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Gamifying Propaganda: Everything You Need to Know about China’s ‘Study Xi’ App

Scoring points by doing Xi-focused quizzes and watching ‘Xi Time’ news: this app takes propaganda to a whole other level.

Manya Koetse

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A new app that encourages China’s online population to study Xi Jinping Thought has made headlines, both in and outside of China. Here’s everything you need to know about this new interactive propaganda tool. An overview by What’s on Weibo.

On January 1st, the Xué Xí Qiáng Guó app was launched on various Chinese app stores. The app is an initiative by the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and is linked to the xuexi.cn platform, which was first set up in 2018.

The app has been making headlines in Chinese and English-language media this week. The BBC referred to the app as a “little red book,” and reported that members of the ruling Communist Party, as well as state-owned company employees who are not Party members, have allegedly been required to download and use it on a daily basis (Feb 15).

The Guardian reported that government officials in Fujian province and Qingdao city held workshops last month stressing the political importance of the app, and directing local leaders to promote the app across government departments (Feb 15).

Although some reports claim that the app is making its way to top lists of most downloaded apps in China, it only scored a position 72 in the top 100 list of popular Chinese app store 360app at time of writing. The app store does state that the app has been downloaded 340000 times, with app users rating it with 2,5 stars out of 5. In the Tencent store, the app was downloaded 2,1 million times.

However, these numbers do not necessarily indicate much about the total number of downloads, since the app can be directly downloaded as an APK file from various locations. In the Chinese Apple store, the app is now the number one scoring app in the educational category. The app is only available in Chinese, and is not available from the Google Play store or Apple stores outside of China.

The app’s name (学习强国) is translated as the ‘Study Xi Strong Country’ app in various English-language media reports, but a more suitable translation would perhaps be ‘Study Xi, Strengthen China.’1 There’s a wordplay in the name, since the Mandarin word for ‘studying’ is ‘xuéxí’ which also incorporates the name of Xi, and in this context means both ‘Studying’ as well as ‘Study Xi.’

The main slogan of the ‘Study Xi’ app is one of Xi’s own sayings: “Dreams start with studying, careers start from doing” (“梦想从学习开始,事业从实践起步”, loose translation). Both the idea of ‘Dreams’ and of ‘Studying’ are concepts that are consistently promoted in the Xi era, with the idea that the common dream of the people is the ‘Chinese Dream’ of bringing about the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Within this Chinese dream, studying is generally promoted as a “secret weapon” that will strengthen the Party and the nation (Xiao 2016).

 

A Multi-Functional Propaganda Tool

 

So what is the ‘Study Xi, Strengthen China’ app? It basically is a multi-functional educational platform that offers users various ways to study Xi Jinping Thought, Party history, Chinese culture, history, and much more. Once people are registered on the app, they can also access the platform via PC.

An important part of the app is its news feed: its home page features “recommended” reads that all focus on Xi Jinping and the Party. Another major feature is its ‘quiz’ page: every week, there are different quizzes that users can do, relating to all sorts of things, from Party ideology to famous Chinese poems.

We’ve listed some of the app’s functions below. It is much more than a media app alone; it also has a social function, that allows users to connect with friends, message them, call them, and even send them ‘red envelopes’ (money presents).


The ‘red envelope’ function is made possible through Alipay, the online payment platform that is owned by Ant Financial Services Group, an affiliate company of the Chinese Alibaba Group.

One way for users to verify their identity on the app is also by linking it to their Alipay account. Various media reports also claim that the app is linked to Alibaba’s Ding Ding platform, an enterprise chat app that has a multitude of functions, many of which are also incorparated in the ‘Study Xi’ app (for more about Ding Ding, see our article here).

Given the cooperation with Alibaba, it is perhaps not surprising that upon registering for the app with just my phone number, it already knew my nickname without me putting it in. The app also listed an old smartphone I used some two years ago as a “frequently used” device, although I had just downloaded the app the day before and had never registered for it before.

Twitter user @yanshitou12 also noted that, upon using a friend’s number to register for the app, her Ding Ding conversations were automatically loaded into the chat history, suggesting that Alibaba’s Ding Ding is indeed fully integrated with the app.

Like Ding Ding, the ‘Study Xi’ app also allows users to set up conference calls, send ‘self-deleting’ chats (like Snapchat), and use the app’s calendar function. Its many practical functions make this an app that is especially convenient for China’s 89,5 million Party members to stay close to the Party and its activities.

 

How to Score with Xi

 

The app’s most noteworthy and perhaps also most appealing feature is its scoring system, since it turns studying Party ideology and Xi Jinping Thought into a game.

Those who accumulate enough points can get an item from the app’s ‘prize shop.’ There are also contests which users can join to compete over a Huawei tablet or other items.

One Weibo user shared that she had just received her Modern Chinese Dictionary by mail through the app’s ‘gift shop,’ another person expressed her surprise that a delivery man came to deliver her prize at her door. “Thank you, Propaganda Department!”, she wrote.

The score system works as follows:

  • Upon registering for the app, you receive 1 point.
  • For every article or essay one reads, you get 1 point (one per article, does not work with articles that have already been viewed before).
  • For every video you watch you get 1 point (the same video won’t be credited with an extra point if you see it twice).
  • The time you spend on the app is also rewarded with points: for every 4 minutes of reading, you get 1 point (max 8 points per day).
  • For every 5 minutes of watching a video, you get 1 point (max 8 points per day).
  • You get 1 point for “subscribing” to a media account, which will then show up in your news feed.
  • If you share two articles with friends, you get 1 point.
  • You get 1 point for every two articles or essays you ‘save’ within the app.
  • If you score 100% on a quiz, you get 10 points.

What is quite remarkable about the app, is that it encourages users to ‘Study Xi’ at particular times of the day. The morning 6:00-8:30 timeframe, along with the 12:00-14:00 slot and evening 20:00-22:30 times, are designated as so-called “active time slots” during which users can score double points for their activities. Within these time slots, reading an article would, for example, grant a user 2 points instead of 1.

This signals that, in line with good working morale, people are supposed to look into the app during their morning commute, their lunch break, and before bedtime, and are indirectly discouraged from using it during (office) working hours.

The points that are scored on the app will be valid for two years.

On Weibo, some netizens are quite serious about the ‘gaming’ aspect of this app, and have already found ways to cheat the system. They share tips and tricks on how to score within the app: points are credited within 10 seconds of clicking an article, for example, and watching videos can be easily rewarded with a point if one immediately scrolls to the end.

Through the PC version of the app, it is easy to let certain videos play while scrolling the internet, basically earning points without actually watching the videos.

“Thanks,” many commenters reply to these cheating tricks: “Just what I was looking for.” “I already received 50 points in one day!”

 

A Library in Your Pocket: Media, Books, Movies

 

The ‘Study Xi’ app focuses on some dozen media outlets that users can subscribe to and which also show up in the ‘recommended’ homepage feed.

Incorporated in the app are state media outlets China Daily (中国日报网), People’s Daily (人民网), Xinhua (新华), Qiushi Journal (求是网), China Military Web (中国军网), Economic Daily (经济日报), and others.

The app also incorporates local ‘Study Xi’ platforms, from Hubei to Jiangxi, from Shandong to Fujian.

Besides these media, the app also has TV channels people can watch videos on, from CCTV News to a special ‘Xi Time’ news programme, to various TV dramas, including Turbulence of the Mu Clan (木府风云) and Romance of Our Parents (父母爱情).

“Xi Time” news clips focus on the activities of Xi Jinping.

There is also a movie section within the app, where users can watch classics such as The Long March (长征), The Founding Ceremony of the Nation (开国大典), films on Deng Xiaoping or Zhou Enlai, and various movies that focus on the Second Sino-Japanese War.

The ‘Study Xi’ library section grants users access to dozens of books. On the desktop version, the library is shown as an actual office, where you can click on the books that are displayed on the shelves and read them.

Some books are those by Xi Jinping, including The Governance of China (习近平谈治国理政), but there are also books by the famous Chinese author Lu Xun, or the 20th-century classic Rickshaw Boy by Lao She, and various works on calligraphy and poetry.

There is also an entire section of books available from a whole range of topics varying from astronomy to maths, biology, and geography. The books are available for online reading in pdf.

In general, you could say that the selection of media, videos, and books all fall into the categories of Chinese traditional culture and canonical literature, historical themes, science and technology, and the political themes of Party ideology and the Xi Jinping Thought that focuses on ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ (中国特色社会主义).

Those who read enough state media and Party articles will easily be able to do the quizzes and weekly questions in the app. Besides the standard ideological questions, it also draws from popular culture; I came across a question that used a trailer of China’s latest sci-fi movie The Wandering Earth that needed to be watched in order to complete the question.

 

Propaganda in the Xi Era

 

So how popular is the app, really? If the headlines in Chinese and non-Chinese media are to be believed, the majority of Chinese internet users are getting hooked on the app. That picture is perhaps the rose-colored one the Party would like to envision, but judging from social media comments and app ratings, reactions have been somewhat lukewarm.

On Weibo, there are some commenters who are sharing their 1000-point status on the app, or who say they enjoy looking into the app right before sleeping.

Dozens of commenters indicate that they have to assist their parents in using the app, or that it is not them, but their parents who are ‘hooked’ on the app – the majority of Weibo users are in the 20-35 years age group.

There are local trainings on making (older) Party members more familiar with the app, how to download it and how to use it. A local Chongqing community Weibo account recently posted the pictures below of their ‘Study Xi’ gathering.

On social media, some commenters complain about the fact that the Chinese Apple store has turned off the review comment sections on the app, despite the fact that it allegedly scored a number one spot in its “educational app” section.

Then there are also dozens of commenters who say they often use the app: the score matters to them. In a time when everything is mobile, and online gaming is booming, it seems that ‘Study Xi, Strengthen China’ has made its app all the more relevant by adding the scoring element.

In doing so, the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party is continuing on the same route it has taken for the past couple of years, which shows a clear break with the propaganda machine before the Xi era.

Not only does the propaganda in the Xi era strengthen the idea of Xi as a political idol, it also fully embraces the Internet, the online media environment, and its related pop culture in doing so (also see Chang & Ren 2018).

Since 2017, various noteworthy propaganda moments, such as the 2017 Xi Clapping Game, the cartoonification of Xi, or the One Belt, One Road media publicity hype, all point in the same direction, namely that the Party propaganda will use the modes of communication and technology that are most popular among China’s (younger) online population to reach their audiences.

For now, I am still stuck below 50 points on the ‘Study Xi’ app. The scoring element is powerful: I feel triggered to get my score up. Maybe watch a few more videos, do better on the quiz, and read some more state media articles. I might just be tempted to go back for some more Xi-studies.

By Manya Koetse

1Translation suggested by Helen Wang @helanwanglondon.

References

Chang, J., & Ren, H. 2018. “The powerful image and the imagination of power: the ‘new visual turn’ of the CPC’s propaganda strategy since its 18th National Congress in 2012. Asian Journal of Communication, 28(1), 1–19.

Xiao Junhua 肖君华. 2016. “Dreams Start with Learning – Studying General Secretary Xi Jinping’s Important Discourse on Learning [梦想从学习开始——学习习近平总书记关于学习的重要论述]” Guangming Daily, via CPC News, 7 July http://theory.people.com.cn/n1/2016/0707/c376186-28531506.html [18.1.19].


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©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Digital

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

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

Manya Koetse

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

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

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

mage via Phoenix News (iFeng Finance).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image via sina.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Backgrounder

Coronavirus on Chinese Social Media: The 8 Major Trends in Times of the 2019-nCoV Crisis

The 8 main trends defining the online responses to the Wuhan coronavirus on Chinese social media.

Manya Koetse

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Since the outbreak of the new coronavirus becoming big news in China and around the world, there have been few other topics going trending on Chinese social media than those related to 2019-nCoV. What’s on Weibo gives an overview of the most noteworthy online media trends in China regarding the corona-crisis.

 
By Manya Koetse, further research and news-gathering by Miranda Barnes
 

From panic to patriotism, the outbreak of the coronavirus has led to a wide range of different responses from Chinese netizens and online media outlets over the past few weeks.

Although the first reports on the emergence of a pneumonia-like illness in the city of Wuhan came out in late December, it wasn’t until mid-January that the new virus, belonging to the coronavirus family, started dominating the top trending lists on social media in China and beyond.

The hashtag “Nationally Confirmed Cases of New Pneumonia” (#全国确诊新型肺炎病例#) became one of the biggest news-related topics we have ever seen on Weibo, receiving eight billion views by January 25, and reaching a staggering 13,5 billion views by February 2.

As of February 6th, approximately 28,200 cases of the new virus were confirmed, with over 170 cases reported in countries outside of China. The death toll also became much higher than days before, rising to 564. With these numbers, the coronavirus has exceeded the scale of the 2003 SARS outbreak in terms of infected patients.

Along with the quick spread of the new coronavirus across the country, the general mood and direction of the discussions and trends in the Chinese online media environment have also been in constant flux.

At What’s on Weibo, we have been glued to our social media screens, but because editor-in-chief Manya Koetse has been flooded with daily media requests we have not been able to update the site with regular updates (meanwhile, @manyapan did post regular updates on Twitter).

Here, we will highlight some of the main social media trends we spotted during the outbreak of the new Chinese coronavirus, now and over the past weeks.

 

TREND #1:

Online Backlash against the Eating of Wild Game

As an online media panic broke out around January 20, when a third person had died of the new Wuhan virus, one of the main trends to come up on Chinese social media was an online backlash against the eating of wild game (as reported here by Jessica Colwell).

The backlash flooded Weibo after the downtown Wuhan Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market (武汉华南海鲜批发市场), selling a wide range of dead and alive wild animals – anything from snakes and crocodiles to rats, hedgehogs or bats, – was identified as the suspected source of the deadly coronavirus outbreak.

Image posted by Sina Parenting on February 1st.

Since Chinese researchers linked the novel coronavirus (nCoV-2019) to bats, videos and images of bat dishes and people eating bat soon made their rounds on social media.

Many of these videos were actually unrelated to Wuhan, but were used in condemning the practice of eating (illegal/unsafe) wild game in general.

Around January 23, hashtags such as “Support the Banning of Wild Game Markets” (#支持禁绝野味市场#), “Refusing Eating of Wild Game Starts with You” (#拒吃野味从我做起#), “Control Your Mouth, Refuse Wild Game” (#管住嘴拒绝吃野味#) went viral on Weibo.

As images or videos of people eating bats or other exotic animals soon also spread to Twitter and other non-Chinese social media, some English-language media labeled them as “xenophobic” or “racist” – ignoring the fact that the anti-wild game storm actually started in the Chinese online media environment.

Online information leaflet spread by People’s Daily, “Resisting the Consumption of Wild Game Starts with Ourselves”

State media outlets such as People’s Daily, for example, played a role in the online dissemination of information against the eating of wild game and actually hosted some of these hashtag pages on Weibo.

The main argument behind the backlash is that those eating (unsafe, illegal) exotic and/or wild animals could risk their own health and that of their community and that what you eat is also your responsibility in keeping others safe.

A news story of a man hunting wild animals for consumption made its rounds on Weibo this week.

The backlash against the eating of wild game and online anger against people hunting or illegally buying wild animals for consumption is still ongoing, with some directing their anger against Wuhan people in specific.

This has also triggered discussions on Weibo about discrimination – not against Chinese people in general, but against Chinese netizens discriminating against Wuhan people or even against people from the Hubei province.

 

TREND #2:

Fake News and Censorship

Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo are tightly controlled online environments. When certain sensitive topics pop up, such as the anniversary of the Tiananmen protests, the Hong Kong demonstrations in their early phases, or big political events, virtually all related posts and news sharing will sometimes be removed by online censors.

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, this was not necessarily the case. From the start, there was a lot of reporting, sharing, and discussion of the virus online.

However, there certainly has been ongoing censorship of the topic. This was mainly done in the case of netizens reposting videos of chaotic situations in streets or at hospitals, but also in the case of ‘fake news’ posts (mostly called “starting rumors”).

Posts that could potentially trigger unrest or panic also were censored. One hashtag that made its rounds around January 22 was “Escaping Wuhan” (#逃离武汉#), with people trying to leave Wuhan before the city would go on lockdown. That hashtag page was soon completely removed from Weibo.

The comments sections of some posts reporting on controversial or sensitive news were also completely turned off (such as this report addressing local authorities in Wuhan allegedly taking donated face masks).

One Weibo user (@魔女小稀), an alleged nurse, posted a video of people in a hospital hallway on January 24th, claiming that “three [dead] bodies” had been lying in a Wuhan hospital for the entire afternoon covered in white sheets without being removed.

The post and the Weibo user were completely removed from the platform on January 25. By that time, however, the video and allegations were already picked up and reposted internationally.

According to Sina News, the post had been completely false; there were no bodies lying around this Wuhan hospital. If there were people covered in white sheets, it was merely people sleeping in the hallway after waiting for a long time.

This is but one of many examples of ‘fake news’ floating around Chinese social media over the past two weeks, with images and videos being placed in a misleading context, people claiming that patient or deceased numbers were much higher than those reported by the official media, and some even bringing up conspiracy theories about the source of the coronavirus (e.g. that the Americans started it, that it leaked from a biolab in Wuhan, etc).

The problem in this issue is, of course, when do we call it ‘fake news’ and when do we call it ‘censorship’? Amid the chaos and uncertainty of the coronavirus outbreak, it is not always easy to separate the two.

This is also a contributing factor in the general distrust in official media reports that clearly surfaced on Weibo over the past weeks. “I don’t believe it,” is a sentence popping up everywhere on social media.

Spreading online “rumors” is a crime under China’s Criminal Law and is punishable by up to seven years in prison. Although some foreign media outlets, such as this one, make it seem as though it is illegal to share fake news about the coronavirus in particular, it is actually illegal in China to share fake news in general.

 

TREND #3:

Virus Vigilantism

Another trend we noticed on social media during the wake of the coronavirus outbreak is not just a distrust in official media and authorities, but also distrust in fellow citizens.

One clear example that blew up on Weibo is that of a young woman from Wuhan who posted about her traveling to France – and enjoying nice food – despite suffering from a fever and cough. Because she took fever reducers, she claimed to have passed airport temperature monitors without issue.

The post sparked great anger among Chinese netizens and triggered the so-called ‘human flesh search engine,’ with people digging into her personal details.

The incident even led to the Chinese embassy in France investigating the matter. The woman turned out not to have been infected with the virus.

But there are many examples of people exposing and doxing those who allegedly are hindering the collective goal of minimizing the risk of a further spreading of the virus, for example by not self-isolating after visiting Wuhan.

There’s also been widespread online condemnation of people stealing tissue paper from public elevators. Many apartment buildings around China now provide a box of tissue paper for hygienic reasons so that people do not need to touch the elevator buttons.

Surveillance videos of people stealing these boxes have been making their rounds on Weibo and WeChat, such as this lady in an elevator in Chongqing, with thousands of netizens expressing their anger over their behavior – and sometimes naming and shaming them.

 

TREND #4:

Social Media as a Practical Communication Tool

Soon after the scale of the coronavirus outbreak started to become clear, social media platforms such as Weibo were started to be used as practical communication tools for authorities, (medical) organizations, and individuals to spread information or to ask for help.

Social media is now widely used as a practical communication tool for very general matters in the coronavirus crisis (e.g. providing information on how to avoid getting the virus), but also for more specific issues.

Various hospitals in Wuhan, for example, spread digital leaflets online summing up their specific shortages in supplies (face masks, surgical gloves, etc), and how people and organizations can contribute.

Another example is how authorities at various times use social media to search for people who were on board of certain trains or where passengers were later diagnosed with the virus.

But we have also seen individuals reaching out through social media. One woman, for example, reached out to netizens online after she and her husband fell ill and needed someone to look after their children.

Through the help of social media, there are now also local volunteers who help taking care of people’s pets while they are unable to return home to feed them.

One of the hashtags increasingly receiving attention online since early February is “Rescuing the Pets Left Behind in Wuhan Homes” (#武汉滞留家中宠物救援#).

Since January 26, Tencent’s WeChat has also opened a special “epidemic supervision” channel within its app where WeChat users can go to get the latest local information about the virus in their area or ask for medical help.

 

TREND #5:

Propaganda, Pride and Patriotism in Times of Crisis

The outbreak of the coronavirus coincided with the most important holiday of the year in China: the Spring Festival. On Friday, January 24, the CCTV broadcasted its annual Spring Festival Gala (Chunwan), a 4-hour long show that has been airing since 1983. The show is the biggest live TV event in the world, with a viewership of one billion.

The show is usually meticulously planned up to every second – with rehearsals starting months before -, but this year, for the first time ever, it included a segment on the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak. It showed scenes from inside a Wuhan hospital, and the show’s main presenters paid their respects to all the medical workers working day and night.

The event became trending on Weibo under the hashtag “For the First Time in History, ‘Chunwan’ Includes a Non-Rehearsed Segment” (#春晚历史上首次没有彩排的片段#)

It was during this time, with twenty million people under travel lockdown, that the sentence “Jiayou Wuhan, Jiayou Zhongguo” (“Come on Wuhan, Come on China”) was propagated by state media and became widely used on Chinese social media.

By now, the hashtag “Go Wuhan!” (#武汉加油#, hosted by Party newspaper People’s Daily) has over 12 billion views on Weibo.

“1.4 billion Chinese salute you”

Starting from the Spring Festival weekend, Chinese state media began to propagate more positive, patriotic, and nationalistic messages online during the corona crisis, focusing on the unity of China and the dedication and resilience of common Chinese people, with a specific emphasis on medical and army staff.

It is not uncommon, or actually rather common, for Chinese authorities and state media to propagate nationalism in times of hardship (also see our article on online propaganda during the Hong Kong protests).

 

TREND #6:

Quarantine Boredom: From Panic to Humor

From late January, the first humorous memes and videos starting flooding Chinese social media in light of the coronavirus.

Around January 25, there were over forty confirmed deaths due to the new coronavirus and over 1380 known infected patients. Along with the travel lockdown, most of the major tourist attractions across China had shut down, and driving bans were implemented in the city of Wuhan to restrict people’s movements in efforts to contain the outbreak.

What was supposed to be a time of joy and reunion and entertainment (the Chinese New Year) turned into a time of fear and self-isolation for many families in Wuhan and beyond.

Practically locked up in their homes, some people used humor as a ‘defense mechanism’ in times of coronacrisis.

The videos embedded in the thread below are some examples of people making the most of their times in lockdown.

But besides the creative solutions of people avoiding boredom inside the home, there were also many memes going around WeChat and Weibo making fun of the extreme measures taken by people and authorities, such as this photo below that was allegedly taken at a station in Yiwu, Zhejiang, saying: “Some people got off the train in Yiwu but thought they’d ended up in Saudi Arabia.”

There was also this viral image below of an office canteen where people were self-isolating for safety reasons, saying: “Eating at the cantine of my unit now feels more like taking an exam.”

Videos and images of people using sanitary pads, bras, plastic bags, or even fruit to protect their faces due to a scarcity of face masks also continue to make their rounds on social media, with people sometimes mocking neighbors, their friends or family, or even themselves in the extreme and sometimes silly measures they are taking to avoid getting the coronavirus.

 

TREND #7:

Anger against Local Authorities and Illegal Lock-Ins

As panic over the spreading coronavirus has become bigger over the past few weeks, the voices criticizing local authorities and organizations for mishandling the situation have also grown louder.

While loud criticism of the central government is usually censored before triggering bigger discussions, there has been ample criticism of provincial, city, and county authorities and organizations – and not without consequence.

In Hubei, local authorities have been criticized for, among others, initially censoring reports of an emerging new illness in December of 2019.

The mayor of Wuhan, Zhou Xianwang, became a major target of netizens’ anger. In late January, Zhou admitted that he had failed in disclosing information in a timely manner and also “did not use effective information” to improve the local government’s work.

The Hubei branch of the Red Cross Society of China (RCSC, 中国红十字会) also received massive criticism online in early February when it turned out that, while the public donated medical supplies and money, most of it remained in the Red Cross warehouse.

On February 4, Chinese state media reported that the Hubei Red Cross deputy director had been removed from office and dismissed from the leading Party members group of the RCSC branch.

On village and prefecture-level, there has also been public condemnation of how authorities are handling the corona crisis.

Some videos going around social media showed how people, seemingly against their will, were locked up inside their own homes by local authorities after returning from Wuhan (“武汉返乡人员”).

China Youth Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Youth League of China, also condemned these practices as “illegal” and “inhumane” in an article that has since been deleted.

Through a new WeChat function mentioned earlier in this post, Chinese netizens can now also report any mishandlings of the coronavirus situation.

At the time of writing, there seems to have been some increased censorship, but nevertheless, criticism on local authorities keeps flooding Weibo.

“While people are busy helping themselves and each other, what are the leaders of Hubei and Wuhan doing?”, some people wonder: “Supplies in the hospitals are still scarce, there are still people who are unable to receive help!”

 

TREND #8:

Corona Panic Buying

It was around January 21st when the coronavirus panic reached a peak in China; a third infected patient had died of the virus the day before, the first cases were confirmed outside of China, and several big travel platforms had started to offer refunds or change flights via Wuhan.

Similar to the SARS outbreak in 2003, news of the coronavirus led to waves of “scare shopping” – a trend that also became very visible on social media.

Medical face masks soon sold out in Chinese pharmacies and on e-commerce platforms: around 80 million face masks were sold on Alibaba’s Taobao platform alone on January 20 and January 21st. Those (online) shops still offering face masks exploited the shortage of face masks, and would only sell them at exorbitant prices.

Twenty dollars for a face mask?

Although Alibaba soon announced it would remove sales of face masks from shops that were selling them at unstable prices, the sales and availability of (disposable) N95 masks is still an issue across China, with netizens complaining about it on Weibo every single day.

Another example of consumer panic followed the Jan 31st reports by two medical research institutions on the TCM oral medicine Shuanghuanglian, which would allegedly be effective in combating the new coronavirus.

Shortly after the reports came out, the herbal remedy sold out in stores across the country.

Chinese state media now warn people against “irrational purchases,” saying that the effectivity of herbal remedies such as Shuanghuanglian is still unsure.

Panic buying is a trend that is not just visible on Chinese social media, it is a trend that also seems to be triggered through social media, with rumors and reports of existing shortages of certain products leading to panic.

A clear example is the February 5 run on toilet paper in Hong Kong after rumors spread that the coronavirus outbreak would lead to insufficient supplies.

 

As there are still many new developments and news reports coming out concerning the coronavirus, we will keep on publishing more on What’s on Weibo about what’s trending on Chinese social media. (Also read: Distrust and despair on WeChat and Weibo after the death of Wuhan whistleblower Li Wenliang).

If it’s quiet here, please also follow us on Twitter here and here.

By Manya Koetse, additional research and news-gathering by Miranda Barnes
Follow @whatsonweibo

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