“The year 2018 has been a crucial year in the development of China’s Social Credit System (社会信用体系),” lawyer Ju (居小森律师) writes on Weibo this week.
The past year has indeed been the year of China’s Social Credit System: it was an important year for the system’s implementation, and it also became one of the most discussed China-related news topics in international media1 – using sci-fi vocabulary, powerful emotional words, suspenseful music, and dramatic images in their SCS-focused stories, the SCS is presented much differently in Western media than it is within the PRC.
SCS: From Google to Weibo Trends
From October 2017 to October 2018 alone, the Google search engine comes up with more than six million results in a search for the term “China social credit system” in English. Showing all results from before this time, there are 160 million results for the term in total.
Google Trends statistics show that worldwide interest in China’s Social Credit System had its absolute peak in the past year, and that Black Mirror, the British science fiction series exploring the dark consequences of new technologies, is one of the terms that is most associated with the web search query ‘China’s social credit system.’
Black Mirror is a highly popular series on Netflix, of which one 2016 episode called ‘Nosedive’ revolved around a dystopian society where people are judged by a numeric rating given to them by their interactions with other people, affecting their opportunities in life. This episode is often connected to China’s SCS by Western blogs or news sites.
The Black Mirror association with ‘social credit’ does not only come up on Google Trends. On Twitter, for example, some of the hashtags most related to the term also includes “#blackmirror.”
In contrast to the English term, with 160 million results, the Chinese term for the social credit system (社会信用体系) comes up with only 19,2 million total search results on Google. Google Trends also shows a rather minimal interest in the Chinese term compared to its English equivalent.
Although that result is somewhat flawed (the Google search engine is blocked in mainland China), Baidu, one of China’s most popular search engines, also gives a comparatively small total of 7,7 million results for the same Chinese web search query.
All in all, there are clear indications that the attention for the Chinese Social Credit System in the international English-language online media environment is much bigger than that within China.
While the Social Credit System (SCS) is being mentioned on Twitter almost every five to ten minutes at time of writing, it is only being discussed on Weibo with intervals of minimally one or two hours by posts that are barely getting likes or comments.2
So what does this all mean? How come that there is so much appetite for this topic outside of China, while inside the PRC, where the ‘system’ is well underway, there is a lesser public interest in its development?
What Actually is the Social Credit System?
In the book Social Credit Law: Principles, Rules and Cases, author Luo Peixin explains Social Credit as follows:
“Social Credit is a management system that takes big data as its basis, is supported by technological capacities, and is backed by law [legal provisions]; it is an important modern method to forward the country’s governance systems and management capabilities” (3).
Rather than one system or database, the Social Credit System is an overall policy or ideology, a mechanism of punishments and rewards, that is allegedly “meant to improve the integrity and trust level of the whole society” (creditchina.gov.cn).
In 2014, the Chinese government announced its first plans on the construction of a nationwide Social Credit System to be rolled out by 2020. For now, there is not one system in place, but rather a collection of different implementations and experiments across various regions and cities across China.
What they all have in common, though, is that individuals, corporations, or agencies are being assessed based on their ‘trustworthiness’ (Kostka 2018, 1).
The past summer has seen some important developments in the realization of a national Social Credit System. In the Chinese state media article “The Credit Society is Coming, Are You Ready for It?” [“信用社会来临，你准备好了吗”], People’s Daily notes that new Social Credit terms such as “blacklists” (黑名单) will become more ubiquitous in daily life from now on.
Earlier this year, the first names on the ‘lose trust list’ (失信人名单) – meaning those who have failed in complying with their public commitments or court orders – were reported to the Chinese railway and aviation departments by the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) to block these people from traveling.
Other Chinese cities are frequently added to the ‘credit cities’ list. Dalian, for example, is one of the cities that is highlighted by Chinese media this month for “steadily advancing” its Social Credit System implementation. The city has introduced an automated administrative process at its Public Resources Trading Center, in which people who are found to have bad credit will automatically be refused the handling of business.
It is just one among dozens of examples of how various cities and regions in China are experimenting with Social Credit and both punitive and rewarding measures.
Besides the SCS initiatives being implemented by local governments, commercial companies are also participating in making China a more credit-based society. Users who opt in to Alibaba’s Sesame Credit loyalty program system, for example, can enjoy many benefits if they have a good credit score (650+), such as borrowing books from the local library for free, or using share bikes without deposit (more on Sesame Credit and its perks here).
According to Weibo user ‘Lawyer Ju’, the broad credit system “covers both economic credit systems and social integrity systems,” within which the blacklist system is getting “more and more important”, adding that “the joint structure of ‘lose trust in one place, and there’s no place to go’ [一处失信、处处受限] will soon be here.”
Weibo Focus: No Bad Deed Should Go Unpunished
Lawyer Ju is not the only Weibo user who seems rather optimistic and happy about the implementation of a system that governs society based on trust.
Although major discussions on the actual ‘Social Credit System’ – using that exact term (社会信用体系) – are practically non-existent on Weibo, there are other examples of trending topics linked to the system that have gone viral lately.
One noteworthy example is the topic of two ‘Train Tyrants‘ that went trending on Chinese social media since August of this year.
It all started with the “Highspeed Train Tyrant” (高铁霸座男) in September. It is a nickname that was given to a man who refused to give up the seat he took from another passenger on the G334 express train to Beijing in late August, and whose bizarre and rude behavior was caught on video.
The other train bully that went viral in September, is a woman from Hunan who was dubbed ‘High-Speed Train Tyrant Woman’ (高铁霸座女) by Weibo netizens.
She had taken a seat assigned to another passenger while riding the train from Yongzhou to Shenzhen. A video (YouTube link here) shows how the woman makes a scene when the train conductor tells her she is in the wrong seat; she refuses to get up, raises her voice, talks rudely to the conductor, and simply claims she has bought a ticket and will not change to another seat until she has reached her final destination.
With more than 600 million combined views on the stories of the highspeed ‘Train Tyrants’, making them one of the bigger news stories of the year, the unruly behavior of passengers on Chinese public transport system made headlines. When news came out that both ‘bullies’ were fined and blacklisted by the Chinese railways (banning them from boarding trains for 180 days, see this article by Jeremy Daum for more on the legal aspects), many commenters applauded the system – although some deemed it not punitive enough (“180 days and a 200 yuan [$28] fine is nothing!“).
Although this case concerned a Railway-specific blacklist, many people commented that this blacklisting system should also be applied to people disturbing the order in hospitals, for example, and that it should be linked with the nationwide Social Credit System.
Moreover, many deemed that the Social Credit System should be even more punitive to people disturbing the public order, saying they “only had themselves to blame” (“咎由自取”), and it is a mere matter of “how karma works.”
Twitter Focus: China’s Scary Social Credit System
Meanwhile, on Twitter, a very different Social Credit story is going viral. A two-minute short video published by the Economist on October 26 titled “How Does China’s Social Credit System Work?” has more than 275,000 views on Twitter alone at time of writing (Update 23.00 China time: Economist has removed the video within hours after this article was posted).
Accompanied by suspenseful music, the video starts by captioning that by 2020, “the Chinese government will give all 1.4bn of its citizens a personal score based on how they behave.”
It further alleges that the ‘system’ will “track people’s activities on the Internet,” and that “what they buy, view, and say online will all be analysed,” followed by the claim that “this data will then be evaluated and distilled into a single number according to rules set by the government.”
The Economist video then focuses on surveillance cameras “that track people’s behavior in public”, suggesting that someone’s “score” could be lowered by crossing a red light, and that 12 million people have already been “punished for having a low score” through domestic travel bans.
Among thousands of reactions on the video, many compared China to an “Orwellian surveillance state” or a “Black Mirror episode.”
This recent Economist video is but one of dozens of examples of international media outlets describing China’s Social Credit System within a certain framework, mainly linking it to terms such as ‘punishment,’ ‘surveillance,’ and ‘individual scores.’
Many of these news stories suggest that every Chinese citizen will be assigned a ‘score’, or that people’s mere way behaving in public will be able to lower that ‘score’, resulting in ‘punishment’ (FYI: there is no indication that there will be one ‘score’ for citizens in a nationwide SCS, also see this article).
These stories are often grossly conflating the (optional) commercial credit systems, such as Sesame Credit, with national government policies and local experiments. (For more about this, also check this article).
Dramatically Different Approaches
By just comparing the previously mentioned examples of the Train Tyrant viral story in China, and the Economist viral video, one can get a glimpse of the great gap in (social) media approaches of the Social Credit System in China and in Western media.4
In the international media headlines, powerful emotional words like ‘chilling’, ‘creepy’, or ‘dystopian’ are often used. Perhaps not coincidentally, marketers since long know that readers react more strongly to ‘alert words’ that make us feel anxious, such as ‘afraid’, ‘scare’, ‘risk’, and ‘alarm’ – which are all great words to get more engagement with social media users, and thus will result in more clicks.
As ‘sexy’ as the SCS might seem in Western media, as ‘dry’ it can seem in the Chinese media context, where the most powerful words used in headlines are terms as ‘trust’, ‘harmony’ or ‘blacklist’, and where there are no dramatic images; occasionally there is a featured photo of officials having a meeting (to see more on how state media propagates the SCS through cartoons, click here).
This difference in the framing of SCS between Western publications and Chinese articles can also be seen in the specific words used in SCS-focused news stories.
The word clouds below show the most used words in three typical SCS articles from Western mainstream media (Independent, Guardian, and ABC), and three typical English-language Chinese state media articles on SCS (namely Global Times, Xinhua, and China Daily ).
While there are many words overlapping between the two examples, the most-used words in these Western media sources (left) are words as ‘system’, ‘list’, ‘citizen’, ‘behaviour’, ‘score’, and ‘government’, whereas the Chinese state media sources (right) more commonly use words as ‘business’, ‘law’, ‘market’, and ‘build.’
Doing the same experiment with Chinese-language state media articles on the SCS (Sina News, People’s Daily, and Guangming Daily) shows that ‘trust’ or ‘credit’ (信用) and ‘building’ (建设) are among the most-used words, with terms such as ‘enjoy together’, ‘cooperate’, or ‘unite’ frequently popping up.
The different public attitude towards the SCS implementation in China versus the Western media discourse on the issue, is also illustrated in a recent study by Genia Kostka (2018), that investigates Chinese citizens’ attitudes towards social credit systems. Rather than thinking of it as a ‘creepy’ or ‘dystopian’ system, it showed that SCSs actually have very high levels of approval across the respondent groups in the study (her work can be viewed here).
Social Credit Accounts without Followers
Ever since the 2014 plans of China’s Social Credit implementation were announced, Chinese social media has seen dozens of regional, urban, district-based ‘Social Credit’ accounts pop up on Weibo and WeChat to inform netizens of local developments.
The online presence of these local social credit programmes signals that Weibo and Wechat may have hundreds of these accounts in the future informing citizens/netizens of new measures and guidelines.
However, the fanbase numbers of these accounts, again, reflect that there does not seem to be that much interest for the nascent SCS implementations.
A brief overview of some of these Weibo accounts:
* Credit Suzhou @苏州工业园区信用平台
First post on record: September 29, 2015
* Liaoning Credit @信用辽宁
Followers at time of writing: 764
First post on record: August 1, 2012
* Wuhu Credit
Followers at time of writing: 14
First post on record: August 22, 2016
* Beijing City Social Credit Building Promotional Association @北京市社会公信建设促进会
Followers at time of writing: 14913
First post on record: September 17, 2014
* China Trustworthy Guangzhou @中国诚信广州
Followers at time of writing: 383
First post on record: June 20, 2012
* Honest Suqian @诚信宿迁
Followers at time of writing: 21
First post on record: September 9, 2014
With more than 24,000 followers, the Weibo account of commercial credit system Sesame Credit (@芝麻信用) is much more popular than the government-related management programmes.
Perhaps the topic of SCS, for many Chinese, is lacking the ‘Black Mirror’ appeal it has for many Western consumers of news. Perhaps ‘harmony’ and ‘trust’ are not as click-worthy as ‘creepy’ and ‘dystopian’?
On Weibo, Lawyer Ju is confident in the future of SCS in China: “Whether it’s from a social, corporate, or individual perspective,” he writes: “‘trust’ is now everywhere; it’s become a necessary ‘virtual asset.’ The gradual improvement of the construction of a legal credit system is the fundamental policy in order to regulate the market economy.”
Although his message is sound and clear, it is perhaps also somewhat boring and dry: it has not received any likes or shares to date. Meanwhile, on Twitter, the Economist‘s suspenseful video on China’s grim SCS future has received more than 280,000 views, and counting. “Oh my god!”, one popular reply to the video says: “This is just like that Black Mirror episode!”
(Update 23.00 China time: Economist has removed the video within hours after this article was posted).
1 This article talks about ‘international’ or ‘Western’ media to show a clear difference from Chinese media. Although the term can be understood in many ways, we mean it here to address mainstream English-language (news) sources of media outlets from mainly the US, Europe, and Australia.
2 Please note that there is currently no reason to assume that discussions of this specific topic are being censored: censorship scanning sites such as Free Weibo show no signs that posts using the term are specifically targeted, and state media and local governments are actually trying to start up discussions on this topic, as I will briefly touch upon later on in this article.
3 Namely Hangzhou, Nanjing, Xiamen, Chengdu, Suzhou, Suqian, Huizhou, Wenzhou, Weihai, Weifang, Yiwu, and Rongcheng.
4 Note that these are just small examples within a big and complicated discourse that has more sides to it than this article allows to zoom in on.
Kostka, Genia. 2018. “China’s Social Credit Systems and Public Opinion: Explaining High Levels of Approval” SSRN, July 23. Available at https://ssrn.com/abstract=3215138 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3215138 [29.10.18].
Luo Peixin 罗培新. 2018. Social Credit Law: Principles, Rules and Cases [社会信用法：原理、规则、案例]. Beijing: Peking University Press.
People’s Daily. 2018. “Observing the Social Credit System: The Credit Society is Coming, Are You Ready for It? [观察社会信用体系：信用社会来临，你准备好了吗].” Xinhua June 4. Available online at http://www.xinhuanet.com/2018-06/04/c_1122931164.htm [29.10.18].
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 email@example.com
Chinese E-Readers: The Best E-book Devices in China
Overview of the top 10 e-readers in China in 2021.
Ereaders have become booming business over recent years. Some people prefer an e-reader because it is easier on their eyes than reading from phone screens, others want a distraction-free digital reading style, and some just like the idea of carrying their own mini-library with them with a battery that lasts much longer than those of tablets or smartphones.
While Amazon’s Kindle is the biggest brand name in the American and European e-book reader market, the Chinese e-reader market also has several domestic brands topping the popularity lists.
Here is an overview of the top 10 brands currently dominating the lists in China. This list is based on the rankings of Zol.com, one of China’s leading IT information and business portals.
The devices mentioned in this list are all devices with E Ink (“electronic ink”) display technology, which gives them that low-power paper-like display. Devices using E Ink technology are usually in grayscale, but color e-paper technologies are now also available.
1. ONYX BOOX (CHINESE BRAND)
BOOX, also known as Onyx Boox (文石BOOX), currently is China’s top e-book reader brand, produced by Onyx International Inc., which mostly produces E Ink (ePaper) devices. Onyx Boox was founded in 2008 by a team from IBM, Google, and Microsoft. It is headquartered in Guangzhou.
What sets Onyx apart from many other e-book reader brands is that they offer devices from 7.8 to 13.3 inches that can also function as digital note-taking tablets, equipped with a pen that allows users to pen down their notes as they would in any paper notebook.
The latest Onyx devices such as the Max Lumi (13.3 inch), Onyx Boox Note Air (10.3 inch), the Note 3 (10.3 inch), and the Nova 3 and Nova 3 Color (7.8 inch) all have a wide variety of functions. Besides the common e-reading functions and digital note-taking possibilities, these devices run Android, handle many different file formats, and allow an install of Google Play, Kindle, OneDrive, and more, which really make them “like a tablet unlike any tablet” (which just happens to be their slogan).
Currently, the Boox Nova 3 is the brand’s most popular model in China. Priced at ￥2480 ($377), it is also among the pricier models in the markets due to its multifunctionality. It has 32GB of storage, E Ink Carta Plus (the latest generation of screens made by “electronic paper” technology) and also has a screen front light system, allowing users to keep on reading in the dark.
At ￥2780 ($423), the Onyx Boox Note S, which features a 9.7-inch screen, is also rising in popularity. Then there is also the Nova 3 Color 7.8-inch color E Ink tablet with a new Kaleido (Kaleido Plus) screen.
The Onyx is also sold outside of China, check it out here on Amazon.
The American Amazon brand is also popular in China when it comes to its e-reader devices. While compiling this list, the Onyx and Amazon brands actually competed over the number one spot, so there is not much difference there in terms of ranking.
Along with the entry-level Kindle Migu X, the 4th generation (2018) Kindle Paperwhite (6 inches, 1448x1072px) is among the most popular e-reader models in China, priced at ￥998 ($152). Like the Onyx Nova 3, it is also available with 32GB storage, but keep in mind that the screen is smaller.
The Kindle e-book devices are much more affordable than the Onyx ones, and their functionality is more straightforward as an e-book reader. They are known for their great battery life, and since the first Kindle was introduced in 2007 it has become the world’s most famous dedicated e-reader. Kindles are designed to interface seamlessly with Amazon’s online store, which makes them perfect for Amazon fans and less appealing for those who have no desire to use the Amazon ecosystem.
The Paperwhite model has an extra advantage to it, as it allows to keep on reading while taking a bath or sitting by the pool since it is water-resistant. The Paperwhite is currently the no.2 best-sold e-book reader on Chinese major shopping platform JD. It is sold through Amazon here.
3. iFLYTEK (科大讯飞) (CHINESE BRAND)
iFlytek is a partially state-owned Chinese AI firm established in 1999 that also produces e-book readers. The company made headlines in 2019-2020 when it was blacklisted in the US for allegedly using its technology for surveillance and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Its iFlytek Smart Office X2 (科大讯飞智能办公本X2) is the e-book reader that is currently in the top 5 list of most popular ink screen devices in China (it even scores no 1 on e-commerce platform JD.com at the time of writing), and it is also among the most expensive (￥4999/$762). The X2 is a 10.3-inch E Ink device.
Similar to the Onyx Boox devices, it is much more than an e-reader alone; it is also a note-taking device (comes with the Wacom stylus) and incorporates fingerprint authentication, Wifi/4G, (offline) voice recognition, and transcription functions; it probably is the smartest e-reader around.
The iFlytek also has a whopping 64GB storage, which can be expanded to 128GB. GizTechReview did a review of the Smart Office X2 here.
4. IREADER / ZHANGYUE (掌阅) (CHINESE BRAND)
Ebook reader Zhangyue (掌阅) made headlines in late 2020 when it was announced that Tiktok owner Bytedance would invest $170 million in the company.
Zhangyue, founded in 2008 in Beijing, is not just a producer of e-readers, it is also the online literature publisher behind the iReader platform (掌阅书城). Its most popular ebook reader in China at this time is the 6-inch Zhangyue iReader Light (掌阅iReader Light青春版), which is priced at ￥638 ($97) and comes with 8GB storage.
A much pricier model is the Smart X (￥3499/$539), which has 32GB storage and a 10.3 inch 1872×1404 resolution screen, making it just as big as the Onyx Boox Note Air and the iFlytek Smart Office X2. The iReader Smart X also comes with a Wacom pen for note-taking. There’s a review of this device on Gearbest.
The iReader Smart 2 is popular on shopping site JD.com, priced at ￥2299 ($353). It came out in 2020, and also is a note-taking device with 32GB storage and a 10.3 inch screen. The difference with the Smart X device mainly lies in its screen quality.
5. XIAOMI (CHINESE BRAND)
Beijing-brand Xiaomi is mostly known for being one of the world’s largest smartphone makers, but the tech company does so much more, from watches to earphones, TVs, scooters, and e-readers.
Priced at ￥599 ($92), the Xiaomi MiReader (小米多看电纸书), released in November 2019, is among the more popular e-reader devices in China at the moment. Mainly marketed for the Chinese market, it is Xiaomi’s first ebook reader which comes with a 6-inch e-Ink screen and 16GB storage. With its 1024×768 pixels at 212 PPI screen, it might not be as crisp and fast as other devices in this list, but its price is also much lower. This review at Goodereader was not positive at all, calling it “super slow and plodding.”
The MiReader also has a Pro device (小米多看电纸书Pro) available in China, which is ￥1299 ($200) and comes with a 7.8-inch 300 PPI screen and 32GB storage. The Xiaomi e-readers allow access to the WeChat Library, which is a great advantage for Chinese consumers (Kindle doesn’t allow access to the WeChat Library).
6. HANVON (汉王) (CHINESE BRAND)
Established in 1998, Hanwang is a pioneering company in character recognition technology and intelligent interactive products.
Although Hanvon is in the top 10 of China’s hottest e-book device brands, its Hanvon Gold House 3 model (汉王黄金屋3), priced at ￥799 ($123), is not nearly as popular as other devices in this list. The Hanvon Gold House comes with a 6-inch 1024×758 resolution screen and 4GB in storage. The device is marketed as being simple, stylish, and ergonomic.
7. TENCENT (CHINESE BRAND)
Chinese tech giant Tencent is mostly known for its social media and gaming products, but it also produces e-book devices.
The Tencent Pocket Reader (腾讯口袋阅) is small and lightweight with its 5.2 inches 1280×720 eInk screen, it comes with 8GB storage and is priced at ￥889 ($136). The device is centered around the Tencent ecosystem and provides access to the Tencent Library and bookstore.
Its small size makes this device different from other e-readers. It is the size of a smartphone, which is great if you really want an e-reader in your pocket, but less ideal if you are looking for a more comfortable reading experience. The Pocket Reader supports a 4G mobile card and can also make calls and do text messaging.
8. BOYUE (博阅) (CHINESE BRAND)
Boyue is a digital reading technology company founded in 2009. Throughout the years the company has released different e-book devices as well as digital note-taking devices.
The Boyue T80 model and its Likebook Mars are its best-sold devices in China. The Boyue T80 is priced at ￥1199 ($184) and has 8GB of storage, features an 8-inches 1024×768 screen, and supports SD.
The Likebook Mars is ￥1380 ($212) and comes with 16GB of storage, a 7.8 inch 1872×1404 screen, and it also has SD card support, which allows you to extend the storage capacity to 128GB.
9. OBOOK (国文) (CHINESE BRAND)
Guowen or OBOOK is an e-reader company established in 2010 as what was meant to be the Chinese answer to Kindle.
Its Dangdang E-reader 8 (当当阅读器8) is currently rising in popularity. It features a 6-inch 300 PPI resolution screen and 16GB of storage and is priced at ￥918 ($141).
Sony is perhaps not a name you’d expect in this list, since Sony seems to have exited the e-reader business some time ago.
There are only a few e-book devices by Sony that are still popular in China right now, and one of them is the 10.3-inch 1404×1872 screen Sony DPT-CP1 model that is priced at ￥4888 ($750). For this price, you get a lightweight, thin device that also serves as a digital note-taking tablet that syncs with PC or Mac.
The DPT-RP1/WC model is even pricier at ￥5299 ($815), for which you get a 13.3 inch 1650×2200 screen, which is comparable to the Onyx Boox Max Lumi.
By Manya Koetse
This is not a sponsored post. This article could contain links to online shops, which might allow us to earn a very small affiliate commission at zero extra cost to you – it helps us in maintaining this site. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Luo Tianyi and the Booming Virtual Idol Market in China
The virtual entertainment market is exploding in China.
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China, see Goethe.de: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
At the Spring Festival Gala of 2021, the Chinese state media’s annual televised event that only invites the country’s top-notch performers, the virtual idol Luo Tianyi (洛天依) made a guest appearance.
It was a big media moment that showed the growing importance of virtual superstars in Chinese pop culture. Luo’s performance was even announced on the show’s promo posters, making this the first time ever for a virtual star to be on the show like this.
Virtual celebrities such as Luo Tianyi are also called ‘vsingers’ and often have an enormous fanbase. What is the story behind Luo Tianyi and the boom of virtual superstars in China, leading to the remarkable appearance of a non-human celebrity in the country’s biggest mainstream TV show?
Although it was the first time for Luo Tianyi to appear at the Spring Festival Gala, it was not her first big performance. The superstar previously showed up as holograph live at big events such as the Bilibili night, and in 2019 she shared a stage with renowned Chinese pianist Lang Lang.
Such a performance does not come easy. It takes months to design the looks and the moves. The holographic appearance of Luo Tianyi and the spectacular two-hour show took around six months of preparation by around 200 professionals involved in the production of Luo Tianyi.
Luo Tianyi is a so-called ‘vocaloid’ singer – a Mandarin Chinese language virtual character that was originally featured in the voice synthesizer software called VOCALOID developed by Yamaha, using third parties to create the characters. Vocaloid is a commercial product (released in 2004) with the purpose of enabling users to get a singer for lyrics and melodies without needing to hire an actual human singer.
The Shanghai Henian company collaborated with Tokyo-based Bplats in developing Luo Tianyi. The character was based on the winner of a contest that was organized in support of creating the first Chinese Vocaloid. The real-life singer whose voice was used for the creation of Tianyi is Chinese singer Shan Xin (山新).
Luo Tianyi was officially launched in 2012 as a 15-year-old entertainer and vsinger. By now, she has around five million followers on her Weibo account (@Vsinger_洛天依) where she posts about her performances, with thousands of people liking and sharing these posts.
According to Chinese state media outlet Global Times, 2020 was the year that virtual idols really took off in China, going hand in hand with the growing popularity of livestreaming.
Chinese video-sharing site Bilibili has contributed to the growing success of virtual idols in China. Bilibili is a homebase for many fan communities in China, since it is mainly themed around animation, comic, and games (ACG). It is one of the earliest platforms in China to broadcast virtual idol concerts, and in 2020 it held China’s first concert consisting solely of virtual performers under the title ‘BML-VR 2020’ (link).
The Bilibili concert featured a performance by various virtual entertainers, including the popular Hiseki Erio. Hiseki Erio is not Chinese, but Japanese. So is Hatsune Miki, one of the most famous virtual idols ever.
You could say Japan is the birthplace of virtual idols – a history that goes back to 1996 when Kyoko Date, also known as DK-96 or ‘Digital Kid 1996,’ made her debut as the first virtual talent.
Virtual idols come in various shapes, forms, and subgenres, and they all have their different background stories. Hatsune Miki was released in 2007 as the embodiment of the Vocolaid software developed by Crypton Future, and then there are the popular virtual Youtubers, ‘vtubers’, with virtual talent agencies such as Hololive also thriving in Japan.
The term ‘virtual Youtuber’ came with the arrival of Kizuna AI, who posted her first introduction Youtube video in late 2016. Kizuna, who later became a cultural ambassador for the Japan National Tourism Organization, is still considered one of the most popular vtubers on earth.
With the great popularity of Japanese manga and anime on the Chinese market, Japanese virtual idols also gained a strong foothold in the People’s Republic since around 2017. Hatsune Miki alone already has over 3,4 million fans on Weibo (@初音未来CryptonFutureMedia).
The virtual entertainment market is now exploding in China, where the online ACG culture is flourishing on Bilibili and beyond.
Since Japanese popular culture products began to gain popularity in China in the early 1990s, there have been various developments that have shown the government’s dislike of the ‘Japanese cultural invasion’ in the country. As a counter-reaction, there has been stronger promotion of the production of made-in-China animations and other ACG products.
While China is seeing a steady release of domestic animated films and series, there is now also a wave of new China-born virtual stars, such as the Bilibili idol Yousa (冷鸢), or Xing Tong (星瞳), a virtual idol from Tencent. Chinese gaming company Papergames made the virtual character Nuan Nuan (暖暖) to also live outside of the gaming world; she is now a singer, a stylist, and a popular fashion ambassador.
There is also Ling (翎), the Chinese virtual influencer who loves Peking opera, tea culture, and calligraphy. Ling, who was created by Next Generation studio and Shanghai AI startup Xmov, appeared on the CCTV show Bravo Youngsters (上线吧华彩少年) and was featured on the cover of Vogue Me in February 2021 alongside actual real-life celebrities.
The number of Chinese virtual celebrities is expected to grow along with the growing market. In October of 2020, the Chinese variety show Dimension Nova (跨次元新星) first aired as a talent show scouting new virtual talent.
The growing influence of the virtual entertainment economy and culture in China is becoming more and more noticeable in pop music, commercial culture, and even in the sphere of politics.
Virtual celebrities are so popular that brands are also jumping in on this craze by hiring them as brand ambassadors or by creating their own cyber stars. Tencent’s Xing Tong, for example, modeled for Levi’s and sportswear brand Li Ning. Nuan Nuan, among others, was featured in a commercial for hair care brand LUX. Luo Tianyi appeared in campaigns for Huawei, Pizza Hut and KFC.
In January of 2021, McDonald’s China announced their own virtual idol “Happy Sister” (开心姐姐) as a brand ambassador. They are not the only one: there are over thirty companies in China now using a virtual brand ambassador. The new McDonald’s idol was welcomed by Weibo users, where the news of her launch received 200 million views.
The virtual idol influence also became apparent when Japanese ‘Hololive’ virtual celebrities Akai Haato and Kiryu Coco recently got caught up in a diplomatic row because they referred to Taiwan as a “country” when discussing their YouTube channel analytics during a livestream, leading to controversy among their Chinese fanbase.
In a statement published on Bilibili by Cover (the Japanese company behind the Hololive talent agency that the virtual celebrities in question were under), the agency apologized for what had happened. Nevertheless, both virtual stars involved in the controversy were banned from Bilibili and eventually the entire Chinese Hololive branch was shut down.
This example shows that although virtual idols are generally regarded as a safe option for brands and companies because, unlike real celebrities, they are not likely to get caught up in scandals, it is still possible for them to spark controversy.
Nevertheless, the future looks bright for virtual stars in China with still an enormous market for Luo Tianyi and others to conquer, with plenty of room for growth. From concerts to fashion shows to live streaming channels, from Weibo to Bilibili and beyond, we are bound to see virtual stars increasingly become a part of everyday life in China.
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.
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.
Train Fight Between Chinese and Foreign Passenger over Mask-Wearing Goes Viral on Douyin
Guangzhou Metro Security Guard Posts X-ray Images of Passengers’ Adult Toys
Chinese Netizens Infuriated by “Live Animal Mystery Box” Industry
Official Weibo Account Sends Out Controversial, Insensitive Post on India Covid Crisis
One Dead, 17 Injured in Guangxi Kindergarten Knife Attack
“A Breath of Fresh Air” – Clubhouse App Discussed by Chinese Social Media Users
Conversations Behind the Wall: Clubhouse App Now Blocked in China
Six Years After Becoming a Viral Hit, “Little Jack Ma” is Not Doing Well At All
Li Wenliang Remembered One Year Later: His Life, Death, and Legacy on Chinese Social Media
About Yang Jiechi’s Instant Noodle Lunch at the US-China Talks in Alaska
China Digital3 months ago
“A Breath of Fresh Air” – Clubhouse App Discussed by Chinese Social Media Users
China Digital3 months ago
Conversations Behind the Wall: Clubhouse App Now Blocked in China
China Celebs3 months ago
Six Years After Becoming a Viral Hit, “Little Jack Ma” is Not Doing Well At All
China Insight3 months ago
Li Wenliang Remembered One Year Later: His Life, Death, and Legacy on Chinese Social Media