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Red Cross Society of China in Bad Light Due to Online Rumors after Gansu Earthquake

Even though the rumors surrounding the Red Cross might be false, the public concerns surrounding charity efforts are real.

Manya Koetse

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A handwarmer for 500 yuan ($70), a tent for 2200 yuan ($308), a blanket for 100 yuan ($14)? An online list detailing items supposedly procured by the Gansu Red Cross for earthquake relief efforts has ignited controversy on Chinese social media in recent days. Although the Red Cross has denied all rumors, the incident underscores public skepticism towards the organization.

After the devastating 6.2-magnitude earthquake struck Jishishan (积石山), a county in China’s Gansu Province’s Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture, on December 18, Chinese social media platforms were flooded with news related to the disaster. The overnight earthquake killed at least 148 people and left hundreds injured.

News of the earthquake resonated deeply throughout the country, and the ongoing search and rescue operations and relief efforts, hindered by landslides, ruined infrastructure, and freezing temperatures, have attracted major attention online.

While much of the discourse revolves around the goodness of the people contributing to charities and doing all they can to help victims in the affected areas, there is also public distrust surrounding the motives of some charities or helping organizations that might use the disaster as an opportunity to make a profit.

One hotly debated topic revolves around the Red Cross Society of China, after a list surfaced online of items allegedly purchased by the Gansu Red Cross for relief efforts in the aftermath of the Gansu Earthquake.

Image published on Weibo via Red Cross Society of China (@中国红十字会总会).

The procurement list raised controversy due to the high prices of the common items listed, and because of a supposed “management fee” (管理费) of 1.6 million yuan ($224k).

In response, the Red Cross refuted these claims, asserting that they had not issued any such list (#甘肃红十字称没发布任何物资清单#). On December 24, the Gansu Red Cross took to Weibo (@甘肃省红十字会) to clarify that the circulating information was “grossly inaccurate.” They assured the public that all donations would directly aid earthquake relief efforts, without incurring management fees.

The Red Cross statement on Weibo.

Even though the procurement list might be false, the public concerns surrounding charity efforts are real.

“Why does the Red Cross end up in the top trending lists every time?” one commenter wondered: “Their information should be more transparent and timely.”

Others also suggested that merely denying the rumors was not enough, and that they hoped that the Red Cross would provide more details and information to show netizens, of whom many donated money, how their charity money is being spent to help relief efforts in the affected areas in Gansu and Qinghai.

The fact that the Red Cross Weibo post did not allow any commenting did not help: “Why are you afraid to let us openly discuss this?”

 
Red Cross Society of China: Tainted by Suspicion
 

The Red Cross of China, the nation’s largest charitable organization, continues to grapple with a tarnished reputation that partly stems from the 2011 “Guo Meimei Incident.”

Guo Meimei (郭美美), whose real name is Guo Meiling, became an infamous internet celebrity in the summer of 2011 after flaunting her excessive wealth online whilst claiming to work as a “commercial general manager” for the Red Cross Society of China.

The issue severely eroded the society’s credibility, which has been designated by the government as the central public donation organization during times of disasters (Cheng 2016). From luxury handbags to sports cars, the 19-year-old Guo showed off her money on Weibo, and quickly went viral on various message boards as people were angered over corruption and potential misuse of charity money.

Guo Meimei

Despite efforts by the Red Cross Society to debunk these rumors and distance itself from Guo, speculations persisted. Many speculated about Guo’s potential ties to the organization, even if she did not officially work there. As highlighted by Cheng (2016), the public’s negative sentiment toward the Red Cross triggered “a chain of credibility crises” and even spread to other charitable groups in China.

During the 2020 Wuhan Covid outbreak, the Red Cross faced scrutiny for allegedly stockpiling public donations of medical supplies in warehouses rather than promptly distributing them to frontline medical personnel facing shortages.

The current allegations against the Red Cross of China in the aftermath of the Gansu Earthquake also echo other past controversies, such as the one they dealt with after the 2008 Sichuan quake. Red Cross officials were then also accused of misusing donations by purchasing needlessly expensive tents and vehicles.

 
Donations for the ‘Underdog’: The Han Hong Foundation
 

The growing public distrust towards the Red Cross has arguably paved the way for other Chinese charities to gain prominence. A prime example is the Han Hong Love Charity Foundation (韩红爱心慈善基金会), established in 2012 by renowned Chinese folk singer Han Hong (韩红, 1971).

Although Han Hong has been engaged in charity for many years, during which she invested a lot of her own money, the charity she established became more known after the Han Hong Love Charity Foundation was committed to aid efforts during the Wuhan Covid outbreak in 2020 and the Henan floods in 2021.

Han Hong (center), picture via Xiaohongshu fan of Han Hong.

After the earthquake in Gansu on December 18th, Han Hong’s organization immediately organized rescue teams and provided people in the affected areas with clothes and (medical) supplies. Hang Hong was able to rake in millions thanks to her reputation of being compassionate and altruistic, as well as through her strong network in China’s entertainment industry, leading numerous Chinese celebrities to support her relief efforts.

But Han Hong’s organization is also affected by the public distrust surrounding charity in China. On December 23, it was rumored that her Charity Foundation was officially asked to leave the disaster area as well as to hand over a portion of their donations.

The foundation refuted these claims by issuing a statement on December 25 (#韩红基金会辟谣#).

Statement by Han Hong Love Charity Foundation refuting rumors that their charity work was hindered by officials.

In the public view, there seems to be a big difference between perceptions of large entities like the Red Cross and other ‘official’ charitable organizations versus smaller, more independent initiatives like the Han Hong foundation, which operates as a private charitable entity.

Reflecting on the rumors surrounding both the Red Cross and Han Hong’s foundation, one Weibo commenter noted: “These rumors come into existence because so many of these so-called charitable foundations actually treat charity as their business. And so, they become ‘competitors.’”

Meanwhile, Han Hong’s organization stresses that it operates under the guidance and oversight of the party and government, and only provide emergency support through their support.

In online discussions on the power of the Red Cross versus Han Hong’s organization, some commenters suggest that it is time for the government and authorities to reflect on why a private organization would be more trusted than the Red Cross, a government organized NGO.

One Weibo commenter wrote: “What Han Hong does is true charity instead of business.” Another person replied: “The biggest disaster here is actually the erosion of public trust.”

By Manya Koetse

References

Cheng, Yang. 2016. “Social Media Keep Buzzing! A Test of Contingency Theory in China’s Red Cross Credibility Crisis.” International Journal of Communication, June 2016: pp. 3241+.

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©2023 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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China Insight

A Snowball Effect: How Cold Harbin Became the Hottest Place in China

Part of Harbin’s enormous success can be attributed to a snowball effect, but the hype is also the result of a well-coordinated campaign.

Manya Koetse

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There is one topic that has been dominating Chinese social media recently: Harbin and its remarkable influx of tourists. How can the buzz surrounding this frosty city be explained?

The new year has just started and Harbin already seems to be the hit of 2024. The capital of China’s Heilongjiang Province, which is famous for its Ice and Snow Festival and Russian heritage, has been dominating trending topics on Chinese social media from late December well into this second week of January.

Every day recently, there’s another hashtag about Harbin that is hitting the hot charts on Chinese social media platforms Weibo, Douyin, and Xiaohongshu. Whether it is about Harbin travel, food, or funny memes, there seems to be an endless stream of stories and topics coming from the city in China’s northeast.

The sudden hype surrounding Harbin is similar to that of Zibo in 2023. The Shandong city, known for its local BBQ culture, became all the rage in spring of last year for its joyful atmosphere and post-pandemic celebratory mood.

Is Harbin the ‘Zibo’ of this 2023-2024 winter season? How come the historical city became such a social media phenomenon?

 
Harbin’s Hottest Festival
 

This year marks the 40th edition of the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival (哈尔滨国际冰雪节), which is the largest ice and snow festival in the world. The official opening ceremony on January 5th not only celebrated the milestone of the 40th edition but also highlighted Harbin’s role as the host city for the 2025 Asian Winter Games. This will also be the first festival after the end of China’s ‘Zero Covid’ policy (the event was previously still held but kept much smaller).

Harbin winters are tough, with temperatures plummeting to as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit) or even colder. The idea for a Harbin ice festival first emerged in the late 1950s, when local officials wanted to cheer up the city and its residents in the dark and gloomy winter days.

They therefore introduced a winter festival centered around the idea of ice lanterns, of which the history goes back to the fisherman on the Songhua River using candles inside frozen blocks to give light on long winter nights. The festival was successful from the start; nearly 250,000 people participated in the 1963 edition (Dewar et al 2001, 524).

First edition of the Snow and Ice Festival in 1963.

After the Cultural Revolution put a halt to the festivities in 1966, local authorities reviewed the festival again in 1984, and revived it as an event to boost the local economy. About a decade later, it had already become one of the biggest of its kind globally, with its ice sculpting competitions and snow sculpture parks, including thousands of ice structures and spectacular lantern venues.

This 2023-2024 season turns out to be another important moment for Harbin and its ice festival. In November of 2023, the city launched a press conference in which they stressed the importance of strengthening the city’s position as an (international) leader in the field of ice and snow tourism in this post-pandemic era and fully focus on turning the season into a “people’s festival” and a “people’s event” (“使冰雪季和冰雪节真正成为人民的节日、百姓的盛会”).

From string quartets to hot air balloons, Harbin is going all out to entertain and impress visitors this year, and all the efforts are paying off.

More than two million people are expected to visit Harbin for this year’s festival, including its ‘Ice and Snow World’ (哈尔滨冰雪大世界) which opened on 18 December and will run until late February. This amusement park is a major attraction within the larger festival, and this 25th edition, with its 810,000-square-meter, is the largest-ever held.

In a time when Chinese domestic travelers are exploring their own country in new ways, from Special Force travel style to show-inspired journeys, the latest buzz surrounding Harbin is something that many simply do not want to miss out on, causing the coldest city to become one of the hottest destinations of the moment.

 
Turning Bad Publicity into Something Positive
 

On December 18, Harbin officially opened its Ice and Snow World to the public, welcoming thousands of visitors. This is also when the city and its festival first started trending on social media, but not necessarily in a good way.

Visitors initially complained that despite making reservations, they had to wait in lines at the entrance for hours, and that the time slot reservation system (分时预约) – introduced in Covid days – actually made things more difficult rather than facilitating a smoother crowd management process.

People also complained when Ice and Snow World issued a notice that they couldn’t accommodate more than 40,000 people and had already reached their limit during the early afternoon, therefore halting further ticket sales on the 18th. The 40,000 people limit seemed strange to many, who commented that other events and venues across China, such as Shanghai Disneyland, could welcome much more visitors.

People who had been waiting in line for hours starting shouting that they wanted their money back, and that incident went viral online as the “ticket refund incident” (#哈尔滨退票事件#, 170 million views on Weibo).

Not only did these incidents generate more public attention for the events taking place in Harbin, Snow World’s response also became a hot topic as they soon issued an apology, swiftly canceled the time slot reservation system, gave ticket refunds, and introduced a ‘first come first served’ system (#冰雪大世界取消预约制#, #哈尔滨冰雪大世界致歉#, 370 million views).

A side effect of this incident and how it was handled was that a so-called “underdog effect” became visible on social media, where many people started defending Harbin and Snow World. Supporters questioned whether visitors would similarly express frustration while waiting in lines at Disneyland or Universal Studios.

One Weibo blogger (@刘成春) wrote: “Please do not dismiss Harbin’s Ice and Snow World just because of some minor shortcomings. A group of simple, honest, hardworking people have spent days on end creating these sculptures with ice taken from the Songhua River at temperatures below minus 20. They’ve been making so much efforts, and Harbin just wants to present these works as gifts and the city’s signature to the people (..) Please don’t discredit the only snow and ice landmark of Northeast China.”

After the incident, this sentiment echoed widely on Chinese social media, where many believed in Harbin’s genuine efforts to make its snow and ice season a success, recognizing the sincerity and goodwill of those involved. The idea that Harbin really deserves to shine this season was further strengthened because of videos emerging on social media of previous Covid years, when the smaller festival looked empty and staff still worked hard to try and entertain the few visitors that were there.

 
Southern Little Potato Hype
 

On New Year’s Eve, videos showing celebrations in Harbin rapidly gained traction online, showing that Harbin was doing everything it could to entertain and create a welcoming atmosphere for its visitors.

These visitors have also become part of the buzz surrounding Harbin this season, mainly the emergence of the so-called “Southern Little Potatoes” (南方小土豆 nánfāng xiǎo tǔdòu). This term refers to the increasing influx of tourists from China’s warmer southern regions who are making their way to the snow-blanketed north.

The term “Southern Little Potatoes” humorously describes these southern tourists, especially women, who are frequently spotted sporting light-colored down jackets and hats. Their short height, distinct travel attire makes them stand out among the typically taller and darker-dressed locals in northeastern cities, leading to the playful potato comparison by northerners.

One of the ‘Southern Little Potatoes’ memes (via 21jingji.com).

As “Southern Little Potatoes” became a trending term online, southern tourists also started using it to make fun of themselves and it came to be used to highlight the warm and sometimes funny exchanges between the north and south.

The “Southern Little Potatoes,” who are not used to not used to ice, snow, and extremely cold weather, are also known to get into tricky situations, needing locals to help them out. On January 9, one tourist from the south went viral for stepping out of the train as he quickly wanted to experience licking a metal pole in freezing temperatures. The moment his tongue got stuck, the train staff kindly helped him get unstuck.

For locals, these silly southern tourists are a great business opportunity. One street seller started offering a supervised metal pole licking experience: you can lick a small metal pole for 5 yuan ($0.70), a bigger one for 10 ($1.40), and the tallest one for 15 ($2) (photo below).

Metal pole licking experience.

The Southern Little Potato trend has set off the online meme machine, as well as sparked a small local economy. Some Harbin taxi drivers, for example, promote themselves as being designated “little potato drivers” to serve their ‘friends from the south.’ Street sellers selling ‘little potato’ plush toy keychains for 15 yuan became all the hype.

Little Potato merchandise sold in the streets of Harbin (via 21jingji.com).

You could say that this general trend has also strengthened ties between the north and south. In Chinese, Harbin (Hā’ěrbīn 哈尔滨) is now affectionately shortened to ‘Ěrbīn‘ by visitors and netizens, with the dropping of the ‘Ha’ reflecting a more casual, friendly familiarity with the city.

 
A Snowball Effect
 

Although part of Harbin’s enormous (online) success can be attributed to a snowball effect that began after December 19/20, with people showing their appreciation for the city and joining the hype, the attention on social media was also a result of a well-coordinated campaign.

As described by Chinese media outlet The Paper (澎湃新闻), Heilongjiang Province’s Cultural and Tourism Department Party Secretary and Director He Jing (何晶) recently stated in an interview: “This year’s popularity [of Harbin] isn’t accidental; we’ve been preparing for a year.” He explained how, since early 2023, they started focusing on new media and social media strategies to promote Heilongjiang and Harbin in multiple ways.

For this season, Harbin Snow World made sure there were several online influencers and celebrities promoting the festivities, such as Chinese influencers Kiki (陈洁Kiki) and Barbin (Barbin.ili芭比) or Olympic champion speed skaters Fan Kexin (范可新), Zhang Hong (张虹), and Zhang Yuting (张雨婷). There are also various brand collaborations, such as with Tencent and its Game for Peace (和平精英). Local official media channels and big state media accounts also collaborate with Harbin in posting a lot of promotional videos related to festivities.

This year, Harbin also introduced all kinds of activities and venues to increase their appeal. The ice-made terracotta warriors, for example, or the hot pot restaurant housed within an ice structure, where even the tables are sculpted from ice. These are just some of the many ‘must-experience’ attractions in Harbin that have garnered attention on Chinese social media (#哈尔滨把火锅玩出了本地特色#).

There is also a 20-meter high snowman wearing a red hat, that has come to serve as a must-go photo opportunity for visitors. The local tourism ambassador, the Exploring Pinguin (淘学企鹅), with its cute appearance and orange backpack, is also one of those things that further adds to the appeal of Harbin and its Snow World.

Local authorities, including the tourism department, also pulled out all the stops to ensure visitors felt welcome and accommodated. They made sure local hotels and other business maintained fair prices despite the surge in tourists and to increase the focus on customer service.

They also made sure to listen to (online) feedback and quickly act on complaints. For example, after so many tourists from the south arrived at Harbin Airport and had to change into warmer clothing in the chilly central hall, they increased the number of airport dressing rooms, equipped with seats, mirrors, and carpets. This kind of attention to detail and drive to serve visitors is a strategy that has greatly contributed to Harbin’s current success.

You now see that the combined efforts of local authorities and businesses in Harbin, both online and offline, have cultivated a unique festive atmosphere. This atmosphere is contagious; it motivates locals to actively contribute to maintain the standards while also encouraging visitors to actively promote the city. This leads to new groups of visitors getting enthusiastic to travel to Harbin.

While this success is partly orchestrated, with authorities and state media being key players, there is also that ‘special something’ — a kind of genuine charm, sincerity, relatability, and likability — which is much harder to schedule through strategies. It’s an organic ingredient that is a major part of the buzz. In this way, Zibo and Harbin are very much alike.

Despite some criticisms about prioritizing short-term fame and social media hype for Chinese tourist destinations, it seems that Harbin’s success will be long lasting. As some social media users say: “I can’t make it this year, but I definitely will go to Harbin for the next season. I’ve never even seen snow in my life.”

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Ruixin Zhang and Miranda Barnes

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References

Dewar, Keith, Denny Meyer, and Wen Mei Li. 2001. “Harbin, Lanterns of Ice, Sculptures of Snow.” Tourism Management 22 (5): 523-532.

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China Insight

The Story of Li Jun & Liang Liang: How the Challenges of an Ordinary Chinese Couple Captivated China’s Internet

“Liang Liang and Li Jun are just the tip of the iceberg; there are thousands of couples facing similar challenges.”

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Two years after they first started sharing their story on Chinese social media, millions of netizens are engrossed in the struggles of the Chinese young parents Li Jun and Liang Liang, whose journey of starting a family and buying an apartment in the city at a time of economic downturn turned into an emotional rollercoaster.

The struggles faced by an ordinary young Chinese couple have recently become a major topic on Chinese social media.

For some, their story has unfolded like a compelling movie, “starring Li Jun and Liang Liang.” Others think they could be protagonists in a novel, perhaps one written by Victor Hugo or Lao She.

Here, we explain their story thus far and why it has become such a big topic of discussion on Chinese social media.

 

A PROMISING FUTURE

“Among tens and thousands of lights in the city, finally there’s a light that only shines for me.”


 

In 2022, the couple, Zhang Yiliang (张艺亮, the husband, also called ‘Liang Liang’) and Dong Lijun (董丽君, the wife, referred to as Li Jun), first became popular on Chinese social media as they shared their journey of buying a property and building a life in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, on their account ‘The Couple Liang Liang & Li Jun’ (亮亮丽君夫妇).

Their first social media post had appeared in November of 2021. In this video, they shared their excitement about buying an apartment and starting their new life as home owners.

They previously put a deposit on an off-planned apartment, eagerly anticipating its delivery in 2024. They regularly updated their progress on Douyin, showcasing their savings efforts and monthly visits to the construction site. “Among tens and thousands of lights in the city, finally there’s a light that only shines for me,” they said (“从此万家灯火,终有一盏只为我而亮”).

The couple took out a mortgage amount of 1.02 million RMB ($143.660) for the Zhengzhou apartment, which had a total floor area of 1,055 sqft / 98 sqm. They made a downpayment of 450k RMB ($63.370), and agreed to a monthly – relatively high-interest rate – payment of 6293 RMB ($886), while also paying the monthly rent for their apartment (1500 RMB/$211). This meant the budget for other expenses was very tight already, since the couple had an approximate monthly combined income of only 9000 RMB ($1267).

They mainly paid for the downpayment with money that Liang Liang had been saving over the past five years, along with monetary gifts from their wedding and some support from their parents. In order to generate some extra income, Liang also became a taxi driver (Didi) at night.

As the couple gained more popularity online, mainly on Douyin and Bilibili, some Chinese media outlets also began taking notice. In July of 2022, Sanlian Life Weekly (三联生活周刊) featured an interview with the couple, bringing their story to the attention of a wider audience.

 

THE SPARK IS GONE

“This is our life now, the life of mortgage slaves.”


 

However, things did not go as planned. Months into the construction process, the developer, Sunac China Holdings Limited (融创中国), encountered financial difficulties. In May of 2022, Sunac made headlines as it didn’t meet its payment obligations on a dollar bond, making it one of the major Chinese property companies failing to fulfill its financial commitments.

Li Jun and Liang went to check on how the construction was going every month, and found that Sunac’s financial woes were causing a standstill in construction. Their apartment was located on the 22nd floor of a 33-story-building, but the construction was suspended from the 13th floor up.

Their daughter was also born during this tumultuous time, in October 2022, adding to the financial strain of rent and mortgage payments without a clear move-in date. “This is our life now, the life of mortgage slaves,” they said in one of their videos.

Adding to their challenges, Li Jun experienced a pay cut, reducing their monthly income by 2000 RMB ($282). With the cut leaving them with insufficient funds for essential expenses, they resorted to using their credit card.

In later Douyin videos, fans noticed how frustrated and disillusioned the couple now looked. Some made comparisons to their earlier videos, concluding that the “spark” they previously had in their eyes was gone.

Li Jun and Liang Liang feared that their house might join the ranks of millions of homes in China categorized as “烂尾楼” (làn wěi lóu), referring to ‘rotting’ unfinished buildings. In such cases, apartments that have been sold are abandoned and are not delivered due to financial struggles or other challenges faced by the developers.

After the pay cut they desperately needed more money to get by. They started doing some e-commerce on Douyin and tried to get the rebate that was promised to them when purchasing their apartment-the initial contract included a 20,000 RMB ($2775) special rebate for buyers, which they qualified for.

But no matter how many times they went back and forth to the sales center, the couple faced rejection and insults when demanding their payment. Desperate, Li Jun and Liang Liang turned to their social media fans and livestream followers to put more pressure on the company, but the staff just shut down the lights, closed the doors, and refused to pay them the money that was promised to them.

 

SILENCED ON SOCIAL MEDIA

“Instead of pursuing justice, I’d rather have a peaceful life.”


 

In November 2023, the story of Li Jun and Liang Liang gained prominence as they shared dramatic details of their struggles to retrieve their money. On November 15, the couple claimed to have been physically assaulted by staff members of the sales center while demanding their money. Liang ended up in the hospital with minor injuries, and Li, attempting to record the incident, had her phone snatched and the livestream was cut off.

The couple later posted a video later explaining what happened, but that video was soon taken down. Strange things kept happening, and people suspected the couple might have been threatened and bribed.

Because two days later, Li Jun and Liang Liang suddenly shared that the police were now involved, stating that “everything was sorted” and that they were content with the solution provided. This claim of police involvement was confirmed on November 19 by local authorities, who announced penalties for those responsible for beating the couple.

Yet, the last video they posted suddenly became unavailable, and their Douyin account was blocked from updating. Additionally, their other social media accounts on Weibo and Bilibili were both banned from posting (@亮亮和丽君夫妇).

Li Jun still had her personal social media account, revealing on November 22 that the couple had chosen to return to their hometown with their daughter. Liang expressed his desire for justice, but Li Jun emphasized, “But now we have our daughter. I’d rather have a peaceful life.” (#亮亮丽君决定离开郑州回老家#)

One of the social media digital artworks dedicated to Li Jun and Liang Liang. By @泥巴-lau

The idea that Li Jun and Liang Liang felt defeated enough to (temporarily) give up their dream of building their life in the city saddened and angered many netizens, and their story went viral.

But through all their trials and tribulations, the story of Li Jun and Liang Liang may not conclude with an unhappy ending after all.

Their Zhengzhou apartment is apparently not destined to remain an ‘unfinished building’ — the government has intervened to ensure the delivery of the building. In November of 2023, news also came out that Sunac had met conditions for a long-awaited debt restructuring deal, reportedly reducing its total debt by $4.5 billion. The construction of the building has resumed.

In late November, the story of Li Jun and Liang took another unexpected turn when a new video surfaced, suggesting that the couple – despite saying they would relocate to their rural hometown – would give it another shot in Zhengzhou by starting their own business.

Many online users found this twist confusing, suspecting that local authorities might have intervened to reshape the couple’s narrative, possibly to ensure a positive outcome in the public eye (#亮亮丽君决定在郑州创业#).

“Perhaps I should become an internet sensation too,” one commenter responded. “Maybe then my unfinished three-room apartment will finally be delivered to me as well.”

 

ORDINARY CHINESE DUPED

“Three years of Covid did not break our spirit; it’s our unfinished property that brought us down.”


 

There are numerous reasons why so many people are invested in the story of Liang Liang and Li Jun. Their journey, documented on social media, deeply resonated with millions who are dealing with similar struggles or are finding it hard to start a life in the city, build a family and pay a mortgage.

Their Douyin videos reflected the emotional rollercoaster of an ordinary Chinese couple facing setbacks despite diligently following the conventional path of education, hard work, marriage, savings, property ownership, and family-building.

Many wondered if their lives would have taken a different turn if they had chosen to ‘lie flat’ or go against the norm. Who is responsible for the fact that, despite their hard work and dedication, their pursuit of the ‘Chinese dream’ seemed unattainable?

Beyond this issue of ordinary families struggling to get by and pay for a mortgage, a central issue in Li Jun and Liang’s story was also the problem with their unfinished apartment.

Concerns about Chinese real estate developers grappling with substantial debts have have consistently dominated headlines in recent years, sparked by the difficulties faced by Evergrande Group and other Chinese property developers, such as Country Garden, Kaisa Group, Fantasia Holdings, Sinic Holdings, Modern Land, and Sunac – the property owner from whom Li and Liang purchased their apartment.

Regular people like Liang Liang and Li Jun are the ones most affected by this ongoing property crisis, often facing severe consequences. For many, this once hopeful young couple, now disillusioned, represents a larger social and economic problem within China’s real estate industry.

“Liang Liang and Li Jun are just the tip of the iceberg; there are thousands of couples facing similar challenges,” one Weibo blogger (@鸿蒙钊哥) wrote.

Another Weibo user wrote: “We all know the story of Liang Liang and Li Jun, and we want to help them because they represent numerous urban residents. Three years of Covid did not break our spirit; it’s our unfinished property that brought us down. So far I did not see official media speaking up for them, is it that they do not know or that they are worth helping? Or, perhaps, they feel ashamed?”

Despite this aspect of Li Jun and Liang’s story, which highlights both the trap of mortgage slavery and the problem of ordinary Chinese duped by the country’s property woes, the young couple has become a subject of public contention. Not everyone agrees with the choices they made.

Some bloggers, such as Lao Liang (老梁不郁闷), argue that their story was exaggerated for clout, and that their apartment actually never qualified as a ‘rotten’ unfinished building (烂尾楼 làn wěi lóu) since construction was only temporarily halted but never really abandoned.

While many express sympathy for the couple, others deem it unwise for them to have purchased an apartment with an already strained monthly budget, let alone to have a child under such uncertain circumstances. Critics suggest the couple lacked a proper life plan, didn’t assess risks, and ended up in this situation through their own fault.

These critics also view the couple’s recent change of plans as evidence that they may have fabricated parts of their story to garner attention and financial support.

However, there are widely different opinions on this issue. Some label these critics as proponents of Social Darwinism (社会达尔文主义), accusing them of being selfish and cold-hearted. They argue that the blame should not be on the couple, striving for a better life, but on the developer who breached the contract and made life so hard for them.

The couple’s chosen path, moving from small towns to study and work in big cities, reflects a common value not only in China but worldwide. They argue that society should appreciate those working hard despite facing challenges and insecurities, instead of condemning them for the bold choices they make.

Those supporting the young couple seemingly also do not care if their story has somehow become entwined with (local) propaganda efforts. As their narrative is now shifting from representing defeated Chinese youth in a complex economic situation to showcasing the strength of Chinese urban workers in a revitalized nation, many people simply wish them the best.

As one commenter writes: “If they want to start a business in Zhengzhou now, let them go for it. They’ve made positive use of the attention they’ve received. They don’t need to live up to the expectations that others have them. All the luck to you!”

By Manya Koetse & Miranda Barnes

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