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Paper over Cracks: Online Frustrations about Official Language Sugarcoating China’s Youth Employment Crisis

Netizens are growing tired with the persistent use of positive language and creative use of data to mask unemployment challenges in China.

Zilan Qian



From manipulating employment statistics to the use of euphemistic terms, Chinese netizens are growing increasingly frustrated about how official media and authorities are portraying the situation on the job market. As one in five young Chinese faces joblessness, they criticise the stark contrast between official rhetoric and their lived experiences.

The National Bureau of Statistics recently released a new report on China’s national economy, asserting that the Chinese economy has continued on its upward trajectory.

According to the report, the surveyed urban unemployment rate in May stood at 5.2%, which remained unchanged from the previous month, while the unemployment rate for the 16-24 age group was reported at 20.8%.

Despite the subtitle of the employment data section claiming that “the overall employment situation in China remains stable,” this stability only seems to be a paperwall painted by the government to cover instability that is permeating throughout society as youth unemployment is a rising problem, with 1 in 5 young Chinese currently facing joblessness.

How ’employment’ was defined in the recent official report has sparked heated discussions online.

The Controversy of One Hour per Week: Challenging the Definition of Employment

According to the National Statistic Bureau, the survey adopted the standards of the International Labour Organization (ILO). The employed population refers to individuals who, during the reference period of the survey (usually a week), “have worked for one hour or more and have received labor compensation or earned income, as well as those who are temporarily absent from work due to vacation, temporary shutdowns, and similar reasons.” All these people are officially considered as ’employed.’

This situation implies that nóngmíngōng (农民工), migrant workers from rural areas who relocate to cities in search of employment opportunities, may be classified as “employed” even when they engage in occasional labor jobs and wait on the streets for temporary work, such as carpentry or cement work.

Netizens expressed their confusion regarding the classification of individuals offering these occasional labor jobs, characterized by extreme instability, as “employed.” [Photo via ChinaNews]

Despite quoting the ILO to justify its definition of employment as “scientific,” the bureau’s definition has faced strong criticism from Chinese netizens who find it unacceptable and ridiculous.

One netizen on Zhihu, representing many others, questioned, “How can someone who doesn’t even meet the minimum wage standard be considered ’employed’?!” They raised concerns about the viability of sustaining a living on the income earned from just one hour of work, which ranges from 25 RMB to 13 RMB depending on the region.

Under the hashtag “Working for One Hour or More Per Week Is Considered Employment” (#一周工作1小时及以上属于就业#), one netizen humorously highlights the absurdity of the employment standard by suggesting a comical solution: “I propose that all unemployed individuals go out and pick up trash for an hour to help alleviate the country’s unemployment rate.”

While netizens have long been aware of the government’s manipulation of data to present favorable statistics, the recent manipulation of classifying one hour of work per week as employment has reached an extreme level that many find amusing: “I admire our leaders for their shamelessness in front of the camera.”

Others mocked the government’s modesty in not declaring a zero employment rate, suggesting that it is the state, rather than the actual situation, that determines the numbers they present. As one Weibo user remarked, “If it weren’t unscientific to for the government claim 100 percent employment rate, ours would surely be 100 percent.”

Postponing Graduation in Response to a Challenging Job Market

Despite the contentious interpretation of employment, the unemployment rate for the 16-24 age group has experienced a steady rise. From December 2022 to May, the rate surged from 16.7% to 20.8%.

Monthly surveyed urban unemployment rate of people aged 16 to 24 in China from May 2021 to May 2023 by Statista.

Facing the undeniable crisis, the state still claims a positive prospect for the youth. According to the spokesman of the National Statistic Bureau, although there are about 96 million people in this age group, many are still students who have not yet entered the labor market. Additionally, there are approximately 6 million who are currently still searching for jobs among the estimated 33 million people who enter the labor market.

The spokesman highlighted that “over 26 million people have found jobs,” emphasizing that with the continuous improvement of the economy, employment has remained generally stable and has good support.

However, netizens are not convinced by the optimistic outlook presented by the authorities. In conjunction with the “one hour per week as employment” standard, the reported 20.8% youth unemployment rate appears even more alarming. “With such stringent unemployment criteria, they still manage to calculate a rate of 20 percent!” exclaimed a user on Zhihu, suggesting that the actual situation may be much worse than the officially stated figure.

Furthermore, there is a pessimistic sentiment regarding future development. Some individuals point out that the peak graduation season in June and July is yet to come. Additionally, the so-called “flexible employment” sectors, such as food delivery and ride-sharing, have already reached saturation. As a result, the situation may worsen when a large number of graduates enter an already saturated job market.

A survey poster reveals that among the surveyed students, 63.2% acknowledged knowing individuals who have opted to postpone their graduations, while 9.9% reported being acquainted with a significant number of people making the same choice.

University students have devised different mechanisms to cope with the situation. Many have chosen to postpone their graduation in response to the job market. According to a recent survey by China Youth Daily (中国青年报), 73.1% of the surveyed college students stated that they have classmates who have chosen to postpone their graduation. Among the various reasons for postponing graduation, 37.8% of the students explicitly state that they do so because they are unable to find suitable jobs.

Positive Phrasing to Sugarcoat Unemployment

Due to the challenging job market, a considerable number of university students have resorted to relocating from metropolitan areas in search of opportunities in more peripheral regions.

The official Weibo account of China Business Network (CBN, @第一财经日报), has launched the hashtag “The focus of employment for fresh university graduates continues to shift downwards” (#应届大学生就业重心继续下沉# ), shedding light on the growing trend among graduates to pursue employment prospects in medium-sized or small-sized cities, as well as rural areas. This shift is primarily driven by the limited job prospects available in major cities.

One of Weibo user sarcastically commented: “Our wordsmiths always have a way of disguising crises as peace and tranquility.” The commenter, along with many others, expressed discontent over the attempt to ‘beautify’ the phenomenon of students being unable to find employment in big cities by labeling it as a ‘downward shift of focus.’

A circulating meme on social media humorously highlights how official statements tend to present negative trends in a more positive light. Instead of straightforwardly stating that “the new energy vehicle market is saturated” or that “fresh graduates face difficulties in the employment market,” official language twists it to “new energy vehicles go to rural areas” and “the focus of employment for fresh graduates shifts downwards.”

Meme making fun of official language turning negative trends in something positive.

One commenter pointed out: “Negative terms such as ‘parasite’ (寄生虫) or ‘burden on parents (坑爹妈)’ have vanished from the media. Instead, positive terms like ‘full-time children (全职儿女)’ and ‘staying at home to take care of parents’ (留在家乡陪父母) have emerged.”

From manipulating employment statistics to employing euphemistic terms for unemployment, Chinese netizens are becoming increasingly weary of the government’s use of wordplay and number manipulation to portray an illusory sense of prosperity. A Zhihu user questioned, “Is it truly so difficult to acknowledge the phrase ’employment recession’?”

The frustration with the sugarcoating of unemployment realities is palpable in online discussions. “They are aware that we know they are lying,” wrote one Weibo user. Another individual wondered, “Why is everything filled with lies?” to which a reply succinctly stated, “They claim lies don’t hurt, but the truth is like a sharp knife.”

By Zilan Qian

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Zilan Qian is a China-born undergraduate student at Barnard College majoring in Anthropology. She is interested in exploring different cultural phenomena, loves people-watching, and likes loitering in supermarkets and museums.

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China Insight

The Tragic Story of “Fat Cat”: How a Chinese Gamer’s Suicide Went Viral

The story of ‘Fat Cat’ has become a hot topic in China, sparking widespread sympathy and discussions online.

Manya Koetse



The tragic story behind the recent suicide of a 21-year-old Chinese gamer nicknamed ‘Fat Cat’ has become a major topic of discussion on Chinese social media, touching upon broader societal issues from unfair gender dynamics to businesses taking advantage of grieving internet users.

The story of a 21-year-old Chinese gamer from Hunan who committed suicide has gone completely viral on Weibo and beyond this week, generating many discussions.

In late April of this year, the young man nicknamed ‘Fat Cat’ (胖猫 Pàng Māo, literally fat or chubby cat), tragically ended his life by jumping into the river near the Chongqing Yangtze River Bridge (重庆长江大桥) following a breakup with his girlfriend. By now, the incident has come to be known as the “Fat Cat Jumping Into the River Incident” (胖猫跳江事件).

News of his suicide soon made its rounds on the internet, and some bloggers started looking into what was behind the story. The man’s sister also spoke out through online channels, and numerous chat records between the young man and his girlfriend emerged online.

One aspect of his story that gained traction in early May is the revelation that the man had invested all his resources into the relationship. Allegedly, he made significant financial sacrifices, giving his girlfriend over 510,000 RMB (approximately 71,000 USD) throughout their relationship, in a time frame of two years.

When his girlfriend ended the relationship, despite all of his efforts, he was devastated and took his own life.

The story was picked up by various Chinese media outlets, and prominent social and political commentator Hu Xijin also wrote a post about Fat Cat, stating the sad story had made him tear up.

As the news spread, it sparked a multitude of hashtags on Weibo, with thousands of netizens pouring out their thoughts and emotions in response to the story.

Playing Games for Love

The main part of this story that is triggering online discussions is how ‘Fat Cat,’ a young man who possessed virtually nothing, managed to provide his girlfriend, who was six years older, with such a significant amount of money – and why he was willing to sacrifice so much in order to do so.

The young man reportedly was able to make money by playing video games, specifically by being a so-called ‘booster’ by playing with others and helping them get to a higher level in multiplayer online battle games.

According to his sister, he started working as a ‘professional’ video gamer as a means of generating money to satisfy his girlfriend, who allegedly always demanded more.

He registered a total of 36 accounts to receive orders to play online games, making 20 yuan per game (about $2.80). Because this consumed all of his time, he barely went out anymore and his social life was dead.

In order to save more money, he tried to keep his own expenses as low as possible, and would only get takeout food for himself for no more than 10 yuan ($1,4). His online avatar was an image of a cat saying “I don’t want to eat vegetables, I want to eat McDonald’s.”

The woman in question who he made so many sacrifices for is named Tan Zhu (谭竹), and she soon became the topic of public scrutiny. In one screenshot of a chat conversation between Tan and her boyfriend that leaked online, she claimed she needed money for various things. The two had agreed to get married later in this year.

Despite of this, she still broke up with him, driving him to jump off the bridge after transferring his remaining 66,000 RMB (9135 USD) to Tan Zhu.

As the story fermented online, Tan Zhu also shared her side of the story. She claimed that she had met ‘Fat Cat’ over two years ago through online gaming and had started a long distance relationship with him. They had actually only met up twice before he moved to Chongqing. She emphasized that financial gain was never a motivating factor in their relationship.

Tan additionally asserted that she had previously repaid 130,000 RMB (18,000 USD) to him and that they had reached a settlement agreement shortly before his tragic death.

Ordering Take-Out to Mourn Fat Cat

– “I hope you rest in peace.”
– “Little fat cat, I hope you’ll be less foolish in your next life.”
– “In your next life, love yourself first.”

These are just a few of the messages left by netizens on notes attached to takeout food deliveries near the Chongqing Yangtze River Bridge.

AI-generated image spread on Chinese social media in connection to the event.

As Fat Cat’s story stirred up significant online discussion, with many expressing sympathy for the young man who rarely indulged in spending on food and drinks, some internet users took the step of ordering McDonalds and other food delivery services to the bridge, where he tragically jumped from, in his honor.

This soon snowballed into more people ordering food and drinks to the bridge, resulting in a constant flow of delivery staff and a pile-up of take-out bags.

Delivery food on the bridge, photo via Weibo.

However, as the food delivery efforts picked up pace, it came to light that some of the deliveries ordered and paid for were either empty or contained something different; certain restaurants, aware of the collective effort to honor the young man, deliberately left the food boxes empty or substituted sodas or tea with tap water.

At least five restaurants were caught not delivering the actual orders. Chinese bubble tea shop ChaPanda was exposed for substituting water for milk tea in their cups. On May 3rd, ChaPanda responded that they had fired the responsible employee.

Another store, the Zhu Xiaoxiao Luosifen (朱小小螺蛳粉), responded on that they had temporarily closed the shop in question to deal with the issue. Chinese fast food chain NewYobo (牛约堡) also acknowledged that at least twenty orders they received were incomplete.

Fast food company Wallace (华莱士) responded to the controversy by stating they had dismissed the employees involved. Mixue Ice Cream & Tea (蜜雪冰城) issued an apology and temporarily closed one of their stores implicated in delivering empty orders.

In the midst of all the controversy, Fat Cat’s sister asked internet users to refrain from ordering take-out food as a means of mourning and honoring her brother.

Nevertheless, take-out food and flowers continued to accumulate near the bridge, prompting local authorities to think of ways of how to deal with this unique method of honoring the deceased gamer.

Gamer Boy Meets Girl

On Chinese social media, this story has also become a topic of debate in the context of gender dynamics and social inequality.

There are some male bloggers who are angry with Tan Zhu, suggesting her behaviour is an example of everything that’s supposedly “wrong” with Chinese women in this day and age.

Others place blame on Fat Cat for believing that he could buy love and maintain a relationship through financial means. This irked some feminist bloggers, who see it as a chauvinistic attitude towards women.

A main, recurring idea in these discussions is that young Chinese men such as Fat Cat, who are at the low end of the social ladder, are actually particularly vulnerable in a fiercely competitive society. Here, a gender imbalance and surplus of unmarried men make it easier for women to potentially exploit those desperate for companionship.

The story of Fat Cat brings back memories of ‘Mo Cha Official,’ a not-so-famous blogger who gained posthumous fame in 2021 when details of his unhappy life surfaced online.

Likewise, the tragic tale of WePhone founder Su Xiangmao (苏享茂) resurfaces. In 2017, the 37-year-old IT entrepreneur from Beijing took his own life, leaving behind a note alleging blackmail by his 29-year-old ex-wife, who demanded 10 million RMB (±1.5 million USD) (read story).

Another aspect of this viral story that is mentioned by netizens is how it gained so much attention during the Chinese May holidays, coinciding with the tragic news of the southern China highway collapse in Guangdong. That major incident resulted in the deaths of at least 48 people, and triggered questions over road safety and flawed construction designs. Some speculate that the prominence given to the Fat Cat story on trending topic lists may have been a deliberate attempt to divert attention away from this incident.

‘Fat Cat’ was cremated. His family stated their intention to take necessary legal steps to recover the money from his former girlfriend, but Tan Zhu reportedly already reached an agreement with the father and settled the case. Nevertheless, the case continues to generate discussions online, with some people wondering: “Is it over yet? Can we talk about something different now?”

Fat Cat images projected in Times Square

However, given that images of the ‘Fat Cat’ avatar have even appeared in Times Square in New York by now (Chinese internet users projected it on one of the big LED screens), it’s likely that this story will be remembered and talked about for some time to come.


On May 20, local authorities issued a lengthy report to clarify the timeline of events and details surrounding the death of “Fat Cat,” which had attracted significant attention across China.

The report concluded that there was no fraud involved and that “Fat Cat” and his girlfriend were in a genuine relationship. Tan did not deceive “Fat Cat” for money; the transfers were voluntary. Furthermore, Tan returned most of the money to his parents.

The gamer’s sister is reportedly still being investigated for potentially infringing on Tan’s privacy by disclosing numerous private details to the public.

In the end, one thing is clear in this gamer’s tragic story, which is that there are no winners.

By Manya Koetse

– With contributions by Miranda Barnes and Ruixin Zhang

Independently reporting China trends for over a decade. Like what we do? Support us and get the story behind the hashtag by subscribing:

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China Brands, Marketing & Consumers

A Brew of Controversy: Lu Xun and LELECHA’s ‘Smoky’ Oolong Tea

Chinese tea brand LELECHA faced backlash for using the iconic literary figure Lu Xun to promote their “Smoky Oolong” milk tea, sparking controversy over the exploitation of his legacy.

Manya Koetse



It seemed like such a good idea. For this year’s World Book Day, Chinese tea brand LELECHA (乐乐茶) put a spotlight on Lu Xun (鲁迅, 1881-1936), one of the most celebrated Chinese authors the 20th century and turned him into the the ‘brand ambassador’ of their special new “Smoky Oolong” (烟腔乌龙) milk tea.

LELECHA is a Chinese chain specializing in new-style tea beverages, including bubble tea and fruit tea. It debuted in Shanghai in 2016, and since then, it has expanded rapidly, opening dozens of new stores not only in Shanghai but also in other major cities across China.

Starting on April 23, not only did the LELECHA ‘Smoky Oolong” paper cups feature Lu Xun’s portrait, but also other promotional materials by LELECHA, such as menus and paper bags, accompanied by the slogan: “Old Smoky Oolong, New Youth” (“老烟腔,新青年”). The marketing campaign was a joint collaboration between LELECHA and publishing house Yilin Press.

Lu Xun featured on LELECHA products, image via Netease.

The slogan “Old Smoky Oolong, New Youth” is a play on the Chinese magazine ‘New Youth’ or ‘La Jeunesse’ (新青年), the influential literary magazine in which Lu’s famous short story, “Diary of a Madman,” was published in 1918.

The design of the tea featuring Lu Xun’s image, its colors, and painting style also pay homage to the era in which Lu Xun rose to prominence.

Lu Xun (pen name of Zhou Shuren) was a leading figure within China’s May Fourth Movement. The May Fourth Movement (1915-24) is also referred to as the Chinese Enlightenment or the Chinese Renaissance. It was the cultural revolution brought about by the political demonstrations on the fourth of May 1919 when citizens and students in Beijing paraded the streets to protest decisions made at the post-World War I Versailles Conference and called for the destruction of traditional culture[1].

In this historical context, Lu Xun emerged as a significant cultural figure, renowned for his critical and enlightened perspectives on Chinese society.

To this day, Lu Xun remains a highly respected figure. In the post-Mao era, some critics felt that Lu Xun was actually revered a bit too much, and called for efforts to ‘demystify’ him. In 1979, for example, writer Mao Dun called for a halt to the movement to turn Lu Xun into “a god-like figure”[2].

Perhaps LELECHA’s marketing team figured they could not go wrong by creating a milk tea product around China’s beloved Lu Xun. But for various reasons, the marketing campaign backfired, landing LELECHA in hot water. The topic went trending on Chinese social media, where many criticized the tea company.

Commodification of ‘Marxist’ Lu Xun

The first issue with LELECHA’s Lu Xun campaign is a legal one. It seems the tea chain used Lu Xun’s portrait without permission. Zhou Lingfei, Lu Xun’s great-grandson and president of the Lu Xun Cultural Foundation, quickly demanded an end to the unauthorized use of Lu Xun’s image on tea cups and other merchandise. He even hired a law firm to take legal action against the campaign.

Others noted that the image of Lu Xun that was used by LELECHA resembled a famous painting of Lu Xun by Yang Zhiguang (杨之光), potentially also infringing on Yang’s copyright.

But there are more reasons why people online are upset about the Lu Xun x LELECHA marketing campaign. One is how the use of the word “smoky” is seen as disrespectful towards Lu Xun. Lu Xun was known for his heavy smoking, which ultimately contributed to his early death.

It’s also ironic that Lu Xun, widely seen as a Marxist, is being used as a ‘brand ambassador’ for a commercial tea brand. This exploits Lu Xun’s image for profit, turning his legacy into a commodity with the ‘smoky oolong’ tea and related merchandise.

“Such blatant commercialization of Lu Xun, is there no bottom limit anymore?”, one Weibo user wrote. Another person commented: “If Lu Xun were still alive and knew he had become a tool for capitalists to make money, he’d probably scold you in an article. ”

On April 29, LELECHA finally issued an apology to Lu Xun’s relatives and the Lu Xun Cultural Foundation for neglecting the legal aspects of their marketing campaign. They claimed it was meant to promote reading among China’s youth. All Lu Xun materials have now been removed from LELECHA’s stores.

Statement by LELECHA.

On Chinese social media, where the hot tea became a hot potato, opinions on the issue are divided. While many netizens think it is unacceptable to infringe on Lu Xun’s portrait rights like that, there are others who appreciate the merchandise.

The LELECHA controversy is similar to another issue that went trending in late 2023, when the well-known Chinese tea chain HeyTea (喜茶) collaborated with the Jingdezhen Ceramics Museum to release a special ‘Buddha’s Happiness’ (佛喜) latte tea series adorned with Buddha images on the cups, along with other merchandise such as stickers and magnets. The series featured three customized “Buddha’s Happiness” cups modeled on the “Speechless Bodhisattva” (无语菩萨), which soon became popular among netizens.

The HeyTea Buddha latte series, including merchandise, was pulled from shelves just three days after its launch.

However, the ‘Buddha’s Happiness’ success came to an abrupt halt when the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau of Shenzhen intervened, citing regulations that prohibit commercial promotion of religion. HeyTea wasted no time challenging the objections made by the Bureau and promptly removed the tea series and all related merchandise from its stores, just three days after its initial launch.

Following the Happy Buddha and Lu Xun milk tea controversies, Chinese tea brands are bound to be more careful in the future when it comes to their collaborative marketing campaigns and whether or not they’re crossing any boundaries.

Some people couldn’t care less if they don’t launch another campaign at all. One Weibo user wrote: “Every day there’s a new collaboration here, another one there, but I’d just prefer a simple cup of tea.”

By Manya Koetse

[1]Schoppa, Keith. 2000. The Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History. New York: Columbia UP, 159.

[2]Zhong, Xueping. 2010. “Who Is Afraid Of Lu Xun? The Politics Of ‘Debates About Lu Xun’ (鲁迅论争lu Xun Lun Zheng) And The Question Of His Legacy In Post-Revolution China.” In Culture and Social Transformations in Reform Era China, 257–284, 262.

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