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Insights into the Social Credit System on Chinese Online Media vs Its Portrayal in Western Media

In many international media, China’s nascent Social Credit System is presented as a gloomy sci-fi storyline with clickbait titles. In Chinese mass media, the story is not nearly as ‘sexy’.

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The lurid scenario of how China’s nascent Social Credit System (SCS) might unfold as presented by many international media, stands in stark contrast to how the topic is discussed on Chinese online media. Not only is the SCS discussed and presented much differently within the PRC, the topic is also not nearly getting as much attention as it does in the West.

“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.

(whatsonweibo/google)

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.

In the Black Mirror episode ‘Nosedive’, people’s position on the social ladder is determined by other people ranking them.

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

This is especially noteworthy when considering that Sina Weibo has around 100 million more monthly active users (±430 million) than Twitter has (±326 million).

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).

In Shaanxi’s Ankan city, blacklisted trust ‘offenders’ are being publicly displayed on a local court’s LED screens this month (via http://jszx.court.gov.cn).

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.

At the beginning of 2018, twelve cities have been announced as successfully laying out the foundations of a Social Credit management system.3

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.

The two train bullies that went viral the past months.

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.

The story of this female ‘train tyrant’ became trending on Weibo with over 500 million views.

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.”

Still from the Economist video.

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

“Creepy”, “Chilling”, “Sci-fi” – some of the words used in Western media headlines to frame the SCS.

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).

A typical SCS-focused article in Chinese media.

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 ).

Most common words in news articles discussing the social credit system in Western media (left) and English-language Chinese media (right). (By What’s on Weibo via wordart).

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 result of the most common words used in three state media articles on SCS (Whatsonweibo via Picdata).

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
Followers: 391
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
@信用芜湖
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).

By Manya Koetse

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.

References

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].


Directly support Manya Koetse. By supporting this author you make future articles possible and help the maintenance and independence of this site. Donate directly through Paypal here. Also check out the What’s on Weibo donations page for donations through creditcard & WeChat and for more information.

 

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©2018 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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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Ed Sander

    October 30, 2018 at 4:20 pm

    In the meantime The Economist has removed the video from their Twitter feed …

  2. Marco

    October 31, 2018 at 8:58 am

    Manya, thanks for this very insightful article.

  3. soundcloud converter

    March 15, 2019 at 5:06 am

    Thanks, quite great article.

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Backgrounder

A Baby for Sale, a Mother Chained Up – How Chinese Netizens Are Pushing Specific Social Issues to the Forefront

The stories of Liu Xuezhou and the Xuzhou mother both developed in real-time while netizens pushed them to the front page, making them too big for state media to ignore.

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It only takes a spark to start a wildfire. From Liu Xuezhou to the Xuzhou mother, China’s online spheres have seen multiple major trending topics this year that started with one short video and then caused a social media storm with netizens highlighting and amplifying specific stories to address bigger social problems.

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yi Magazin: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
 

It was December 6th of 2021 when a teenage boy posted a short video on Chinese social media. With a straight back, clear voice, and serious face, he looked directly into the camera and said:

Hello everyone, I am Liu Xuezhou and I am looking for my biological parents. I was born in between 2004 and 2006 and around the age of three months old, I was bought by my parents, my adoptive parents, in Datong in Shanxi. I am healthy. I don’t have any congenital physical defects or diseases; I don’t have any obvious birthmarks or scars. At the age of four, my adoptive parents passed away due to an accident. I am now living in Nangong, Xingtai, in Hebei Province. I study in Shijiazhuang. I wish I’d found my biological parents sooner, to make up for what I missed. I hope you can help me spread my message so that those who suspect they might be my parents can see it.

This video would be the start of a story followed by millions of Chinese netizens. It is the story of Liu Xuezhou (刘学州). The search for his parents and his death became one of the biggest topics on China’s social media of the past months.

Why did the tragic story of one teenage boy capture the entire nation? There are multiple reasons. By posting his call for help in finding his biological parents, Liu involved Chinese netizens in his journey from the start, allowing them to follow his story in real-time through his social media and news reports. Another aspect of Liu’s story is the resilience he showed despite his tough life, something that many admired about him.

But more importantly, Liu’s story is part of a recent broader interest in the stories behind the widespread problem of trafficking in women and children in China, with more people raising awareness on the tragedies caused by these practices and demanding justice for the victims.

Besides Liu’s story, the story of a Xuzhou mother-of-eight being tied up and living in abominable conditions in a shed also dominated online discussions for weeks on end.

 

Liu’s Story: Sold, Orphaned, Abandoned

 

After Liu Xuezhou posted the aforementioned video on Douyin, the Chinese version of the popular TikTok short video platform, it soon went viral and various Chinese news sites started reporting on Liu’s search for his biological family.

Liu’s resilience was impressive. In interviews, he said that his story did not define him and that he was determined to make something of his life. Since 2018, the young Liu was working to earn money while also going to school. His plan was to be admitted to university.

Liu Xuezhou, picture posted on his Weibo account.

After his adoptive parents died in a firework explosion, Liu was raised by his grandparents and was sent to boarding school. Liu’s childhood was not a happy one. Being so young without parents, he was a target of school bullies and had to change schools at least four times until, by grade six, he had finally found a school where he could thrive.

Many people supported Liu and wanted to help the teenage boy, who was thought to have been kidnapped as a baby and then bought by his adoptive parents through an intermediary at a Datong hotel for 30,000 yuan ($4735).

Although Liu’s birth certificate said he was born in September of 2005, nobody was sure how old Liu actually was, and his grandparents did not remember the details surrounding his adoption. By late 2021, as a 16-something-year-old, Liu felt it was time to get some answers and find his biological parents. How did he end up being adopted? Was he abducted? Were his parents still out there searching for him?

Through his own efforts – sped up by finding his vaccination records – and with some help of the police, Liu was able to trace down his biological parents. On the evening of December 15, Liu sent a message to a journalist reporting on the case: “I found my mum and dad.”

His parents’ story, however, was not what Liu had expected at all. After DNA tests confirmed that they were in fact his biological parents, Liu was ready to meet them. But what was supposed to be a happy reunion turned out to be a bitter disappointment.

Liu’s biological parents, who were living in Datong, were not together anymore. Liu soon learned that he had not been abducted as a child, but that he had been sold on purpose by his father. His parents were unmarried when they had him, and Liu’s father turned out to have used the money they earned by selling their baby to marry Liu’s birth mother. They married and had another son, but then ended up divorcing. Both remarried again, and Liu’s father even got divorced two more times after that.

Although some of the unhappy circumstances surrounding Liu’s reunion with his parents came out through his posts on social media throughout January of this year, most of the details surrounding his situation only became clear when Liu posted a farewell letter on his Weibo account on January 24th, just a few minutes past midnight.

Liu Xuezhou’s last Weibo post including a farewell letter.

Titled “Born with little, return with nothing,” Liu posted a lengthy letter explaining his situation.

In this letter, Liu said that besides being sold as a child and becoming an orphan at the age of four, he was also severely bullied by classmates and molested by a teacher at school. His aunt, whom he loved as a mother, also left him behind after she moved away due to a broken marriage.

As he spiraled into depression, Liu felt a spark of hope when he saw the news about Sun Zhuo (孙卓), whose story became one of the major trending news stories of 2021. In 2007, when Sun was only four, he was stolen off the street by a human trafficker. His biological parents never gave up hope they would find their son again and sacrificed everything to be able to fund their search efforts. The Chinese film Dearest (亲爱的) was partly based on their story.

After a years-long search, Sun was found in 2021 due to the help of authorities and face recognition technology that helped trace the person suspected of abducting him. In an unexpected twist, Sun stated that he would prefer to stay with his adoptive parents, who had raised him for a decade. The story triggered many online discussions and raised more awareness on the issue of the trafficking of children in China in times of the country’s one-child policy. Sun’s biological father spoke to the media saying: “For 2022, my biggest wish is that all the abducted children can finally be found.”

Image of the reunion of Sun Zhuo with his parents, who never stopped searching for him (image via Sohu).

It was Sun Zhuo’s story that inspired Liu to search for his own parents, and it was also Sun Zhuo’s story that brought more attention for Liu’s initial video, which struck a chord with many who hoped that he could also be reunited with his parents and actually stay with them.

Liu described how his biological father did not seem happy when Liu first contacted him, and seemed reluctant to meet. His biological father eventually did come to see him, but their communication afterward was not smooth. When his father told Liu that he was sold as a baby so that he could pay for the bride price to marry Liu’s mother, Liu was heartbroken and could not sleep for several days: he was not kidnapped, and his parents never searched for him.

Liu and his biological father on December 26, 2021.

His mother also was not elated that her biological son had found his way back to her. Liu felt unwanted, again, and was also searching for a home to live and was not sure who to turn to anymore. After he asked his biological father for help in buying or renting a place to live, he was blocked on WeChat. Liu then decided to take his parents to court.

Sharing screenshots on social media of the developments between him and his parents, Liu was condemned and bullied by netizens, who accused him of only wanting to find his biological parents for financial gains.

It was all too much for the teenage boy. In his farewell letter, he expressed the hope that the traffickers and biological parents would be punished for their deeds. Liu was later found to have committed suicide at a beach in the city of Sanya, and could no longer be rescued. Liu passed away within a month after meeting his biological parents at the age of just 15 years old.

By now, Liu’s farewell letter has been shared approximately 174,000 times on Weibo, it was ‘liked’ over 2,4 million times and has received thousands of comments.

The topic of Liu’s death exploded on social media and led to national outrage. Many people sympathized with the boy and were angry at all who failed him: “Poor child, abandoned and sold off by his parents, bullied and humiliated by his schoolmates, molested and discriminated by his teacher, cyberbullied by keyboard warriors. Now he’s dead!”

The injustice of Liu’s situation – starting with how he was sold as a child – is what angered people most. China Digital Times recently described how on the Weibo page of Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the doctors who raised the alarm about the coronavirus outbreak, many people also mention Liu Xuezhou. Dr. Li Wenliang was one of the eight so-called ‘whistleblowers’ who tried to warn his colleagues about the Wuhan virus outbreak in late 2019, but was censored and reprimanded by local police for making “false comments.” He later became infected with the virus himself while working at the Wuhan Central Hospital and passed away on February 7th of 2020, sparking a wave of anger and sadness on social media.

Illustration that went viral on social media at the time of Dr. Li’s death (read more here).

Over the past two years, Dr. Li’s Weibo page has become a digital Wailing Wall where people send little messages to remember Dr. Li, tell about their own anxieties and worries, but also address social injustices. As recorded by China Digital Times, one among thousands of comments said:

Two years ago today, I had a sleepless night because of you, and my Weibo account once got shut down because I posted something about you. Over the past two years, I’ve often wondered: will this world become a better place? But between the Liu Xuezhou incident and the woman in Xuzhou with eight kids, I’ve been disappointed time and time again. If you happen to see Liu Xuezhou, please be good to him.

Looking at Dr. Li’s Weibo account today, it is not just Liu Xuezhou who is brought up by commenters; ‘the woman in Xuzhou’ is also mentioned by dozens of people as someone experiencing injustice. But who is she?

 

The Chained-Up Mother in Xuzhou

 

In late January of 2022, right around the same time when Liu Xuezhou was one of the biggest topics on Chinese social media, a TikTok video showing a woman chained up in a shed went viral online and triggered massive outrage with thousands of people demanding answers about the woman’s circumstances.

The video, filmed by a local vlogger in the village of Huankou in Xuzhou, showed how the woman was kept in a dirty hut without a door in the freezing cold. She did not even wear a coat, and she seemed confused and unable to express herself.

Other TikTok videos that came out around the same time showed how the woman’s husband, a man by the name of Dong Zhimin (董志民), was playing and talking with their eight children in the family home right next to the hut where the mother was confined.

The video caused a storm on social media. Many netizens worried about the woman’s circumstances. Why was she chained up? Was she a victim of human trafficking? Was she being abused? How could she have had eight babies? Was she forced to have so many children? While netizens were speculating about the case and venting their anger, Weibo shut down some of the hashtags dedicated to this topic, but the topic soon popped up everywhere, and people started making artworks and writing essays in light of the case.

Following public demands, local authorities started looking into the case. An initial statement by Feng County, where the village of Huankou is located, was issued on January 28 and it said that the woman, named Yang (杨), married her husband in 1998 and that there was no indication that she was a victim of human trafficking.

The woman was dealing with mental problems and would display sudden violent outbursts, beating children and older people. The family allegedly thought it was best to separate her from the family home during these episodes, letting her stay chained up in a small hut next to the house.

The first statement raised more questions than it answered and more people, including influential Weibo bloggers and media insiders, started investigating the case. Meanwhile, it became clear that husband Dong Zhimin was giving interviews to other vloggers flocking to Huankou. Besides talking about his eight children (seven sons, one daughter) as future providers for the family, he also used his newly-acquired ‘fame’ to make money through social media. This only led to more online anger about Dong exploiting his wife and children.

Screenshots from the original Douyin (TikTok) video.

As the social media storm intensified, more official statements ensued. On January 30, Feng County local officials responded to the controversy in a second statement, in which the Xuzhou mother was identified as Yang *Xia (杨某侠) who allegedly once was “a beggar on the streets” in the summer of 1998 when she was taken in by Dong family and ended up marrying their 30-something son Dong Zhimin.

Local officials did not properly check and verify Yang’s identity information when registering the marriage certificate and the local family planning department also made errors in implementing birth control measures and following up with the family. The statement said that Yang had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was now receiving treatment.

A third, fourth, and even fifth statement issued by authorities on February 7th, 10th, and 23rd confirmed what many on Weibo had suspected all along, namely that Yang had indeed been a victim of human trafficking. Xuzhou authorities said their investigation had brought them to the village of Yagu in Yunnan, a place that was mentioned on Yang’s marriage certificate.

Yang was identified as Xiaohuamei (小花梅), born and raised in Yagu. Yang’s DNA had been compared to that of the family of Xiaohuamei, and the DNA match confirmed that Yang was indeed Xiaohuamei. According to the statements, Xiaohuamei married and moved to another city in 1994, but she divorced and returned to her village two years later, which is when she allegedly also showed signs of mental illness.

Her parents, now deceased, then allegedly ordered a female fellow villager to take their daughter to Jiangsu to get married there. According to the woman, she took Xiaohuamei with her on a train from Yunnan to Jiangsu’s Donghai, but she allegedly ‘went missing’ shortly after arrival. The woman never reported her as missing to the police and she never notified the family.

That woman, along with another man and Dong Zhimin, are now held criminally responsible for illegal detainment and human trafficking. Xiaohuamei was reportedly sold to a man in Donghai for 5,000 yuan ($790) in 1998. Though Xiaohuamei managed to escape, she was sold twice again, eventually ending up with the Dong family.

One of the many images shared on Chinese social media to raise awareness of the case of the Xuzhou mother and other women like her.

While details surrounding the case of the ‘chained Xuzhou mother of eight’ are still being discussed on Chinese social media, it has become clear that by now, ‘Yang’ has come to represent many more women like her. Over the past few weeks, the stories of other women who also might be a victim of human trafficking have surfaced, and the public outcry demanding justice for trafficked women is ongoing.

 

One Social Media Spark Starting a Wildfire

 

Both in the case of Liu Xuezhou and the Xuzhou mother, it should be noted that their stories initially did not catch the public’s attention because official news media reported them, but because of first-hand videos being posted on TikTok (Douyin) and then being picked up and shared by bigger accounts.

Both Liu’s video and the short video featuring the mother of eight were posted on accounts that were not necessarily very popular: starting as a small spark in an online environment with over 900 million social media users, they were shared, commented on, and then spread like wildfire.

Both stories developed in real-time while netizens were following the case, both stories eventually became too big for Chinese state media to ignore, and both Liu and Yang highlighted bigger social issues in contemporary China, mainly those relating to human trafficking.

Since these cases went viral, there has been a heightened focus on the problem of human trafficking, which mostly occurs in China’s poorer areas with weak governance. The trafficking of especially women and children has various purposes, including forced marriage and illegal adoption in areas where there is a shortage of women (along with a preference for baby boys).

China Daily recently reported that lawmakers and advisers are now pushing for heavier punishment for human trafficking crimes, suggesting that the current penalties imposed on the buyers of women and children are too weak; the maximum prison sentence for those who purchase abducted women and children is three years.

In the case of the Xuzhou mother, there has been online censorship but the ongoing intense public outrage eventually did lead to higher-level research into the case. The mother was rescued from her terrible situation, the human traffickers involved are being held responsible, and so are 17 officials, who will be punished by authorities for their wrongdoings in the case.

As for Liu Xuezhou, his adoptive family members have recently filed a request at the Sanya Public Security Bureau to launch another investigation into his case. Their request was accepted on February 23rd, with multiple people being suspected of criminal offenses, eventually leading to his death. On Weibo, many people are now demanding punishment for Liu’s biological parents.

In late January of this year, following the tragic ending to Liu’s story, Chinese state media1 emphasized how the widespread attention for these kinds of stories in the social media era is also changing how government agencies should interact with the public.

According to Dr. Liu Leming, associate professor at East China University’s Political Science faculty, government agencies need to follow up and respond more quickly to social incidents like these in the internet era: “When public issues emerge, people who are involved in social problems or incidents want to know, more than anything, whether their requests have been seen and who will handle their concerns.”

In light of these recent stories, the public is happy that actions have been taken, but they are not satisfied with how these cases were handled. Many argue that authorities have failed in being transparent, that local governments have not done enough to prevent these cases from happening, and that China should do more to put an end to human trafficking.

And so, they are still posting the stories of children like Liu and women like Xiaohuamei to keep raising awareness and to keep pressuring local authorities and lawmakers to take more action to eradicate these practices.

As Liu is no longer alive and Xiaohuamei, still hospitalized, cannot defend herself, Chinese netizens keep raising their voices for them. In doing so, they have not just impacted how authorities dealt with these specific cases, but they are also changing how cases such as these will be handled in the future.

One Weibo user discussing Liu and the Xuzhou mother wrote: “We need to get to the bottom of these kinds of stories: who is to blame, who made mistakes, and where do we go from here?”

In the meantime, online posts, videos, and artworks honor both Liu and Xiaohuamei, so that their stories will not be forgotten. “Dear little one, springtime has come,” one among thousands of messages still flooding Liu Xuezhou’s Weibo page says: “You have endured too many things that you should have never experienced. It should have been us, the adults, taking care of these things for you. You please go and rest now, we will finish the rest for you.”

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

For information and support on mental health and suicide, international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

1 Cao Yin and Li Yang. 2022. “Policymakers, Lawmakers Respond to Opinion Voiced Online.” China Daily Hong Kong, January 28, Page 1-2.

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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Backgrounder

Full Translation of Peng Shuai’s Weibo Post and Timeline of Events

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Over the past seven weeks, the whereabouts and safety of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai have been a matter of constant concern in international (social) media. Here is a timeline of events and a full translation of the Weibo post by Peng Shuai – where it all began.

On the night of November 2nd of 2021, a Weibo post by the 35-year-old Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai (彭帅) sent shockwaves across social media. In her lengthy post, the three-time Olympian describes details surrounding an alleged affair she had with the 75-year-old Zhang Gaoli (张高丽), who served as China’s senior Vice-Premier (2013-2018) and was also a member of China’s highest ruling council, the Politburo Standing Committee (2012-2017).

Here, we will give you a short timeline of the things that unfolded from the moment Peng Shuai’s story was published on Weibo, as well as providing the full text of her post and a translation.

 

Timeline of Events

 

November 2nd, 2021

On the night of November 2nd of 2021, 35-year-old tennis player Peng Shuai posts her story on her Weibo account, where she has over 590,000 followers. The post comes online at 22:07 and is sent through a mobile phone.

Although Peng’s post was only online for about twenty minutes before it was deleted, its impact was irreversible. Peng Shuai’s Weibo account remained online, but the name ‘Peng Shuai’ started to be censored on Weibo and other Chinese social media platforms, where online discussions about the tennis player and Zhang Gaoli were soon silenced. Peng Shuai’s post and the ensuing silence triggered a wave of global concern about her wellbeing and whereabouts.

 
November 3, 2021

Peng Shuai’s story makes headlines in the international media, with many Western media outlets describing the issue as a “#MeToo allegation.” within the context of the global #MeToo movement, suggesting Peng’s post was a “MeToo post.” The tennis star did not mention ‘#Metoo’ in her own writings.

 
November 16, 2021

Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka attracts more international attention for Peng’s whereabouts when she posts the #WhereisPengShuai hashtag on Twitter. Two days later, tennis star Serena Williams also writes on Twitter: “I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai. I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent.”

 
November 17, 2021

While the issue is still completely silenced in Chinese (social) media, the English-language state media outlet CGTN addresses the commotion on Twitter on November 17, when they share a screenshot of an email allegedly sent by Peng to WTA Chairman Steve Simon, saying she was not actually missing and not unsafe.

 
November 19, 2021

While many people still raised their concerns on Twitter – and a White House spokesperson even said the Biden administration was ‘deeply concerned’ about the reports alleging that Peng Shuai had gone missing – photos of Peng Shuai in her home showed up on November 19th, posted on Twitter by Chinese journalist Shen Shiwei (沈诗伟) claiming the tennis star posted them on her WeChat moments herself.

 
November 20, 2021

One day later, a video was also shared on Twitter by the same Shen, showing Peng enjoying dinner with friends and having conversations in which it was clearly indicated that the date was November 20, 2021.

 
November 21, 2021

During that very same weekend of November 20-21, Peng also reappeared in public when she attended the Junior Tennis Finals in Beijing. This was also the very first time in 19 days that she ‘reappeared’ in mainland China’s online media spheres, where photos of her attendance at the games were also shared online.

On that same day, it was announced by the Olympics governing body that International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach held a 30-minute long video phone call with Peng Shuai. Chinese sports official Li Lingwei and the Chair of the Athletes’ Commission, Emma Terho, reportedly were also on the call, during which Peng explained that she was safe and well at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected.

 
November 22, 2021

A Weibo post published by the French embassy in Beijing marks the first time for Peng Shuai’s case to be addressed on Chinese social media.

In their post, the French embassy expresses concerns about the lack of information surrounding Peng Shuai, and reiterates its belief in promoting freedom of expression, equality between men and women, and combating sexual and gender-based violence. The post receives many replies, but its comment section is heavily censored.

 
December 1st, 2021

The WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) announces the suspension of all tournaments in China amid concerns about the safety of Peng Shuai.

In a statement by Steve Simon, WTA Chairman & CEO, the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, was said to also be related to concerns about risks that all players and staff could face if the WTA were to hold events in China in 2022.

Due to the Covid19 situation, there were no WTA events scheduled for China in the near future.

 
December 7, 2021

The US announces a “diplomatic boycott” of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China. American athletes will still compete at the Winter Games. Although this boycott was not necessarily directed linked to Peng Shuai, many media outlets did connect it to concerns over the tennis player.

 
December 19, 2021

In an interview with Singapore-based media outlet Lianhe Zaobao (联合早报), Peng Shuai claims she did not accuse Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her.

A video issued by Lianhe Zaobao shows a reporter asking Peng questions during a skiing competition event in Shanghai, where Peng could be seen talking to Chinese basketball player Yao Ming. When the reporter asks Peng if she is free, she answers that she has always been free and is not being monitored.

When the reporter addresses the allegations of sexual assault, Peng says:

First and foremost, I must emphasize. I have never said or written about anyone sexually assaulting me. That’s a very important point. On the Weibo post, that’s my personal issue.”

Peng also confirms that the English email that was screenshotted and published by CGTN on November 17 was written by her in the Chinese version, but that it was translated into English for her since her English language skills aren’t good enough to write such an email herself.

 

Full Text Translation of Peng Shuai’s Weibo Post

 

In a previous post, What’s on Weibo gave a partial translation of Peng’s Weibo post. Here, we will provide a full translation. Please note that this is a translation provided by What’s on Weibo and not an official translation issued by any other party.

 

我知道说不清楚,说了也没有用。但还是想说出来。我是多么的虚伪不堪,我承认我不是一个好女孩,很坏很坏的女孩。大概三年前张高丽副总理你退休了,找天津网球中心的刘大夫再联系到我,约我打球,在北京的康铭大厦。上午打完球,你和妻子康洁一起带我去了你们家。然后把我带进你家的房间,和十多年前在天津时一样,要和我发生性关系。

I know I can’t say it clearly and that it’s useless to say. But I want to say it anyway. I’m such a hypocrite. I’ll admit I’m not a good girl, I’m a bad bad girl. About three years ago, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you had retired and asked Dr. Liu from the Tianjin Tennis Center to contact me again to play tennis at the Kang Ming Hotel in Beijing. After we finished playing in the afternoon, you and your wife Kang Jie took me with you to your home. You then took me to your room, and like what happened in Tianjin over ten years ago, you wanted to have sex with me.

那天下午我很怕,根本没想到会是这样,一个人在外帮守着,因为谁都不可能相信老婆会愿意。七年前我们发生过一次性关系,然后你升常委去北京就再没联系过我。原本埋藏了一切在心里,既然你根本不打算负责,为何还要回来找我,带我去你家逼我和你发生关系?是我没有证据,也根本不可能留下证据。后来你一直否认,可确是你先喜欢的我,否则我也不可能接触的到你。

I was very scared that afternoon, I had not expected things to go this way, someone was guarding outside,1 because nobody would believe that a wife would allow this. Seven years earlier we had sexual relations once, and then you – promoted as a member of the Standing Committee – went to Beijing and never contacted me again. I had buried it all inside me, and since you were not planning on taking responsibility at all, why did you come and look for me again, take me to your house, and force me [逼 = force, press for] into sex? I have no proof, and it would be impossible for me to keep any evidence. You denied everything afterward, but it is true that you liked me first, or otherwise, I wouldn’t have had a way to come into contact with you.

那天下午我原本没有同意一直哭,晚饭是和你还有康洁阿姨一起吃的,你说宇宙很大很大,地球就是宇宙的一粒沙,我们人类连一粒沙都没有,还说了很多很多,就是让我放下思想包袱。晚饭后我也并不愿意,你说恨我!又说你这七年从未忘记过我,会对我好等等……我又怕又慌带着七年前对你的情感同意了……是的就是我们发生性关系了。

That afternoon I originally did not agree and cried the whole time, and I still had dinner with you and auntie Kang Jie together. You said the universe is so big, that the earth is just a grain of sand in the universe, and that we as mankind are not even a grain of sand, and you said a lot more to alleviate the load on my mind. After dinner I still did not want to, and you said you hated me! You also said that in these seven years, you never forgot me and that you would be good for me etc etc. I was afraid and panicked and carrying the emotions of seven year ago, I agreed…yes, we had sex.

感情这东西很复杂,说不清,从那日后我再次打开了对你的爱,后来与你相处的日子里,单从你人相处你是一个很好很好的人,对我也挺好,我们从近代历史聊到远古时代,你同我讲万物的知识再谈到经济哲学,聊不完的话题。一起下棋,唱歌,打乒乓球,桌球,包括网球我们永远可以打得不亦乐乎,性格是那么的合得来好像一切都很搭。

The feelings between two people can be very complicated, I can’t clearly explain, [but] after that day I again began to open up to your love. In the days I interacted with you afterward, purely from how we got along, you were a very good person and also treated me well. We would talk about anything from modern history to ancient times, you spoke to me about so much knowledge and talked about economic philosophy, [we had] endless talks about topics. We played chess together, sang songs, played ping pong, billiards, and, including tennis, we could always have a good time. Our personalities got along well together, it looked like we were a great match.

自小离家早,内心极度缺爱,面对发生这一切,我从不认为我一个好女孩,我恨我自己,恨我为什么要来到这个世界,经历这一劫。你同我说你爱我,很爱很爱,来生希望在你二十岁我十八岁时我们就遇见。你说你很孤独,一个人很可怜,我们有聊不完的天,讲不完的话,你说你这个位置没有办法离婚,如果你在山东时认识,还可以离婚,可是现在没有办法。我想过默默无闻就这样陪着你,开始还好,可是日子久了慢慢的变了,太多的不公与侮辱。每次你让我去,背着你你妻子对我说过多少难听侮辱的话,各种冷嘲嘲讽。我说喜欢吃鸭舌,康洁阿姨会冲着我说~咿真恶心。冬天北京雾霾我说有时候空气不太好,康洁阿姨会对我说,那是你们郊区,我们这儿没感觉。等等诸如类似的话说了很多很多,你在时候她不这样说,好像和我们一样,两个人相处时是一个样,有旁人时你对我又是一个样。我同你说过,这些话听多了心里特别难受委屈。

Since I left home early in my childhood, I felt a lack of love in my heart. Facing everything that was happening, I never thought I was a good girl. I really hated myself, hated why I had to come into this world and experience this disaster. You told me that you loved me, very very much, and that in the next life you hoped to meet me when you are 20 and I am 18 years old. You said you were very lonely, that you felt miserable, we had days of endless chats, endless talks, you said there was no way for you to divorce in your position, that if we’d met while you were in Shandong, you could have still divorced, but that there was no way now. I thought about staying with you like this without attracting public attention, which was okay in the beginning, but the days slowly started to change, and there was too much injustice and insult. Every time you let me go, your wife would say many offensive insulting words to me behind your back, [giving me] all kinds of sneers. When I said I like to eat duck tongue, auntie Kang Jie would go and say ~ ugh, how disgusting. During Beijing’s winter smog, I said sometimes the air is not very good, and auntie Kang Jie would tell me ‘that’s just your suburbs, we do not notice a thing here.’ And so on, there were many of such talks, but she would never do it when you were there. It was similar to when we were together – when it was just the two of us you’d be this way, when there were others there you’d act that way. I told you that these kinds of words were really painful to hear.

从认识你第一天到现在没用过你一分钱,更没通过你某去过任何利益或者好出,可名分这东西真重要。这一切我活该,自取其辱。从头到尾你都是一直让我保密和你的一切关系,更不可以告诉我妈和你有男女关系,因为每次都是她送我去西什库教堂那儿,然后换你家的车才能进院里。她一直以为我是去打麻将打牌,去你家玩。我们在彼此的生活中都是真实生活中的一个透明人,你的妻子好像甄嬛传的皇后一样,而我无法形容自己多么的不堪,很多时候我觉得我自己还是一个人吗?我觉得自己是一个行尸走肉,装,每一天都在装,哪个我才是真的我?我不该来到这个世界,可又没有勇气去死。我好想可以活的简单点,可事与愿违。

From the first day I met you up to today, I’ve never used a penny of yours, and I’ve never used you for any personal benefits, but a person’s status is very important. I deserved all of this, I courted disaster. From beginning to end, you have always asked me to keep my relationship with you secret, let alone tell my mother that we were in a relationship. Every time she brought me to the Xishiku cathedral, I would have to change to your car to be able to enter the courtyard. She always thought I was going to your place to play mahjong and cards. We were transparent individuals in each other’s lives. Your wife seemed like the Empress in Empresses of the Palace (甄嬛传), and I can’t describe how bad I felt, and how many times I wondered if I was still an actual person myself. I felt like a zombie, I was pretending so much every day that I didn’t know who the real me was anymore. I shouldn’t have come into this world, but I didn’t have the courage to die. I wanted to live a simpler life, but things turned out contrary to what I wanted.”

30号那天晚上争议很大,你说2号下午再去你家我们慢慢谈,今天中午打电话来说有事再联系,推脱一切,借口说改天再联系……,就这样和七年前一样“消失了”,玩玩想不要就不要了。你说我们之间没有任何交易,是,我们之间的感情和钱,权利没有任何关系,可这三年的感情我无处安放,难以面对。你总怕我带什么录音器,留下证据什么的。是的,除我以外我没留下证据证明,没有录音,没有录像,只有被扭曲的我的真实经历。我知道对于您位高权重的张高丽副总理来说,你说过你不怕。但即使是以卵击石,飞蛾扑火自取灭亡的我也会说出和你的事实。以你的智商某略你一定否认或者可以反扣给我,你可以如此玩世不恭。你总说希望你母亲在天可以保佑你,我是一个坏女孩不配为人母,你为人父也有儿有女,我问过你就算是你的养女你会逼她这么做吗?你今生做的这一切日后心安理得的去面对你的母亲吗?我们都很道貌岸然……

There was a big dispute on the night of the 30th [October], and you told me to come to your place on the afternoon of the 2nd [November] so we could talk things over. Today a phone call came that something had come up and you’d contact me again. Evading everything, with the excuse that we would get in touch another day ……, this is the same “disappearing act” as seven years ago, getting rid of me after you’re done playing with me. You said there were no transactions between us, that’s true, with all the feelings and money between us, it had nothing to do with power and wealth. But I have nowhere to leave my feelings of the past three years, it’s very hard to face. You were always afraid that I would bring some kind of recorder and leave evidence or something. Apart from myself, there is indeed no evidence left, no recordings, no videos, only my distorted real experiences. I know that for someone of your status, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ve said that you’re not afraid. But even it’s like striking a stone with an egg, and courting self-destruction like a moth to the flame, I will tell the truth about you. With your intelligence, I’m certain you will deny it or you can blame it on me, or disregard it. You always said you hoped your mother in heaven could bless and protect you. I am a bad woman who doesn’t deserve to be a mother, but you are a father with both a son and a daughter. I have asked you this before: if it was your adopted daughter, would you have forced her to do this? Do you still have the courage to face your mother after everything you’ve done in your lifetime? We sure all like to pose as people with high morals…

 

By Manya Koetse

1 There’s been some discussions on the correct translation of this part of the sentence (“一个人在外帮守着”). One of our readers suggested translating it as “an outsider fending for herself,” although others dispute that translation. “A person guarding outside” is another way to translate this sentence: “I was very scared that afternoon, I had not expected things to go this way, a person on guard outside, because nobody would believe that a wife would allow this.”

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