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Open Sesame: Social Credit in China as Gate to Punitive Measures and Personal Perks

While English-language media describe China’s social credit system as a Black Mirror-like authoritarian implementation, Chinese social media users seem to focus more on the advantages than the burdens.

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Chinese social credit system has become a hot topic – especially in foreign media. But what’s true and what’s not? How is the issue discussed on Chinese social media? What’s on Weibo explores some recent developments in the emerging field of social credit in China.

“Big brother is watching,” some English-language media write, others compare it to ‘Black Mirror,’ while some call it righout “creepy”; China’s emerging social credit system is an issue that many foreign journalists and China watchers are currently concerned with – sometimes even alleging that the Chinese social credit system is “as bizarre as it sounds.”

On Chinese media and social media platforms, there seem to be very different attitudes on social credit in China. Apart from official stances that say it promotes a “harmonious society,” netizens also seem to focus much more on the perks than the alleged dangers of social credit records.

Promotional image for “Tencent Credit.”

Jeremy Daum at China Law Translate published an insightful article (must-read!) in late 2017 in which he made the point that foreign media are grossly conflating Sesame Credit (aka Zhima Credit) and Social Credit, and in doing so, are misrepresenting what is happening in China regarding these systems. So what actually is fact and what is fiction when it comes to the social credit in China?

 

Sesame Credit versus Social Credit

 

There is so much Chinese terminology relating to social credit in China that it is perhaps not that surprising that the lines have become blurred between the actual Social Credit system and a number of private programs.*

In a recent article titled “China’s Social Credit System Is Not What You Think It Is” (in Dutch), ChinaTalk author Ed Sander (@edsander) sets out existing misconceptions about China’s credit systems.

The most important existing misconception is that it is often suggested that there is just one ‘social credit system’ in China. In reality, there are two separate systems that operate independently; the commercial credit systems (such as the Sesame Credit by Alibaba) and the Social Credit system by the Chinese government, which it has promised to roll out nationally by 2020.

 
Sesame Credit (芝麻信用)
 

The system that has arguably been most discussed in foreign media is Sesame Credit (Zhīma xìnyòng 芝麻信用), implemented by Alibaba’s Ant Financial. Sesame Credit already had 520 million users as of 2017.

Sesame Credit example scores explained, from 385 being in the low range to 731 being in the ‘good’ range.

As Jeremy Daum points out, Sesame Credit is one of the business trials that has been granted permission by the People’s Bank of China to experiment with individual credit reporting. NB: The central bank has its own Credit Reference Centre since 2006, which is tasked with operating a national commercial and consumer credit reporting system to enable financial institutions to assess borrowers’ creditworthiness.

Sesame Credit was launched in 2015. Because it is part of the Alibaba family, Sesame Credit has an enormous amount of data at its disposal, from e-commerce sites to finance products (Taobao, Tianmao, Alipay, etc), through which it compiles users’ own scores, going from 350-950, for those who have opted into the program. The scores are based on a number of things, including people’s payment history, their contacts and network, and online behavior.

It is not mandatory for users to opt into Sesame Credit. Some have compared the system to a loyalty program, although it is a bit more than that. Since 2015, for example, Sesame Credit also cooperates with the popular online dating service company Baihe.com (百合网), so that people can link their dating profile to their credit score.

One of the reasons why foreign media have written so much about Sesame Credit as an ‘Orwellian system’ is that it incorporates a publicly available ‘blacklist’ into its scoring process. The ‘blacklist’ is a Chinese courts’ list with the names of people that have an effective court justice against them.

Inclusion on this list can make users’ existing Sesame Credit drop dramatically, which would make people miss out on all perks of having a high Sesame Sore, e.g. no deposits in renting cars, bicycles, or booking hotels (Xinhua 2017).

Some media* have conflated this with the overall negative side effects of being on list of court debtors; it is not Sesame Credit, but the Social Credit schemes that can punish citizens by revoking certain government benefits and putting them on heightened scrutiny until they repay their debts (Daum 2017b).

Besides Sesame Credit, there are also other corporations rolling out credit scores. One of them is Tencent Credit (腾讯信用), which was also established in 2015 and had a trial running in January of 2018.

 
Social Credit System (社会信用系统)
 

China’s Social Credit system is currently not a national one – it is outlined to be implemented nationwide by 2020 – but it is being experimented with in various regions and cities across China.

Screenshot of the official Suzhou social credit website.

Daum (2017) describes it as a ‘policy’ or ‘ideology of data use’ rather than a ‘system’, and explains it as “the Chinese Party-State’s shorthand for a broad range of efforts to improve market security and public safety by increasing integrity and mutual trust in society.”

Chinese social management expert Samantha Hoffman says the system is just “adding technology and adding a formality to the way the Party already operates,” which reiterates a stance by scholar Rogier Creemers, who claims that the system itself is not ‘new’ and can be compared to decade-old ways in which the government is keeping a tab on its citizens (Creemers et al 2016).

The Social Credit ‘system’ essentially will be focused on accumulating and integrating information, and will create measures that encourage ‘trustworthy behavior’ and punishes those who are not ‘trustworthy’ (Daum 2017). It is unlikely that the collected personal data will be reflected in one single score, as has been suggested by various media.

Earlier this year, the PRC’s National Development & Reform Commission and People’s Bank of China released a list of the 12 top cities implementing Social Credit experiments this year, namely: Hangzhou, Nanjing, Xiamen, Chengdu, Suzhou, Suqian, Huizhou, Wenzhou, Weihai, Yiwu, and Rongcheng.

Rongcheng, a county-level city in Shandong province, has been at the center of a recent Foreign Policy article by Mistreanu (2018), which describes how many Rongcheng citizens have already embraced the Social Credit pilot, and seem happy with how it improves the community.

The Rongcheng Credit system is one of both rewards and punishments, as also described of other bigger local systems by Daum (2017b). Online defamation or abuse of family members will negatively affect one’s societal credit, whereas taking care of one’s parents or positively influencing one’s neighborhood will lead to better rankings. In Rongcheng, top rankers are praised by being displayed on a board near the village center (Mistreanu 2018).

 

Sesame & Sharing

 

China’s social credit system and Sesame Credit are a hot topic on social media networks such as Twitter or Facebook, where they are often discussed in negative ways. On Sina Weibo, one of China’s biggest social media platforms, however, both topics are discussed very differently. Sesame Credit is mostly linked to fun extras and the Chinese sharing economy.

At time of writing, Sesame Credit has 240.000 fans on its official Weibo account (@芝麻信用), where they promote the most recent benefits to users with higher credit scores, such as the possibility to get Hello Bicycle (哈罗单车) rental bikes without deposits.

Some netizens discuss the recent cooperation between Ford and Alibaba, in which people with a Sesame Credit Score over 700 points can test drive the new Ford Explorer for three days for free.

Apart from Hello Bike or Ford, there is a myriad of other brands that seem happy to participate in the Sesame Credit system and the idea of Shared Economy.

Mobrella, an operator of umbrella sharing services for urban consumers, allows Sesame Credit users with a score over 600 to use their umbrellas without paying deposits. Anbai (按呗), a company focused on shared massage chairs, also lets 600+ scorers use their relaxation chairs for free.

“Thumbs up for sharing [economy]!”, some netizens comment.

The benefits of a higher Sesame Credit score go beyond brand services. In places such as Shanghai, Hangzhou, or Wenzhou, for example, people with a credit score of respectively 600 and 500 can go to the local library and borrow books for free without paying any deposit. Some places offer public self-service booths where people can borrow their books without having to go to the library.

Self-service library in Shanghai for people with more than 600 Zhima Credit score (via Sohu).

At the Zhejiang University Hospital, patients with a Sesame Credit score over 650 can enjoy privileges such as seeing a doctor first and worry about payment later, or free use of available wheelchairs. In Shenzhou and other cities, people with a 650+ score can rent cars without paying deposits.

There are countless examples of how a higher credit score is making life easier and more convenient for people in dozens of cities across China, which is why a score of approximately 650 is something people strive for. “I overheard some people on the subway today discussing how they could raise their Sesame Credit score to rank over 640,” one Weibo user says: “I’d never even checked my score, but somehow it currently is as high as 810!”

 

Karma & Credit Scores

 

Different from Sesame Credit, the national and/or local social credit system is not discussed much on Chinese social media. When it is discussed, there seems to be more focus on the punitive side of the system than on the rewards.

In early May, for example, a young man from Shanxi was the first local person to be put on the so-called “lose trust blacklist” (失信黑名单), and was banned from traveling by train for 180 days as part of the Social Credit implementation, after jumping over the ticket barriers at Yangling Station. Many commenters supported the ban, saying: “This kind of people with no regard for the rules should be banned from traveling indefinitely.”

“Blacklisted”

Another example is that Guangdong authorities, on May 22, announced the implementation of a special blacklist for people violating the rules of the bike-sharing industry. Those vandalizing a bike, for instance, could be banned from using any bike-sharing service and their social credit will be negatively affected. A top commenter wrote: “Excellent, absolutely excellent – I hope this will be implemented all across the country.”

A recent experiment by Shenzhen police, in which facial recognition technologies were used to catch jaywalkers, also attracted the attention on social media. State newspapers reported that these kinds of traffic violations will also influence people’s personal credit in the future.

Although many people see the social credit systems working as a sort of ‘law of karma’, not all netizens agree. One person responding to the jaywalkers’ case says: “When it comes to traffic violations – we have relevant laws for those. Making them affect one’s personal credit seems to be over the top.”

 

Credit Cities

 

What is noteworthy about the nascent Social Credit systems on Weibo is that many local governments have already set up their own Social Credit Implementation accounts – some have even already been registered in 2014.

Zhuhai (Guangdong) has its own “Social Credit System & Market Control System” Weibo account (@珠海市两建办); there’s an account by Wenzhou (Guangdong) (@温州-谢枫); Suzhou (Jiangsu) (@苏州工业园区信用平台); Suqian (Jiangsu) (@诚信宿迁); Wuhu (Anhui) (@信用芜湖), and others.

Although these accounts are not yet popular, without many fans or discussions, their online presence does signal that Weibo might have hundreds of similar accounts in the future when the Social Credit system is implemented nationwide, with cities informing citizens of new measures and/or guideline relating to the credit system through social media.

With Hangzhou currently being the top city when it comes to building the social credit system, along with the city closely working together with Sesame Credit, it has now even been labeled “Credit City” (信用之城) by Chinese media.

Rather than framed as “creepy” or “bizarre” by foreign media, it is words such as “safety”, “harmony”, and “convenience” that are mostly used by Chinese media to describe these avant-garde cities, where “trust” and “credit” are seemingly becoming a crucial asset for citizens who care about ‘karma’ and ‘personal perks.’

“I support it,” one Weibo commenter writes: “I hope it will have a positive influence on society.”

By Manya Koetse

* Some Terminology:
‘Social credit system’: 社会信用体系
‘Sesame Credit’: 芝麻信用
‘Credit scores’: 信用评分
‘Personal credit systems’: 个人征信系统
‘Credit information services’: 征信服务
‘People’s personal credit structure’: 民间个人征信机构

* Some media such as The Independent in: “China wants to give all of its citizens a score – and their rating could affect every area of their lives.”

References (others linked directly within text)

Creemers, Rogier. 2018. “China’s Social Credit System: An Evolving Practice of Control.”May 9. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3175792.

Creemers, Rogier; Peter Marris; Samantha Hoffman; Pamela Kyle Crossley. 2016. “What Could China’s ‘Social Credit System’ Mean for its Citizens?” Foreign Policy, Aug 15
http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/08/15/what-could-chinas-social-credit-system-mean-for-its-citizens/ [26.5.18].

Daum, Jeremy. 2017. “China through a glass, darkly.” China Law Translate, Dec 24 https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/seeing-chinese-social-credit-through-a-glass-darkly/?lang=en [24.5.18].

Daum, Jeremy. 2017b. “Giving Credit 2: Carrots and Sticks.” China Law Translate, Dec 15 https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/giving-credit-2-carrots-and-sticks/?lang=en [27.5.18].

Mistreanu, Simina. 2018. “Life Inside China’s Social Credit Laboratory.” Foreign Policy, April 3 http://foreignpolicy.com/2018/04/03/life-inside-chinas-social-credit-laboratory/ [26.5.18].

NDRC. 2018. “首批社会信用体系建设示范城市名单公布.” http://www.ndrc.gov.cn/, Jan 9 http://www.ndrc.gov.cn/xwzx/xwfb/201801/t20180109_873409.html [26.5.18].

Sander, Ed. 2018. “China’s Sociaal Kredietsysteem is niet wat je denkt.” ChinaTalk, May 5 http://www.chinatalk.nl/chinas-sociaal-kredietsysteem-is-niet-wat-je-denkt/ [26.5.18].

Sohu. 2017. “芝麻信用分600以上可以免押金借书了.” Sohu, Sept 13 http://www.sohu.com/a/191704017_402387 [27.5.18].

Xinhua. 2017. “Chinese courts use technology to tighten noose on debt defaulters.” China Daily, Oct 4 http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2017-10/04/content_32830450.htm [26.5.18].

Xinhua. 2018. “深圳交警“刷脸”治交通违章 处罚或将挂钩个人信用.” Xinhua News, May 8 http://www.xinhuanet.com/local/2017-04/24/c_1120864742.htm [26.5.18].

Xiao, Eva. 2018. “Tencent’s new credit system to use payments, social data.” Tech in Asia, Jan 31 https://www.techinasia.com/tencent-credit-launch [26.5.18].

Zhang Yuzhe, Peng Qinqin and Dong Tongjian. 2017. “China Gives Little Credit to Companies Handpicked to Develop Credit-Reporting Sector.” Caixin Global, May 14 https://www.caixinglobal.com/2017-05-15/101089851.html [26.5.18].


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©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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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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China Digital

6 Things to Know about the iPhone XS Launch in China

Noteworthy facts about the latest iPhone release in the PRC.

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On September 21st, Apple began selling its latest iPhone series to fans and customers across the globe.

The phones released are the iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max and iPhone XR. The iPhone XS Max is the company’s biggest phone yet and boasts features like Face ID 2 for extra security, and up to 512Gb storage. But it is also the company’s most expensive iPhone yet.

Over the past days, topics relating to the latest iPhone are popping up on China’s online hot search lists, with the hashtag “New iPhone Release” (#新iPhone发布#) receiving 1,45 billion views, the hashtag #iPhone XS# receiving 320 million views on Weibo.

Here are six noteworthy facts to know about the iPhone XS in China:

 

1. Its front-facing selfie camera has a ‘Pitu’ effect

 

At time of writing, the phone’s front-facing “selfie” camera (#iPhone XS前置摄像头#), with more than 21 million views, is one of the most-searched topics on Weibo.

The camera is different from the cameras in earlier iPhone models in how it seems to add a filter to people’s skin. Although American media have reported that people complain about the “over-smoothing” of the skin because it makes them look “fake,” the great majority of Weibo commenters, on the contrary, like the function, and say it is welcomed in China.

TV presenter Liu Ye (@懂小姐刘烨) writes on Weibo: “About that pretty face result of the iPhone front-facing camera; now I even dare to post my photos without editing them in Pitu!” Pitu is a popular Chinese picture editing app.

Some netizens comment that the beautifying camera is much less controversial in China than abroad because Chinese people are already used to editing and photoshopping their photos by whitening the skin or making the eyes look bigger.

“This iPhone was actually designed for the female consumers in the Chinese and South Korean market, but accidentally ended up in the US,” one netizen jokingly says.

An older meme posted by commenter Lao Xu (@老徐时评) pokes fun at different smartphone cameras and how they make people look.”Perhaps foreigners like the reality more than we do,” other commenters suggested.

 

2. It’s even more expensive in China

 

The price of the latest iPhone is one of the biggest topics surrounding its launch. Although the phone already is very expensive in the US, its prices in China are even higher. While the iPhone XS 64 GB version is priced at $1099 in the US, the official online Apple store for China lists the same phone for RMB8,699 (±$1,270).

The most expensive model, the iPhone XS Max, costs a staggering RMB12,799 (±$1,860) for the 512Gb version. By comparison, the iPhone X which launched in 2017 cost $1,149 for the most expensive model in the US.

Beijing News points out on Weibo that the RMB12,799 model is 1,5 times the average monthly wage of Beijingers. “If I had the money, I’d buy it,” some people comment.

 

3. People are not going too crazy about its release

 

Although previous years have seen people getting up early and waiting in line for the latest iPhone models, this time, many people shared photos on Weibo of empty queues outside Apple retailers and launch events in China.

Despite the widespread online discussions of the latest iPhone, Chinese media outlet Sina.com reports that there has been more online interest in China in the new Apple Watch than in the iPhone XS.

Previously, the release of the iPhone 7 in 2016 also showed a similar trend, with many people saying they preferred made-in-China phones to the American iPhone.

Responding to the question ‘Why wouldn’t you buy the iPhone XS?”, most netizens mention the phone’s high price: “I’m too poor to buy it.”

 

4. The first person to own the iPhone XS was Mr. Wang from Hangzhou

 

TMall, Apple’s official online retailer in China, ran a promotional campaign to be the first person to own an iPhone XS, using the hashtag “The First iPhoneXS Person” (#iPhoneXS第一人#), which briefly went trending on the day of the launch.

The first person to own Apple’s latest offering turned out to be a certain Mr. Wang from Hangzhou, who bought the phone one minute after it went on sale. The ‘news’ was met with skepticism by netizens. “What’s the point of this story?”, was the most liked comment on Weibo.

 

5. It’s the first-ever iPhone to have dual sim slots (but only in China)

 

The Chinese version of the iPhone XS comes with a tray that can hold 2 sim cards, while the version sold outside of China has only got one sim card slot (allowing the creation of virtual SIMs).

The Chinese government controls and tracks sim cards and requires them to be registered to a user’s ID number, which might have to do with Apple’s decision to add an extra sim slot in the Chinese version. eSIMs allow people to connect to mobile networks without a physical sim card, making it easier, in theory, to create fake or untraceable accounts linked to the number. This could bypass controls on mobile phone networks and has been banned by Beijing.

 

6. The launch sparked controversy for listing Taiwan and HK as separate regions

 

Apple’s iPhone presentation earlier in September caused outrage and online debate in China, when Phil Schiller, the head of marketing, showed a slide where Taiwan and Hong Kong were listed as separate regions or countries from China.

CCTV soon called on the company to change its naming practices, and web users flooded the company’s official Weibo blog with complaints. Apple has not responded to the controversy yet. The official website still lists the two regions separately.

Also read our article on the most popular smartphones in China (2018).

By John Cowley and Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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China Digital

Despite China’s ‘Broadcast Ban’ on eSports, Netizens Go Crazy for National Team’s Asian Games Success

Clumsy display of nationalism during China’s glorious esports win goes viral.

Gabi Verberg

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With 1.8 billion views (#电竞亚军会#) on Weibo, the 2018 Asian Games eSports Demonstration Event has been a big topic on Chinese social media. Despite a broadcast-ban, netizens went crazy for the Chinese team, that – somewhat clumsily – waved the Chinese flag in Jakarta.

The 18th edition of the Asian Games held in Jakarta, Indonesia, has come to an end. With 2,3 billion views on Weibo alone (#2018亚军会#), the Asian Games are a hit on Chinese social media.

The Asian Games marked the first time for esports (electronic sports) to be included in a major international comprehensive sports event.

On the 26th of August, the first day of the esports event, the Chinese team won their first gold medal after winning the game Arena of Valor aka AoV (王者荣耀). The second day, they won the silver medal with the game Clash Royale (皇室战争), ending just behind the Indonesian team.

But the most significant success was celebrated on the 29th of August. After a 3-day battle, the Chinese team won their second gold medal for their performance in the game League of Legends (英雄联盟). Their victory came as a surprise to many, since it was the South Korean team that had defeated China twice during the group phase. But this time it was the Chinese team that celebrated a three-to-one victory over the South Koreans.

Despite the national teams’ successes, TV-watching audiences on mainland China were not able to witness these important moments in sport; CCTV5, the state television’s national sports channel, did not broadcast any of the esports events. Much to the annoyance of many netizens, CCTV5 also did not allow any other platform the right to broadcast any esports events.

The reason for CCTV not broadcasting online computer games is because it is banned. In the ‘Notice on the prohibition of broadcasting online computer game programs‘ (关于禁止播出电脑网络游戏类节目的通知) issued by the National Radio and television Administration in 2004, it says that “radio and television broadcasting organizations at all levels shall not open to computer network games, and may not broadcast online computer game programs.”

That same notice also states that “online computer games have adversely affected the healthy growth of minors.”

On CCTV5’s official Weibo account, many netizens called for the broadcasting of the esports games last week, and vented their dissatisfaction towards state media for banning the broadcast.

One Weibo user wrote: “CCTV spends state money to get a monopoly on the broadcasting rights, and then they choose not to broadcast. It is a waste of the state’s money and disrespectful to the people who do want to see esports!” Some posts scolding the CCTV received thousands of likes.

Except for CCTV, Party newspaper People’s Daily (人民日报), also received many negative social media comments after thy published an article on the victory of the national team. In the comment section, readers wrote comments such as: ‘Now you want to congratulate? Weren’t you the one that didn’t want to broadcast live?’ and ‘I’ve been thinking, isn’t it time that CCTV gets its own E-sports channel?’.

Clumsy Display of Nationalism: ‘Handshake with the National Flag’

Despite China’s ‘ban’ on esports, the country’s esports athletes showed much patriotism during the Asian Games.

In an interview with Tencent Sports, one the players of the Chinese team, Jian Zihao (简自豪), who goes by the online-ID ‘Uzi,’ expressed his love and gratitude for China, saying: “It’s the first time the national esports team officially represents the country. We wear the national [sports]uniform from head to toe, with the five-star red flag printed on the left side of our chest and ‘CHINA’ in capitals on our back. […] we live in the same village as the other athletes. I never thought that this would happen to me.’

Jian Zihao

The team also had a noteworthy patriotic moment during the so-called ‘handshake with national flag incident’. After winning their second gold medal, the Chinese team gained much attention online when they somewhat clumsily kept on holding onto their national flag while shaking hands with the silver and bronze medal winners (video link).

After the award ceremony, the hashtag ‘Handshake with the national Flag’ (#举着国籍握手#) became a hot search on Weibo, with more than 27 million views.

The athletes later said that nobody dared to put the flag down, so they held it up while shaking hands. They reportedly said: ‘The national flag is the most sacred thing, we didn’t dare to make any mistakes.’

The moment the esports team shook hands with the other teams while holding the Chinese flag.

A Weibo post publishing about the moment titled the incident ‘Sorry, It’s the first time I won the  Asian Games Championship, [I have] no experience.’ (‘对不起,第一次拿亚运冠军,没经验.’); it was shared over 98 thousand times and liked more than 124 thousand times. Many netizens found it very amusing, calling the athletes ‘clumsy,’ ‘cute’ and ‘adorable.’

Whether the positive image of the athletes will be enough to lift the ban on broadcasting online gaming is not clear. Neither the CCTV nor People’s Daily have yet officially responded to the complaints. But as the next Asian Games are to be held in Hangzhou, China, in 2022, many are hopeful that the ban will be lifted by then. One thing is sure: their team is ready for it.

By Gabi Verberg

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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What’s on Weibo provides social, cultural & historical insights into an ever-changing China. What’s on Weibo sheds light on China’s digital media landscape and brings the story behind the hashtag. This independent news site is managed by sinologist Manya Koetse. Contact info@whatsonweibo.com. ©2014-2018

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