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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.

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 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
Follow @whatsonweibo

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

This text was 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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China Digital

WeChat’s New Emoji Are Here (Including a Watermelon-Eating and Doge One)

WeChat’s new emoji are based on popular memes.

Manya Koetse

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On January 14, Tencent’s Wechat introduced new emoji to its existing emoji set. The new emoji include, among others, a watermelon-eating emoji and a smiling Shiba Inu.

On Weibo, the new emoji have become a topic of discussion under the hashtags “WeChat’s New Emoji” (#微信上线新表情#), “WeChat’s Watermelon Eating Emoji” (#微信上线吃瓜表情#), and “WeChat’s Dog Emoji” (#微信上线狗头表情#).

Different from the Unicode emoji (see Emojipedia), WeChat and Weibo have their own sets of emoji, although there is overlap.

The reason why especially the watermelon-eating and dog emoji are being discussed on social media, is because these emoji are based on popular internet memes.

“Eating watermelon” (吃瓜 chī guā) is an online expression that comes from “watermelon-eating masses” (吃瓜群众 chī guā qúnzhòng), which describes a common mentality of Internet users who have no idea what is actually going on but are still commenting or following online stories for their enjoyment – perhaps comparable to the “popcorn memes” that are ubiquitous on Western social media platforms.

The smiling dog has been around since 2013 and is known as the doge meme, based on a photo of a Shiba inu. The meme was originally spread on social media platforms such as Reddit, but then also became hugely popular in China, where it became a symbol of sarcasm (also read this Abacus article on this topic).

Other new emoji are the “wow” emoji, and others to express “ok,” “add oil,” “emm,” “oh!”

There’s also a “shehui shehui” (社会社会, lit. “society society”) emoji, which also comes from online culture and is a way among friends to (self-mockingly) talk about being ‘gangsters,’ ‘brothers.’ or ‘scoundrels.’

As the new emoji are still in their testing phase, not all WeChat users can use the new emoji yet, so you might have to wait a bit before being able to try them out.

By Manya Koetse, with thanks to @caaatchina
Follow @whatsonweibo

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.

©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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