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“Fake” and “Hypocritical” – Western Anti-Racism Movements Criticized on Weibo

Chinese social media responses to the Western anti-racism movement after Floyd’s death.

Manya Koetse

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George Floyd and the global anti-racism movements have not just dominated headlines in the US and other western countries – in China, they have also become a major news topic. This is an overview of the general Chinese online media discussions of these global news developments, including all the big hashtags, from the George Floyd killing to global companies changing their policies amid concerns over racial stereotyping.

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

George Floyd – it is a name that the entire world has come to know since the 46-year-old black man was killed during an arrest in May of this year.

The death of Floyd has sparked major Black Lives Matter protests around the world, inspiring international movements fighting against racism. The incident also led to unrest, riots, and the defacement of controversial statues in America and other countries.

In solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight against systemic racism, many organizations and companies in western countries have also made various anti-racist statements and announced policy changes.

Minneapolis graffiti mural honoring George Floyd, photo by Munshots, Unsplash.

In China, the case of George Floyd (transcribed as 乔治•弗洛伊德 Qiáozhì Fúluòyīdé) and its ongoing aftermath have also made headlines in the media and have become big news topics on social media sites such as Weibo.

In a year of COVID-19 crisis and geopolitical tensions – including escalating China-US tensions and the passing of the national security law for Hong Kong -, many of the recent news stories do not stand alone.

The way the news is reported and discussed in China by state media and web users is often part of larger narratives about China and its current relations within the international community. But it’s not just politics; cultural context also greatly matters when it comes to how the anti-racism movement in the Floyd aftermath is perceived in the PRC.

 

“Oh, How Free America Is” – Floyd’s Killing

 

As now widely known, the George Floyd incident took place in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, when police responded to a shopkeeper’s call about someone potentially using a counterfeit bill. Floyd was sitting in his car when officers arrived at the scene and was asked to step out of his vehicle.

Even though Floyd was compliant and unarmed, a bystander video shows how he was held face-down on the ground, the officer pressing his knee into the side of his neck, while Floyd was begging for air, uttering the sentence: “I can’t breathe.”

While the officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for over seven minutes, the 46-year-old could be seen losing consciousness and going limp.

The video of the fatal arrest went viral on social media overnight, and soon led to people protesting in Minneapolis and elsewhere across the US, demanding justice over the fatal arrest.

Black Lives Matter public demonstration in Cincinnati, photo by Julian Wan, Unsplash.

The four officers involved in George Floyd’s death have since been fired from the Minneapolis Police Department and have been criminally charged. Tensions in Minnesota reached a boiling point and protests escalated to riots and lootings, with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey declaring a state of emergency on May 29.

On that same day, CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez, a reporter of color, was arrested and handcuffed on live television together with his cameraman and producer while reporting on the situation in Minneapolis. Although the CNN crew was released shortly after, the incident also further intensified the debate on discrimination and racism in America.

On Weibo, news of the George Floyd incident and the American protests soon went trending with various related hashtags.

By late May and early June, some of the top Weibo hashtags regarding the protests were “CNN Crew Arrested by Police” (#CNN报道团队被警方逮捕#, 170 million views), “Minneapolis Enters State of Emergency” (#美国明尼阿波利斯市进入紧急状态#, 370 million views),  “Protests Erupt over Case of Black Man Dying after American Police Applies Pressure on Neck” (#美警察压颈致黑人死亡引发抗议#, 7+ million views),  “American Anti-Racist Demonstrations” (#美国反种族歧视游行#, 3+ million views) and many more.

The hashtag “U.S. Riots” (#美国暴乱#) garnered over 5,3 billion views and triggered thousands of reactions on Chinese social media.

Many of the Weibo responses to the killing of George Floyd and its direct aftermath incorporated these developments into a bigger framework of strained US-China relations, pointing out the supposed American hypocrisy for criticizing China regarding freedom and human rights, especially in light of the COVID19-crisis and the Hong Kong situation.

“Oh how free America is,” one popular comment on Weibo said (“多么自由的米国”), with others saying things such as: “Are these the human rights you are advocating?”

Commenters expressed their disgust at the brutality of the policemen, calling the police officers “ruthless” and “sadistic,” with some – not without sarcasm – wondering if China should introduce an “anti-racism law” against US officials responsible for racial abuse.

News of CNN reporter Jimenez being arrested by the American state patrol was also shared on Weibo by the Communist Youth League official account, leading to many reactions criticizing America’s “freedom of press.”

“So this is so-called equality? Freedom? Democracy?” Another user writes: “So this is the freedom I’m yearning for? Is this called freedom?”

Some Weibo users shared compilations showing American officers using excessive force and violence while beating and shooting down people during their work.

Although criticism of the US-dominated Chinese online discussions of Floyd’s killing, there were also social media users showing support for the protesters: “I fully support the movement of Black Americans fighting for the rule of law, equality, and freedom,” one popular comment, receiving over 14,000 likes, said.

One blogger with over 123,000 followers wrote: “The riots erupting in the US will surely have a negative impact on society. But looking at it from another perspective, it still makes me envious because they have the guts to speak up, the courage to resist. If such a thing would happen in China, would you stand up?”

 

“Fake Anti-Racism” – From The Simpsons to Darlie Toothpaste  

 

As George Floyd protests have now ignited a wave of anti-racism efforts across the globe, there are also new hashtags popping up on Chinese social media that are generating a lot of discussion.

Although the protesters denouncing racism and police brutality directly after the Floyd killing were often praised on Chinese social media, some of the latest efforts by companies and brands – showing wider consideration of racism in media, fashion, and entertainment – met less sympathy among Chinese web users.

One example is the news-related hashtag “The Simpsons Cartoon Stops Using White People to Dub the Voices of Non-White Roles” (#动画辛普森不再用白人为非白人配音#), which had over 90 million views on Weibo at time of writing. In late June, producers of The Simpsons announced that they will no longer let white actors do the voices of characters of color.

“Bloody hell, [as if] you can hear by the voices if they are white or not?!”, a typical comment said, with other recurring comments saying: “This is crazy! Voices aren’t black or white.”

“Just make them all blue,” others suggested, with one person writing: “They [the Simpsons] all have yellow skin, why don’t they use actors of Asian descent to do their voices? This is fake so-called anti-racism.”

Others also argue that these kinds of initiatives only stress racial differences, instead of combating racism: “The more it’s like this, the more they stress the importance of racial distinction. Why?”

Other anti-discrimination initiatives, such as that of Unilever and beauty brand L’Oréal Paris to stop using words like “whitening” and “fair” in describing their products, together with other brands’ initiatives to remove some skin-whitening products altogether, also received a lot of attention on Weibo (hashtag #欧莱雅停用美白宣传语#, 110 million views).

“This goes too far,” “Unbelievable,” “How unnecessary,” many commenters wrote, adding: “What does this have to do with racial discrimination?” “Isn’t this just another form of discrimination?”

“Why do I feel that it’s Asians who are being discriminated against here,” some users said: “Different ethnicities have different beauty standards, different people also have different tastes in beauty. For many Asians, they just happen to think fair skin is pretty.“

Noteworthy enough, the critical stances that are ubiquitous on Weibo toward this kind of initiatives are not just visible from the most general comments; the news sources posting these news articles, from Xinhua to Sina Top Trending, also use ‘thinking face’ or ‘surprised’ emoji in their posts that suggest a certain reproachful attitude towards these kinds of developments.

Chinese media often use pensive/surprised emoji when reporting on western brands’ anti-racism policies (image: screenshot of Xinhua reporting on L’Oréal).

Another notable brand response to the anti-racism movement also ignited online discussions: Colgate announced a review of its Chinese toothpaste brand “Darlie”[1], once known as “Darkie” (literally “Black Man Toothpaste” 黑人牙膏 in Chinese), for featuring a man in blackface.

Some of the hashtags used in discussing this news are “Black Man Toothpaste is the Latest Brand Affected by American Anti-Racism” (#黑人牙膏成美反种族歧视受影响最新品牌#) and “Colgate Considers Changing the Name of the Chinese Market ‘Black Man Toothpaste’” (#高露洁考虑将中国市场黑人牙膏改名#, 110 million views).

Darlie toothpaste is a household name for many Chinese (image via Sina Weibo).

Darlie toothpaste is originally a Chinese brand, under the umbrella of the 87-year-old Shanghai company Hawley & Hazel, and is a household name for many Chinese. The overall sentiment in response to this news is that many do not understand how changing the brand is helpful in the battle against social injustice.

“I just don’t see how this is racial discrimination,” one person comments: “How is this stereotyping [black men]?”

News that America’s biggest bank JPMorgan Chase is dropping the terms “master,” “slave,” and “blacklist” from its technology material and programming code was also met with criticism on Weibo (#摩根大通停用黑名单等术语#), where some wondered if they had “gone mad” and whether this way some sort of “literary inquisition.”

In a recent blog article on Weibo discussing these latest developments, blogger Captain Wuya (@乌鸦校尉) wrote about the brands and companies involved that “they are waving their big stick of political correctness at anyone they can hit.“

“What really needs to change here, is American big brands exaggerating the facts,” another popular comment said.

 

“Excessive Political Correctness” – Rejection of Western Anti-Racist Policies

 

The latest anti-racism movement in western countries is clearly discussed in a very different way in the Chinese social media context than it is in the English-language social media sphere.

Although many of the latest anti-racism initiatives by brands and companies also draw a mix of praise and criticism on Twitter or Facebook, the general view on Weibo seems to be that they are “fake,” “overdoing it,” are “unnecessary” and “non-sensical,” and that they stress racial differences rather than equality. Another recurring sentiment is that anti-black racism is prioritized over racism against Asians.

The different views among Chinese social media users on what is deemed racist or not has attracted wide attention before. One noteworthy example is that of the 2016 Qiaobi laundry detergent commercial that shows a black man turning into a Chinese man after being ‘washed.’ The commercial was taken down after causing controversy outside of China.

The Chinese Qiaobi commercial drew much controversy for being racist in 2016.

A typical comment on Chinese social media, at the time, was: “Western media have just taken their concept of ‘racism’ and applied it [to this commercial]. In reality, the great majority of Chinese people have no notion of ‘white’ versus ‘black’ or ‘Asian’, and any supposed inferiority in this.”

Similar responses also came up when the 2018 CCTV Gala caused consternation in foreign media for featuring a Chinese actress wearing blackface in a segment emphasizing Sino-African relations.

The controversial skit included a Chinese actress in blackface (CCTV).

These attitudes and general comments seem to suggest that racism or discrimination is just less of an issue in China, or that it is soon trivialized. Is this the case?

Issues of racism and discrimination are certainly not trivialized in China when it is about anti-Asian racism. Throughout modern history, the Chinese have been victims of racism. Over recent years, there are myriad examples of collective anger and boycott campaigns because Chinese feel discriminated against.

For example, when Italian luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana launched a promotional video in which a Chinese-looking woman clumsily attempted to eat a large cannoli bread with chopsticks, many netizens on Chinese social media called it racist. After screenshots went viral of a China-bashing online conversation with the alleged Stefano Gabbana, the issue became one of the largest trending topics on Weibo in 2018.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also led to an increase in racism in the US and other countries directed at those of Asian descent, something that has recently become a hot topic on Chinese social media, triggering anger and calls for equal treatment of Asians.

Is it, then, perhaps that discrimination and racial inequality within mainland China are not so much of an issue? This certainly is also not the case. Besides the many different shapes and forms of discrimination – regional discrimination being one of them –, there are many examples of anti-black racism in China. Online racism against Africans has been an ongoing issue on Weibo ever since the platform was first launched in 2009 (example, example).

A notice at a Guangzhou McDonald’s restaurant saying “black people cannot come in” sparked international outrage earlier this year.

Voices against the discriminatory treatment of Africans in China have only grown louder during the coronavirus outbreak, when hundreds of Guangzhou-based Africans were evicted from hotels and apartments after local authorities began a campaign to forcibly test them for the coronavirus. A notice at a Guangzhou McDonald’s restaurant saying “black people cannot come in” sparked international outrage earlier this year.

All in all, it is not about racism being non-existent in China, nor is it trivialized. The fact that the latest western developments are discussed in such a different light on Chinese social media has much more to do with how American and European anti-racist policies, and the grip they hold on media, politics, and the corporate world, are rejected by Chinese netizens.

This does not mean that the Floyd incident is deemed any less horrific in China than elsewhere in the world. Social injustice and inequality are recurring topics on Chinese social media, and it is something that greatly matters to many Chinese web users, with these kinds of stories going trending all the time.

It does mean, however, that western approaches to anti-racism, with the racial etiquette that comes with it and a focus on what is correct or incorrect when it comes to language, imagery and behavior, are often deemed excessive (“矫枉过正”) by Chinese web users – or useless in actually combating social inequality.

These responses have a lot to do with current geopolitical developments and the position of China within the international community, but more so with the fact that China has a very different historical, cultural, and societal context when it comes to (anti-black) racism compared to the US or other western countries.

In a lengthy article posted on Weibo in early July by Chinese commentator and academic Guo Songmin (郭松民), who has been actively posting about the Black Lives Matter movement, the prominent leftist author explains that this also has a lot to do with the fact that, different from most western countries, “China has neither a history of slavery nor a history of colonizing Africa,” and that, at the same time, China is also not a country of immigrants.

In the end, some say that they do understand the latest anti-racist initiatives by American and European companies in their home markets, but also argue that they should not impose their political correctness upon the Chinese market.

A recent Weibo blog, reiterating the views of many on Weibo, argues that Darlie Toothpaste should still be ‘Black Man Toothpaste’ in China, and that cosmetic brands should continue to cater their ‘whitening’ products to the Chinese market. According to the author, these colors, words, and imageries mean something different in the PRC than in the West. “If European and American cosmetic companies truly respect the cultural and ethnic diversities across the world,” they write: “they should also respect the culture and aesthetics of East Asians.”

To what extent the anti-racist movement will eventually affect the Chinese market, and how -and if- this will change existing views on racism remains to be seen. Meanwhile, heated discussions continue on social media. For some Weibo commenters, the situation at hand seems clear enough: “American-style political correctness just makes no sense here.”

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

For COVID-19 related articles, please click here.

[1] Darlie is a toothpaste brand of Colgate partner Hawley & Hazel, that was established in Shanghai in 1933, and was originally marketed as a parody of American performer Al Jolson. He became popular for his blackface performances, and the whiteness of his teeth made him the face of the toothpaste brand.

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

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

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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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Unbiased Doll

    September 30, 2020 at 2:37 am

    Unfortunately racism is prevalent in China and Asian societies. Even the Asian international students who come to the west e.g. US tend to be very racist towards people of color. This is not just limited to Blacks but to South Asians, Latinos or others. They are simply rude and disrespectful willing to ignore the laws and regulations of the country (e.g. pedestrian laws when driving). Initially I thought they were just not used to customs and etiquettes but then the same people showed a well mannered attitude towards white people. So I definitely can vouch the racism is ingrained in Chinese and Asian culture (mostly hung out with Chinese but I also observed this in Korean, Indonesian and Vietnamese).

  2. Avatar

    Charles Kaltwasser

    July 10, 2021 at 3:59 pm

    an american anti racist tried to kill me today because he curiously deems me to be “racist.”

    What puzzles me is that the mafiaesque black lives matter group in USA says nothing about the thousands of black lives lost at sea
    trying to escape Libya after Obama and the French President now in jail sponsored the destruction of Gaddafy
    Libya

    I am trying to be nonfiction here

  3. Avatar

    Charles Kaltwasser

    July 10, 2021 at 4:04 pm

    hello
    你好吗

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Backgrounder

Explainer: Ten Key Terms and Concepts of the 20th CPC National Congress

Take a look at the essential keywords and concepts surrounding the 20th Party Congress.

Manya Koetse

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What are the key terms and concepts mentioned in Xi Jinping’s speech that are propagated all over Chinese social media this week? Here, we explain ten important concepts and keywords that you are probably going to see much more of in the coming five years.

It is the week of the 20th CPC National Congress, China’s quinquennial major political event that is all about discussing and deciding on important Party issues, appointing Party leadership and officially announcing new governance concepts, thoughts and strategies proposed by the CPC Central Committee.

The Party Congress opened on Sunday, October 16, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivered his nearly two-hour-long speech reflecting on the recent past and the future of the Communist Party and the country at large, signalling the direction China will be heading.

In our earlier article covering Xi Jinping’s speech, we focused on how Chinese official channels turned parts of the work report into hashtags that were promoted on social media and then became trending topics.

Here, we will go over some of the terms and words that were used in the political report delivered by Xi and were propagated on Chinese social media as ‘key terms’ through general hashtags such as “Understanding These Key Terms from the 20th Party Congress Report,” “Studying the Essence of the 20th Party Congress” or “The New Era and Journey of the 20th Party Congress” (#看懂二十大报告中这些关键词#, #学习二十大精神#, #党的二十大新时代新征程#).

During the 19th CPC National Congress in 2017, Party newspaper People’s Daily published a vocabulary list containing 100 relevant words and terms. That list included terms such as “5G Era” (5G时代), “Sharing Economy” (分享经济), “The 20th anniversary of Hong-Kong’s return to China” (香港回归祖国20周年), “Made in China 2025” (中国制造2025), and other key terms that were deemed relevant in 2017 for China’s nearing future.

This Congress, there has not been a comparable official vocabulary list, but there have been various shorter lists and hashtags encouraging netizens to study key terms that are important to this year’s Congress and the Party goals. Many of these terms are visualized in infographics or explained in online posts and articles.

We’ve gathered some of these key terms from Xi’s speech here that are important to understand, not just for the fact that they are mentioned in Xi’s speech but also because they are specifically highlighted by various official channels.

 

1. Modernizing the Chinese Way 中国式现代化

This concept was mentioned at least five times throughout Xi Jinping’s address and it is one of most important themes of this Party Congress: “Chinese modernization” or “Chinese-style modernization” (中国式现代化 Zhōngguóshì xiàndàihuà).

While the 19th Party Congress was all about China’s ‘new era’ (新时代), this 20th Party Congress term grasps the idea of further modernizing the country in a ‘Chinese way,’ meaning a type of modernization in which typically Chinese features and characteristics (“中国特色”) are maintained.

This is a relatively new term. A tool that shows searches on the Chinese search engine Baidu indicates that it did not receive any significant amount of searches before spiking during the week 20th Party Congress.

Baidu trend search shows that the term “Chinese-style modernizarion” “中国式现代化” did not receive any significant searches before October 2022.

The concept, however, did pop up in Chinese official media discourse since late 2021, such as in one article published by Xinhua News on September 27 in 2021 titled “Grasping the Main Features of the New Path of Chinese-Style Modernization” (把握中国式现代化新道路的主要特征)

The idea of Chinese-style modernization is closely related to other key concepts such as “common prosperity for all” (全体人民共同富裕 quántǐ rénmín gòngtóng fùyù) and “harmony between humanity and nature” (人与自然和谐共生 rén yǔ zìrán héxié gòngshēng).

 

2. The Central Mission 中心任务

The term “central mission” (中心任务 zhōngxīn rènwù) was mentioned at least once in Xi Jinping’s address to convey how the central task of the CPC is to “unite and lead the people of all nationalities to build a strong socialist modern country,” and to “promote the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation with Chinese-style modernization.”

Although the term “central mission” itself is not particularly tied to the 20th Party Congress at all, it is now because of how it is being used in the new context of the Party’s ‘main goal’ in China’s ‘new era.’ People’s Daily also promoted a hashtag including this term: “The Communist Party of China’s Central Task from Now On” (#从现在起中国共产党的中心任务#”).

 

3. Top Priority 第一要务

The key term ‘top priority’ (第一要务 dì yī yàowù) refers to the Party pursuing the kind of “high-quality development” (“高质量发展”) that will lead to the further modernization of the country.

“High-quality development” was also mentioned in the 19th Party Congress report in 2017 to indicate a shift and a new phase in China’s economic development from a focus on high-speed growth to a focus on more high-quality development, which is also outlined in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025).

This means, among others, that there will be more focus on innovation-driven industries and technological advancement.

 

4. The “Two-Steps” Strategy “两步走”战略安排

In the segment of Xi’s speech where he addresses China-style modernization in the new era, he also mentions the “two steps” strategy (“两步走”战略安排 “liǎng bù zǒu” zhànlüè ānpái). This is not a new term and it has been previously introduced as part of China’s journey to becoming a strong, rejuvenated country – making China great again.

The two steps of this strategy are to realize ‘socialist modernization’ by 2035 and then to enter the next phase from 2035-2050 to build China into a “strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious and beautiful socialist modernization country.” The year 2049 will mark the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, and this is the moment when China’s “great rejuvenation” should be completed.

 

5. The Road to Follow 必由之路

At the end of Xi Jinping’s speech, he mentioned “the road to follow” (必由之路, bìyóuzhīlù) five times. On social media, the “road to follow” has been reiterated multiple times as well by official channels, including in a propaganda video published by CCTV.

The five ‘roads to follow’ mentioned in the Party Congress and in the state media videos are the following that are together presented as “the only road” the country and the Party must take. They are all linked together and are actually somewhat circular, namely:

– to develop socialism with Chinese characteristics, they must adhere to the overall leadership of the Party
– to achieve the “great rejuvenation” of China they must stick to socialism with Chinese characterics
– to reach this historic undertaking, they must be united in struggle
– to allow China to grow and develop in the ‘new era,’ they must implement the new concepts for development
– to be able to take this new road together & keep the Party full of vitality, they must follow the way of comprehensive and strict Party governance

 

6. Building Beautiful China 建设美丽中国

In the 20th CPC National Congress report, the idea of “building beautiful China” (建设美丽中国, jiànshè měilì Zhōngguó) was mentioned in the segment dedicated to the “green development” of China as part of its overall modernization. This includes environmental protection, pollution control, carbon reduction, and climate change awareness.

‘Beautiful China’ as a concept was first introduced during the 18th Party Congress in November of 2012 as part of China’s long-term environmental protection plan within the context of people’s welfare and the future of China.

 

7. Whole-process People’s Democracy 全过程人民民主

This concept of ‘whole-process people’s democracy’ (全过程人民民主, quán guòchéng rénmín mínzhǔ) is mentioned at least five times in Xi Jinping’s 20th Party Congress speech and it is one of the political concepts and terms proposed by Xi himself as part of Xi Jinping’s Socialist Thought with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. It was mentioned in the speech Xi gave during the celebration of the Party’s 100-year anniversary in 2021.

This so-called ‘whole-process people’s democracy’ is officially presented as a ‘process-oriented’ democracy that, despite being different from Western democracy, supposedly “covers all aspects of the democratic process and all sectors of society” through a combination of elections, consultations, decision-making, management and oversight.

This idea of China having its own particular kind of democracy – or perhaps having invented a Chinese version of what ‘democracy’ actually means – also suits the idea of Chinese-style modernization, in which China’s path to the future will not be like the route Western countries are taking, but instead combining modernization with Chinese features.

 

8. Socialist Culture 社会主义文化

‘Socialist Culture’ (社会主义文化, shèhuì zhǔyì wénhuà) comes up at least four times in the 20th Party Congress report. The term represents a cultural side of China’s modernization, and emphasizes that, in order to build a strong socialist country, there must also be a strong socialist culture.

Although not explicitly stated, official media propaganda inescapably plays an important part in the cultivation of a strong ‘socialist culture’ that is all about cultural self-confidence, cultural innovation, creativity, and ‘spiritual energy.’

At time of writing, the Baidu Trends tool did not have enough information to show any relevant data on the search engine interest in this particular term, but the idea of ‘socialist culture’ is by no means a new one. “Socialist culture with Chinese characteristics” was already proposed by Jiang Zemin (江泽民) at the 15th CPC National Congress in 1997.

The idea that building a strong socialist culture is important for the further development of China has been further cultivated over the past few years under Xi’s leadership. Also read this article in English titled “How to build a strong socialist culture” in Qiushi, the CPC Central Committee bimonthly.

 

9. Improve the Distribution System 完善分配制度

This phrase comes up once in the part of the 20th Party System report that disusses a fairer economic system with more equal employment & income opportunities and regulated wealth accumulation, encouraging hard work to get rich.

Although it is the first time that a regulation of wealth accumulation has come up in this way (and it is not explained what this actually means), the idea behind these concepts of the distribution system and wealth accumulation standardization is that of ‘common prosperity,’ one of the most important concepts guiding China’s recent policymaking.

‘Improve the distribution system’ (完善分配制度, wánshàn fēnpèi zhìdù) was explicilty mentioned as one of the key concepts for this week’s meeting by various channels, but it mainly is ‘the regulation of wealth accumulation’ that is featured in social media hashtags (#中国将规范财富积累机制#).

 

10. Focus 着力点

Many of the words or phrases propagated as ‘key terms’ for this 20th Party Congress are insignificant by themselves but are merely used to represent a bigger body of thoughts. The aforementioned “Top Priority,” “Central Mission,” and “Road to Follow” are all just words that only mean something within the context of Xi Jinping’s speech.

Another example is “Major Principles” (“重大原则” zhòngdà yuánzé) which is also included by CCTV in this list of most important keywords, but which actually just goes back to the same ideas that are referred to in the other terms, namely strengthing the overall leadership of the Party, adhering to the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics, emphasizing people-centered ideology, etc. – which is similar to the idea behind the “Road to Follow” (必由之路) keyword.

Explanation of ‘Major Principle’ concept in English and Chinese by People’s Daily, posted on Weibo.

Then there is the keyword “focus,” 着力点 (zhuólìdiǎn), which is about the focus of China’s economic development.

In China’s coming years, the economic focus should be placed on the real economy (实体经济). This literally is also a hashtag promoted on Weibo by CCTV this week (“Put the Focus of Economic Development on the Real Economy” #把发展经济的着力点放在实体经济上#).

Different from the Financial Economy, the Real Economy is the realm of economy that is about businesses, production, and the direct exchange/purchase of goods or services.

Also part of this ‘focus’ is China’s new industrialization, manufacturing, product quality, aerospace, transportation, new technology, and digital China. Another related term that is proposed as one of the keywords of this Party Congress is ‘innovation’ (创新, chuàngxīn).

Please check in with us again this week as we will keep an eye on social media trends surrounding the CPC National Congress. Don’t forget to subscribe. For previous posts on the Party Congress, check here.

By Manya Koetse 

 

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“Guarding the Green Horse” – How China’s Health Code System Provided Solutions and Generated Problems

The Health Code system and the ‘Green Horse’ meme have become part of everyday life in a zero-Covid China.

Manya Koetse

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Since 2020, China’s Health Code apps have become utterly ingrained in everyday life as a pivotal tool in the country’s ongoing fight against Covid-19. What is the health code system, what are its implications, and why have so many Chinese netizens become obsessed with holding on to their ‘green horse’?

 

This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, forthcoming publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yì Magazin here.

 

There is the Grass Mud Horse,1 the River Crab,2 and now another mythical animal is living in China’s social media jungle: the Green Horse. The Green Horse is a cute bright green horse-like animal, a treasured creature that will protect you during your travels and keep you safe from quarantines and lockdowns at a time of China’s zero-Covid policy. The Green Horse will watch over you, but in return, you have to do everything you can to defend it.

‘Green Horse’ in Chinese is 绿马 lǜmǎ, which sounds exactly the same as the word for ‘green code’ (绿码), referring to the green QR code in China’s Covid health apps, which have become a part of everyday life in China since 2020. In a social media environment where homophones and online puns are popular and ubiquitous, it did not take long for the ‘green code’ to turn into the ‘green horse.’

The Green Horse, image via Weibo.

China’s health code system was designed as a solution to resume work and daily life during the pandemic and is widely praised in the country as a pivotal tool in combating the spread of the virus. But it has also given rise to new problems and has triggered resistance against a new kind of digital governance.

 

A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO CHINA’S HEALTH CODE SYSTEM

 

In February of 2020, when China was in the midst of the fierce battle against the novel coronavirus, the country’s tech giants competed over who would be the first and the most efficient in providing digital solutions to aid the anti-epidemic fight.

Within eight weeks after the start of the initial Wuhan Covid outbreak, Alibaba (on Alipay) and Tencent (on WeChat) developed and introduced the ‘Health Code’ (jiànkāngmǎ 健康码), a system that gives individuals colored QR codes based on their exposure risk to Covid-19 and serves as an electronic ticket to enter and exit public spaces, restaurants, offices buildings, etc., and to travel from one area to another.

Scanning a green code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

Hangzhou, Alibaba’s hometown, and Shenzhen, Tencent’s home base, were the first cities in China to introduce the Health Code in early February of 2020, and other cities soon followed in collaboration with either Tencent or Alipay. By late February, a nationwide health code system was first embedded in WeChat (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Now, people can receive their Covid-19 QR codes via ‘mini programs’ in Alipay or WeChat, or via other provincial government service apps. Apart from the personal health code apps, there is also the ‘Telecommunications Big Data Travel Card’ (通信大数据行程卡), better known as the ‘green arrow code,’ which tracks users’ travel history and is also available inside WeChat or can be downloaded as a standalone app. Its goal is to track if you’ve been to any medium or high-risk areas over the past 14 days.

The Green Arrow Code is used to track people’s travel history of past 14 days (Image via 人民视觉).

The health code system is not as centralized as you might expect it to be. Instead, it is fragmented and sometimes complicated. There are basically two kinds of Health Codes in China. One is the ‘Health Information Code’ (防疫健康信息码) provided by China’s national government service platform (link) which can also be used by those without mainland ID cards (including people from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan).

The other kind of Health Code, which is the one that is most used across China, is the local version of the health code system provided by each province/municipality. There are at least 31 different regional health code applications, from Beijing’s ‘Health Kit’ (北京健康宝) to Shanghai’s ‘Suishenma’ (随申码), from Jiangsu’s ‘Sukang Code’ (苏康码) to Anhui’s ‘Ankang Code’ (安康码). There are sometimes also separate health code apps being used within one province (e.g. in Shenzhen both the local Shen-i-nin 深i您 app as well as the Yuekang Code 粤康码 are being used).

These local Covid health apps are developed by different provinces and cities, and they are not always compatible with each other. This means that those traveling to different provinces or municipalities need to go through the inconvenient process of applying for different local health code apps depending on where they go. Although one single centralized system has been proposed ever since 2020, the process to unify the system is not easy since the various apps have varying functions and are managed by different local government departments (JKSB 2022; Lai 2022). In early September of 2022, China’s National Health Commission announced that it was working with relevant departments to improve the interoperability and mutual recognition of health apps across the country.

Do you get a Green, Yellow, or Red QR code? That all depends on personal information, self-reported health status, Covid-19 test results, travel history, and more – the health code system operates by accessing numerous databases. The Green color means you’re safe (low-risk) and have free movement, the Yellow code (mid-risk) requires self-isolation and the Red color code is the most feared one: it means you either tested positive or are at high risk of infection. With a red code, you won’t have access to any public places and will have to go into mandatory quarantine. Once the quarantine is finished and you’ve consecutively tested negative, the code will switch back to green again.

Three color codes in the Health Code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

By the end of 2020, around 900 million Chinese citizens were using Health Code apps and although there are no official records of the latest numbers, virtually anyone visiting or traveling anywhere within China will now use the health code system. Besides keeping records of your latest nucleic acid test results, the Health Code app also includes Covid vaccination records since 2021.

 

LEAVING THE ELDERLY BEHIND

 

Despite the efficiency of China’s health code system, it has not been without controversy. One major issue is that it basically forces Chinese citizens to have a smartphone and to download and properly use these apps. This creates a problem for younger children, those without access to smartphones, or those with lower levels of digital skills, including senior citizens.

Although the use of smartphones, the internet, and QR codes are widespread in China, where mobile payments are far more common than cash, more than 60% of Chinese aged 60 years and over still did not use the internet in June of 2020. In China’s ‘Zero-Covid’ era, it is becoming almost impossible for China’s digital illiterate to live a ‘normal’ life.

Chinese authorities have attempted to simplify things for Chinese seniors by making platforms more user-friendly and introducing alternative ways to enter venues, such as offline codes. But at a time when systems differ per region and some venues do not have the tools to check offline (paper) codes, many elderly still struggle (see Gu & Fan 2022).

“They did nucleic acid testing in my grandma’s community compound today,” one woman from Shanxi writes on Weibo: “There are many elderly people in my grandma’s area, and I saw that so many of them had no smartphones, just senior mobile phones, but now they have to swipe a code to make an appointment for testing. One grandpa asked a staff member what to do without a smartphone, they just said it would be better to bring your son or daughter to do it for you. But all results also are processed digitally, so there’s no way for them to see it, and it’s really not easy for them to go to public places.”

On Chinese social media, there are many stories showing the difficult situations that some senior residents are caught up in because they do not have a smartphone or do not know how to get a Health Code.

In August of 2022, there was one viral story about an elderly man from Shandong walking ten kilometers every day because he could not take the bus without a health app. There was also another story about a visually impaired Hengyang resident who was unable to set up the code and was barred from using public transport. In May, a 70-year-old man got stuck inside the Wuxi train station for three days because he had no smartphone and had to scan a code in order to leave.

In another video that went viral, an old man got on a bus in Shanghai but had a hard time using his mobile phone to do the ‘venue check-in’ (场所码). When the bus driver got impatient, the man eventually got off the bus, saying he felt bad about delaying the other passengers.

“Heartlessness is scarier than the epidemic,” some Weibo commenters wrote in response.

 

RED CODE: CONTROVERSIAL DIGITAL GOVERNANCE

 

Another problem that concerns netizens in this Health Code era is that the code could pose an infringement of privacy and could be abused to limit citizens’ freedom of movement for reasons that are unrelated to Covid-19. There are still unclarities surrounding the app, such as what kind of information is exactly being collected, who is authorized to access the data, and how the data is processed and stored (Zhang 2022, 2).

Some people complain on social media that they do not understand why their Health Code is changing colors: “After I did a Covid test the other day, my Health Code was green. The day after, I woke up to a yellow code and after I had done my nucleic acid test again, it was still yellow. On the third day, it turned green. In the afternoon it turned yellow again. On day four, it was green again. Besides doing tests, I’ve been at home all this time. I’m stupefied.”

One incident where people who came to the city of Zhengzhou to protest suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red sparked major outrage on Chinese social media in June.

Earlier this year, thousands of Chinese depositors struggled to recover their savings in light of a major banking scandal in Henan Province. When dozens of affected depositors traveled to the provincial capital of Zhengzhou in June of 2022 to demand their money back, they suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red. The red code was unexpected and strange, considering that there were no new reported Covid cases in their vicinity. Accompanying family members who made the exact same journey reportedly did not see their Health Codes change, raising suspicions that the duped depositors were specifically targeted and that their Health Codes were being manipulated.

“Who is in charge of changing the Health Code colors?” became a much-asked question on social media platform Weibo, with many blaming local Henan authorities for abusing their power and trying to stop rural protesters from raising their voices in Zhengzhou. Although Henan authorities claimed they did “not understand” what had happened, five local officials were later punished for their involvement in assigning red codes to bank depositors without authorization (Wu 2022).

The incident sparked more discussions on the legal and privacy risks surrounding the health code system. Although many people in China support the use of Health Code apps (also see Chen et al), there is also a fear that a lack of transparency and management could allow the health code system to turn into a surveillance tool used by the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

The influential media commentator Hu Xijin also gave his view on the matter, saying that Health Codes across the country should only be used for “pure epidemic prevention purposes.”

“The fact that Henan can make the health codes turn red of people who come to the city to protest says a lot about the power of the IT,” one Weibo tech blogger wrote. Another Weibo user wrote: “As ordinary people, we have voluntarily given up too much of our personal privacy and rights in order to cooperate with the epidemic prevention. The current abuse and misuse of health codes have caused serious infringement on the legal rights of citizens (..) The state should quickly incorporate health codes into a unified system and place it under strict management, and once the epidemic is over, the health code system should stop running immediately.”

 

A GREEN HORSE FUTURE?

 

But will the Health Code and the ‘Green Horse’ ever disappear from daily life in China? And if so, how would the collected data be handled? Although the pandemic era is not over yet (and the question remains what would qualify as ‘the end’), local Chinese governments and tech firms are already looking to see how the health code system could be implemented and how its uses could be expanded in a post-pandemic future (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Back in 2020, the China Healthcare platform (健康界) already published an article exploring the post-pandemic use of the health code system as a digital health passport and information system that could continue to play a significant role in medical care, social security, public transportation, and tourism.

On social media, some people worry that the health code system – and everything that comes with it – is here to stay indefinitely. One Henan-based blogger wrote: “In the future, I hope my son will visit my grave and tell me, ‘dad, now we no longer need our Health Code, nucleic tests or masks when we go to the malls and take trains or airplanes.'”

“If I would wake up tomorrow in a world without health codes, travel codes, Covid tests, lockdowns, wouldn’t that be great,” another person wrote on Weibo, another netizen adding: “My health code is normal. My nucleic acid test is normal. It’s just my mental state that has become abnormal.”

The fears of receiving a ‘Red Code’ are also palpable. Earlier in summer, videos showed people in Shanghai fleeing out of a local mall once they heard that someone in the building had received notice of an abnormal test result.  The same happened at a local IKEA store. Afraid of Health Codes turning red and getting locked in, people rushed to get out as soon as possible. Some even compared the scenes to a ‘zombie apocalypse.’

People fleeing from a local IKEA store after someone in the building got an abnormal test result.

Although there are serious concerns regarding the health code system, social media users also make light of it through the ‘Green Horse’ meme. The phrase “Bàozhù lǜmǎ” (抱住绿码/马) is often used on Chinese social media, a wordplay meant to mean both “Keep your code green” as well as “Hold on to your Green Horse.”

Selection of ‘Holding on to the Green Horse’ memes.

Following the trend, Wuhan set up a giant green horse at a public square in the city, which soon became a popular place for people to take selfies. The meme is also a profitable one for businesses. On Chinese e-commerce sites, you’ll find there are ‘Green Horse’ keychains, stickers, toys, mooncakes, and coffee mugs.

Green Horse merchandise on Taobao.

As cases of Covid surged again in Chengdu, Shenzhen, and elsewhere in late August and September, worries over ‘keeping the green code’ grew again among those living in affected regions. One local Weibo blogger wrote: “I just couldn’t sleep the past few days, I kept checking my green code and latest Covid test results. It makes me anxious.”

“I feel safest at home,” others write: “This is where I can guard my Green Horse.”

“I hope this epidemic will go away soon,” one netizen wrote: “I hope we can all have our Green Horse and just keep it.”

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

 

1 Grass Mud Horse or Cǎonímǎ (草泥馬) is one of China’s social media ‘mythical creatures’ and an online meme. It is a word play on the vulgar Mandarin term càonǐmā (肏你媽), which literally means “f*** your m*m.”

2 River Crab is another ‘mythical creature’: Héxiè (河蟹) is literally ‘river crab’ but sounds the same as héxié (和谐),”to harmonize,” referring to online censorship.

 

References (other sources linked to inside the text)

Chen, Wenhong. Gejun Hang, and An Hu. 2022. “Red, Yellow, Green, or Golden: The Post-Pandemic Future of China’s Health Code Apps.” Information, Communication & Society 25 (5): 618-633.

China Healthcare 健康界. 2020. “国家卫健委推行”一码通”健康码未来不止于”通行.”” CN Healthcare, 21 December https://www.cn-healthcare.com/article/20201221/content-547951.html [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Gu, Peng and Yiying Fan. 2022. “In ‘Zero-COVID’ China, the Elderly Are Becoming Ever More Marginalized.” Sixth Tone, 9 Aug https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010908/in-zero-covid-china-the-elderly-are-becoming-ever-more-marginalized [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

JKSB 健康时报网 [Health Times]. 2022. “国家健康码和地方健康码区别何在?专家:国家平台更接近理想状态.” JKSB, August 27 http://www.jksb.com.cn/html/redian/2022/0827/177853.html [Accessed 1 Sep, 2022].

Lai, Xianjin. 2022. “Unified Health Code Can Bring More Convenience, Efficiency.” China Daily, April 6 https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202204/06/WS624ccc73a310fd2b29e55269.html [Accessed 31 August].

Liang, Fan. 2020. “COVID-19 and Health code: How Digital Platforms Tackle the Pandemic in China.” Social Media + Society (Jul-Sep): 1-4.

Wu, Peiyue. 2022. “Zhengzhou Officials Punished Over Red Health Code Saga.” Sixth Tone, 23 June https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010627/zhengzhou-officials-punished-over-red-health-code-saga- [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Zhang, Xiaohan. 2022. “Decoding China’s COVID-19 Health Code Apps: The Legal Challenges.” Healthcare 10 (1479): 1-14.

 

Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.

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

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.

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