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‘Preferential Treatment’ of Foreign Students in China: Top 3 Controversies This Week

A wave of sentiment against foreign students is taking over Chinese social media this week.

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The treatment of foreign students in China is a major topic of discussion this week, as various stories involving apparent favoritism of exchange students are making their rounds on Chinese social media. This is a top 3 of trending issues.

Recently, there have been many discussions on Chinese social media on the alleged preferential treatment of foreign (exchange) students in China.

Various topics popping up over the past week have triggered anger among netizens about foreign students being allowed to come and study China under favorable conditions.

Some netizens think foreign students make use of the situation and refer to these students as ‘foreign trash’ (洋垃圾).

Although there are many different stories making their rounds, these are the three main news topics of the moment relating to ‘favoritism’ of foreign students compared to Chinese students.

 

1. Arranging ‘Girlfriends’: Shandong’s Study Buddy System Sparks Outrage Online

The first story relating to foreign students that has been making news recently is that of preferential treatment of foreigners at Shandong University.

It is this story that later led to more stories coming out about supposed unequal standards for overseas students in China.

The outrage started after a registration form from Shandong University for students to apply as a “buddy” to exchange students made its rounds on Chinese social media.

The form clearly states “making a foreign friend of the opposite sex” as one of its options.

As explained by SupChina, the study buddy program (学伴制度) was established in 2016 to promote cooperation between foreign and Chinese students.

This year’s application forms show that multiple Chinese volunteers are now grouped and assigned to one foreign student to assist them with school assignments or to keep them company during other (social) activities.

One extreme case in which 25 Chinese students attended to the needs of one single exchange student stirred discussions online. The graduate student from Zimbabwe, who did not speak Chinese, was admitted to the hospital for 25 days for a broken leg and the university had arranged one volunteering student to come to the hospital every day.

The form also showed a specific focus on gender, requiring students to choose options for becoming a study buddy, including that of “making foreign friends of the opposite sex” (“结交外国异性友人”) and allowing them to indicate their preference for their matched buddy’s personality.

A notice circulating on Weibo from the university showed that 47 foreigners taking part in the program were each matched with three Chinese students, most of them female.

This led to people wondering if Shandong University was acting as an educational institute or a matchmaking company, and accused the university of arranging girlfriends for male foreign students.

Shandong University has since apologized and said it would conduct a “thorough research” of its Buddy Programme.

Not all people, however, understand what all the fuss is about. As one popular Weibo blogger noted: “Shandong University’s Buddy System is voluntary, and it is optional to choose the preferred gender of the exchange student, there is no need to fill this out.”

 

2. Lenient Laws? Foreign Student Traffic Police Incident

Another incident sparking controversy occurred on July 9 in the city of Fuzhou, where an international student from the Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University was caught breaking traffic rules on his electric scooter – he was carrying another individual.

When the traffic police stopped the man, he resisted with violence and tried to push the officer out of his way.

Yet, despite his apparent aggressive behavior, the man reportedly was only penalized for his traffic offense and did not face any other legal punishments.

The man has been identified as an Egyptian student by the name of Younes.

One Weibo thread reporting on the incident received approximately 37,000 comments and neared half a million likes.

Although Chinese social media users were angered that the man was let go so easily, the Epoch Times, a news outlet highly critical of China, stated that laws in China about carrying passengers on mopeds are loosely and often arbitrarily enforced.

Instead of reporting favoritism, the Epoch Times article suggests that the incident actually signals towards a bias against foreigners, which is allegedly part of a Chinese media campaign that “portrays Westerners inside China in an increasingly negative light.”

A bystander video of the incident shows the foreign man shouting at the traffic police and even chasing him.

“Why was he not punished for attacking the policeman?” many on Weibo wonder: “He should be expelled from school and sent back home!”

The hashtag “Foreign Student Violates Law, Then Jostles with Traffic Police” (#外籍学生违反交规推搡交警), hosted by CCTV, received 110 million views on Weibo.

On July 15, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also responded to these online discussions, saying that China welcomes foreign students to study in China to promote mutual understanding and friendships between China and other countries. They also stressed that foreign students should always abide by Chinese laws and regulations.

 

3. Unequal Standards: Dorm Disparity

Dorm disparity between Chinese and foreign students has been a topic of discussion for some time.

In 2018, a short movie went viral on Chinese social media exposing the big differences between the dorm conditions of Chinese students and of foreigners studying in China, causing controversy online.

Amidst all recent discussions on foreign students in China, the dorm discussion has also flared up again.

On July 19, one Chinese netizen noted that the Shandong Agriculture University was refurbishing its guesthouse facilities, where the foreign students live, while photos showed that the Chinese dorms are in abominable conditions.

“Why can’t they live together with Chinese students?” many commenters wonder: “Are Chinese students of a lower rank?”

On July 12, the Shandong Finance & Economics University dorms also became a topic of discussion on Weibo after management required Chinese students to move to another dorm twenty minutes further away so that they could let foreign students live in their dorms instead.

Following online protests, the management decided to halt the dorm move.

Another story getting big this week involves the different electricity quota for foreign students at a Shandong University dorm, where ‘exchange students’ as a separate category are allowed to freely use 30 kWh per month, more than double of what (Chinese) graduate students are allowed to use.

“This is a disgrace to our country,” some commenters said.

Depending on the university, Chinese students often do not have the option to live in foreign dorms, while foreigners often also do not have the option to live in Chinese dorms. In some universities, however, students live together.

At present, just as in the discussions in 2018, there are also commenters noting that foreign students often pay much more for their dorms; exchange students often pay daily fees whereas Chinese students pay per semester. Price differences can be as much as 8 to 10 times more for foreign students’ dormitories.

University Swimming Pool ‘Only for Foreigners’

While more and more people are now calling for more equal standards between Chinese and foreign dormitories, “Capital Normal University discriminates against Chinese” is the statement that is now making its rounds on Chinese social media – further heightening discussions on unequal dorm situations.

On July 17, one netizen posted photos of the regulations at the swimming pool of the Capital Normal University in Beijing.

According to the sign, teachers and staff are allowed to enter the swimming pool for 60 yuan ($8,7), exchange students can enter for 30 yuan ($4,3),  and Chinese students cannot enter at all.

Many people on social media responded to the issue with anger, saying that Chinese students were being “treated like dogs.”

The university issued a response to the controversy on July 18, stating that the swimming pool in question is located in the university’s Grand Building and is part of its facilities.

Because the pool is small (25 x 12.5 meters), it is only meant to be used by those teachers, staff, and students, who are living or working within the Grand Building, with staff paying full price and students paying half.

The statement says that the sign as posted on social media contained “an error” which was already adjusted in January of 2019.

The hashtag “Normal University Responds to Swimming Pool Issue” (#首师大回应游泳馆问题#) received 160 million views at the time of writing. Many people among the thousands who reacted still think the sign is unforgivable.

 

Although all these controversies led to some people negatively expressing themselves about foreign students, there are also many who note that it is not about foreign students per se, but about their selective treatment by universities and/or authorities.

In response to these controversies, state media outlet Global Times published an ‘opinion piece’ on July 17 which stated that offering foreigners certain special treatment has been the norm in China for a long time, as only a small number of foreigners would come to China, and Chinese were eager to show courtesy to every guest.

But, “times have changed,” the author argues: “With more expats [sic] living in China, some people’s obsequiousness for foreigners might lead to resentment and social unease.”

The author notes that some foreigners receive preferential treatment in China while being outlawed in their own countries.

“We should be neither xenophobic nor xenocentric,” the conclusion says: “As a rising power that is looking at opening up wider, fair and equal treatment of foreigners is a lesson we ought to learn.”

By Manya Koetse and Miranda Barnes

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China Insight

“Oh, How Free America Is” – George Floyd Case Goes Trending on Chinese Social Media

“Are these the ‘human rights’ that you are advocating?”

Manya Koetse

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The George Floyd case and protests are trending on Weibo. In a time of China-US escalating tensions, many Chinese web users are using these developments in global news media to point out American hypocrisy regarding freedom and human rights.

The entire world is talking about the events surrounding the George Floyd case after the shocking bystander video of a white police officer using his knee to pin down an African-American man during an attempted arrest – leading to his death – has been making international headlines.

The case of George Floyd (transcribed as 乔治•弗洛伊德 Qiáozhì Fúluòyīdé in Chinese) and its aftermath have also become a big news topic on Chinese social media this week and is still top trending on Weibo today.

 

George Floyd Incident

 

As now widely known, the George Floyd incident took place in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, when police responded to a shopkeeper’s call about someone potentially using a counterfeit bill. Floyd was sitting in his car when officers arrived at the scene and was asked to step out of his vehicle.

Even though Floyd was compliant and unarmed, the bystander video shows how he was held face-down on the ground, the officer pressing his knee into the side of his neck, while Floyd was begging for air, literally stating: “I can’t breathe.”

While the officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for over seven minutes, the 46-year-old could be seen losing consciousness and going limp.

The video of the fatal arrest went viral on social media overnight, leading to people protesting in Minneapolis and elsewhere across the US, demanding justice over the fatal arrest.

The four officers involved in George Floyd’s death have since been fired from the Minneapolis Police Department.

Tensions in Minnesota have now reached a boiling point and protests have escalated to riots and lootings, leading to the governor Tim Walz of Minnesota ordering the deployment of the National Guard to restore order in the city. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey declared a state of emergency.

On Friday morning local time, CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez – a reporter of color – was arrested and handcuffed on live television together with his cameraman and producer while reporting on the situation in Minneapolis. Although the CNN crew was released shortly after, this incident also further intensified the debate on discrimination and racism in America.

 

Weibo Discussions

 

On Weibo, news of the George Floyd incident and the Minneapolis protests is trending with various related hashtags.

One of the top hashtags at the time of writing regarding the protests is “CNN Crew Arrested by Police” (#CNN报道团队被警方逮捕#) -50 million views-, “Minneapolis Enters State of Emergency” (#美国明尼阿波利斯市进入紧急状态#) with 150 million views and “U.S. Riots” (#美国暴乱#) with 240 million views.

Other related hashtags are:

#美国多地抗议警察跪压黑人致死# “American Protests over Cop Pushing Down and Killing Black Man” (3+ million views)

#美警察压颈致黑人死亡引发抗议# “Protests Erupt over Case of Black Man Dying after American Police Applies Pressure on Neck” (6+ million views)

#明尼苏达骚乱成聚众哄抢# “Minnesota Riots Turn to Looting” (266,000+ views)

#美国示威者暴力冲击3家警局# “American Protesters Violently Attack Three Police Stations” (120 million views)

#美国明尼苏达州骚乱# “U.S. Minnesota Riots” (29+ million views)

The news regarding Floyd and the American protests and riots are attracting thousands of reactions on Chinese social media today. Some threads, such as those regarding the arrest of the CNN reporter, are also being heavily censored.

Many of the Weibo responses to the news of George Floyd and its aftermath are incorporating these developments into a bigger framework of strained US-China relations, pointing out the supposed American hypocrisy for criticizing China regarding freedom and human rights, especially in light of the COVID19-crisis and Hong Kong protests.

“Oh how free America is,” one popular comment on Weibo said (“多么自由的米国”), with others saying things such as: “Are these the human rights you are advocating?”

News of CNN reporter Jimenez being arrested by the American state patrol was also shared on Weibo by the Communist Youth League, leading to many reactions criticizing America’s “freedom of press.”

“So this is so-called equality? Freedom? Democracy?”

Another user writes: “So this is the freedom I’m yearning for? Is this called freedom?”

Some Weibo users are sharing compilations showing American officers using excessive force and violence while beating and shooting down people and animals during their work.

Although criticism of the US is dominating Chinese online discussions of the latest developments in America, social media users also show their support for the protesters.

“I fully support the movement of Black Americans fighting for the rule of law, equality, and freedom,” one popular comment- receiving over 14,000 likes – said (@平衡的小窝).

Many commenters are writing to express their disgust at the death of George Floyd, calling the police officers “ruthless” and “sadistic.”

There are also some commenters with a different stance on the matter. One blogger with over 123,000 followers writes:

“The riots erupting in the US will surely have a negative impact on society. But looking at it from another perspective, it still makes me envious because they have the guts to speak up, the courage to resist. If such a thing would happen in China, would you stand up?”

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Books & Literature

From “Voice of the People” to “Traitor of China”: The Rise and Fall of Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary

How a Weibo journal got caught up in pandemic politics: the Wuhan Diary controversy explained.

Manya Koetse

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Fang Fang’s critical online account of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan was widely celebrated before it was strongly condemned. This is a look into one of the biggest controversies in China’s online media spheres this spring, and a breakdown of how this acclaimed Chinese novelist went from an ally in times of lockdown, to a traitor during pandemic politics.

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China (forthcoming), see Goethe.de: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
 

As China is gradually getting back to business after the COVID-19 crisis, the coronavirus crisis is still dominating social media discussions. But the way the virus comes up in online debates has changed over the past few weeks, as the global health crisis has become increasingly politicized. Rather than a show of global solidarity, the pandemic has spawned a lot of finger-pointing in online media and on social networking sites across the world.

Who is to blame for the spread of the virus? Who is doing more, which leader is doing better, where is the crisis mismanaged? What is fake news, what is truth? Who writes or says what for which reason?

Somewhere within these corona media wars and political games, there’s the controversy regarding Wuhan Diary, which recently became a heated topic of debate on Weibo and beyond. 

 

FANG FANG AND WUHAN DIARY

“Fang was saying the things so many people wanted to say, and was asking the questions so many wanted answers to”

 

Wuhan Diary (武汉日记[1]) is written by the 65-year-old acclaimed Chinese author Wang Fang, better known as Fang Fang (方方).[2] It is an online account of the 2020 Hubei lockdown, originally published on WeChat and Weibo.

Throughout the lockdown period in January, February, and March, Fang Fang wrote about life in quarantine in province capital Wuhan, the heart of the epicenter, documenting everything from the weather to the latest news and the personal stories and tragedies behind the emerging crisis.

Fang’s 60-post diary was published on her Weibo account (@方方), which had some 3,8 million followers at the time, from late January shortly after the lockdown began, until late March when the end of the lockdown was announced.

Shortly after starting her online account, Fang’s daily journal gained wide traction. Amid the panic and uncertainty of the early days of the lockdown, social media flooded with rumors, fake news, and misinformation. Chinese web users were looking for alternative reliable sources to find out what was really happening in Wuhan.

Fang’s online journal provided people with information regarding the new coronavirus, but it also captured the emotions and struggles of the people in Wuhan. She soon became a go-to first-hand account of what was going on in the city; she was the voice of a quarantined city in distress. At a time when people were craving unfiltered information and distrusting official media, her words became an anchor for many in a sea of confusing news flows.

The fact that Fang is a respected author contributed to the popularity of her online writings. With her compassionate representations of everyday life in Wuhan, she has since long been an important author for the regional literature. Her writings have drawn attention ever since the 1980s, when she won an award for the best National Novella (Landscape 风景, 1987). She has remained a relevant author throughout the years, even receiving the prestigious Lu Xun Literary Prize in 2010.

In documenting life in Wuhan during the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, Fang touched upon many sensitive issues. Besides writing about problems such as overcrowded hospitals and mask shortages, she also directly questioned how authorities were handling the crisis and warned other writers for propaganda manipulation.

With the death of ‘whistleblower’ doctor Li Wenliang on the night of February 6, Chinese social media saw an outpouring of anger at Chinese authorities and state media. The public’s anger showed itself at other moments too, both online and offline.

While many of Fang’s publications on social media were censored and her Weibo account was temporarily blocked, the online Wuhan Diary only gained more attention, with the daily entries (or screenshots) spreading across WeChat like wildfire. “Dear internet censors, you should let Wuhan people speak,”[3] Fang wrote in February.

By demanding more transparency and accountability from Chinese (local) leadership, Fang was saying the things so many people wanted to say and was asking the questions so many wanted answers to.

 

CHANGING US-VERSUS-THEM DYNAMICS

“Whose side is she on, anyway?”

 

It did not take long for Fang’s online journal to gain international attention. In mid-February, news articles covering the ‘forbidden diary’ from Wuhan also appeared in foreign media.

Although Fang’s online writings received some backlash before – her critics mainly disliked how much of her diary entries were not fact-based but “merely hearsay” -, it wasn’t until April when public opinion really shifted against Wuhan Diary after it became known that an international edition of her diary was on presale through Amazon.

First, there was the announcement of the English version with the title “Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from the Original Epicenter” (later changed to “Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City”, translation by Michael Berry) published by Harper Collins; then, a German edition translated by Michael Kahn-Ackermann and issued by Hoffman Camp Press.

The criticism that Fang Fang has since been facing on Chinese social media is unprecedented. Rather than a Wuhan ally, many of her online readers now think of her as a “traitor” to China[4], saying she is airing China’s dirty laundry to make a profit, and that she only writes about negativity and darkness to play to the tune of those countries slamming China. The author has seen an online stream of death threats and violent comments.

Fang Fang arguably would not have received as much backlash if China had not come to face such international scrutiny in light of the global spread of COVID-19. At the time of the early coronavirus outbreak and Fang’s first diary entry, the corona crisis was still a national one, and to some extent even a regional one. Many saw Fang, a Wuhan native and acclaimed author, as a spokesperson for the people in times of fear, uncertainty, and collective suffering.

But as China increasingly came under international pressure over how it handled the epidemic in its early phases, anti-foreign and nationalistic sentiments grew by the day. With China being blamed for causing the pandemic – American President Trump even suggesting it did so deliberately – waves of angry nationalism flooded Chinese social media, and Wuhan Diary was caught in the changing us-versus-them dynamics of China’s COVID-19 crisis.

In the eyes of many Chinese web users, a translated version of Fang’s critical account of the Wuhan outbreak would only provide opponents of China with more ammunition. The upcoming translation’s description on Amazon by itself was a source of outrage for many, allegedly putting too much emphasis on China’s mishandling of the early outbreak. The fact that the original title of the book emphasized that COVID-19 started in Wuhan[5] was also something many netizens found offensive.  ‘Whose side is she on anyway?’, they wondered.

“Western countries are attacking the motherland, and Fang Fang is knowingly giving them the bullets in advance,” one Weibo commenter from Beijing wrote.

 

AN ONGOING ISSUE

Your Wuhan Diary will only worsen Western misconceptions about China!”

 

The Wuhan Diary controversy seems to be an ongoing one. By early May, it was reported that at least two Chinese academics were reprimanded for speaking out in support of Fang Fang. Online discussions continue. By now, the Weibo hashtag “Fang Fang Diary” (#方方日记#) has received over 670 million views, with other scattered hashtags also drawing in thousands of responses.

On Fang Fang’s Weibo page, now followed by more than 4,6 million web users, the author has responded to the recent controversy and allegations in multiple lengthy posts, claiming that most of her attackers, who blame her for only writing negative things, did not even read her diary. She argues that her written account is one of a trapped Wuhan resident in the middle of a catastrophe and that it should not be taken out of its this context.

Fang Fang is not the first Chinese writer to face online backlash for how ‘China’ is represented to the outside world. Besides the fact that Chinese literature is virtually inseparable from politics, there is an enormous number of Chinese web users ready to be outraged about China being misconstrued, ridiculed, humiliated, or otherwise suffering foreign insult.

This kind of angry nationalism often surfaces on the Chinese internet, and it has done so since the early days of social media in China. According to Ying Jiang, the author of Cyber-Nationalism in China, the roots of this “angry nationalism” expressed by today’s Chinese netizens can be traced back to China’s modern history, and more specifically to the “Century of Humiliation” (mid-1800s until after WWII) during which China faced many hardships brought about by foreign powers.

This history has been an important component of Chinese education campaigns for decades, and along with the economic prospering of China, the country has seen the rise of a more patriotic populace that is nationalistic in a way that is also increasingly anti-foreign.

Especially during noteworthy times such as the coronavirus outbreak – an opportunity for China to establish more international leadership -, negative media representations of the country, its government, and how it handled the COVID-19 crisis are sensitive and prone to controversy. A telling example is that three journalists of The Wall Street Journal were expelled from China in February over the paper’s refusal to apologize for a published opinion article titled “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.”

The online anger over Fang’s translated work will not die out any time soon. On Weibo, discussions continue. “Fang Fang, your Wuhan Diary, that’s merely hearsay and overly subjective, will only worsen Western misconceptions about China, and will only make more Western people discriminate against Chinese! You’ll go down in history as a disgrace!”, one Weibo user writes in early May.

Although many will not agree on how Wuhan Diary will be remembered, all the commotion and criticism has only increased the public’s awareness about the book’s existence; it will surely go down in the history of the COVID-19 impact in China, and the online media wars that came with it.

The English translation of Wuhan Diary is expected to be released via Amazon on May 19 (link), the English audiobook on May 28 (link) the German translation is expected June 9. On the China Digital Times website, Josh Rudolph has also translated parts of Fang’s work.

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

For more COVID-19 related articles, please click here.

 

[1] Also known in Chinese as: 武汉封城日记.

[2] Fang Fang is the pen name of Wang Fang.

[3] Zhao, Kiki. 2020. “Opinion: The Coronavirus Story is Too Big for China to Spin.” The New York Times, Feb 14 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/14/opinion/china-coronavirus-social-media.html [5.2.2020].

[4] Mainly using Chinese terms汉奸 and 卖国贼, both meaning “traitor” or more specifically “traitor to China.”

[5] Also see the original German title of the translation: “Wuhan Diary – Das Verbotenen Tagebuch aus der Stadt, in der die Corona-Krise began” [The Forbidden Diary from the City where the Coronacrisis Began].

Sources and further reading

Adlakha, Hemant. 2020.”Fang Fang: The ‘Conscience of Wuhan’ Amid Coronavirus Quarantine.” The Diplomat , March 23 https://thediplomat.com/2020/03/fang-fang-the-conscience-of-wuhan-amid-coronavirus-quarantine/[5.3.2010].

Fumian, Marco. 2020. “To Serve the People or the Party: Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary and Chinese Writers at the Time of Coronavirus.” MCLC Resource Center Publication (April 2020) https://u.osu.edu/mclc/online-series/marco-fumian/?fbclid=IwAR32HvM6WO0JHIhFFIY85bd-qyOzGEfXrZpp6S0SxbiTQrGCjwe_n-jL63Y [5.1.2020].

Leung, Laifong. 2016. Contemporary Chinese Fiction Writers: Biography, Bibliography, and Critical Assessment. New York & London: Routledge.

Rudolph, Jodh. 2020. “Translation: Backlash To Wuhan Diary “Reveals A Serious Problem Society Must Correct.” China Digital Times, April 21 https://chinadigitaltimes.net/2020/04/translation-backlash-to-wuhan-diary-reveals-a-serious-problem-society-must-correct/ [5.2.2020].

Wu, Yuwen. 2020. “Chinese propagandists don’t want you to read this diary on the coronavirus lockdown in Wuhan.” The Independent, March 2 https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/coronavirus-wuhan-lockdown-fangfang-diary-china-dr-li-a9368961.html [3.2.2020].

Ying Jiang. 2012. Cyber-Nationalism in China: Challenging Western Media Portrayals of Internet Censorship in China. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.

Zhao, Kiki. 2020. “Opinion: The Coronavirus Story is Too Big for China to Spin.” The New York Times, Feb 14 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/14/opinion/china-coronavirus-social-media.html [5.2.2020].

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

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