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Here’s Xi the Cartoon – Online Animations Are China’s New ‘Propaganda Posters’

Easy to click, view & share – short cartoons and gifs are the propaganda posters of China’s new digital era.

Manya Koetse

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In an era where China’s young generations are practically glued to their smartphone screens, China’s propaganda departments are stepping up their game. Online animated videos and gifs use bright colors, simple design, and a very likable Xi to deliver strong political messages.

The speech that was delivered by president Xi Jinping at the APEC summit last week made its rounds on Chinese social media this Tuesday – not as a video, but as an animated cartoon.

The APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting took place in Vietnam’s Da Nang from November 10-11, and was attended by international world leaders such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, American President Donald Trump, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

As one of the keynote speakers to the APEC CEO summit, Xi talked about his views on the Asian region’s future. The speech was especially momentous since it marked Xi’s first public address at an international multilateral meeting since the conclusion of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.

In his address, Xi spoke about China’s commitment to regional multilateralism and open economic globalization, and the importance of promoting inclusive development.

The animated cartoon version of the speech presents China as a leader in the region, with Xi as the main cartoon character. It was widely shared on Chinese social media by state media outlets for the past few days, at a time when cartoons and gifs seem to have become the new way of communicating Xi’s important visits and speeches to the online population.

 

Xi’s Animated Speech: China Leads the Way

 

The recent APEC cartoon that made its rounds on Weibo this week summarizes Xi Jinping’s speech in a 3,5 minute animation. It first shows a group of cranes, flying from China to the coastline of Vietnam’s Da Nang where Xi is holding his keynote speech.

As Xi talks about the development of China and the start of the PRC’s “New Era,” this concept is visualized through a boat that is going forward under the leadership of Xi Jinping (see featured image).

The short animation video then shows another vessel by the name of “APEC” that is in rough weather, passing icebergs of “terrorism,” “natural disasters,” or “food safety issues.” But luckily, there is a lighthouse standing up to the huge waves – and it is marked by the flag of China.

APEC: Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.

China is a stable lighthouse amidst the wild waves.

While the audio from Xi’s speech continues throughout the animation, talking about stability in the region, the cartoon presents the APEC group of leaders and Xi meeting with various leaders, leading to the final part that shows a world connected through boats, trains, airplanes, and the internet.

The very last fragment of the animation shows a fleet of boats going forward, “together building a better tomorrow for the Asia-Pacific,” with the leading boat carrying the Chinese flag.

The animation was shared on video platform Miaopai and Weibo by state media such as CCTV (@央视网), Global Times (@环球网), China Economy (@中国经济网), and others.

 

Xi Jinping the Cartoon

 

It is not the first time that the cartoon image of President Xi is propagated online by Chinese state media. Over the past years, various key political concepts, events, and ideological messages have been spread online through animations, with a central role for Xi Jinping.

This trend became particularly apparent earlier this year during the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative and during the 19th National Party Congress; both crucial moment for Beijing’s top leadership in 2017.

Xi Jinping was first launched as a cartoon image in 2013, when a video titled ‘How a Political Leader was Tempered’ (领导人是怎样炼成的) went viral online. At the time , Chinese state media reported that the identity of the video’s author “remained unknown.”

Xi first appeared as a cartoon in 2013.

But not long after this success, the first official release of a Xi Jinping cartoon followed. The series ‘Where did Xi’s Time Go?’ (习主席的时间都去哪了) was designed by media outlet Qianlong.com, and was propagated on major websites as well as new apps.

More attractive than text news, the comic graphic news could reach readers’ heart and it suits modern reading habits,” the chief editor of Qianlong proudly said about the Xi cartoon.

‘Where did Xi’s time go?’ was issued in 2013.

In 2014, another cartoon series of Xi Jinping was released by Chinese state media. According to People’s Daily, the image of cartoon Xi, drawn by cartoonist Jiao Haiyang (焦海洋), made it possible for the media to depict the country’s leader in a “fun and vivid way”, showing the President as “modest,” “approachable,” and “in touch with the people.”

Xi Jinping by Jiao Haiyang for People’s Daily in 2014.

Xi eats baozi with the people. By Jiao Haiyang.

Xi Jinping meets a sanitation worker. By Jiao Haiyang.

In 2015, Xi made another return as a cartoon hero fighting corruption. The cartoon, uploaded to Youku by the mysterious ‘Chaoyang Studios,’ was widely shared by state media outlets such as People’s Daily (Gan 2015).

The exposure of Xi as a cartoon image increased thereafter in 2016 and 2017, with China Daily even launching a ‘cartoon commentary’ section. The ‘cartoon commentary’ section posts short animations of Xi Jinping during and after important political events, such as Xi’s Europe-Asia tour in June 2016, the Central Asia tour in June of 2017 or the Hong Kong visit in July.

‘Cartoon commentary’ from China Daily 2016: Xi’s Europe-Asia Tour.

China Daily ‘cartoon commentary’ during Xi’s visit to Hong Kong in July 2017.

Most of the animated Xi cartoons that are widely shared on Chinese social media over the recent two years, including the official media ‘cartoon commentaries’, have been credited to a cartoonist named Liao Tingting (廖婷婷).

Xi Jinping by Liao Tingting.

‘Liao’s’ cartoons have a distinct style that is different from that of Jiao Haiyang or the Qianlong designers; Xi always has the same friendly face, which is relatively big for his body. The cartoons have bright colors and often have a simplicity to them which is comparable to the drawings in children’s books.

 

‘Propaganda Poster’ in the Social Media Age

 

Colorful images depicting important events or developments, often with a special focus on Mao Zedong, have played an important role in Chinese state propaganda since the founding of the PRC in 1949. The propaganda poster was an especially relevant medium within this type of state-sponsored propaganda art. With bright colors and powerful images, posters could easily grab the attention of the people, and could also transmit messages to the many illiterate Chinese (Landsberger 2001, 541; Van der Heijden&Landsberger 2008).

But in an era of fast online media and smartphone-scrolling youth, Chinese leaders are changing their propaganda tactics. As noted by Chow (2017) in The Diplomat:

China is hoping to reinforce belief in the Communist Party, Chinese nationalism, and socialist values through social media. The ruling party fears that it is losing the battle for hearts and minds – particularly among Internet-savvy millennials who have grown up with Western movies, music, and television.”

Besides other new ways to disseminate political messages (such as rap music, mobile games), short animated cartoons or gifs are now an important vehicle for propaganda; they can communicate strong audiovisual messages in bite-sized chunks, making it easy to digest for an audience that is overwhelmed by online information and is not interested in listening to hour-long speeches.

Although the step from propaganda poster to online animation seems big, the idea remains the same: using bright colors and simple design to attract people’s attention and communicate a strong message through a medium that can be easily placed in many locations, reaching a great number of people.

Besides communicating messages about China’s development and its role in the world today, state-sponsored Xi cartoons also convey a different message. Namely that Xi Jinping is a very likable and approachable leader.

The manner in which this message is conveyed matters greatly: the control should lie with Chinese authorities. When Chinese netizens compared President Xi to Winnie the Pooh, images of the friendly bear were censored soon after they went viral.

On Weibo, the animated cartoons of Xi’s speeches and important moments already seem to have become a normal part of the everyday social media landscape. While the reactions to the first series were generally positive, with netizens calling them “so cute” (好萌), the later videos seem to have become accepted as just another way for state media to communicate news to the people.

‘Xi the cartoon’ has become part of netizens’ daily online-scrolling routines. In this regard,  propaganda departments have succeeded in bringing a likable and approachable Xi “in touch with the people.”

By Manya Koetse

 

References & Further Reading

Chow, Eugene. 2017. “China’s Propaganda Goes Viral.” The Diplomat, June 29 https://thediplomat.com/2017/06/chinas-propaganda-goes-viral/ [14.11.17].

Creemers, Rogier. 2017. “Cyber China: Upgrading Propaganda, Public Opinion Work and Social Management for the Twenty-First Century.” Journal of Contemporary China (26): 85-100.

Gan, Nectar. 2015. “Cartoon Xi Jinping Returns in New Animated Adventures.” South China Morning Post, February 21 http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1719881/cartoon-xi-jinping-returns-new-animated-adventures [14.11.17].

Landsberger, Stefan R. 2001. “Learning by What Example? Educational Propaganda in Twenty-first Century China.” Critical Asian Studies 33(4): 541-571.

Van der Heijden, Marien & Stefan Landsberger. 2008. Chinese Propaganda Posters. Amsterdam: International Institute of Social History. Available online at http://www.iisg.nl/publications/chineseposters.pdf [14.11.17].

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2017 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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Backgrounder

“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.

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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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