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

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China Insight

Why Russia Is Nicknamed the “Weak Goose” on Chinese Social Media

Multiple Chinese (military) bloggers started using ‘weak goose’ (菜鹅) term in light of Russia’s fading victory.

Manya Koetse

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While the latest developments in the Russia-Ukraine war are closely watched by millions of Chinese social media users, the ‘Weak Goose’ meme is becoming more popular among military bloggers and Weibo users, signaling a shift in online sentiments regarding Russia’s position and its military competence.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the latest developments regarding the war in Ukraine are a big topic on Chinese social media, where military bloggers, academics, political commentators, and ordinary netizens have been sharing their views on the conflict over the past seven months.

Back in February of 2022, many Weibo commenters expressed anti-war sentiments and worries about the situation of the Ukrainian people and Ukraine-based Chinese compatriots.

At the same time, there was also a growing group of Chinese netizens who said they supported Russia. One top commenter at the time wrote: “I resolutely support the Russian military action! This is the evil result of Ukraine following the Yankees (美国佬). We should seize the opportunity to liberate Taiwan and to recover the Diaoyu Islands.”

Those speaking out in favor of Putin and the Russian military mainly focused on anti-Western sentiments, and this online discourse was only strengthened by media narratives that also framed the Russia-Ukraine war – commonly referred to as Russia’s “special military operation” – within a Chinese context that stressed the humiliation and injustice suffered by China at the hands of the very same Western powers that were now condemning Russia and were trying to get China on their side (read more in this article).

Others also saw the Russian military invasion of Ukraine as a warning to Taiwan, semi-jokingly writing that Chinese troops could arrive in the morning, that unification would be completed by noon, and that they would all be raising the flag and singing the national anthem together the next day.

But now, seven months and nine days later, it is clear that Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine is anything but a quick ‘victory.’

 
“We’re Witnessing History”
 

This week, after Russia proclaimed the annexation of four territories in Ukraine, the Russia-Ukraine war has reached a pivotal phase and this is receiving a lot of attention on Chinese social media.

After a series of so-called “referendums” which supposedly showed it was the “will of the millions of people,” Putin claimed that Luhansk, areas of Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia were now part of the Russian Federation. Using increasingly threatening rhetoric, Putin said in his September 30 speech that Russia would defend these areas with “all the means at our disposal.” On Weibo, the topic received over 220 million views (#普京签署顿涅茨克等四地入俄条约#).

That very same day, Ukraine applied for fast-track NATO accession, and Ukrainian President Zelensky said that they are ready for peace talks with Russia, but only with a different Russian president. The topic of Ukraine’s application to join NATO became a trending topic on Weibo, receiving over 190 million views on Saturday (#泽连斯基签署乌克兰加入北约申请#).

When Jake Sullivan, the U.S. President’s National Security Advisor, stated that it was “not the right time” for Ukraine’s admission to the alliance, China Daily initiated the hashtag “Ukraine’s Application to Join NATO Is Met with a Cold Shoulder by the U.S.” (#乌克兰申请加入北约遭美国冷遇#).

On Sunday, news of President Zelensky declaring the key eastern Ukrainian town of Lyman “fully cleared of Russian forces” also became trending. A Weibo hashtag dedicated to the topic of Russian forces retreating from Lyman (#俄军从红利曼撤退#) received over 150 million views.

“We’re witnessing history,” some Chinese netizens commented, with others replying: “We’ve been witnessing history for the past two years already.”

 
Shifting Online Sentiments
 

But the online sentiments regarding the war in Ukraine have shifted over the past months, and there is now more emphasis on the weakness of the Russian military strategy. There are also more voices criticizing those who cheer for Putin.

Qu Weiguo (@曲卫国), a professor at Shanghai’s Fudan College of Foreign Languages and Literatures, denounced fellow Chinese who seemed “happy and excited” about Putin signing the decree annexing four regions of eastern Ukraine and who called it a “checkmate move” that put the West in a difficult position.

According to Qu Weiguo, these “patriotic” fellow Chinese – “I am not sure whether they actually love China or Russia,” he wrote – were overseeing the fact that it is not just the West that is being affected by the annexation, of which the legality is more than questionable. Qu mentioned the 2013 PRC-Ukraine Treaty of Friendship & Cooperation, which conveys Chinese support for Ukraine’s “sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity.” Qu suggests that in this context, China could not possibly recognize the four annexed territories as being part of Russia; and Beijng would also be obliged to support Ukraine in case it would be attacked by Russian nuclear weapons.

Author Du Zijian (@杜子建) also spoke out on Weibo, saying the referendum regarding the four regions claimed by Russia cannot be recognized: “It’s Ukrainian territory, it can’t be stolen by anyone.”

Image posted by Littlepigpig

Military blogger ‘Littlepigpig’ (@用户littlepigpig1), who focuses on the war in Ukraine, provided another perspective on the recent developments, suggesting that Putin’s nuclear rhetoric is just bluff and likely stems from despair over Russia’s inability to defeat Ukraine: “What would be the point of sending hundreds of thousands of Russians to Ukraine to be brutally slaughtered before launching a nuclear strike!?”

 
The ‘Weak Goose’ Meme
 

There are more people who now express that they see little chance of Russia winning this war. One regular Weibo user wrote: “The soldiers have no morale, the country has no money, and their equipment technology lags behind NATO.” “They’re so disappointing,” others wrote.

One term that recurringly comes up in these discussions, from Weibo to Zhihu, is that of ‘Weak Goose’ (菜鹅 cài’é).

The term, that has been surfacing for a few months, is a wordplay on 菜俄 (also cài’é), which means ‘Weak Russia’ and is short for “the weak Russian army” (“俄军很菜”).

Although ‘菜’ (cài) actually means ‘vegetable,’ it is also slang for ‘poor’ or ‘weak’ when used as an adjective (see this video for explanation.)

This image is another word play on ‘weak goose’, turning it into a ‘vegetable swan’ instead.

According to Jikipedia, ‘Weak Goose’ started to be used by Chinese political and military bloggers after they found that the Russian army advanced much slower than they had expected. They came up with the word to make fun of Russia struggling with basic military mistakes and low military capabilities.

Recently, instead of ‘weak goose,’ the term ‘weak Russia’ has also been used more often (so 菜俄 rather than 菜鹅; just for clarity, we’ll translate them both as ‘Weak Goose’ here). Russia is usually also nicknamed ‘big goose’ in China (大鹅) since the words for ‘goose’ and ‘Russia’ sound the same.

The past week, multiple Chinese (military) bloggers have started using this term again in light of Putin’s fading victory and the retreat from Lyman. Reports about Russian recruits allegedly being instructed to use tampons and pads on war wounds in light of a shortage of military supplies further strengthen the Weak Goose meme: “Who thought the ‘Weak Goose’ was so weak?”

Those using the ‘Weak Goose’ term are definitely not necessarily anti-Russian and also not pro-Ukrainian – they are just using the word as a joke and comic relief in a military conflict that has been dragging on for much longer than Chinese netizens had anticipated.

 
“The Russia-Ukraine conflict is not entertainment”
 

But not everyone on Weibo appreciates these kinds of jokes. “The Russia-Ukraine conflict is not some entertainment variety show,” one blogger (@Aglaia柒y) with over 220,000 fans wrote, criticizing those who are using the war as a source of drama and entertainment with Putin starring as the main “idol.”

Others also reminded people that the ‘Weak Goose’ is actually very resilient. Well-known finance blogger Liu Zhongling (刘忠岭), known under the alias of @笑看红绿, noted that there were many Chinese people cheering for the latest victory of the Ukrainian army recently. But according to Liu, it is not necessarily something to cheer about: “All the progress that the Ukrainian army is making now, comes at the cost of many injuries and military casualties. Considering that this war is going to take a long time, soldiers are far more important than weaponry.”

He added: “The ‘weak goose’ army is getting worn out (..) but by pulling back they are also preserving strength and that is not a bad choice. People who know their history already anticipated the Russians would get pulled down, but they also know the ‘Weak Goose’ is actually tough.”

Although the ‘Weak Goose’ meme is one that is just alive within particular online circles, it is telling of a shift in sentiments on Chinese social media regarding a conflict in which many initially believed Russia was like a strong brown bear fiercely attacking Ukraine, rather than a worn out goose nibbling on its neighboring country (reference post).

Chinese well-known political commentator Hu Xijin stirred away from any jokes. In his recent post on Weibo, he warned that “the world must be prepared for a further escalation of the war in Ukraine, even beyond Ukraine.”

By Manya Koetse 

With contributions by Miranda Barnes.

 

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China Brands & Marketing

About Lipstick King’s Comeback and His ‘Mysterious’ Disappearance

After Li Jiaqi’s return to livestreaming, the ‘tank cake incident’ has become the elephant in the room on social media.

Manya Koetse

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Earlier this week, the return of China’s famous livestreamer Li Jiaqi, also known as the ‘Lipstick King’, became a hot topic on Chinese social media where his three-month ‘disappearance’ from the social commerce scene triggered online discussions.

He is known as Austin Li, Lipstick King, or Lipstick Brother, but most of all he is known as one of China’s most successful e-commerce livestreaming hosts.

After being offline for over 100 days, Li Jiaqi (李佳琦) finally came back and did a livestreaming session on September 20th, attracting over 60 million viewers and selling over $17 million in products.

The 30-year-old beauty influencer, a former L’Oreal beauty consultant, rose to fame in 2017 after he became a successful livestreamer focusing on lipstick and other beauty products.

Li broke several records during his live streaming career. In 2018, he broke the Guinness World Record for “the most lipstick applications in 30 seconds.” He once sold 15000 lipsticks in 5 minutes, and also managed to apply 380 different lipsticks in another seven-hour live stream session. Li made international headlines in 2021 when he sold $1.9 billion in goods during a 12-hour-long promotion livestream for Alibaba’s shopping festival.

But during a Taobao livestream on June 3rd of this year, something peculiar happened. After Li Jiaqi and his co-host introduced an interestingly shaped chocolate cake – which seemed to resemble a tank, – a male assistant in the back mentioned something about the sound of shooting coming from a tank (“坦克突突”).

Although Li Jiaqi and the others laughed about the comment, Li also seemed a bit unsure and the woman next to him then said: “Stay tuned for 23:00 to see if Li Jiaqi and I will still be in this position.”

The session then suddenly stopped, and at 23:38 that night Li wrote on Weibo that the channel was experiencing some “technical problems.”

But those “technical problems” lasted, and Li did not come back. His June 3rd post about the technical problems would be the last one on his Weibo account for the months to come.

The ‘cake tank incident’ (坦克蛋糕事件) occurred on the night before June 4, the 33rd anniversary of the violent crackdown of the Tiananmen student demonstrations. The iconic image of the so-called ‘tank man‘ blocking the tanks at Tiananmen has become world famous and is censored on China’s internet. The control of information flows is especially strict before and on June 4, making Li’s ‘tank cake incident’ all the more controversial.

But no official media nor the official Li Jiaqi accounts acknowledged the tank cake incident, and his absence remained unexplained. Meanwhile, there was a silent acknowledgment among netizens that the reason Li was not coming online anymore was related to the ‘tank cake incident.’

During Li’s long hiatus, fans flocked to his Weibo page where they left thousands of messages.

“I’m afraid people have been plotting against you,” many commenters wrote, suggesting that the cake was deliberately introduced by someone else during the livestream as a way to commemorate June 4.

Many fans also expressed their appreciation of Li, saying how watching his streams helped them cope with depression or cheered them up during hard times. “What would we do without you?” some wrote. Even after 80 days without Li Jiaqi’s livestreams, people still commented: “I am waiting for you every day.”

On September 21st, Li Jiaqi finally – and somewhat quietly – returned and some people said they were moved to see their lipstick hero return to the livestream scene.

Although many were overjoyed with Li’s return, it also triggered more conversations on why he had disappeared and what happened to him during the 3+ months of absence. “He talked about a sensitive topic,” one commenter said when a Weibo user asked about Li’s disappearance.

One self-media accountpublished a video titled “Li Jiaqi has returned.” The voiceover repeatedly asks why Li would have disappeared and even speculates about what might have caused it, without once mentioning the tank cake.

“This cracks me up,” one commenter wrote: “On the outside we all know what’s going on, on the inside there’s no information whatsoever.”

“It’s tacit mutual understanding,” some wrote. “It’s the elephant in the room,” others said.

Some people, however, did not care about discussing Li’s disappearance at all anymore and just expressed joy about seeing him again: “It’s like seeing a good friend after being apart for a long time.”

By Manya Koetse 

Elements in the featured image by @karishea and @kaffeebart.

 

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