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Ai Wei Wei vs Lego: Chinese Media Respond

An issue involving Lego and Ai Wei Wei has caused controversy this week when the Danish toymaker brand told the Chinese artist that he could not use their bricks for “political work”. Chinese media respond.

Manya Koetse



An issue involving Lego and Ai Wei Wei has caused controversy this week. The Danish toy manufacturer told the Chinese artist that he could not use Lego bricks for “political work”. China’s state news media respond with a remarkable article, telling Chinese dissidents not to overplay their hand.

It was all the talk on Twitter for the past few days: Ai Wei Wei accused Lego of “censorship and discrimination” after they refused to deliver Lego for the upcoming exhibition of his art project in Australia. Lego reportedly said it did not want its bricks used for a political statement.

After the news made its rounds on Twitter and Instagram, thousands of people offered Ai their Lego bricks. The Beijing-based artist has now announced the set-up of Lego collection points in different cities for his upcoming art projects.

Artist and activist Ai Wei Wei (艾未未) is known for controversial art that critiques censorship by the Chinese government. He used Lego for an exhibition in the U.S. last year, that included portraits of activists and dissidents.

oct14_o03_colaiweiwei.jpg__600x0_q85_upscaleAi Wei Wei’s Lego project, portraying 176 different political activists and dissidents. (Image: Smithsonian)

As many Chinese media have reported on the issue (including Guancha, Phoenix News and Sina News), Weibo netizens have also started to comment on it.

Lego China has not addressed the issue on its official Weibo account.


“Ai Wei Wei used Lego for his political work, and in doing so, was cheered on by his Western supporters.”


Lego has a strong presence in China. The brand is popular for multiple reasons. Unlike many China-made toys, that often make headlines for safety hazards, Lego is a safe and trusted brand. It is also popular because of its educational value. In many of China’s one-child-policy families, parents are more than willing to spend money on the best toys for their only child.

The Chinese name of Lego is ‘Legao‘ (乐高), its characters meaning ‘happy heights’.

Chinese state-owned media outlet Global Times has responded to the issue with an “opinion piece” by commentator Shan Renping (单仁平). The same article was also published by Sina News and People’s Daily as a regular news article (link).

“This is an interesting conflict,” the article says: “Ai Wei Wei used Lego for his political work, and in doing so, was cheered on by his Western supporters. But the Lego company, following the general principle of Western multinational corporations, refused to be connected to Ai’s political work. They want to keep their business commercial, and avoid any involvement in political disputes.”


“Chinese people have to get used to these kind of situations.”


The Global Times article describes how Ai Wei Wei used Lego for his portrayal of 176 “political offenders” (政治犯) and “political exiles” (政治流亡者). It mentions how his work also includes the portrait of activist Liu Xiaobo, who is still detained in China, and how Western supporters are sending Lego to the controversial artist to encourage him.

“As China rises, it is developing profitable relations with more and more Western multinational companies, as well as close ties with many governments. They are at the center of China’s foreign relations,” the article says. It continues to explain that China’s relation to the world is complex, as there are different political influences and forces from outside that clash with Chinese principles.

“Lego’s refusal of Ai Wei Wei is an appropriate decision,” the article says: “But there are also companies with more ideological interests, such as Google. Chinese people will have to get used to these kinds of situations in the future, and that they might escalate.”


“When China was poor and weak, the West was not interested in Chinese dissidents. Now that China is rising, they suddenly are.”


The article shows little sympathy for Ai’s supporters: “When China was poor and weak, the West was not interested in Chinese dissidents. Now that China is rising, with more power and good prospects, Chinese dissidents have suddenly won the favour of the West.”

The article warns China’s political activists that they should be careful about what they do. Western governments or companies might cheer them on now, but will not risk their profitable relations with China to support a dissident. “Today’s issue is no breaking point yet,” the article states: “But dissidents should carefully watch changes in the relations between China and the West. They should not overplay their hand, or they could become an “nuisance” to the West. They have to understand that the West enjoys seeing them challenge the Chinese system, but will not necessarily support them if doing so affects its relations with China.”


“How funny to see Global Times writing about ‘dissidents’”


Some Weibo users seem surprised with the sudden seemingly open discussion of Ai’s work, saying: “Apparently, more and more people now know Ai Wei Wei, and Global Times has no other choice than to bring this story and to make everyone think the same about it.”

Another netizen called Ajinjin says: “How funny to see Global Times talking about ‘dissidents’ and such – only they can do that.”

Some other netizens express their annoyance with the West: “They say that China doesn’t have human rights and is not free, but do you think yellow and black people have human rights in the US? That they have perfect laws? First look at yourself before you look at another!”


“Don’t abuse children’s toys like this!”


Many Weibo users express their support for Lego’s decision. Netizen Howard Xue says: “Lego does not want their toys, designed for kids, to be used for political purposes by some provocative criminal. Mr. Ai has some famous works (such as a picture of him with his middle finger on Tiananmen, him posing with four naked women, (..) etc.), that are not suitable for children. Let the children be!”. Another user agrees: “Don’t abuse children’s toys like this!”

Other users just think Ai Wei Wei is acting childish, saying: “Ai Wei Wei’s mental age is only six years old.”

Contrary to what Lego intended with its refusal of Ai Wei Wei, the brand has now become associated with political issues anyway. “It became political, as expected,” one netizen says: “Lego, that is your karma for refusing.”

The Ai Wei Wei conflict is unlikely to influence Lego’s sales in China. If it does affect sales in America or Europe, Lego would have no immediate reason to panic: the company still is the world’s best-selling toymaker.

Because of Lego’s growing popularity in China and other countries, it has not been able to meet demands. The company is currently dealing with worldwide Lego shortages.

In the unlikely case of an actual Lego crisis, the Danish company will still have an eager customer waiting for them in Beijing.
Ai Wei Wei, apparently, is not done building yet.

By Manya Koetse

©2015 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of 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 Contact at, or follow on Twitter.

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China Brands & Marketing

About Lipstick King’s Comeback and His ‘Mysterious’ Disappearance

After Li Jiaqi’s return to livestreaming, the ‘tank cake incident’ has become the elephant in the room on social media.

Manya Koetse



Earlier this week, the return of China’s famous livestreamer Li Jiaqi, also known as the ‘Lipstick King’, became a hot topic on Chinese social media where his three-month ‘disappearance’ from the social commerce scene triggered online discussions.

He is known as Austin Li, Lipstick King, or Lipstick Brother, but most of all he is known as one of China’s most successful e-commerce livestreaming hosts.

After being offline for over 100 days, Li Jiaqi (李佳琦) finally came back and did a livestreaming session on September 20th, attracting over 60 million viewers and selling over $17 million in products.

The 30-year-old beauty influencer, a former L’Oreal beauty consultant, rose to fame in 2017 after he became a successful livestreamer focusing on lipstick and other beauty products.

Li broke several records during his live streaming career. In 2018, he broke the Guinness World Record for “the most lipstick applications in 30 seconds.” He once sold 15000 lipsticks in 5 minutes, and also managed to apply 380 different lipsticks in another seven-hour live stream session. Li made international headlines in 2021 when he sold $1.9 billion in goods during a 12-hour-long promotion livestream for Alibaba’s shopping festival.

But during a Taobao livestream on June 3rd of this year, something peculiar happened. After Li Jiaqi and his co-host introduced an interestingly shaped chocolate cake – which seemed to resemble a tank, – a male assistant in the back mentioned something about the sound of shooting coming from a tank (“坦克突突”).

Although Li Jiaqi and the others laughed about the comment, Li also seemed a bit unsure and the woman next to him then said: “Stay tuned for 23:00 to see if Li Jiaqi and I will still be in this position.”

The session then suddenly stopped, and at 23:38 that night Li wrote on Weibo that the channel was experiencing some “technical problems.”

But those “technical problems” lasted, and Li did not come back. His June 3rd post about the technical problems would be the last one on his Weibo account for the months to come.

The ‘cake tank incident’ (坦克蛋糕事件) occurred on the night before June 4, the 33rd anniversary of the violent crackdown of the Tiananmen student demonstrations. The iconic image of the so-called ‘tank man‘ blocking the tanks at Tiananmen has become world famous and is censored on China’s internet. The control of information flows is especially strict before and on June 4, making Li’s ‘tank cake incident’ all the more controversial.

But no official media nor the official Li Jiaqi accounts acknowledged the tank cake incident, and his absence remained unexplained. Meanwhile, there was a silent acknowledgment among netizens that the reason Li was not coming online anymore was related to the ‘tank cake incident.’

During Li’s long hiatus, fans flocked to his Weibo page where they left thousands of messages.

“I’m afraid people have been plotting against you,” many commenters wrote, suggesting that the cake was deliberately introduced by someone else during the livestream as a way to commemorate June 4.

Many fans also expressed their appreciation of Li, saying how watching his streams helped them cope with depression or cheered them up during hard times. “What would we do without you?” some wrote. Even after 80 days without Li Jiaqi’s livestreams, people still commented: “I am waiting for you every day.”

On September 21st, Li Jiaqi finally – and somewhat quietly – returned and some people said they were moved to see their lipstick hero return to the livestream scene.

Although many were overjoyed with Li’s return, it also triggered more conversations on why he had disappeared and what happened to him during the 3+ months of absence. “He talked about a sensitive topic,” one commenter said when a Weibo user asked about Li’s disappearance.

One self-media accountpublished a video titled “Li Jiaqi has returned.” The voiceover repeatedly asks why Li would have disappeared and even speculates about what might have caused it, without once mentioning the tank cake.

“This cracks me up,” one commenter wrote: “On the outside we all know what’s going on, on the inside there’s no information whatsoever.”

“It’s tacit mutual understanding,” some wrote. “It’s the elephant in the room,” others said.

Some people, however, did not care about discussing Li’s disappearance at all anymore and just expressed joy about seeing him again: “It’s like seeing a good friend after being apart for a long time.”

By Manya Koetse 

Elements in the featured image by @karishea and @kaffeebart.


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Chinese Actor and State Security Ambassador Li Yifeng Detained for Soliciting Prostitutes

Li Yifeng is not exactly living up to his role as spokesperson for the Ministry of State Security.

Manya Koetse



Chinese actor and singer Li Yifeng (李易峰) went top trending on Chinese social media today. The actor, who previously starred as brand ambassador for the Ministry of State Security and played Mao Zedong in The Pioneer, has been detained for visiting prostitutes.

On January 10 of 2021, China celebrated its very first National Police Day to give full recognition to the police and national security staff for their efforts. For this special day, the Ministry of State Security launched a promo video starring Chinese actor Li Yifeng as the National Police Ambassador (#李易峰国安形象传片#). But today, it turned out that Li might not have been the best man for the job.

Chinese official media reported on September 11 that the 35-year-old actor has been detained for soliciting prostitutes. The hashtag “Li Yifeng Detained for Visiting Prostitutes” (#李易峰多次嫖娼被行政拘留#) received nearly two billion views on Weibo on Sunday; the hashtag “Beijing Police Informs that Li Yifeng Solicited Prostitutes” (#北京警方通报李易峰多次嫖娼#) received a staggering three billion views.

Shortly after the news was announced, various brands for which Li served as a brand ambassador announced that they were no longer working with the actor. Lukfook Jewellery, Mengniu Dairy, Honma Golf, Panerai, Prada, Sensodyne, King To Nin Jiom, and other brands declared that they had terminated their contract with Li (#多个品牌终止与李易峰合作#).

Li rose to fame in 2007 when he participated in the Chinese My Hero talent show. He later debuted as a singer and became a successful actor, starring in various Chinese TV dramas and films. Li became especially popular after starring in Swords of Legends and won an award for his role in the 2015 Chinese crime film Mr. Six (老炮儿). He would go on to win many more awards. One of his biggest roles was starring as Mao Zedong in the 2021 blockbuster The Pioneer (革命者).

According to Global Times, Li was previously announced as one of the celebrities attending the Mid-Autumn Festival Gala on CCTV on Saturday night, but his name was later deleted from the program.

“I had never expected my idol to collapse like this,” some disappointed fans wrote on Weibo.

In a ‘super topic’ community dedicated to the star, some fans would not give up on their idol yet: “Where is the proof? Besides the Beijing police statement, where is the actual proof?”

On Li Yifeng’s Weibo page, where the actor has over 60 million fans, nothing has been posted since September 5.

The Huading Awards, a famous entertainment award in China, announced that they cancelled Li Yifeng’s title of “Best Actor in China” (#华鼎奖取消李易峰中国最佳男主角等称号#).

“He lost all he had overnight,” some commenters wrote. “Celebrities generally get cancelled for two things: one is evading taxes, the other is sleeping around,” one popular comment said: “So in a nutshell, pay your taxes and don’t sleep around.*”

“Why do you even need to see a prostitute when you’re so good-looking?” others wondered.

One Weibo user (@大漠叔叔) wrote: “Have a good head on your shoulders and just remember one thing. It does not matter how good your reputation is, or how many titles you have, how much the audience loves you, how much the fans embrace you, how many awards you get, it won’t protect you. Stay clear-headed, merit does not outweigh faults! You can’t cross the moral bottomline nor cross the boundaries of the law. You can be canceled just like that.”

By Manya Koetse 

* This comment is loosely translated here, but the Chinese is quite funny because the words ‘taxes’ and ‘sleeping’ sound similar. “明星塌房的两个主要原因:一个睡,一个税。 简而言之:该税的税,不该睡的别睡.”


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