds of trends. But for many locals, it is seen as an important moment as they see their businesses and cities thrive.

Even after the hype fades, local businesses can maintain their success by branding themselves as previously viral restaurants. When I visited Zibo a few months after its initial buzz, many once-popular spots marketed themselves as ‘wanghong’ (网红) or viral celebrity restaurants.

For the city itself, being in the spotlight holds its own value in the long run. Even after the hype has peaked and subsided, the gained national recognition ensures that these “trendy” places will continue to attract visitors in the future.

According to data from Ctrip, Tianshui experienced a 40% increase in tourism spending since March (specifically from March 1st to March 16th). State media reports claim that the city saw 2.3 million visitors in the first three weeks of March, with total tourism revenue reaching nearly 1.4 billion yuan ($193.7 million).

There are more ripple effects of Tianshui’s success: Maiji Shan Grottoes are witnessing a surge in visitors, and local e-commerce companies are experiencing a spike in orders from outside the city. Even when they’re not in Tianshui, people still want a piece of Tianshui.

By now, it’s clear that tourism marketing in China will never be the same again. Zibo, Harbin, and Tianshui exemplify a new era of destination hype, requiring a unique selling point, social media success, strong city marketing, and a friendly and fair business culture at the grassroots level.

While Zibo’s success was largely organic, Harbin’s was more orchestrated, and Tianshui learned from both. Now, other potential ‘celebrity’ cities are preparing to go viral, learning from the successes and failures of their predecessors to shine when their time comes.

By Manya Koetse

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China Brands, Marketing & Consumers

In Hot Water: The Nongfu Spring Controversy Explained

Nongfu and nationalists: how the praise for one Chinese domestic water bottle brand sparked online animosity toward another.

Manya Koetse

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The big battle over bottled water has taken over Chinese social media recently. The support for the Chinese Wahaha brand has morphed into an anti-Nongfu Spring campaign, led by online nationalists.

Recently, China’s number one water brand, Nongfu Spring (农夫山泉) has found itself in the midst of an online nationalist storm.

The controversy started with the passing of Zong Qinghou (宗庆后), the founder and chairman of Wahaha Group (娃哈哈集团), the largest beverage producer in China. News of his passing made headlines on February 25, 2024, with one Weibo hashtag announcing his death receiving over 900 million views (#宗庆后逝世#).

The death of the businessman led to an outpouring of emotions on Weibo, where netizens praised his work ethic, dedication, and unwavering commitment to his principles.

Zong Qinghou, image via Weibo.

Born in 1945, Zong established Wahaha in Hangzhou in 1987, starting from scratch alongside two others. Despite humble beginnings, Zong, who came from a poor background, initially sold ice cream and soft drinks from his tricycle. However, by the second year, the company achieved success by concentrating on selling nutritional drinks to children, a strategy that resonated with Chinese single-child families (Tsui et al., 2017, p. 295).

The company experienced explosive growth and, boasting over 150 products ranging from milk drinks to fruit juices and soda pops, emerged as a dominant force in China’s beverage industry and the largest domestic bottled-water company.

Big bottle of Wahaha (meaning “laughing child”) water.

The admiration for Zong Qinghou and his company relates to multiple factors. Zong was loved for his inspirational rags-to-riches story under China’s economic reform, not unlike the self-made Tao Huabi and her Laoganma brand.

He was also loved for establishing a top Chinese national brand and refusing to be bought out. A decade after Wahaha partnered with the France-based multinational Danone in 1996, the two companies clashed when Zong accused Danone of trying to take over the Wahaha brand, which turned into a high-profile legal battle that was eventually settled in 2009, when Danone eventually sold all its stakes.

It is one of the reasons why Zong was known as a “patriotic private entrepreneur” (爱国民营企业家) who remained devoted to China and his roots.

Netizens also admire the Chinese tycoon’s modesty and humility despite his immense wealth. He would often wear simple cloth shoes and, apparently not caring much about the elite social stratum, allegedly declined invitations to dine with Bill Gates and the Queen of England. He had a people-centric business approach. He prioritized the welfare of Wahaha employees, ensuring the protection of pensions for retired workers, establishing an employee stock ownership plan, and refused to terminate employees older than 45.

A post praising Zong and his daughter for staying humble despite their wealth: wearing simple shoes and not looking at their phones.

Zong and his daughter stand out due to their simple shoes.

As a tribute to Zong following his passing in late February, people not only started buying Wahaha bottled water, they also initiated criticism against its major competitor, Nongfu Spring (农夫山泉). Posts across various Chinese social media platforms, from Douyin to Weibo, started to advocate for boycotting Nongfu as a means to “protect” Wahaha as a national, proudly made-in-China brand.

 
From Love for Wahaha to Hate for Nongfu
 

With the death of Zong Qinghou, it seems that the decades-long rivalry between Nongfu and Wahaha has suddenly taken center stage in the public opinion arena, and it’s clear who people are rooting for.

The founder and chairman of Nongfu Spring is Chinese entrepreneur Zhong Shanshan (钟睒睒), and he is perhaps less likeable than Zong Qinghou, in part because he is not considered as patriotic as him.

Born in 1954, Zhong Shanshan is a former journalist who started working for Wahaha in the early 1990s. He established his own company and started focusing on bottled water in 1996. He would become China’s richest man.

His wealth was not just accumulated because of his Nongfu Spring water, which would become a leader in China’s bottled water market. Zhong also became the largest shareholder of Wantai Biological Pharmacy Enterprise, which experienced significant growth following its IPO. Cecolin, a vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV), is manufactured by Innovax, a wholly owned subsidiary of Wantai.

Zhong Shanshan, image via Sohu.

The fact that Zhong Shanshan previously worked for Zong Qinghou and later ventured out on his own does not cast him in a positive light, especially in the context of netizens mourning Zong. Many people perceive Zhong Shanshan as a profit-driven businessman who lacks humility and national spirit compared to his former boss. Some even label him as ‘ungrateful.’

By now, the support for Wahaha water has snowballed into an anti-Nongfu campaign, resulting in intense scrutiny and criticism directed at the brand and its owner. This has led to a significant boycott and a sharp decline in sales.

Netizens are finding multiple reasons to attack Nongfu Spring and its owner. Apart from accusing Zhong Shanshan of being ungrateful, one of the Nongfu brand’s product packaging designs has also sparked controversy. The packaging of its Oriental Leaf Green Tea has been alleged to show Japanese elements, leading to claims of Zhong being “pro-Japan.”

Chinese social media users claim the packaging of this green tea is based on Japanese architecture instead of Chinese buildings.

Another point of ongoing contention is the fact that Zhong’s son (his heir, Zhong Shuzi 钟墅子) holds American citizenship. This has sparked anger among netizens who question Zhong’s allegiance to China. Concerned that the future of Nongfu might be in the US instead of China, they accuse Zhong and his business of betraying the Chinese people and being unpatriotic.

But what also plays a role in this, is how Zhong and the Nongfu Spring PR team have responded to the ongoing criticism. Some bloggers (link, link) argue their approach lacks emotional connection and comes off as too business-like.

On March 3rd, Zhong himself issued a statement addressing the personal attacks he faced following the passing of Zong Qinghou. In his article (我与宗老二三事), he aimed to ‘set the record straight.’ Although he expressed admiration for Zong Qinghou, many found his piece to be impersonal and more focused on safeguarding his own image.

The same criticism goes for the company’s response to the “pro-Japan” issue. On March 7, they refuted ongoing accusations and stated that the architecture depicted on the controversial beverage packaging was inspired by Chinese temples, not Japanese ones, and that a text on the bottle is about Japanese tea culture originating from China.

 
Calls for Calmer Water
 

Although Weibo and other social media platforms in China have recently seen a surge in nationalism, not everybody agrees with the way Nongfu Spring is being attacked. Some say that netizens are taking it too far and that a vocal minority is controlling the trending narrative.

Posts or videos from people pouring out Nongfu water in their sink are countered by others from people saying that they are now buying the brand to show solidarity in the midst of the social media storm.

Online photo of netizen buying Nongfu Spring water: “I support Nongfu Spring, I support private entrepreneurs, I support the recovery of China’s economy. I firmly opposo populism running wild.”

While more people are speaking out against the recent waves of nationalism, news came in on March 13 that the 95-year-old mother of Zhong Shanshan had passed away. According to an obituary published in the Qianjiang Evening News newspaper, Guo Jin (郭瑾) passed away on March 11.

The obituary.

A screenshot of a WeChat post alleged to be written by Zhong Shanshan made its rounds, in which Zhong blamed the online hate he received, and the ensuing stress, for his mother’s death.

Wechat post, allegedly posted by Zhong himself, blaming the recent Nongfu Spring controversy and cyberbullying for the death of the 95-year-old Guo Jin.

While criticism of Zhong resurfaced for attributing the old lady’s death to “indescribable cyberbullying” (“莫名网暴”), some saw this moment as an opportunity to bring an end to the attacks on Nongfu. As the controversy continued to brew, the Sina Weibo platform seemingly attempted to divert attention by removing some hashtags related to the issue (e.g., “Zhong Shanshan’s Mother Guo Jin Passed Away” #钟睒睒之母郭瑾离世#).

The well-known Chinese commentator Hu Xijin (胡锡进) also spoke out in support of Nongfu Spring and called for rationality, arguing that Chinese private entrepreneurs are facing excessive scrutiny. He suggested that China’s netizens should stop nitpicking over their private matters and instead focus more on their contributions to the country’s economy.

Others are also calling for an end to the waves of attacks towards Nongfu and Zhong Shanshan. Chinese entrepreneur Li Guoqing (李国庆), co-founder of the e-commerce company Dangdang (once hailed as the ‘Amazon of China’), posted a video about the issue on March 12. He said: “These two [Nongfu Spring and Wahaha brands] have come a long way to get to where they are today. The fact that they are competitors is a good thing. If old Zong [Qinghou] were still alive today and saw this division, he would surely step forward and tell people to get back to business and rational competition.”

Li Guoqing in his video (since deleted).

Li also suggested that Zong’s heir, his daughter Kelly Zong, should come out, broaden her perspective, and settle the matter. She should thank netizens for their support, he argued, and tell them that it is completely unnecessary to exacerbate the rift with Nongfu Spring in showing their support.

But those mingling in the matter soon discover themselves how easy it is to get your fingers burned on this hot topic. Li Guoqing might have meant well, but he also faced attacks after his video. Not only because people feel he is putting Kelly Zong in an awkward position, but also because his own son. like Zhong Shuzi, allegedly holds American citizenship. Perhaps unwilling to find himself in hot water as well, Li Guoqing has since deleted his video. The Nongfu storm may be one that should blow over by itself.

By Manya Koetse

With contributions by Miranda Barnes

References

Tsui, Anne S., Yingying Zhang, Xiao-Ping Chen. 2017. “Chinese Companies Need Strong and Open-minded Leaders. Interview with Wahaha Group Founder, Chairman and CEO, Qinghou Zong.” In Leadership of Chinese Private Enterprises
Insights and Interviews, Palgrave MacMillan.

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