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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.

Manya Koetse

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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.

China Digital

Summer Censorship: Weibo Launches “Project Sky Blue”

No hot summer on Weibo: the social media network announces extra censorship on ‘vulgar content.’

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Earlier this week, the administration of Sina Weibo announced a special summer holiday crackdown on “vulgar content,” including “pornographic novels, erotic anime, pictures or videos.”

In a public announcement that was posted on July 4th, the Weibo administration writes that the primary goal of this campaign is to “create a healthier, more positive environment for underage users” during the summer break period.

The censorship plan is titled “Project Deep Blue” (or: “Project Sky Blue”) (蔚蓝计划), and will use filter systems, human moderators and user reports to censor more content for the upcoming two months.

The project even has its own Weibo account now, where Weibo users can ask questions, report inappropriate content, and get more information on the campaign.

Weibo states it will further expand its team of online content supervisors, and also explicitly encourages netizens to flag ‘inappropriate’ content to make the online community ‘more wholesome.’

The hashtag #ProjectDeepBlue (#蔚蓝计划#) topped the hot search lists on Weibo this week; not necessarily because of the topic’s popularity, but because it was placed there by the social media site’s administration. At time of writing, the hashtag page has attracted more than 180 million views.

Online responses to the summer censorship program are mixed: many commenters voice their support for the latest measure, while others express frustration.

One Weibo user from Hubei calls the latest measure “hypocritical,” arguing that minors surf Weibo just as much during school time as during the summer holiday – suggesting that launching a special censorship program for the summer vacation does not make sense at all.

But many popular comments are in favor of the project, saying: “I support Project Deep Blue, the internet needs to be cleaned up,” and: “China’s young people need to be protected.”

This is not the first time Weibo launches a special intensified censorship program. Throughout the years, it has repeatedly carried out ‘anti-pornography‘ campaigns in cooperation with Chinese cyberspace authorities.

Often, the crusade against ‘vulgar’ content also ends up being used for the purpose of censoring political content rather than to actually eradicate ‘obscenities’ (read more).

By now, it seems that many Weibo users are quite actively using the Project Deep Blue tag to report on other users who are posting violent or vulgar content.

“If you’re not careful, you’re hit with vulgar and obscene content the moment you’re on the internet,” well-known mom blogger Humapanpan (@虎妈潘潘) writes: “Now that the summer holiday is coming, I hope we can join the Project Deep Blue, and clean up the internet environment.  Actively report obscene content the moment you see it – let’s protect our future together.”

By Skylar Xu & Manya Koetse

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Faking Street Photography: Why Staged “Street Snaps” Are All the Rage in China

Staged street photography is the latest “15 minutes of fame” trend on Chinese social media.

Manya Koetse

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It looks as if they are spontaneously photographed or filmed by one of China’s many street photographers, but it is actually staged. Chinese online influencers – or the companies behind them – are using street photography as part of their social media strategy. And then there are those who are mocking them.

Recently a new trend has popped up on Chinese social media: people posting short videos on their accounts that create the impression that they are being spotted by street fashion photographers. Some look at the camera in a shy way, others turn away, then there are those who smile and cheekily stick out their tongue at the camera.

Although it may appear to be all spontaneous, these people – mostly women – are actually not randomly being caught on camera by one of China’s many street fashion photographers in trendy neighborhoods. They have organized this ‘fashion shoot’ themselves, often showing off their funny poses and special moves, from backward flips to splits, to attract more attention (see example in video embedded below).

In doing so, these self-made models are gaining more fans on their Weibo, Douyin, Xiaohongshu, or WeChat accounts, and are turning their social media apps into their very own stage.

 

Street Photography in Sanlitun

 

The real street photography trend has been ongoing in China for years, near trendy areas such as Hangzhou’s Yintai shopping mall, or Chengdu’s Taikoo Li.

One place that is especially known for its many street photographers is Beijing’s see-and-be-seen Sanlitun area, where photographers have since long been gathering around the Apple or Uniqlo stores with their big lens cameras to capture people walking by and their trendy fashion.

A few years ago, Thatsmag featured an article discussing this phenomenon, asking: “Who are these guys and what are they doing with their photos?”

Author Dominique Wong found that many of these people are older men, amateur photographers, who are simply snapping photos of attractive, fashionable, and unique-looking people as their hobby.

But there are also those who are working for street fashion blogs or style magazines such as P1, and are actually making money with their street snaps capturing China’s latest fashion trends.

Image by 新浪博客

People featured in these street snaps can sometimes go viral and become internet celebrities (网红). One of China’s most famous examples of a street photographed internet celebrity is “Brother Sharp.”

‘Brother Sharp’ became an online hit in 2009 (image via Chinasmack).

It’s been ten years since “Brother Sharp” (犀利哥), a homeless man from Ningbo, became an online hit in China for his fashionable and handsome appearance, after his street snap went trending on the Chinese internet.

 

Staged Street Scenes

 

But what if nobody’s snapping your pics and you want to go viral with your “Oh, I am being spotted by street fashion photographers” video? By setting up their own “street snap” shoots, online influencers take matters into their own hands.

It is not just individuals who are setting up these shoots; there are also companies and brands that do so in order to make their (fashion) products more famous. According to People’s Daily, in Hangzhou alone, there are over 200 photographers for such “street snaps” and hundreds of thousands of models for such “performances.”

The photographers can, supposedly, earn about 20,000 to 30,000 yuan ($2,890-$4,335) per day and the models are well paid.

In this way, the “street snap performance” phenomenon is somewhat similar to another trend that especially became apparent in China around 2015-2016, namely that of ‘bystander videos’ capturing a public scene. Although these videos seem to be real, there are actually staged.

One such example happened in 2017 when a video went viral of a young woman being scolded on a Beijing subway for wearing a revealing cosplay outfit.

The story attracted much attention on social media at the time, with many netizens siding with the young woman and praising her for responding coolly although the woman was attacking her. Later, the whole scene turned out to be staged with the purpose of generating more attention for the ad of a “cool” food delivery platform behind the older lady.

In 2015, photos of a ‘romantic proposal’ made its rounds on social media when a young man asked his pregnant girlfriend to marry him using over 50 packs of diapers in the shape of a giant heart. One bag of diapers carried a diamond ring inside. It was later said the scene was sponsored by Libero Diapers.

 

Wanghong Economy

 

Both the latest street snap trend and the staged video trend are all part of China’s so-called “Wanghong economy.” Wǎnghóng (网红) is the Chinese term for internet celebrities, KOL (Key Opinion Leader) or ‘influencer.’ Influencer marketing is hot and booming in China: in 2018, the industry was estimated to be worth some $17.16 billion.

Being a wanghong is lucrative business: the more views, clicks, and fans one has, the more profit they can make through e-commerce and online advertising.

Using Chinese KOLs to boost brands can be an attractive option for advertisers, since their social media accounts have a huge fanbase. Prices vary on the amount of fans the ‘influencer’ has. In 2015, for example, the Chinese stylist Xiao P already charged RMB 76,000 ($11,060) for a one-time product mention on his Weibo account (36 million fans).

According to the “KOL budget Calculator” by marketing platform PARKLU, a single sponsored post on the Weibo account of a famous influencer will cost around RMB 60,000 ($8730).

The current staged street snap hype is interesting for various online media businesses in multiple ways. On short video app Douyin, for example, the hugely popular street snap videos come with a link that allows app users to purchase the exact same outfits as the girls in the videos.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, an online survey by Tencent found that 54% of college-age respondents had the ambition to become an “online celebrity.”

 

Making Non-Fashion Fashion: The Farm Field as a Catwalk

 

Although becoming an actual online celebrity used to be a far-fetched dream for many Chinese netizens, the latest staged-street-snap trend creates the possibility for people to experience their “15 minutes of fame” online.

Just as in previous online trends such as the Flaunt Your Wealth Challenge or A4 Waist Challenge, you see that many people soon participate in them, and that they are then followed by an “anti-movement” of people making fun of the trend or using it to promote a different social point-of-view.

The 2018 “Flaunt Your Wealth” challenge, for example, in which Chinese influencers shared pictures of themselves falling out of their cars with their expensive possessions all around them, was followed by an Anti-Flaunt Your Wealth movement, in which ordinary people mocked the challenge by showing themselves on the floor with their diplomas, military credentials, painting tools, or study books around them.

In case of the (staged) “Fashion Street Photography” movement, that now has over 103 million views on Weibo (#全国时尚街拍大赏# and #街拍艺术行为大赏#), you can also see that many people have started to mock it.

“I find [this trend] so embarrassing that I want to toss my phone away, yet I can’t help but watch it,” one Weibo user (@十一点半关手机) writes, with others agreeing, saying: “This is all so awkward, it just makes my skin crawl.”

The anti-trend answer to the staged street shoot hype now is that people are also pretending to be doing such a street snap, but ridiculing it by making over-the-top movements, doing it in ‘uncool’ places, wearing basic clothing, or setting up a funny situation (see embedded tweet below).

Some of these short videos show ‘models’ walking in a rural area, pretending to be photographed by a ‘street fashion photographer’ – it’s an anti-trend that’s become a trend in itself (see videos in embedded tweets below).

Although this ‘anti-trend’ is meant in a mocking way, it is sometimes also a form of self-expression for young people for whom the Sanlitun-wannabe-models life is an extravagant and sometimes unattainable one.

They don’t need trendy streets and Chanel bags to pretend to be models: even the farm field can be their catwalk.

In the end, the anti-trend “models” on Chinese social media are arguably much cooler than the influencers pretending to be photographed. Not only do they convey a sense of authenticity, they also have something else that matters the most in order to be truly cool and attractive: a sense of humor.

Also read: From Mountains of Taishan to Faces of Amsterdam – Interview with Street Photographer Jimmy on the Run

Also read: Beijing Close-Up: Photographer Tom Selmon Crosses the Borders of Gender in China

By Manya Koetse

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