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On ‘Sharp Power’ & the China Threat 3.0: “The West Is Mentally Stuck in Cold War Era”

Chinese authorities respond to allegations of China meddling in foreign affairs through its ‘sharp power.’

Manya Koetse

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Over the past few months, ‘sharp power’ has become a buzzword to describe new ways in which the Chinese government allegedly meddles in foreign affairs. China’s top political advisory body has struck back in a press conference on Friday which caused somewhat of a stir both in- and outside China. Western views on China are biased and unrealistic, Chinese netizens respond.

“It is not the first time that new expressions have been concocted [by the West] to vilify China, and I believe it won’t be the last time. Some Westerners may have physically entered the 21st century, but are mentally stuck in the Cold War era,” said Wang Guoqing, the spokesperson for China’s top advisory body, during a press conference on March 2nd.

The press conference, which has been making headlines both in- and outside China, precedes the annual parliamentary and consultative sessions which open on Monday (March 5). An important part of the press conference focused on the idea of China’s ‘sharp power’ (锐实力), an American concept that refers to the new ways in which China and Russia allegedly meddle in the internal affairs of foreign countries.

Wang Guoqing responded to the claims that China “infiltrates” in the political and information environments of other nations, saying that the accusations are “filled with prejudice, discrimination, and hostility.”

 
Sharp Power
 

The term ‘sharp power’ has become somewhat of a buzzword since it was first coined by Christopher Walker (@Walker_CT) and Jessica Ludwig (@JesLudwig) in a Foreign Affairs article in November 2017.

The concept was also explained in the December 2017 New Forum Report Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence published by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a Washington-based think tank funded largely by the US Congress. Walker and Ludwig both work for NED. The term was also featured on the frontpage of The Economist in December ’17.

In their report and article, Walker and Ludwig argue that China and Russia influence in foreign countries’ spheres of media, culture, and academia in “malign and aggressive” ways, using “modern and sophisticated tools” (Walker & Ludwig 2017b, 9-13).

In the NED report, Walker and Ludwig write: “In the case of China, (..), educational and cultural initiatives are accompanied by an authoritarian determination to monopolize ideas, suppress alternative narratives, and exploit partner institutions” (2017b, 13). In this way, the Chinese government allegedly is able to suppress the overseas voices that are critical of the Party.

The authors call this international influence “sharp power” to distinguish it from the term “soft power,” introduced by Joseph Nye, which describes the kinds of influence which are not “hard” military forces, but more economic or cultural influence. Also, the authors argue, authoritarian influence efforts are ‘sharp’ in the sense that they “pierce, penetrate, or perforate the political and information environments in the targeted countries” (2017a).

Nye recently published an article titled “China’s Soft and Sharp Power” (2018), in which he notes that “sharp power” is actually a “type of hard power” that can come from “soft power”.

He writes:

The United States has long had programs enabling visits by young foreign leaders, and now China is successfully following suit. That is a smart exercise of soft power. But when visas are manipulated or access is limited to restrain criticism and encourage self-censorship, even such exchange programs can shade into sharp power.”

 
“New Edition of the China Threat Theory”
 

While media outlets such as The Economist treat the “sharp power” term as a new type of behavior in international relations, Chinese state media regard it as a novel way to frame old biases, writing: “One may find that the term is no more than a language trap, coined and manipulated by some Western countries with ‘zero-sum’ mentality and cultural hegemony” (Liu 2018).

On March 2nd, the spokesperson for China’s parliament’s advisory body also said that “sharp power” was just a new version of the old “China threat” rhetoric.

Wang Guoqing, spokesperson of the CPPCC, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, during the press conference in Beijing on Friday, March 2.

Wang Guoqing quoted Martin Luther King Jr in making clear that, in Beijing’s official view, the accusations against China come from fear and misunderstanding, saying:

“Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated” (O’Connor 2018).

Although news sites such as Reuters interpreted the press conference as an aggressive move against Western countries (see: “China kicks off parliament season with attack on the West” by Ben Blanchard), Chinese media described it as a response to efforts to smear China (see: China News).

 
China Threat 3.0
 

On Weibo, the issue of “sharp power” and the “new edition of the China threat” has become a topic of some discussions over the past few days. Lu Ge, an international relations scholar at Tsinghua University with a following of 1.7 million on Weibo (@北京鲁戈), writes that countries such as the US and Australia fear that China is aiming to spread communist ideologies, and is connivingly finding ways to dominate the world.

The majority of commenters responding to the news opposed the idea that China posed a threat to the ‘Western world.’ “Good friends come with good wine [spirits], bad people come with shot guns,” one popular comment to the press conference segment said.

“There will always be some Western countries meddling with others, although they don’t even understand what’s going on in their own country,” another netizen writes: “It’s better to make sure things are okay in your own country before smearing China, it won’t help.”

Another comment says: “Some people in the West say things that are completely false and do not line up with reality at all. They are deliberately creating a hype.”

“Some foreigners who have nothing better to do have made us a target of criticism. Firstly, China is not exporting a revolution. Second, we’re not exporting hunger nor poverty. Third, we are not tormenting them. I don’t know what else is left to say,” one person wrote.

The ‘sharp power’ concept could perhaps be called the ‘China Threat theory 3.0’, since there is not just one “China Threat theory”; there have been many different perceptions of ways in which China could possibly pose a threat to the rest of the world since the early 1990s.

In The China Threat: Perceptions, Myths and Reality (2005), Storey and Yee call the ‘China Threat’ “one of the most significant debates since the end of the Cold War.” The authors describe various ways in which China is represented as a threat to the world. The background to the issue, they write, is China’s rapid economic growth in the 1990s, but contributing factors to the theory include the PRC’s socialist political system which rejects Western political values.

Fear of political and economic collapse in China, rising Chinese nationalism, increasing military capability, and impact on regional security, are all named as factors contributing to the ways in which China is constructed as a potential ideological, economic, military and ecological threat to the rest of the world. The ‘sharp power’ concept can now be added to this list of theories.

But while the international community is watching China’s every step, China also closely observes how it is viewed from outside.

“Western countries and Western people look at China with colored glasses, it has nothing to do with us, the normal persons in the street,” one Weibo commenter writes.

“Since when is protecting the normal interests of our country and participating in normal international exchange a sign of exercising power?”, another netizen writes.

Although some critical voices raise the topic of Chinese social media censorship, most voices on Weibo seem to agree with Wang Guoqing’s statements. One netizen by the name of Lu Xixin (@陆锡鑫) writes: “Regardless whether this [concept] could be prejudice or discrimination, the issue is that it is hostile in nature. It is not surprising that Western media are vilifying China, but they don’t only do it to denounce China – they also do it to create chaos in China, and to disturb the momentum of China’s development.”

By Manya Koetse

References

Blanchard, Ben. 2018. “China kicks off parliament season with attack on the West.” Reuters, March 2, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-parliament/china-kicks-off-parliament-season-with-attack-on-the-west-idUSKCN1GE1IP [4.3.18].

China News 中国新闻网. 2018. “王国庆回应“锐实力”说:炮制新词“黑”中国.” China News, March 2, 2018. http://www.chinanews.com/gn/2018/03-02/8458485.shtml [4.3.18].

Liu Si. 2018. “Spotlight: Who’s behind the term “Sharp power”?” Xinhua News, February 13, 2018. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-02/13/c_136972986.htm [4.3.18].

Nye, Joseph S. 2018. “China’s Soft and Sharp Power.” Project Syndicate, Jan 4, 2018. https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/china-soft-and-sharp-power-by-joseph-s–nye-2018-01 [4.3.18].

O’Connor, Tom. 2018. “China quotes Martin Luther King Jr. to attack U.S. Cold War “discrimination”.” Newsweek, March 2, 2018. http://www.newsweek.com/china-attacks-us-cold-war-discrimination-using-martin-luther-king-jr-829073 [4.3.18].

Storey, Ian, and Herbert Yee (eds.). 2005 (2002). The China Threat : Perceptions, Myths and Reality. London, New York: RoutledgeCurzon.

The Economist. 2017. “What To Do About China’s “Sharp Power”.” The Economist, December 14, 2017. https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21732524-china-manipulating-decision-makers-western-democracies-best-defence [4.3.18].

Walker, Christoper, and Jessica Ludwig. 2017a. “The Meaning of Sharp Power –
How Authoritarian States Project Influence.” Foreign Affairs, November 16, 2017. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2017-11-16/meaning-sharp-power?cid=int-fls&pgtype=hpg [4.3.18].

Walker, Christopher, and Jessica Ludwig. 2017b. “From ‘Soft Power’ to ‘Sharp Power’: Rising Authoritarian Influence in the Democratic World.” In Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence, National Endowment for Democracy New Forum Report, December 5, 2017. https://www.ned.org/sharp-power-rising-authoritarian-influence-forum-report/ [4.3.18].

Xinhua. 2018. “”Sharp power” a new version of “China threat” rhetoric: spokesperson.” Xinhua News, March 2, 2018. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-03/02/c_137011743.htm [4.3.18].

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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 editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    AC

    March 5, 2018 at 4:56 am

    The hawkish elements in charge of Washington that currently dominate the US policy are mentally sick in the cold war mentality and their worldview is that the whole world is up to them to exploit. As such, they will project their own views on other countries, including China.

  2. Avatar

    Bastandard

    March 5, 2018 at 9:37 am

    And China is still stuck in the century of humiliation. Bunch of lowlifes.

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China Arts & Entertainment

“Not Just a Style, But a Mission” – China’s Online Hanfu Movement

What started with a 2003 internet sensation grew into a massive movement – Hanfu is booming on Weibo and beyond.

Things That Talk

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It’s been nearly two decades since the Chinese traditional clothing trend named Hanfu 汉服 first became noticeable as a popular social phenomenon in mainland China. Throughout the years, Hanfu has gone from a fashion style to a full-fledged movement that is flourishing on Chinese social media. Koen van der Lijn reports.

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

This last Christmas, Hanfu was once again a trending topic on Weibo. Enthusiasts of the traditional Chinese clothing trend posed online in their Christmas inspired Chinese clothing.

It was yet another development in the Hanfu Movement, which has been a hot topic with hundreds of hashtags and thousands of pictures, videos, and stories on Weibo, with the official Weibo Hanfu @微博汉服 account boasting a whopping 1.8 million followers and a Weibo ‘supertopic’ on Hanfu being joined by nearly half a million fans.

“You can also wear Hanfu during Christmas,” post and images by @弥秋君 on Weibo.

One example of the manifold of Hanfu content on Weibo is a video recently posted by Chinese actress Xu Jiao (徐娇). In the short video, which is an advertisement by the e-commerce platform RED (小红书), the actress wears Hanfu in various settings while talking about the meaning behind the fashion. Xu Jiao, being 23 years of age, is part of Generation Z (mid-1990s – early 2010s), who are adept users of social media and make up the mass of Hanfu enthusiasts.

Screenshot of video posted by Xu Jiao 徐娇

Though Hanfu enthusiasts seldomly go out on the streets whilst wearing the clothing style,1 Hanfu sales have been increasing a lot over the past few years.2 Possibly linked to the popularity of Chinese costume dramas, many Chinese youth have started to wear Hanfu in the past two decades. However, it is not just a form of cosplay or a new clothing style. As Xu Jiao says herself in the video: “It’s not just a style, it’s a mission.”

 

Background of the Hanfu Movement


 

It was November 2003 when Wang Letian walked the streets of Zhengzhou in Hanfu. News of his action rapidly spread over the internet through websites such as hanminzu.net.3

Besides online discussions, an article was also written about Wang Letian’s bold move in the Singaporean newspaper Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, helping spread word about the young man’s actions. This moment was seen as the start of the Hanfu Movement.

Wang Letian in the Lianhe Zaobao of November 29, 2003.

Now, roughly twenty years later, the wearing of Hanfu has developed into a true movement, with many young Chinese participating in the wearing of the traditional Chinese dress. Especially on college campuses, the trend is very much alive.

In its most basic idea, the Hanfu Movement can be described as a social movement that supports the wearing of Han Chinese ethnic clothing. The emphasis on the Han ethnicity is of importance here. Han Chinese make up the vast majority of the population in China, accounting for more than 90% of China’s total population. However, aspects famous outside China for being typically Chinese, such as the queue, are actually of Manchu origin.

The Manchus are an ethnic group from Northeastern China, showing cultural similarities to the Mongols, who ruled China’s last dynasty, the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Their clothing style has influenced foreign perceptions of China, due to the fact that the Manchus were the ruling class in the last Chinese imperial dynasty.

Image via https://shop60421556.taobao.com/.

Hence the emphasis on the Han ethnicity. Central to the Hanfu Movement is the idea that ethnic Han clothing, as worn during Han Chinese ruled dynasties, such as the Han dynasty (202BC-220AD), the Tang dynasty (618-907), and the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), has much value in its own and should be worn and appreciated by contemporary Han Chinese, just as the ethnic clothing of China’s minorities is appreciated in contemporary China.4

 

The Mission


 

On 4 December 2020, blogger Mi Qiujun posted a video with the hashtag #How to make the world understand Hanfu?#, (#如何让世界了解汉服#), gaining many likes and comments. Showing clips of herself wearing Hanfu in Egypt, the United States, France, and Japan, she tells how she became determined to make people around the globe understand China’s traditional culture after her clothing being wrongly identified as a Japanese kimono at her first stop in Nepal.

Mi Qiujun discusses an important aspect of the Hanfu movement. Hanfu enthusiasts feel that their ethnic clothing is not understood well enough by others, and showing the rest of the world their clothing is a true mission.

Hanfu enthusiasts have found themselves in online quarrellings about what can be defined as Hanfu, and what cannot be defined as Hanfu. It is worth noting that some scholars have disputed the existence of a uniform Hanfu throughout Chinese history.5 Instead, Hanfu is seen to have been popularised by students through the internet, without strong knowledge of Han Chinese clothing traditions.6 This makes it difficult to assess what does and what does not count as Hanfu.

Online quarrelings have therefore become part of the Hanfu Movement. In November 2020, for instance, Chinese netizens found themselves in an online discussion with their Korean neighbours. That month, Chinese actor Xu Kai (许凯) posted a photo of himself in traditional costume from the set of the Chinese drama titled Royal Feast (尚食), which is set in the Ming Dynasty.

A controversial selfie.

After South Korean web users pointed out that the traditional costume worn by Xu resembled Korean traditional clothing named Hanbok, the drama’s producer Yu Zheng (于正) posted a response on social media in which he firmly stated that this clothing was not Hanbok but Hanfu, adding that Korea was a vassal state of China at the time and that only “uncivilized people” would call it ‘Hanbok.’

 

A Nationalist Movement?


 

These kinds of discussions also show another side of the Hanfu Movement. For some Hanfu enthusiasts, Hanfu is more than a mission to let others understand Han ethnic culture; instead, it is a way to construct a purified Han Chinese identity, free from foreign influence.7

Girl dressed in Hanfu while visiting the Forbidden City. Photo by Manya Koetse.

This foreign influence is often linked back to the Manchus once again. ‘Uncivilised practices’ in contemporary Chinese society are attributed to the Manchus. This rhetoric reinforces the belief of Han supremacy, which has existed long before the invention of the internet, where the ‘civilized’ Han Chinese believe themselves to be superior to the ‘uncivilized’ barbarians, such as the Manchus.

This rise in Han Chinese nationalism started in the past few decades.8 The Hanfu Movement thus has followers who are a part of this new turn, where Han Chinese want to restore the glory of their past and turn away from Western and Manchu influences.9

These hardcore Han nationalists are but a small part of the movement. The Hanfu Movement encompasses a large and diverse group of people, who all share a certain belief that Hanfu should gain more appreciation in China and abroad. These are, for instance, some of the comments under Xu Jiao’s video:

– “(…) Xu Jiao speaks for Hanfu!!” (@怪物与约翰)

– “Do not be afraid to doubt, never forget the original intention, Hanfu is a style, it’s a mission, it’s culture, and it’s an attitude.” (@打翻废纸篓)

– “I am so thankful we have you! I really like your work and your attitude towards Hanfu!” (@小瓦肯Shail)

What connects most Hanfu enthusiasts then? Hanfu enthusiasts take pride in wearing Hanfu, and they wear Hanfu simply because they like wearing it. Moreover, they believe it to be important to make others, both in and outside China, gain a deeper understanding of Han Chinese ethnic culture. Hanfu is more than a fad. It is a subculture, it is a style, and for Xu Jiao and many others, it is their mission.

 
By Koen van der Lijn

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

This story was made in collaboration with ThingsThatTalk.net – exploring humanities through the life of objects. Things That Talk is an educational digital project where staff and students produce narratives and metadata about objects in Leiden collections and beyond. A story focused on the background of the Hanfu Movement and objects associated with this movement has previously been published on Things that Talk, go check it out!
 

Notes (other sources hyperlinked within the article)

1 Buckley, Chris, and Katrina Northrop. 2018. “A Retro Fashion Statement in 1,000-Year-Old Gowns, With Nationalist Fringe.” New York Times, Nov 22 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/22/world/asia/china-hanfu-gowns-clothing.html [Jan 16 2021].
2 Zhou Xing 周兴. 2020. “Report: Hanfu turnover on Taobao platform exceeded 2 billion yuan in 2019 [报告:2019年淘宝平台上汉服成交金额突破20亿元].” Dianshangbao, August 2 2020 https://www.dsb.cn/124836.html [Jan 16 2021].
3 Cui Chentao 崔晨涛. 2016. “Han Costume Movement and National Culture Rejuvenation [汉服运动“与民族文化复兴的诉求].” Journal of Yunyang Teachers College 36(5): 19-24.
4 Cui Chentao 崔晨涛. 2016. “Han Costume Movement and National Culture Rejuvenation [汉服运动“与民族文化复兴的诉求].” Journal of Yunyang Teachers College 36(5): 19-24.
5 Carrico, Kevin. 2017. The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today. Oakland, California: University of California Press.
6 Zhang Xian 张跣. 2009. “‘Hanfu Movement’: Ethnic Nationalism in the Internet Age [“汉服运动”:互联网时代的种族性民族主义].” Journal of China Youth University for Political Sciences (4): 65-71.
7 Carrico, Kevin. 2017. “Imaginary Communities: Fantasy and Failure in Nationalist Identification,” in The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today, chapter 1. Oakland, California: University of California Press.
8 Dikötter, Frank. 2001. “Nationalist Myth-making: The Construction of the Chinese Race.” Human Rights in China, 27 April https://www.hrichina.org/en/content/4573 [16 Jan 2021].
9 Carrico, Kevin. 2017. “Imaginary Communities: Fantasy and Failure in Nationalist Identification,” in The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today, chapter 1. Oakland, California: University of California Press.

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China Digital

“Daddy Ma, Are You OK?” – Jack Ma’s Situation Discussed on Chinese Social Media

Public sentiments on Jack Ma have shifted, but the fans still defend their idol.

Manya Koetse

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Chinese tech superhero Jack Ma has become a hot topic on international social media this month since he has been missing in action for weeks, while Alibaba is facing an anti-monopoly investigation. Ma seems to have fallen out of favor, not just with authorities but also with many Chinese web users.

This month, the alleged ‘disappearance’ of Alibaba founder Jack Ma made headlines in various English-language media, from Reuters to CNN and the Financial Times.

The direct reason for speculation about Jack Ma’s whereabouts was his absence at Africa’s Business Heroes, a talent show he helped create in which Ma was part of the finale judge panel. According to FT.com, the final – which won’t be broadcasted until spring – took place in November.

Although an Alibaba spokesperson explained Ma’s absence from the show as a “schedule conflict” that made it impossible for the tech tycoon to participate, many Twitter users directly tied his ‘suspected missing’ to a critical speech he gave at the Shanghai Bund Finance Summit on October 24 of 2020.

In this speech, Ma made critical remarks on how China’s financial market is regulated and supervised. Kevin Xu at Interconnected provides an English translation of this speech here.

On November 3rd, two days before Alibaba’s fintech subsidiary Ant Group was set to raise around $37 billion with the biggest initial public offering of all time, Chinese regulators abruptly suspended the process. A report by the Wall Street Journal claimed that Chinese President Xi Jinping personally made the decision to halt the IPO of Ant Group after years of rising tensions between Ma and the government.

Pressure on Jack Ma and Alibaba further increased in December when Chinese regulators launched an anti-monopoly investigation into Alibaba and the Ant Group.

Alibaba announced the investigation of its company on its official Weibo channel on December 25 of 2020.

On December 25, People’s Daily also reported the anti-monopoly investigation. The state newspaper hosted a hashtag page about the matter on Sina Weibo (#人民日报再评阿里巴巴被调查#) which garnered over 240 million views. They wrote:

Large Internet platform companies should take the lead in strengthening industry self-discipline, in further enhancing their sense of social responsibility, and in safeguarding a favorable Internet economic ecosystem. The Internet industry has never been, and should never become, a place that is outside the law for anti-monopoly. Regarding platform economy, reinforcing anti-monopoly regulations is never a “winter” for the industry – it is just a new starting point for better and healthier development.”

Although Chinese official media have since not reported much on the issue, and have not published about Ma’s alleged ‘disappearance’, Ma’s whereabouts and his situation has become a much-discussed topic on various Chinese social media platforms.

 

Jack Ma in Short

 

Being among the top 20 richest people in the world, Jack Ma is world-famous as the founder of Alibaba, a multinational tech company specializing in e-commerce that was founded in 1999.

Jack Ma, whose Chinese name is Ma Yun 马云, was born in Hangzhou in 1964 to a family of low status. His life story has been retold in many books. Ma was bullied at school, had poor math skills, and flunked the entrance exam twice before he was accepted into the Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute, where he graduated in 1988 with a Bachelor of Arts in English.

Ma had been interested in English since he was a young boy. He would cycle to the main hotel in his city to connect with foreign tourists, acting as their local tour guide in return for English classes. The name ‘Jack’ was given to him by one of the tourist friends he made at that time.

image via kknews.cc

Ma went on to become an English teacher and barely even touched a keyboard before he traveled to the US in 1995 as an interpreter. It was during this trip that he was first introduced to the internet, after which he became inspired to set up his own commercial web site in China – a web site named ‘China Pages’ for Chinese businesses.

Although that business flopped, Jack Ma founded Alibaba in 1999, which would turn into an internet giant influencing virtually all corners of China’s digital world. The Alibaba Group now operates numerous businesses, including Taobao, TMall, AliExpress, and the Ant Group.

Ma’s success is a source of inspiration to many, and his ‘crazy Jack’ energetic behavior and willingness to make fun of himself has only made him and his story all the more captivating.

A younger Ma in one of his fun song-and-dance appearances – as Snow White.

Ma officially stepped down as Alibaba’s CEO in 2019 but is still the company’s largest individual shareholder.

 

“What’s up with Ma Yun?”

 

Until recently, Jack Ma was one of the more popular Chinese celebrities on social media. Jack Ma quotes, memes, videos, or stories would frequently go viral.

As one of the most respected and powerful entrepreneurs of China, bookstores have entire sections dedicated to Jack Ma and his role as a business magnate, the richest man of China, and also as a welldoer and an inspiring influential.

Books about Jack Ma.

Whatever Ma would say or do would go trending, with many people praising what he did, what he said, or where he went.

In 2017, the meeting between US President Trump and Alibaba’s Ma was a big topic of discussion, with many Chinese web users taking pride in Ma’s meeting with Trump, calling him the perfect ambassador to China in their dealings with Trump. “Ma Yun [Jack Ma] for president!” was a much recurring phrase.

It is a phrase you won’t read as much, if at all, on Chinese social media these days anymore. The silence surrounding Jack Ma recently has led to speculation and reflections on his current situation.

On Chinese search engine Baidu, the search prediction reflects web users’ confusion over his whereabouts; upon searching for ‘Ma Yun’ in the first week of January, the first five automatic predictions are the following:

– Jack Ma fled abroad
– Did Jack Ma really flee abroad?
– Jack Ma sentenced to prison
– Jack Ma disappeared
– Jack Ma Shanghai Bund speech

On Douyin (the Chinese TikTok), the first sentence to come up when searching for Ma Yun, is “What’s up with Ma Yun?”

On Weibo, where Jack Ma has over 26.4 million followers on his official account, there have not been any new posts since October 17. But Ma’s last post, which talks about an educational event, is still attracting new comments every few minutes.

“Daddy Ma, come on, ok? We’re rooting for you,” one commenter writes.

“We haven’t seen you in a long time, Brother Ma,” some write: “When will you come back into the public arena?”, with others saying: “Teacher Ma, what happened?”

But besides the messages from those who seem concerned about the well-being of the tech tycoon, there are many angry ones.

Some blame Ma for praising the ‘996’ work system (working from 9am-9pm, 6 days a week). In 2019, Ma called the 12-hour working day a “blessing,” causing much controversy online. Because the death of a young employee at Pinduoduo was also linked to her long working hours, the ‘996’ work system is a hot topic this week, with many condemning how Chinese tech companies are exploiting their employees and revisiting Ma’s 2019 comments.

Others also turn to Jack Ma’s Weibo page to complain about the shutdown of Alibaba’s music streaming app Xiami. Although Xiami only holds a small percentage of China’s music streaming market – apps such as QQ Music and KuGou are more popular – there are still many people who have been using the app for years and hate to see it go: “Why can’t you give it another chance, why can’t you take care of our Xiami!?”

And then there are those commenters who, in light of the recent developments and anti-monopoly investigations, call Ma a “greedy capitalist” and a “bloodsucker.” “Maybe he’ll be punished,” one person writes: “Is that a ‘blessing’ too?” “I went from being a fan to a hater,” another commenter writes, with others calling him an opportunist.

 

Changing Sentiments on Social Media

 

Jack Ma used to be an idol for many young people in China, but now it seems they have started to oppose him. On the Chinese video sharing site Bilibili, mainly used by younger generations, comments appearing in some videos featuring Ma are filled with anger and scolding.

This shift in Ma’s popularity among young people was recently also explained by young Chinese vlogger Yu He in this video, who argues that young people do not adore Jack Ma in the same way older Chinese people do.

Ma’s vision of working really hard, praising the ‘996’ work culture, and “everybody can be successful if you really try hard” was an inspiration to previous generations, but many post-90s people in China today – who are struggling in a highly competitive job market – do not have a lot of faith in Ma’s work philosophy when their everyday lives are not about working to live, but about living to work. To them, Ma’s ideas about working around the clock to get further in life do not make sense, as some feel they are working themselves to death while others get rich.

There is also anger over consumer lending platform Huabei, a product of Alibaba’s Ant Group. Huabei previously encouraged users to spend more money in its ads, and its platform makes it very easy to spend money first and pay it back later – even for those who might not oversee the long-term consequences of excessive debt.

The question of why Jack Ma seems to have fallen out of favor with many Chinese people is also a topic of discussion on question-and-answer platform Zhihu.com.

One popular analysis by the e-commerce account Zhiser claims that Jack Ma used to be supported by the ordinary people because he made it possible for so many of them to make money through the Taobao marketplace platform, which started in 2003. Alibaba’s Alipay online payment platform made it possible for common people to conveniently transfer money without extra fees.

But over recent years, Zhiser argues, Alibaba’s business strategies have changed in such a way that its own profits are maximized and small sellers are negatively impacted.

With the arrival and growth of Alibaba’s Tmall, where only brand owners or authorized dealers can open an online store & where transaction commissions are much higher, the traffic of small sellers on the Taobao marketplace has been reduced. Alibaba’s activities are increasingly focused on benefiting the bigger companies – and itself -, while small entrepreneurs are increasingly struggling to be noticed and make money.

Without the means to open their own Tmall shop, without the capital to afford advertisement and paid promotions for their shops, the small sellers are watching helplessly how the big boys dominate the platform algorithms and take the money, Zhiser explains.

Alibaba is now also increasingly focusing on the fruit & vegetable market. There’s Alibaba’s Hema Fresh supermarket brand, for example, with big plans to open hundreds of stores nationwide in the upcoming years. The rise of Alibaba’s fresh food businesses directly impacts the livelihood of ten thousands of ordinary Chinese who have their own small vegetable shops or street stalls – exactly those people who are already in vulnerable social groups.

Although the rise of Alibaba was once a great opportunity for common people, the changing business strategies have now resulted in Jack Ma getting more enemies, including small entrepreneurs, small sellers and buyers, offline shops, offline vendors, etc.

For them, the ‘Alibaba dream’ of using the power of the Internet and technological advancement to enable small businesses and young people to share the benefits of free trade has lost credibility.

“These years, Jack Ma has played the role of the destroyer rather than the savior,” the author writes. His article received over 10,500 endorsements.

Zhiser’s article reflects a perspective that surfaces in many places. “We believed him, that he really was making things better for us,” another blogger writes.

Others think that Jack Ma was true about his intentions and dreams when he was a teacher and then started his business, but changed when he became surrounded by money-driven big investors, causing him to become alienated from his former ideas and philosophies, losing touch with China’s younger generation, the small shop owners he promised to serve and the ordinary people.

 

“He changed China, he changed the world”

 

Despite the recent criticism of Ma, many people still defend and support him. There are even those who criticize him but still express their admiration for him.

Regarding the criticism coming from post-90s generations, one Chinese web user commented:

You have no idea what it was like before Jack Ma came around. You’re too young to know. If you want to go back [in that time], I suggest you go live on the moon.”

Discussing the changing sentiments regarding Ma, Zhihu author Qing Rui writes:

Jack Ma is a great entrepreneur of this era. He changed China, he changed the world. A lot of nonsensical people scold him for damaging China’s real economy, while he’s actually worked hard to improve the efficiency of the business sector, which has not only greatly boosted the real economy, but also greatly improved the living standards of the Chinese people.”

It is a sentiment shared by many, who express that they think the recent shift in views on Ma is uncalled for, or reminding people of the positive effect Ma and his businesses have had on China’s development.

“Those who scold Jack Ma are brainless idiots,” some write.

“How is it possible for the public opinion on Daddy Ma shifting 180 degrees? It’s like throwing stones at someone who fell down,” one Weibo user from Shenyang writes.

Although perhaps less crowded than before, online ‘Ma Yun Fanclubs’ are still active. One Weibo fan writes: “Let’s all hope our favorite idol Ma Yun will smoothly sail through this crisis!”

As for the ‘disappearance’ of Jack Ma that has previously been reported – although Ma has not been out in public, it is highly unlikely that he is actually missing.

CNBC reported on January 5 that the Chinese billionaire is lying low, according to a person familiar with the matter.

When famous Chinese actress Fan Bingbing got caught up in a tax evasion scandal in 2018, her ‘disappearance’ also made headlines in international media. After months of silence and wild rumors, the actress returned to social media with a public apology. She was ordered to pay taxes and fines worth hundreds of millions of yuan.

Meanwhile, Jack Ma’s Weibo page is still receiving dozens of new messages. In between the “evil capitalist” scoldings, there are some who really hope Ma will come back to public life soon: “We’ll support you, teacher Ma, don’t give up!”

 

By Manya Koetse

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