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Under Pressure: Chinese Full-Time Mothers Demand Time Off

With the number of stay-at-home mothers on the rise in China, so are the challenges that come with being a full-time mother.

Manya Koetse

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The story of a full-time mother who was slammed by her husband and mother-in-law for asking some ‘time off’ for traveling during the national holiday has gone viral on Chinese social media. Her account strucks a chord with other stay-at-home moms, who face difficulties in being a full-time mother in a society where family responsibilities are shifting.

Chinese netizen ‘@DoubleTrouble’ (@二捣蛋), a Guangzhou stay-at-home mother of two kids, recently posted about her desire to take “an absence of leave” (请假) from her life as a mum and travel by herself during the Chinese National Holiday.

The woman shared her grievances on WeChat about being severely criticized by her husband and mother-in-law for wanting some time for herself during an 8-day vacation after taking on the sole care of her two children non-stop for years.

The unhappy mother’s story, which was posted some days before the start of China’s national holiday, was picked up by Chinese media and went viral. It triggered heated discussions on the role of China’s stay-at-home mothers within the family.

 

A FULL-TIME MOTHER’S DILEMMA

“I raised the subject of wanting to go away for a while. But I couldn’t even finish speaking before my mother-in-law said: How dare you think of things like this as a mother?!”

 

The original text, which was posted by the woman on a WeChat forum for Guangzhou mothers (gzmama.com), is as follows:

“The past two days I’ve had a falling out with my family members. I wanted to use the National Holiday to travel somewhere, but my husband and mother-in-law strongly opposed. Now, there is all this turmoil because of this, with them criticizing me for being selfish. They also say I am irresponsible and that I am an unfit mother. I feel really low.

The situation is that I have two children, a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old, both raised by me. Although my parents-in-law are also in Guangzhou, they’ve never helped me out at all. Even when one child gets sick, it is me who has to take both the children to the hospital.

I’ve been married to my husband for six/seven years now. After we got married, I resigned from my job to become a full-time mother. We did not hire a nanny and I took on the care of the two kids by myself. My husband is very busy, and couldn’t help out either.

The last couple of years have tired me out. All mothers will know what I mean, even if they don’t say it. For this year’s [national] holiday, my husband also got a few days off, which is very rare, so I finally wanted to seize this opportunity to go out for a while, and let my mother-in-law help out for a bit to take care of the children.

A few days ago, we were all having dinner together, when I raised the subject of wanting to go away for a while. But I couldn’t even finish speaking when my mother-in-law said: “How dare you think of things like this as a mother?!” My husband also strongly opposed to me leaving the house. My father-in-law said nothing; he didn’t oppose nor approve.

My husband and my mother-in-law at the dinner table took turns in telling me how selfish I am, and how irresponsible I am, and I could not help but quarrel with them.

Now the family relations have gone sour, and my husband and I have not spoken for few days, I also haven’t gone to see my mother-in-law.

Am I really being selfish? The two children are already older now. The little one does not get breastfed anymore, and the kids get along great, they hardly ever fight.

Sigh, I do not know what to do now. Should I go anyway, regardless if they are against it or not? Or should I just forget about it it and just bitterly stay at home with the kids?”

 

The woman’s post received some 17,000 views and over 200 comments from other mothers on the Guangzhou forum before it was widely shared and discussed in Chinese media, receiving thousands of reactions on Weibo.

 

STAY-AT-HOME MOMS IN CHINA

“Once you have children, your time is no longer your own – your time must be dedicated to them.”

 

More than two-thirds of mothers in China work full-time. According to this report (video) by CGTN, China’s modern-day moms belong to a generation that attaches great importance on having a job – so much so that there is an alleged social stigma to staying at home full-time to raise the children.

“There are a lot of Chinese mothers who work, and this might not necessarily always be their choice,” says Roseann Lake, author of upcoming book Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower.

Lake tells What’s on Weibo that the relatively high percentage of working mothers in China, on the one hand, can be explained through the historical background of the Cultural Revolution, which placed great importance on the full participation of women in the labor force. On the other hand, she notes, it also has a lot to do with today’s China.

“Giving the nature of China’s economy, there is a need for double-working households. And at the same time, there are also many grandparents with free time on their hands who are willing to take care of their grandchildren.”

Lake does not think there necessarily is a social stigma attached to being a full-time mom: “If the financial conditions allow it, women in China can certainly be stay-at-home moms. But then there is the expectation to take on the bulk of looking after the household.”

Nevertheless, Lake stresses, usually – despite expectations that the wife will then take on full care of the household and children – Chinese grandparents will pitch in to help take care of the children, whether the mothers like it or not.

About the case of Chinese netizen ‘@Doubletrouble’, Lake says: “There are plenty of in-laws in China who would pass judgment on something like this, saying that once you have children, your time is no longer your own and your time must be dedicated to them at all times.”

While there is pressure on both working and stay-at-home moms, there is a growing number of Chinese women who choose to fully dedicate themselves to their family life.

According to China Daily, more than 70% of post-90s young mothers are willing to be a full-time mom. By contrast, mothers from the post-80s would rather stay in the workforce; approximately 46% keep on working after becoming a mother.

 

ONLINE REACTIONS

“If women cannot even have this piece of freedom, then why do we get married at all?”

 

With the number of stay-at-home mothers on the rise in China, so are the challenges that come with being a full-time mother. The story of @DoubleTrouble shows that there are many other full-time mothers who have a similar story.

“Women have to think of themselves, they should not completely dedicate all of themselves to the family,” one woman (@潼潼囡妈咪) writes: “We need our own social space in order to have the capability to support ourselves and our children.”

“Just go!”, one person pleads: “If women cannot even have this piece of freedom, then why do we get married at all?”

Other people also point out that it is not the mom who is selfish: “If a woman becomes a mother, it doesn’t mean she has to give up on everything. There are 8 days in the National Holiday – why can’t she leave for 2 days? Can’t she have a break from working hard all year round? It’s not only her children, what’s wrong with the mother-in-law looking after them? They are the ones who are selfish and take her for a free labor force.”

There are also commenters who say that there is a big difference between being a stay-at-home mother and a ‘house slave’: “Just go and apply to be a nanny somewhere else,” one person suggests: “At least then you’ll have wages and get days off.”

“The one who has no sense of responsibility is not this mother, but her husband,” another woman writes.

“It’s not like she’s leaving for two months,” one commenter said: “If women cannot even enjoy this freedom and support after getting married and having babies, then what’s the point?”

“When I get married,” a male netizen writes: “I want my wife to take time for herself and go outside, I will watch the kids. I don’t want to see her depressed or restless.”

Despite all the support for @DoubleTrouble, and all the other mothers demanding that ‘time off’ should be normal for all stay-at-home moms, there are also some who disagree.

“When the child is 2 years old, they are too young. Wait until they go to school,” some say. Or: “Just take the children and go on a trip together with your husband, the four of you together as a family.”

 

THE “GREAT TRANSFORMATION”

“The grandmother does not have the duty to help out her daughter-in-law, but then she also shouldn’t expect her daughter-in-law to take care of her when she is old and sick.”

 

The recent account of ‘@Doubletrouble’ is not the only complaint from full-time mothers who feel the pressure of taking on the full care of their children and not getting any help nor personal time. An important recurring issue is the changing role of the in-laws, who traditionally lived with their son’s family and usually have an active role in raising their grandchildren.

One woman from Fujian (@林小夕的梦) cries out on Weibo: “I am so tired, I am on the verge of collapse. It’s unbearable being a full-time mother. Don’t ask me about my mother-in-law or why she doesn’t help me out – I’d be better off without her, she doesn’t understand.”

The transformations of Chinese traditional family structures in the modern-day era have not necessarily brought about equal gender divisions in the household.

As pointed out by Harriet Evans in The Gender of Communication (2010), the focus in Chinese society has gradually shifted over the past half-century, as there is “[a] shift away from a collectivist and family-oriented ethics of personal responsibilities to an individualistic ethics of rights and self-development” (981).

This “great transformation”1 manifests itself, amongst others, in the clashes between those younger mothers who seek self-fulfillment and personal satisfaction, and those older generations who still expect them to fulfill the traditional women’s role in the domestic sphere, while they, as grandparents, now also play a much less significant role in the upbringing of their grandchildren – not just because they are detached more from the family in social terms, but also often because there is a bigger spatial distance between families.

“The grandmother does not have the duty to help out her daughter-in-law, but then she shouldn’t expect her daughter-in-law to take care of her either when she is old and sick,” a popular comment said.

Since the post has gone viral, @DoubleTrouble has not given an update about whether or not she did go on that trip. If not, at least her story has triggered some relevant discussions online.

“I just hope this post will receive enough attention so that women who want to become a full-time mother will realize the difficulties they might face,” one woman writes.

By Manya Koetse

References

Evans, Harriet. 2010. “The Gender of Communication: Changing Expectations of Mothers and Daughters in Urban China.” The China Quarterly (204): 980-1000.

1 Evans (2010) quotes Yan Yuxiang here, author of The Individualization of Chinese Society (London: Berg, 2009).

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

©2017 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Bruce Humes

    October 7, 2017 at 9:32 am

    It’s quite revealing that — at least in the Weibo comments cited — all the potential “solutions” are limited to family members.

    There is no mention of hiring a baby-sitter, part-time amah or full-time nanny. How come?

    Obviously, many Chinese households couldn’t afford the latter, but in 1st- and 2nd-tier cities, they can. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, many middle-class families hire part- or full-time nannies to do housework and look after children. Hong Kongers in particular do so, and insist on a Filipina or Indonesian female who is both truly caring about children, and can teach them English to boot!

    Among the Chinese mothers I know in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, however, hiring someone from outside the family to look after one’s children is considered very problematic, and most refuse to do so. Why? Because they are afraid their hires will 1) Steal from them, 2) Mistreat their children if a relative is not present, and/or 3) Kidnap their children and sell them to traffickers.

    Tells you a lot about contemporary Chinese society, doesn’t it?

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Backgrounder

“Guarding the Green Horse” – How China’s Health Code System Provided Solutions and Generated Problems

The Health Code system and the ‘Green Horse’ meme have become part of everyday life in a zero-Covid China.

Manya Koetse

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Since 2020, China’s Health Code apps have become utterly ingrained in everyday life as a pivotal tool in the country’s ongoing fight against Covid-19. What is the health code system, what are its implications, and why have so many Chinese netizens become obsessed with holding on to their ‘green horse’?

 

This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, forthcoming publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yì Magazin here.

 

There is the Grass Mud Horse,1 the River Crab,2 and now another mythical animal is living in China’s social media jungle: the Green Horse. The Green Horse is a cute bright green horse-like animal, a treasured creature that will protect you during your travels and keep you safe from quarantines and lockdowns at a time of China’s zero-Covid policy. The Green Horse will watch over you, but in return, you have to do everything you can to defend it.

‘Green Horse’ in Chinese is 绿马 lǜmǎ, which sounds exactly the same as the word for ‘green code’ (绿码), referring to the green QR code in China’s Covid health apps, which have become a part of everyday life in China since 2020. In a social media environment where homophones and online puns are popular and ubiquitous, it did not take long for the ‘green code’ to turn into the ‘green horse.’

The Green Horse, image via Weibo.

China’s health code system was designed as a solution to resume work and daily life during the pandemic and is widely praised in the country as a pivotal tool in combating the spread of the virus. But it has also given rise to new problems and has triggered resistance against a new kind of digital governance.

 

A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO CHINA’S HEALTH CODE SYSTEM

 

In February of 2020, when China was in the midst of the fierce battle against the novel coronavirus, the country’s tech giants competed over who would be the first and the most efficient in providing digital solutions to aid the anti-epidemic fight.

Within eight weeks after the start of the initial Wuhan Covid outbreak, Alibaba (on Alipay) and Tencent (on WeChat) developed and introduced the ‘Health Code’ (jiànkāngmǎ 健康码), a system that gives individuals colored QR codes based on their exposure risk to Covid-19 and serves as an electronic ticket to enter and exit public spaces, restaurants, offices buildings, etc., and to travel from one area to another.

Scanning a green code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

Hangzhou, Alibaba’s hometown, and Shenzhen, Tencent’s home base, were the first cities in China to introduce the Health Code in early February of 2020, and other cities soon followed in collaboration with either Tencent or Alipay. By late February, a nationwide health code system was first embedded in WeChat (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Now, people can receive their Covid-19 QR codes via ‘mini programs’ in Alipay or WeChat, or via other provincial government service apps. Apart from the personal health code apps, there is also the ‘Telecommunications Big Data Travel Card’ (通信大数据行程卡), better known as the ‘green arrow code,’ which tracks users’ travel history and is also available inside WeChat or can be downloaded as a standalone app. Its goal is to track if you’ve been to any medium or high-risk areas over the past 14 days.

The Green Arrow Code is used to track people’s travel history of past 14 days (Image via 人民视觉).

The health code system is not as centralized as you might expect it to be. Instead, it is fragmented and sometimes complicated. There are basically two kinds of Health Codes in China. One is the ‘Health Information Code’ (防疫健康信息码) provided by China’s national government service platform (link) which can also be used by those without mainland ID cards (including people from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan).

The other kind of Health Code, which is the one that is most used across China, is the local version of the health code system provided by each province/municipality. There are at least 31 different regional health code applications, from Beijing’s ‘Health Kit’ (北京健康宝) to Shanghai’s ‘Suishenma’ (随申码), from Jiangsu’s ‘Sukang Code’ (苏康码) to Anhui’s ‘Ankang Code’ (安康码). There are sometimes also separate health code apps being used within one province (e.g. in Shenzhen both the local Shen-i-nin 深i您 app as well as the Yuekang Code 粤康码 are being used).

These local Covid health apps are developed by different provinces and cities, and they are not always compatible with each other. This means that those traveling to different provinces or municipalities need to go through the inconvenient process of applying for different local health code apps depending on where they go. Although one single centralized system has been proposed ever since 2020, the process to unify the system is not easy since the various apps have varying functions and are managed by different local government departments (JKSB 2022; Lai 2022). In early September of 2022, China’s National Health Commission announced that it was working with relevant departments to improve the interoperability and mutual recognition of health apps across the country.

Do you get a Green, Yellow, or Red QR code? That all depends on personal information, self-reported health status, Covid-19 test results, travel history, and more – the health code system operates by accessing numerous databases. The Green color means you’re safe (low-risk) and have free movement, the Yellow code (mid-risk) requires self-isolation and the Red color code is the most feared one: it means you either tested positive or are at high risk of infection. With a red code, you won’t have access to any public places and will have to go into mandatory quarantine. Once the quarantine is finished and you’ve consecutively tested negative, the code will switch back to green again.

Three color codes in the Health Code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

By the end of 2020, around 900 million Chinese citizens were using Health Code apps and although there are no official records of the latest numbers, virtually anyone visiting or traveling anywhere within China will now use the health code system. Besides keeping records of your latest nucleic acid test results, the Health Code app also includes Covid vaccination records since 2021.

 

LEAVING THE ELDERLY BEHIND

 

Despite the efficiency of China’s health code system, it has not been without controversy. One major issue is that it basically forces Chinese citizens to have a smartphone and to download and properly use these apps. This creates a problem for younger children, those without access to smartphones, or those with lower levels of digital skills, including senior citizens.

Although the use of smartphones, the internet, and QR codes are widespread in China, where mobile payments are far more common than cash, more than 60% of Chinese aged 60 years and over still did not use the internet in June of 2020. In China’s ‘Zero-Covid’ era, it is becoming almost impossible for China’s digital illiterate to live a ‘normal’ life.

Chinese authorities have attempted to simplify things for Chinese seniors by making platforms more user-friendly and introducing alternative ways to enter venues, such as offline codes. But at a time when systems differ per region and some venues do not have the tools to check offline (paper) codes, many elderly still struggle (see Gu & Fan 2022).

“They did nucleic acid testing in my grandma’s community compound today,” one woman from Shanxi writes on Weibo: “There are many elderly people in my grandma’s area, and I saw that so many of them had no smartphones, just senior mobile phones, but now they have to swipe a code to make an appointment for testing. One grandpa asked a staff member what to do without a smartphone, they just said it would be better to bring your son or daughter to do it for you. But all results also are processed digitally, so there’s no way for them to see it, and it’s really not easy for them to go to public places.”

On Chinese social media, there are many stories showing the difficult situations that some senior residents are caught up in because they do not have a smartphone or do not know how to get a Health Code.

In August of 2022, there was one viral story about an elderly man from Shandong walking ten kilometers every day because he could not take the bus without a health app. There was also another story about a visually impaired Hengyang resident who was unable to set up the code and was barred from using public transport. In May, a 70-year-old man got stuck inside the Wuxi train station for three days because he had no smartphone and had to scan a code in order to leave.

In another video that went viral, an old man got on a bus in Shanghai but had a hard time using his mobile phone to do the ‘venue check-in’ (场所码). When the bus driver got impatient, the man eventually got off the bus, saying he felt bad about delaying the other passengers.

“Heartlessness is scarier than the epidemic,” some Weibo commenters wrote in response.

 

RED CODE: CONTROVERSIAL DIGITAL GOVERNANCE

 

Another problem that concerns netizens in this Health Code era is that the code could pose an infringement of privacy and could be abused to limit citizens’ freedom of movement for reasons that are unrelated to Covid-19. There are still unclarities surrounding the app, such as what kind of information is exactly being collected, who is authorized to access the data, and how the data is processed and stored (Zhang 2022, 2).

Some people complain on social media that they do not understand why their Health Code is changing colors: “After I did a Covid test the other day, my Health Code was green. The day after, I woke up to a yellow code and after I had done my nucleic acid test again, it was still yellow. On the third day, it turned green. In the afternoon it turned yellow again. On day four, it was green again. Besides doing tests, I’ve been at home all this time. I’m stupefied.”

One incident where people who came to the city of Zhengzhou to protest suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red sparked major outrage on Chinese social media in June.

Earlier this year, thousands of Chinese depositors struggled to recover their savings in light of a major banking scandal in Henan Province. When dozens of affected depositors traveled to the provincial capital of Zhengzhou in June of 2022 to demand their money back, they suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red. The red code was unexpected and strange, considering that there were no new reported Covid cases in their vicinity. Accompanying family members who made the exact same journey reportedly did not see their Health Codes change, raising suspicions that the duped depositors were specifically targeted and that their Health Codes were being manipulated.

“Who is in charge of changing the Health Code colors?” became a much-asked question on social media platform Weibo, with many blaming local Henan authorities for abusing their power and trying to stop rural protesters from raising their voices in Zhengzhou. Although Henan authorities claimed they did “not understand” what had happened, five local officials were later punished for their involvement in assigning red codes to bank depositors without authorization (Wu 2022).

The incident sparked more discussions on the legal and privacy risks surrounding the health code system. Although many people in China support the use of Health Code apps (also see Chen et al), there is also a fear that a lack of transparency and management could allow the health code system to turn into a surveillance tool used by the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

The influential media commentator Hu Xijin also gave his view on the matter, saying that Health Codes across the country should only be used for “pure epidemic prevention purposes.”

“The fact that Henan can make the health codes turn red of people who come to the city to protest says a lot about the power of the IT,” one Weibo tech blogger wrote. Another Weibo user wrote: “As ordinary people, we have voluntarily given up too much of our personal privacy and rights in order to cooperate with the epidemic prevention. The current abuse and misuse of health codes have caused serious infringement on the legal rights of citizens (..) The state should quickly incorporate health codes into a unified system and place it under strict management, and once the epidemic is over, the health code system should stop running immediately.”

 

A GREEN HORSE FUTURE?

 

But will the Health Code and the ‘Green Horse’ ever disappear from daily life in China? And if so, how would the collected data be handled? Although the pandemic era is not over yet (and the question remains what would qualify as ‘the end’), local Chinese governments and tech firms are already looking to see how the health code system could be implemented and how its uses could be expanded in a post-pandemic future (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Back in 2020, the China Healthcare platform (健康界) already published an article exploring the post-pandemic use of the health code system as a digital health passport and information system that could continue to play a significant role in medical care, social security, public transportation, and tourism.

On social media, some people worry that the health code system – and everything that comes with it – is here to stay indefinitely. One Henan-based blogger wrote: “In the future, I hope my son will visit my grave and tell me, ‘dad, now we no longer need our Health Code, nucleic tests or masks when we go to the malls and take trains or airplanes.'”

“If I would wake up tomorrow in a world without health codes, travel codes, Covid tests, lockdowns, wouldn’t that be great,” another person wrote on Weibo, another netizen adding: “My health code is normal. My nucleic acid test is normal. It’s just my mental state that has become abnormal.”

The fears of receiving a ‘Red Code’ are also palpable. Earlier in summer, videos showed people in Shanghai fleeing out of a local mall once they heard that someone in the building had received notice of an abnormal test result.  The same happened at a local IKEA store. Afraid of Health Codes turning red and getting locked in, people rushed to get out as soon as possible. Some even compared the scenes to a ‘zombie apocalypse.’

People fleeing from a local IKEA store after someone in the building got an abnormal test result.

Although there are serious concerns regarding the health code system, social media users also make light of it through the ‘Green Horse’ meme. The phrase “Bàozhù lǜmǎ” (抱住绿码/马) is often used on Chinese social media, a wordplay meant to mean both “Keep your code green” as well as “Hold on to your Green Horse.”

Selection of ‘Holding on to the Green Horse’ memes.

Following the trend, Wuhan set up a giant green horse at a public square in the city, which soon became a popular place for people to take selfies. The meme is also a profitable one for businesses. On Chinese e-commerce sites, you’ll find there are ‘Green Horse’ keychains, stickers, toys, mooncakes, and coffee mugs.

Green Horse merchandise on Taobao.

As cases of Covid surged again in Chengdu, Shenzhen, and elsewhere in late August and September, worries over ‘keeping the green code’ grew again among those living in affected regions. One local Weibo blogger wrote: “I just couldn’t sleep the past few days, I kept checking my green code and latest Covid test results. It makes me anxious.”

“I feel safest at home,” others write: “This is where I can guard my Green Horse.”

“I hope this epidemic will go away soon,” one netizen wrote: “I hope we can all have our Green Horse and just keep it.”

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

 

1 Grass Mud Horse or Cǎonímǎ (草泥馬) is one of China’s social media ‘mythical creatures’ and an online meme. It is a word play on the vulgar Mandarin term càonǐmā (肏你媽), which literally means “f*** your m*m.”

2 River Crab is another ‘mythical creature’: Héxiè (河蟹) is literally ‘river crab’ but sounds the same as héxié (和谐),”to harmonize,” referring to online censorship.

 

References (other sources linked to inside the text)

Chen, Wenhong. Gejun Hang, and An Hu. 2022. “Red, Yellow, Green, or Golden: The Post-Pandemic Future of China’s Health Code Apps.” Information, Communication & Society 25 (5): 618-633.

China Healthcare 健康界. 2020. “国家卫健委推行”一码通”健康码未来不止于”通行.”” CN Healthcare, 21 December https://www.cn-healthcare.com/article/20201221/content-547951.html [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Gu, Peng and Yiying Fan. 2022. “In ‘Zero-COVID’ China, the Elderly Are Becoming Ever More Marginalized.” Sixth Tone, 9 Aug https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010908/in-zero-covid-china-the-elderly-are-becoming-ever-more-marginalized [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

JKSB 健康时报网 [Health Times]. 2022. “国家健康码和地方健康码区别何在?专家:国家平台更接近理想状态.” JKSB, August 27 http://www.jksb.com.cn/html/redian/2022/0827/177853.html [Accessed 1 Sep, 2022].

Lai, Xianjin. 2022. “Unified Health Code Can Bring More Convenience, Efficiency.” China Daily, April 6 https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202204/06/WS624ccc73a310fd2b29e55269.html [Accessed 31 August].

Liang, Fan. 2020. “COVID-19 and Health code: How Digital Platforms Tackle the Pandemic in China.” Social Media + Society (Jul-Sep): 1-4.

Wu, Peiyue. 2022. “Zhengzhou Officials Punished Over Red Health Code Saga.” Sixth Tone, 23 June https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010627/zhengzhou-officials-punished-over-red-health-code-saga- [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Zhang, Xiaohan. 2022. “Decoding China’s COVID-19 Health Code Apps: The Legal Challenges.” Healthcare 10 (1479): 1-14.

 

Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.

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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China Insight

Why Russia Is Nicknamed the “Weak Goose” on Chinese Social Media

Multiple Chinese (military) bloggers started using ‘weak goose’ (菜鹅) term in light of Russia’s fading victory.

Manya Koetse

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While the latest developments in the Russia-Ukraine war are closely watched by millions of Chinese social media users, the ‘Weak Goose’ meme is becoming more popular among military bloggers and Weibo users, signaling a shift in online sentiments regarding Russia’s position and its military competence.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the latest developments regarding the war in Ukraine are a big topic on Chinese social media, where military bloggers, academics, political commentators, and ordinary netizens have been sharing their views on the conflict over the past seven months.

Back in February of 2022, many Weibo commenters expressed anti-war sentiments and worries about the situation of the Ukrainian people and Ukraine-based Chinese compatriots.

At the same time, there was also a growing group of Chinese netizens who said they supported Russia. One top commenter at the time wrote: “I resolutely support the Russian military action! This is the evil result of Ukraine following the Yankees (美国佬). We should seize the opportunity to liberate Taiwan and to recover the Diaoyu Islands.”

Those speaking out in favor of Putin and the Russian military mainly focused on anti-Western sentiments, and this online discourse was only strengthened by media narratives that also framed the Russia-Ukraine war – commonly referred to as Russia’s “special military operation” – within a Chinese context that stressed the humiliation and injustice suffered by China at the hands of the very same Western powers that were now condemning Russia and were trying to get China on their side (read more in this article).

Others also saw the Russian military invasion of Ukraine as a warning to Taiwan, semi-jokingly writing that Chinese troops could arrive in the morning, that unification would be completed by noon, and that they would all be raising the flag and singing the national anthem together the next day.

But now, seven months and nine days later, it is clear that Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine is anything but a quick ‘victory.’

 
“We’re Witnessing History”
 

This week, after Russia proclaimed the annexation of four territories in Ukraine, the Russia-Ukraine war has reached a pivotal phase and this is receiving a lot of attention on Chinese social media.

After a series of so-called “referendums” which supposedly showed it was the “will of the millions of people,” Putin claimed that Luhansk, areas of Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia were now part of the Russian Federation. Using increasingly threatening rhetoric, Putin said in his September 30 speech that Russia would defend these areas with “all the means at our disposal.” On Weibo, the topic received over 220 million views (#普京签署顿涅茨克等四地入俄条约#).

That very same day, Ukraine applied for fast-track NATO accession, and Ukrainian President Zelensky said that they are ready for peace talks with Russia, but only with a different Russian president. The topic of Ukraine’s application to join NATO became a trending topic on Weibo, receiving over 190 million views on Saturday (#泽连斯基签署乌克兰加入北约申请#).

When Jake Sullivan, the U.S. President’s National Security Advisor, stated that it was “not the right time” for Ukraine’s admission to the alliance, China Daily initiated the hashtag “Ukraine’s Application to Join NATO Is Met with a Cold Shoulder by the U.S.” (#乌克兰申请加入北约遭美国冷遇#).

On Sunday, news of President Zelensky declaring the key eastern Ukrainian town of Lyman “fully cleared of Russian forces” also became trending. A Weibo hashtag dedicated to the topic of Russian forces retreating from Lyman (#俄军从红利曼撤退#) received over 150 million views.

“We’re witnessing history,” some Chinese netizens commented, with others replying: “We’ve been witnessing history for the past two years already.”

 
Shifting Online Sentiments
 

But the online sentiments regarding the war in Ukraine have shifted over the past months, and there is now more emphasis on the weakness of the Russian military strategy. There are also more voices criticizing those who cheer for Putin.

Qu Weiguo (@曲卫国), a professor at Shanghai’s Fudan College of Foreign Languages and Literatures, denounced fellow Chinese who seemed “happy and excited” about Putin signing the decree annexing four regions of eastern Ukraine and who called it a “checkmate move” that put the West in a difficult position.

According to Qu Weiguo, these “patriotic” fellow Chinese – “I am not sure whether they actually love China or Russia,” he wrote – were overseeing the fact that it is not just the West that is being affected by the annexation, of which the legality is more than questionable. Qu mentioned the 2013 PRC-Ukraine Treaty of Friendship & Cooperation, which conveys Chinese support for Ukraine’s “sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity.” Qu suggests that in this context, China could not possibly recognize the four annexed territories as being part of Russia; and Beijng would also be obliged to support Ukraine in case it would be attacked by Russian nuclear weapons.

Author Du Zijian (@杜子建) also spoke out on Weibo, saying the referendum regarding the four regions claimed by Russia cannot be recognized: “It’s Ukrainian territory, it can’t be stolen by anyone.”

Image posted by Littlepigpig

Military blogger ‘Littlepigpig’ (@用户littlepigpig1), who focuses on the war in Ukraine, provided another perspective on the recent developments, suggesting that Putin’s nuclear rhetoric is just bluff and likely stems from despair over Russia’s inability to defeat Ukraine: “What would be the point of sending hundreds of thousands of Russians to Ukraine to be brutally slaughtered before launching a nuclear strike!?”

 
The ‘Weak Goose’ Meme
 

There are more people who now express that they see little chance of Russia winning this war. One regular Weibo user wrote: “The soldiers have no morale, the country has no money, and their equipment technology lags behind NATO.” “They’re so disappointing,” others wrote.

One term that recurringly comes up in these discussions, from Weibo to Zhihu, is that of ‘Weak Goose’ (菜鹅 cài’é).

The term, that has been surfacing for a few months, is a wordplay on 菜俄 (also cài’é), which means ‘Weak Russia’ and is short for “the weak Russian army” (“俄军很菜”).

Although ‘菜’ (cài) actually means ‘vegetable,’ it is also slang for ‘poor’ or ‘weak’ when used as an adjective (see this video for explanation.)

This image is another word play on ‘weak goose’, turning it into a ‘vegetable swan’ instead.

According to Jikipedia, ‘Weak Goose’ started to be used by Chinese political and military bloggers after they found that the Russian army advanced much slower than they had expected. They came up with the word to make fun of Russia struggling with basic military mistakes and low military capabilities.

Recently, instead of ‘weak goose,’ the term ‘weak Russia’ has also been used more often (so 菜俄 rather than 菜鹅; just for clarity, we’ll translate them both as ‘Weak Goose’ here). Russia is usually also nicknamed ‘big goose’ in China (大鹅) since the words for ‘goose’ and ‘Russia’ sound the same.

The past week, multiple Chinese (military) bloggers have started using this term again in light of Putin’s fading victory and the retreat from Lyman. Reports about Russian recruits allegedly being instructed to use tampons and pads on war wounds in light of a shortage of military supplies further strengthen the Weak Goose meme: “Who thought the ‘Weak Goose’ was so weak?”

Those using the ‘Weak Goose’ term are definitely not necessarily anti-Russian and also not pro-Ukrainian – they are just using the word as a joke and comic relief in a military conflict that has been dragging on for much longer than Chinese netizens had anticipated.

 
“The Russia-Ukraine conflict is not entertainment”
 

But not everyone on Weibo appreciates these kinds of jokes. “The Russia-Ukraine conflict is not some entertainment variety show,” one blogger (@Aglaia柒y) with over 220,000 fans wrote, criticizing those who are using the war as a source of drama and entertainment with Putin starring as the main “idol.”

Others also reminded people that the ‘Weak Goose’ is actually very resilient. Well-known finance blogger Liu Zhongling (刘忠岭), known under the alias of @笑看红绿, noted that there were many Chinese people cheering for the latest victory of the Ukrainian army recently. But according to Liu, it is not necessarily something to cheer about: “All the progress that the Ukrainian army is making now, comes at the cost of many injuries and military casualties. Considering that this war is going to take a long time, soldiers are far more important than weaponry.”

He added: “The ‘weak goose’ army is getting worn out (..) but by pulling back they are also preserving strength and that is not a bad choice. People who know their history already anticipated the Russians would get pulled down, but they also know the ‘Weak Goose’ is actually tough.”

Although the ‘Weak Goose’ meme is one that is just alive within particular online circles, it is telling of a shift in sentiments on Chinese social media regarding a conflict in which many initially believed Russia was like a strong brown bear fiercely attacking Ukraine, rather than a worn out goose nibbling on its neighboring country (reference post).

Chinese well-known political commentator Hu Xijin stirred away from any jokes. In his recent post on Weibo, he warned that “the world must be prepared for a further escalation of the war in Ukraine, even beyond Ukraine.”

By Manya Koetse 

With contributions by Miranda Barnes.

 

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