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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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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

Weibo’s Digital Graveyard: Remembering the Dead on Chinese Social Media

‘The Dead’ honors the deceased and tries to break existing taboos on death in China.

Brydon Brancart

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With China’s rapid digitalization and flourishing online media environment, there’s one crucial societal topic that, although taboo, also now finds its place on Chinese social media: this Weibo account collects the stories of the dead and writes their online eulogies. In doing so, they are trying to break longstanding taboos around death in China.

“My grandmother passed away due to illness in 2016. She was 78 years old. My grandmother was a kind soul. She married my grandfather after his divorce. They had never even seen each other before [her] mother and father prepared the marriage, and yet she lovingly cared for him her entire life.” This eulogy was posted on Weibo on February 12th of this year.

Within hours after it was posted, over 100 people had replied with the most popular emoji for these type of posts: the candle.

Since 2011, thousands of these kinds of posts have appeared on Weibo, one of China’s biggest microblogs, thanks to “The Dead” (@逝者如斯夫dead), an account run by a small team dedicated to memorializing the deceased. Through their online memorials, they have encouraged conversation of a taboo topic.

 

HUNTING FOR THE DEAD ON WEIBO

“We wanted to provide a place for people to remember those who had passed away”

 

Starting small, ‘The Dead,’ which borrows its Chinese name from the Confucian phrase “All passes like a river” (逝者如斯夫 Shì zhě rú sī fū), has amassed over half a million followers. “We wanted to provide a place for people to remember those who had passed away,” a team member recently explained to What’s on Weibo.

Weibo users typically contact the account requesting eulogies about their deceased loved one, but such direct requests were rare just a few years ago. Instead, the account started by hunting for the dead among Weibo’s pages. They searched for signs of a user’s passing, like comments about mourning, and then monitoring the account for inactivity.

‘The Dead’ told What’s on Weibo that “while at present most of our information comes from Weibo users,” its team will still “go through the deceased’s page…looking through comments in the discussion section and asking about the user’s current condition” to confirm a death and glean facts for a memorial posting.

Few of its half a million followers personally know the people in the obituaries. But their reaction to its eulogies reveals a deep and often emotional connection to the topic of death.

“Every now and then I go to their page and scroll through the memorials,” one follower writes: “Those people, who were so full of life, passed away just like that. It’s so moving that sometimes I scroll until my eyes fill with tears.”

Another follower comments: “Whenever I’m feeling low I go and scroll through [the page], it always calms me down. I’ve been very inspired by it, thank you.” For many Chinese, such an open discussion of death would have been unthinkable in the past.

 

DEATH AS TABOO

“This taboo has an independent power in shaping human action”

 

Every culture confronts death differently and few do it well. Traditional Chinese culture shunned discussions of death, notes Cheris Shun-Ching Chan, professor of sociology at Hong Kong University.

Chan believes that Confucian silence on questions of death and folk Buddhist references to “a dark world (yinjian) and a cruel hell (diyue)” account for the topic’s avoidance. She also points to fears that a premature death could mark the end of one’s lineage (Chan 2012,37).

Chan’s survey research found that avoidance of any discussion about death was so widespread that it had become taboo. “The taboo manifests as an observable avoidance of the topic,” Chan writes, “particularly unexpected, accidental, or premature death, among not only the elderly but also the generation in their late 20s and 30s” (Chan 2012,36).

While religious belief waned during the tumult of the 20th century, the taboo persisted. “Today, this taboo has an independent power in shaping human action,” Chan argues: “In other words, one does not need to hold beliefs about hell, the dark world, ghosts, evils, and precipitating death in order to observe the taboo” (2012,38-40).

Stifling discussion about death has consequences, big and small. Individuals unwilling to acknowledge death are reluctant to write wills or register as organ donors. Respecting the death taboo, doctors avoid delivering a terminal diagnosis to patients, informing family members instead.

One news story from 1993 exemplifies this taboo on death; when residents near China’s first hospice care center protested the presence of death in their neighborhood, matters turned violent. They started shattering the center’s windows, driving doctors and their patients from the center in the middle of the night. As the health needs of China’s population evolves with its economic growth, the death taboo threatens much more.

In a rapidly aging China, people live longer and deaths cost more than ever before. The World Health Organization reports that eight of the top ten causes of death in China are now due to non-communicable diseases.

As deaths caused by accidents and communicable diseases have dropped, death by stroke, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and cancer have jumped double digits and with that jump, a commensurate increase in the costly treatments of these diseases.

A 2013 study of the cost of non-communicable disease on the Chinese economy predicted that between 2012-2030, China will spend 27.6 trillion dollars remedying non-communicable disease. The death taboo threatens to leave China unprepared to care for a population living longer thanks to better medical care but dying at higher rates of chronic illness.

Health care in China is free, to a point. According to the Economist, China’s national health-insurance system caps reimbursements for treatment of serious chronic illness like heart disease and end of life care. The death taboo poses a risk to families in a country where it is still considered unfilial by many to pursue a course of treatment other than one meant to cure the patient.

Hospice care, which should be cheaper, is rarely considered and seldom available. While hospice care is now part of the standard course of treatment for end of life care in EU and North America, the death taboo undermines demand for the service. This, in turn, removes pressure on medical insurers to provide hospice coverage. Insurance coverage for hospice care is so limited that families are forced to pay out of pocket for most hospice care.

 

ADDRESSING DEATH

“Everyone ought to admit death’s existence and face up to its realities”

 

Addressing these challenges starts with acknowledging death as a part of life. “People have slowly become more willing to discuss death,” the Weibo ‘The Dead’ team observes: “You can see this in Weibo users openly posting about the passing of loved ones.”

Beyond Weibo, the account’s rejection of the death taboo has also found powerful allies elsewhere. In Beijing, Chen Yi and Luo Ruiqing, children of prominent CCP members, launched the Beijing Living Will Promotion Association, advocating for individuals and families to openly discuss and plan for end of life care.

Yi and Ruiqing explain to Caixin that watching the slow and painful death of their parents with few options for palliative care moved them to take action.

Their website provides information to help individuals decide about the kind of end of life care they want and how to ensure their wishes are followed through the use of a living will, a standard feature of Western health care but new to China.

In Shanghai, Wang Ying, a psychologist who now specializes in end-of-life, is taking a different approach to addressing the same problem. Ying founded Hand in Hand, an organization that encourages individuals to openly discuss their deaths as a form of preparation.

Like Yi and Ruiqing, Ying’s determination to challenge the death taboo stemmed from her conviction that repressing a discussion about end of life care and death causes his elder relatives needless suffering at the end of their lives.

Noting the rising interest in their Weibo account, ‘The Dead’ has recently started a Wechat mini app where users can send manage their own memorials and share them with others. The team believes that Weibo and Wechat allow them to reach out to a large audience all over the country.

They admit, however, that problems of economic disparity have limited their reach, and guess that most of their subjects and contributors are urban dwellers. Still, they are hopeful that their work can help change many people’s perspectives.

“Everyone ought to admit death’s existence and face up to its realities,” they say: “Working hard to live with an understanding of death is a lesson every Chinese person must learn.”

By Brydon Brancart

References (other sources in-text through hyperlinks)

Chan, Cheris Shun-Ching. 2012. Marketing Death: Culture and the Making of a Life Insurance Market in China. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Mimeng and ‘Self-Media’ under Attack for Promoting Fake News Stories to Chinese Readers

Chinese ‘zimeiti’ or ‘self media’ have become a topic of discussion after this Mimeng scandal.

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China’s “Queen of Self-media,” Mimeng, is under attack after publishing a story that has been labeled ‘fake news.’ The scandal has triggered discussions on the status-quo of Zimeiti (自媒体/We Media) on the Chinese internet.

It was one of the most-discussed topics on Weibo and WeChat right before the Chinese New Year: the scandal involving Chinese blogging account ‘Mimeng’ (咪蒙), which sparked discussions on Mimeng herself and on the regulation and responsibility of ‘we media’ accounts on the Chinese internet.

Who or what is ‘Mimeng’? First and foremost, Mimeng is an online social media account with an enormous fanbase: 13 million followers on WeChat, 2.6 followers on Weibo.

The person behind the Mimeng blogging account is Ma Ling (马凌), a Chinese female author and Literature graduate who was born in 1976 in Sichuan’s Nanchong.

Over the past few years, ‘Mimeng’ has grown into a so-called ‘we media’ or ‘self media’ platform (zimeiti 自媒体), referring to private, independent, online publishing accounts that get their content across through blogs, podcasts, and other online channels. Mimeng is now more than Ma Ling alone: there’s an entire team behind it.

Mimeng has been controversial for years because of its clickbait titles and controversial stances on various issues. The topics most addressed in Mimeng’s publications are relationships between men and women, love, marriage, quarreling, and extramarital affairs.

Previous articles published by Mimeng, who is a self-labeled ‘feminist’ (and often mocked for it), include titles such as “This Is Why You’re Poor,” “Jealously Means Progress,” “I Love Money, It’s True,” “Men Don’t Cheat for Sex,” or “How to Kill Your Wife.”

Besides its content, there are also other reasons why Mimeng has triggered controversy in the past. The fact that Mimeng charges a staggering amount of money to advertisers, for example, is also something that previously became a topic of discussion – Mimeng allegedly charges some 750,000 yuan ($113,000) for a post mention.

 

SELLING FAKE STORIES

As an influential We Media source, we must take on our social responsibility

 

This time, however, Mimeng is hit by the biggest controversy thus far. The media group is under attack after publishing a story that turned out to be (partly) fabricated. The story was published on a WeChat account called Talented Limited Youth (才华有限青年), which is registered under the same legal entity as Mimeng. Its primary author, according to Sixth Tone, is a former intern of Ma Ling called Yang Yueduo.

The publication in question is a long story titled “The Death of a Top Scorer from a Poor Family” (“一个出身寒门的状元之死”) which allegedly portrayed the short life of the author’s old classmate: a young, bright mind, born in an impoverished family in Sichuan province. In the story, the protagonist did all he could to create a better life for him and his family.

He studied hard, got the best university entrance score of his city, and successfully graduated from university. But despite his efforts to start a life in the big city, he failed to succeed and tragically died of cancer at the young age of 24.

Shortly after publication, the moving and tragic story went viral on social media. However, several details made online readers doubt the story’s authenticity. It did not take long before readers proved that several aspects of the story were indeed untrue.

In light of the fake news allegations, Talented Limited Youth quickly deleted the story from WeChat. They also issued a statement defending the story’s authenticity, explaining that for privacy reasons, various details of the story were altered. According to Beijing News, Talented Limited Youth was then banned from posting on WeChat for 60 days.

In response to the allegations, Mimeng offered its “sincerest apologies” on Weibo on February 1st, saying: “The Mimeng Group has decided to completely withdraw from Weibo and take a two-month break from WeChat. We will use that time to carry out serious and profound self-reflection.” The post continued saying that “as an influential We Media source, we must take on our social responsibility and pass on positive energy and values.”

The announcement went trending under the hashtag “Mimeng Shuts Down Weibo Indefinitely” (#咪蒙微博永久关停#), which has received over 210 million views at time of writing.

 

POISONED CHICKEN SOUP

Mimeng, for you, patriotism is only business

 

On social media, there is a clear divide between those who support and oppose Mimeng. While some are calling for a “complete shutdown” of Mimeng, there are also those who say they will keep on following Mimeng and that they enjoy their publications.

The controversial Mimeng account has even brought about a so-called “Following Mimeng Rate” (含咪率), a number based on how many of your WeChat friends are following Mimeng‘s public WeChat account (by checking Mimeng’s account on WeChat, WeChat users can see how many of their friends are following this account).

Mimeng opposers allege that the more friends you have that follow the Miming account, the more likely you are “to fail in life.”

The official Weibo account of the Jiangsu Public Security’s Bureau of ‘Internet Safety’ (@江苏网警) is also a clear Mimeng opposer. Last week, they lashed out against Mimeng in a post titled “Mimeng, for you, patriotism is only business.”

The post hints at Mimeng’s inconsistent stance on patriotism, and it included screenshots from two earlier Mimeng posts from 2013 and 2016, one in which patriotism is referred to as a kind of “forced love,” and the other one saying: “I’ll love my country forever, its greatness will forever move me to tears.”

The post by the Jiangsu Bureau itself then also blew up on Weibo, with the hashtag “Jiangsu Internet Police calls out Mimeng” (#江苏网警点名咪蒙#) soon gaining over 210 million views. In the comment sections, many people criticize Mimeng for “deceiving people,” “promoting negative values” and “using anything to get clicks.”

One person wrote: “These self-regulated media only care about making money, they have no sense of social responsibility.”

Others said that the fake news story was nothing but ‘poisoned chicken soup’ (毒鸡汤).

This is a term that is often used to describe Mimeng’s content, and that of other self-media accounts, meaning that from the outside, it looks like “feel-good content” or “chicken soup [for the soul]” while it is actually ‘poisonous’ content with a marketing strategy or money-making machine behind it.

 

ZIMEITI CHAOS

Self- media cannot become a spiritual pyramid scheme

 

The Mimeng case has led to discussions in Chinese media on the status of ‘we media’ or ‘self-media’ platforms and their influence.

People’s Daily responded to the Mimeng scandal with a post on February 1st titled “Self-media Cannot Become a Spiritual Pyramid Scheme” (“自媒体不能搞成精神传销”), which argued that unless self-media accounts such as Mimeng actually work on establishing “healthy social values,” their apologies are only a way to temporarily dodge negative public attention.

In late January, Chongqing Internet authorities launched an investigation into 48 ‘self-media’ accounts, suspending two for spreading “fake news.”

State media outlet China News published an article, also this week, that describes ‘self-media’ as a ‘hypermarket’ where publishers will go to extreme measures, such as selling ‘fake news’ for clicks, spreading negative influences and anxiety among the people.

But these discussions are somewhat blurred, as it is not entirely clear what ‘self-media’ actually is in this context. Generally speaking, the term could include any micro-blogger who identifies themselves as ‘self-media’ or ‘we media’ (zimeiti 自媒体). But in the current discussion, it seems to only relate to those publishing accounts that have a certain influence on social media and the (online) media environment, posing a challenge to traditional news outlets.

Some definitions of Chinese ‘we media’ say it is basically is “an umbrella term for self-posted content on social media platforms” (Qin 2016; Jiang & Sun 2017) – this suggests that everyone who is active on WeChat and Weibo or elsewhere is basically in ‘self-media.’

A clearer description is given by Week in China, writing that “zimeiti typically operate as social media accounts run by individuals or as small firms established by a handful of former journalists.”

What makes it different from any other social media account, is that in ‘we-media’ or ‘zimeiti’ “the blogging has been professionalized and that the authors can make a living from it” (WiC 2018). It is a trend that has become especially visible in China’s online environment since 2012-2014.

This highly commercial side of ‘we media’ matters. If a publisher, such as Mimeng, charges advertisers exorbitant amounts of money, they also have to maintain a certain number of readers. They don’t just post as a hobby, it is serious business.

In a highly competitive online media environment, where hundreds of media outlets are fighting over the clicks of China’s online population of over 800 people, clickbait titles have almost become somewhat of a necessity for some of these publishers, with some even resorting to publishing “fake news” to get the attention – and the clicks.

China’s Newsweek Magazine (新闻周刊) calls the situation at hand a “self-media chaos” (自媒体乱象) that poses an “unprecedented challenge” for governing society in the 3.0 era. They call for “healthy development of self-media” and better legislation to control the mushrooming zimeiti, that, despite strong online censorship, are not as tightly controlled as China’s traditional media.

“Nowadays, we have less and less intellectuals, and more and more ‘people selling words.’ The chaos of self-media needs to be controlled,” one commenter on Weibo says (@ZY盒子).

But other people deem that readers themselves should pick what they read instead of authorities regulating it for them: “The important thing is that every reader must have the independence to judge for themselves [what they read]; just let the ‘poisonous chicken soup’ [naturally] lose their market.”

The Mimeng scandal shows that for social media accounts with a large following, one misstep can have huge consequences. This is something that Papi Jiang, a ‘self-media’ personality who became huge in 2015/2016, also experienced; she was reprimanded for disseminating “vulgar language and content” in April of 2016.

Very similar to Mimeng’s statement, Papi also issued an apology at the time, saying she supported the requirement for correction, and that she would attempt to convey “positive power” (正能量) in the future. “As a media personality,” she said, “I will watch my words and my image.” Papi’s CEO also expressed the company’s willingness to produce “healthier contents.” At the time, her videos were temporarily taken offline.

Meanwhile, some people think that the fact that Mimeng will stay silent for the coming two months is not necessarily a bad thing for the publisher: “They can take an extra long Spring Festival holiday.” As for Mimeng’s Weibo ‘holiday’ – that one is likely to be permanent.

By Gabi Verberg and Manya Koetse

References
-Qin, Amy. 2016. “China’s Viral Idol: Papi Jiang, a Girl Next Door With Attitude.” New York Times, 24 Aug https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/25/arts/international/chinas-viral-idol-papi-jiang-a-girl-next-door-with-attitude.html [2.6.19].
-Sun, Yanran and Jiang. 2017. “A Study on the Effectiveness of We-Media as a Platform for Intercultural Communication.” In New Media and Chinese Society, Ke Xue & Mingyang Yu (Eds.), 271-284. Singapore: Springer.
-WiC. 2018. “Headline earnings – Zimeiti hunt media profits but they still need to play by the rules.” Week in China, 15 June https://www.weekinchina.com/2018/06/headline-earnings/ [2.6.19].

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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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