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‘Human Flesh Search Engine’ over Swimming Pool Conflict Turns Fatal: Female Doctor Commits Suicide after Becoming Target of Online Witch Hunt

When social media is used as a weapon in a private conflict, it can actually kill people.

Manya Koetse

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What started with an argument in a swimming pool on Monday, resulted in a suicide on Saturday. The trending story of a young female doctor from Deyang shows just how devastating it can be to suddenly be in the eye of a social media storm.

 
Miranda Barnes contributed to this report.
 

A 35-year-old female pediatrician from Deyang city, Sichuan, has committed suicide by taking 500 sleeping pills when the stress she faced, after getting caught up in an internet witch hunt, became too much for her.

The story, that has gone viral on Chinese social media, starts on August 20. The woman, named An Yingyan (安颖彦), was swimming at a local swimming pool with her husband that evening when she collided with a boy, as the pool’s surveillance cameras also show.

What happened next is unclear – and also varies depending on different social media accounts and news reports. According to those on An Yingyan’s side, the boy, a 13-year-old who was there with his friend, actually harassed the woman and touched her bathing suit. When An demanded an apology from the boy, he refused, spitting her in the face and further insulting her instead.

According to those on the side of the boy, however, An and the 13-year-old only briefly touched when colliding, causing An to become angry with the boy. He responded to her by pulling a face.

Surveillance cameras do show what happened next, namely that the woman’s husband intervened by jumping over, pushing the head of the boy underwater and smacking him.

Lifeguards at the swimming pool told Sina News that they soon spotted the altercation and intervened. Both the boys and the couple left the pool and went into the dressing rooms to change.

An Yingyan’s husband and friends, speaking to Chinese reporters, later claim that An was beaten by the 13-year-old’s mother and two other females inside the female dressing room that evening.

An’s husband shows a photo of the bruises his wife suffered from the alleged attack in the dressing room (via Netease report).

Both parties reported the incident to local police, who tried to settle the conflict between the two families. As a result, the husband apologized to the 13-year-old for his agressive behavior.

 
Getting Social Media Involved: The Online Witch Hunt
 

But the incident was far from over.

The following day, on August 21, the boy’s family -who apparently found out where the doctor worked – came over to Dr. An’s hospital, demanding her to be discharged and telling about her alleged misdemeanor.

The story, including surveillance footage from the pool, was also posted on social media by a social media user (@鸣Mmmm) – suspected to be the boy’s mother, Mrs. Chang – writing: “Quickly come and look, a minor was publicly beaten by an employee of the Water Resources Bureau*, pushing the baby child down, wanting to kill him. Just because the child was not careful while swimming and bumped into his wife. He even immediately apologized!” [*An’s husband].

An Yingyan requested an absence from work on Tuesday (21st), and stayed home the rest of the week. The incident had made her nervous, her husband told reporters, and at home she could also accompany her little daughter, who was just about to attend school for the first time.

But the social media storm got worse. Within three days after the incident occurred, the name, telephone number, work address, function, photos, and all other private information of An Yingyan and her husband had leaked online via WeChat and Weibo, going viral across their town and local chat groups: they had become the target of an online witch hunt, or a so-called ‘human flesh search engine.’

“Human Flesh Search Engine” (Rénròu sōusuǒ yǐnqíng 人肉搜索引擎) is the Chinese term for the phenomenon of netizens distributing the personal information of individuals they feel ‘deserve’ public interest or scorn. Targets are often individuals who have disrupted public order in some way and have angered netizens for their behavior and actions. (Read more here).

 
The Tables are Turning
 

On Saturday, August 25, only five days after the swimming pool conflict took place, An Yingyan sat in her car and took 500 sleeping pills. When she was found, she was immediately rushed to the hospital, where she passed away.

Her husband told reporters this week that his wife had become overwhelmed by the online manhunt and media attention, and the impact it made on her life and family. She would sit in her car and cry for hours.

A trending online video of KNEWS (blurred) shows how doctors are trying to resuscitate the woman, her husband crying by her side.

The story of An Yingyan has now received overwhelming attention on Chinese social media. The hashtag “Dr. An from Deyang” (#德阳安医生#) received 31 million views on Wednesday, the hashtag on her suicide (#德阳女医生自杀#) getting over 3 million views, a news report by Netease was read nearly 160,000 times within hours after posting.

Some well-known social media accounts have now apologized for forwarding the story, expressing their sympathies towards Dr. An and her family. Many posts about the incident have since been deleted. One prominent account forwarding the story is titled ‘Deyang Expose King’ (@德阳爆料王), and many commenters especially blame this account for forwarding “false information.”

“The internet has made this excellent pediatrician kill herself,” some say. “You all have blood on your hands,” a popular Weibo post said (@夏天的风Tl): “You can delete your posts all you want, but you know your crime.”

Public sentiment has seemingly drastically turned around. Although many people criticized the doctor and her husband after the video and story were first posted online, they are now turning against the Chang mother and her family, blaming Mrs. Chang for misguiding public opinion to use it as a weapon against Dr. An.

“She’s a beast!”, some say: “No wonder the 13-year-old behaves like an animal, having been raised by one.”

Some netizens even call for another ‘human flesh search,’ this time targeting the Chang family.

Although a suicide triggered by an online witch hunt is at the center of this story, most netizens seemingly do not care about starting another one.

By Manya Koetse, contributions from Miranda Barnes

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

©2018 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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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Ld Elon

    August 29, 2018 at 10:02 pm

    I love Chinese their so awesome.
    😀

  2. Avatar

    Julia

    August 31, 2018 at 5:16 am

    Sad. I despise social media for this reason and also when others get involved in something they don’t know a lick about. I feel sorry especially for An’s daughter and the children she could have helped.

  3. Avatar

    nathan chang

    September 2, 2018 at 11:27 pm

    The kind of behavior exhibited by ALL parties in this situation is typical of Chinese people in general. No one is innocent: not the doctor, not the kid, not the kid’s family, not the doctor’s husband, and most definitely not netizens. As is so frequent and typical in China, each aforementioned party behaved in ways that deliberately and pointlessly escalated the situation.

    The simple and sad reality is that the vast majority of the general population in China are driven by wanton pettiness, emotional decision making, vindictive attitudes, total lack of respect for human life, and greed. It will take many many more generations for the overall quality of the average Chinese person to reach a level commensurate with that of a truly civilized and developed nation. Until then, Chinese people must be ruled with an iron fist as they only understand and respond to force and coercion. I applaud the Chinese government’s methods as they truly understand Chinese people’s nature … best.

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China Digital

From Red Packet to Virtual Hongbao: Lucky Envelopes in China’s Digital Era

Raising virtual cows, shaking with phones – this is the Chinese New Year tradition of giving red envelopes in the digital era.

Things That Talk

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The custom of giving out red paper envelopes has evolved into a world of virtual lucky money and online games. This is the transformation of a Chinese New Year’s tradition, reported by Koen van der Lijn and Xiaojun Zhang.

 
When objects meet social media, two websites meet as well. This is a collaboration between What’s on Weibo and Things That Talk (follow on Insta @thingsthattalk).
 

Ever wanted to raise a digital cow? This year, you can raise your own lucky cow (福牛) for Chinese New Year on Weibo. Through maintaining and raising their virtual cow (or ox), users can participate in this online game to win red envelopes, a well-known and beloved tradition linked to Chinese New Year.

The hashtag “Lucky Cow’s New Year’s Travelogue” (#福牛新春旅行记#) is linked to Weibo’s celebration of Chinese Spring Festival and the Year of the Ox. Users are expected to be active on Weibo daily to raise their cow/ox, similar to the once so popular Tamagotchi. Whilst leveling up their cow, users get the possibility to earn digital red envelopes.

The online game is another development in the story of the red envelopes, known in China as hongbao (红包). Often given during Chinese New Year, the envelopes can also be given at other joyous occasions like weddings. These red envelopes are given to each other by friends and family members to wish each other a happy new year and are always filled with an amount of money.

Red envelopes for sale via Taobao.

The practice of giving money during Chinese New Year goes far back in Chinese history. The earliest form of the red envelope is said to be yasuiqian (压祟钱). In order to keep evil spirits away, called sui (祟), people put money underneath children’s pillow since the evil spirits were said to be warded off by coins.1 These coins were woven together using a string.

Yasuiqian

As time went by and paper money and envelopes became more widespread, string and coins were replaced and the red envelope was created.

Red envelopes are used by Chinese all over the world nowadays. The amount of money inside depends on many factors. Recently, the tradition has left behind its tangible form and entered the digital era.

 

“Adding the thrill of gambling to the practice of giving away red envelopes”

 

In 2014, the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat (微信) launched a new function that allowed users to send virtual red envelopes. Users could send an amount of money directly to another user, or an amount of red envelopes could be sent into a groupchat. When the function launched, users worldwide could shake their phones in order to receive free red envelopes. The amount of money that was given to users surpassed 500 million yuan ($77.5 million).

WeChat’s inventive idea put digital red envelopes on the map in China. During the peak of the event, 800 million shakes were recorded per minute. There were two types of envelopes introduced in 2014 by Tencent, the company that owns WeChat:

1. A regular red envelope that could be sent directly from one user to another.
2. A ‘group’ red envelope, with a limited number to be grabbed and a limited sum of money which can be grabbed by all users in a group if they are fast enough. The sum inside this envelope is randomized, adding the thrill of gambling to the practice of giving away red envelopes.

Other companies also wanted a piece of the digital red envelope cake: Weibo and AliPay combined their strengths a year after WeChat introduced its digital hongbao in order to promote their version of the digital red envelope.

A ‘war’ then broke out between the two companies. AliPay handed out 600 million renminbi ($93 million) worth of red envelopes as a response to WeChat’s 120 million envelopes sent out during the televised celebration of Chinese New Year.2

 

“Digital red envelopes can cross time and place, but cannot replace the method of face-to-face contact”

 

In the years after, the digital red envelope became more and more popular. Weibo and Alipay also came with their version of sending red envelopes online. The companies organized large-scale actions to make users make use of their form of digital red envelopes.

WeChat, for instance, gives users the option to make the red envelopes very personal through adding stickers and personal messages, making the digital red envelope an even more enjoyable experience.

Does this new development of the traditional red envelope make the tangible envelope obsolete?

When asked by the digital newspaper The Paper (澎湃新闻) about whether the digital red envelope might replace its tangible brother, scholar Tian Zhaoyuan (田兆元) of East China Normal University said that the digital red envelope can cross time and place, but cannot replace the method of face-to-face contact. Though friends and family may send one another digital red envelopes, it does not mean that it replaces the tangible red envelopes.3

The tradition of sending red envelopes is and will be inherently linked to Chinese New Year. Though both the paper and digital forms of the tradition remain incredibly popular, the virtual hongbao will definitely win territory once more this year as travel is restricted due to COVID-19. Especially in these times, the digital red envelope is the best digital way of wishing family and friends a happy new year.

Why are ‘lucky envelopes’ not just red, but sometimes also green or purple? Read more via Things That Talk here.

 
By Koen van der Lijn and Xiaojun Zhang

Koen van der Lijn (China Studies, BA) is a ResMa student Asian Studies at Leiden University focused on Chinese history and its international relations. He is a student ambassador at Things That Talk.

Xiaojun Zhang (China Studies, BA) is an MA student Asian Studies at Leiden University focused on contemporary Chinese culture, symbolism and food. For Things That Talk, she currently works on a project about Chinese-Indonesian restaurants in the Netherlands.

This story was made in collaboration with ThingsThatTalk.net – exploring humanities through the life of objects. Things That Talk is an educational digital project where staff and students produce narratives and metadata about objects in Leiden collections and beyond. Check out the story “Hongbao: from paper envelope to digital gift” on Things That Talk here!

 
Footnotes (other sources hyperlinked within the article)

1 Kin Wai Michael Siu. 2001. “Red Packet: a Traditional Object in the Modern World.” Journal of Popular Culture 35 (3), 103.
2 Chen, Liyan. 2015. “Red Envelope War: How Alibaba and Tencent Fight Over Chinese New Year.” Forbes, Feb 19 https://www.forbes.com/sites/liyanchen/2015/02/19/red-envelope-war-how-alibaba-and-tencent-fight-over-chinese-new-year/?sh=1b88bccccddd.
3 The Paper, Zuowei yi zhong “xinnian su”, weixin hongbao hui qudai zhizhi hongbao ma? 作为一种“新年俗”,微信红包会取代纸质红包吗?, https://cul.qq.com/a/20160208/012888.htm.

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©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Digital

Conversations Behind the Wall: Clubhouse App Now Blocked in China

While the Clubhouse app is no longer accessible from within the PRC, conversations continue behind the wall.

Manya Koetse

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The Clubhouse app became a hot topic among web users in mainland China this weekend. On Monday, the platform was no longer accessible from within the PRC.

On Saturday, we posted an article about the surge in popularity of American ‘drop-in audio chat’ social media platform Clubhouse in mainland China.

As conversations about the popular app continued throughout the weekend, the app was no longer accessible from within mainland China on Monday.

Clubhouse describes itself as “a space for casual, drop-in audio conversations—with friends and other interesting people around the world” where you can “go online anytime to chat with the people you follow, or hop in as a listener and hear what others are talking about.”

The app has virtual rooms and events themed around various topics – anything from politics to music – and lets hundreds of members join conversations as moderators, speakers, or listeners.

The Clubhouse app was developed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Paul Davison and ex-Google employee Rohan Seth. It was first launched in April 2020 on iOS only, and is still only accessible through iPhone for users who have an invite.

Before Monday, the Clubhouse app was freely accessible from within China for those people who had an invite, but only if they had access to the non-Chinese Apple store to download the app.

The app was a hot topic on various Chinese social media platforms this weekend. On Weibo, the civilized and open character of the Clubhouse conversations were praised, allowing a broader understanding of issues that otherwise remain untouched or are limited within the Chinese social media sphere.

One Chinese-language virtual room about the Xinjiang camps was joined by hundreds of people on Saturday. But besides the room focused on Xinjiang, there were also other rooms where discussions took place about the status of Hong Kong and about issues such as whether or not (overseas) Chinese are willing to return to the mainland and why.

“It is like a small crack in a window,” one person on Weibo said about Clubhouse, while others already predicted the app would become unavailable from within mainland China soon.

When it finally happened on Monday, the responses on Weibo were mainly those of disappointment. “Bye bye Clubhouse,” some Weibo users wrote, with others expressing their surprise: “What?! It was just popular for two days and it’s already blocked? They move so fast it’s scary.”

“I was active on Clubhouse for two days. I didn’t expect it to be shut down so soon already.”

Although many commenters previously expressed that they expected the app to become unavailable within the PRC, the fact that it was shutdown while it was just exploding online comes as a surprise to some, as various commenters write.

The term ‘Clubhouse’ was also temporarily blocked on Weibo by Monday night Beijing time; over the weekend various hashtags relating to the app made their rounds on Chinese social media, but the hashtag pages were no longer online by Monday evening.

‘Clubhouse’ no longer shows results on social media platform Weibo. Screenshot by What’s on Weibo.

Meanwhile, various Chinese-language rooms on Clubhouse discussed the topic of its disappearance in China.

A room titled “Clubhouse is blocked, and now?” was joined by over a hundred people on Monday night. The room “Clubhouse is blocked” attracted over 3000 participants. These conversations are likely to continue for the time to come, but now they must continue behind the Great Firewall of China.

By Manya Koetse

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

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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