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“Shameful Exhibition of Self-importance”: Chinese Netizens Condemn Socialist Core Values Graffiti on London Street

Many individuals are skeptical of the notion that those behind the Brick Lane graffiti were involved in creating meaningful street art.

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In London’s Brick Lane, a wall covered with Chinese slogan graffiti sparked backlash from local art communities and Chinese diaspora recently, with many perceiving the graffiti as a show of support for the Chinese Communist Party. While some voices in China’s social media sphere defended the graffiti, many others condemned the makers for being disrespectiful and arrogant.

On August 5th, bold red Chinese characters were spray painted on a white wall in Brick Lane, a renowned London street celebrated for its iconic graffiti art. The incident has been all the talk this week – not just in the English-language social media sphere, but also among Chinese netizens.

Originally, the Brick Lane wall was adorned by a mixed style of paintings, including black-and-white portraits Mr. Bean and Wednesday Addams, along with a piece of graffiti that served as a tribute to the late street artist Marty.

However, a group of young Chinese, including art students at London’s Royal College of Art, white-painted over the original graffiti and then inscribed 24 red Chinese characters, collectively forming the 12 “core socialist values” that align with ideals endorsed by the Chinese Communist Party.

The 12 values, written in 24 Chinese characters, are the national values of “prosperity”, “democracy”, “civility” and “harmony”; the social values of “freedom”, “equality”, “justice” and the “rule of law”; and the individual values of “patriotism”, “dedication”, “integrity” and “friendship.” In mainland China, it is quite common to come across these values on walls, billboards or community posters (see image below).

“Core socialist values” displayed inside a Beijing community, photo by What’s on Weibo.

While a majority of these values harmonize with Western expectations (integrity, patriotism, civility, etc.), certain ones seem inconsistent with the typical Western understanding of China, given China’s historic reluctance to embrace Western-style political democracy. Terms like freedom, justice, equality, democracy, and rule of law, originally introduced from the West, may be perceived differently within different political contexts.

Although these slogans, endorsed by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, are so common and uncontroversial in China, their debut on London street received wide criticism from different communities.

Some people called the students “CCP thugs” while others wondered if this was “art or vandalism.”

Local artists primarily expressed anger over the students painting over culturally significant graffiti artworks. The Chinese expatriate community in Britain appeared predominantly upset about the underlying message of the graffiti.

Soon after, the Chinese slogans were masked by fresh graffiti that vigorously criticized Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party, questioning the party’s commitment to the values it claims to uphold, like “equality” and “freedom.” Temporarily, the graffiti wall transformed into a anti-Beijing platform to protest against the 12 socialist core values showcased there.

The wall changed into an anti-Beijing protest wall. One slogan underneath the original socialist value graffiti says “Never forget June 4.” Via “Weareallchainedwomen” Instagram account.

As anticipated, there are also many voices from within China endorsing the Brick Lane socialist graffiti. Below a Weibo post showcasing images of the new graffiti (albeit without clear contextualization of the situation), some users assert in the comment section that artists have the freedom to express themselves. They argue that adding English translations could enhance foreigners’ appreciation of the socialist values.

Political commentator Hu Xijin wrote on X (formerly Twitter): “Chinese students who covered London’s Brick Lane with socialist core values graffiti are facing death threats. These students’ original intention was probably to test the true limits on Western ‘freedom of speech.’ And here are the limits.”

Hu’s views were reiterated on social media, where some commenters suggested that there is a certain hypocrisy in the West about what is considered ‘politically correct’ and what is not, arguing that the graffiti only caused controversy due to Western anti-Chinese sentiments.

 
“The Price of Freedom”
 

Nevertheless, a substantial number of Chinese netizens have shown disapproval towards the actions of these students. Unlike communities outside of China that critique Party propaganda and related factors such as the Chinese government’s influence over students abroad, the attention within China has shifted towards condemning the behavior of these Chinese students engaging in political graffiti in the first place.

Within some Weibo comment sections, netizens call the students’ actions “unneccesary,” “provocative” and “trouble-making.” On other social media platforms, Chinese netizens have also labeled their acts as “a shameful exhibition of self-importance.”

Not long after the graffiti went viral, the creators behind it stepped forward on social media. On Chinese social media app Xiaohongshu, they presented their work as a bold manifestation of a broader campaign to celebrate freedom and stimulate discussions, claiming their work was not necessarily political but both social and philosophical, invoking concepts such as logocentrism and cultural colonialism. The fact that some people felt sad about other artists’ creative works being covered was simply referred to as “the price of freedom.”

A screenshot of one of the students’ posts on Xiaohongshu. The creator’s Xiaohongshu account is now unavailable, but similar message can be found on their Instagram (source).

Not everyone bought into the idea that these Chinese students were engaged in meaningful and thought-provoking street art. Instead, many viewed them as more arrogant than artistic. Particularly, their decision to cover the tribute to Marty, the deceased street artist, was met with condemnation from netizens. Videos and articles explaining the significance of artist Marty have spread widely across social media platforms, highlighting how these students’ actions showed ignorance in painting over artwork that other graffiti artists had deliberately avoided out of respect. A video expounding on Marty’s importance amassed over 82,000 reposts on WeChat, prompting numerous comments accusing the creators of extreme disrespect.

However, certain Weibo users highlighted that a straightforward Google Street View search demonstrates that the graffiti on the Brick Lane wall undergoes frequent changes, and the wall is occasionally covered with posters as well.

Regardless, people question if the graffiti could be considered a work of art at all. For many Chinese who are used to seeing these socialist core values in China’s public spaces, the 24 characters have no artistic meaning at all – instead, they are perceived as mere tools for political propaganda. Some people voice that, in their view, ubiquitous political propaganda slogans such as these could never qualify as “art.”

By the morning of August 7th, all signs of the socialist core values had vanished from Brick Lane, obscured under a fresh coat of white paint. The Tower Hamlets Council, responsible for the London Brick Lane area, had removed the graffiti in line with its policy against “unwanted and illegal graffiti.”

As the white paint conceals the vivid red Chinese characters on the street wall in London, a wave of censorship also masks the intense debates about the students’ actions in China.

On August 10th, discussions on the topic on Weibo have dwindled, with many videos and photos suddenly becoming unavailable. Remaining discussions on the Brick Lane graffiti only display blank, censored images on Weibo.

A Weibo post about Brick Lane graffiti: the graffiti images have been censored on Weibo (screenshot via What’s on Weibo).

However, neither the fresh layer of white paint nor domestic censorship pacifies the controversy surrounding the graffiti. In the late afternoon of August 7th, the wall was again adorned with new signs, slogans, and posters related to China, drawing a gathering of tourists and local residents eager to capture photographs and igniting conversations.

Propaganda, art, an invitation to reconsider slogans in public spaces, an exploration of freedom of expression? No matter the true intention behind the socialist slogans on Brick Lane, if fostering discussions was indeed one of the objectives, the students have unquestionably succeeded.

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Featured image: Images via 红歌会网 Weibo account and via “Weareallchainedwomen” Instagram account.

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China World

From Pitch to Politics: About the Messy Messi Affair in Hong Kong (Updated)

Looking back at the Messi controversy: How a friendly match transformed into a political arena following Messi’s absence.

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In the days leading up to the start of the Chinese New Year, the hottest topic on Chinese social media was not about the upcoming celebration – everyone was talking about soccer instead. Why? Because of the Inter Miami CF match in Hong Kong, featuring none other than the Argentine soccer superstar Lionel Messi.

After winning the World Cup in 2023, Messi left European soccer to join David Beckham’s American professional soccer club, Inter Miami CF. Starting in 2024, the team planned a series of preseason exhibition matches, including matches against Dallas FC, Al Hilal, Al-Nasr, Hong Kong, and Vissel Kobe.

On February 4th, the Hong Kong Stadium, filled with nearly 40,000 fans, finally hosted the legendary Lionel Messi. However, according to on-site reports, Messi, wearing casual pants and shoes instead of soccer cleats and shorts, spent the entire time on the bench.

Frustration among the audience grew, leading to an outbreak of boos due to Messi’s continuous absence. By the 80th minute, some fans started leaving, and chants of “refund” persisted, overshadowing the post-match speech of Inter Miami’s president David Beckham.

As the game concluded, additional videos and images from the scene spread online, fueling further discussion among netizens. One video depicted Messi quickly leaving the stadium without engaging with fans, while another showed a furious supporter kicking over Messi’s advertising board. Enraged fans flooded Messi and the team’s social media platforms with comments, demanding refunds and an apology.

On major football social media platforms in mainland China, such as Dongqiudi (懂球帝) and Hupu (虎扑), netizens engaged in heated discussions. Some expressed understanding, stating that if Messi was injured and couldn’t play, fans should be more tolerant. However, a majority of fans voiced anger and found it hard to accept.

 
A Web of Confusion
 

So what actually happened in Hong Kong? In the days following the controversial match, different speculations arose about Messi’s absence, creating a web of confusion. Regarding the team line-up, the stadium’s player list indicated that Messi was on the substitutes’ bench, which meant that he might play in the game. However, in the official Inter Miami CF lineup released on X before the game, Messi was not included at all.

Messi is missing, artwork by the Hong-Kong based Victor Chen.

Contradicting reports on contractual obligations also came out. According to a report by Hong Kong Economic Daily, the contract only stipulated the presence of star players without guaranteeing Messi’s appearance. Newspaper Ta Kung Pao, however, reported that the contract between Inter Miami and Hong Kong stipulated Messi’s presence on the field for at least 45 minutes unless injured. Tatler Hong Kong, the organizer of the exhibition game, confirmed this, and stated that they were only informed about Messi’s absence at halftime. Soon after that, Kenneth Fok Kai-kong, current chairman of Hong Kong Arts Development Council, posted on his Weibo that the organizers were actually not informed at halftime but only ten minutes before the end of the match.

In the post-match press conference, the coach of Inter Miami explained Messi’s absence, saying that the decision was made by the medical team on the morning of the match. At a press conference in Japan, Messi himself stated that there was some discomfort in his adductor muscles, with swelling revealed in the MRI results. It was not classified as a muscle injury, but still caused discomfort. However, Messi’s official account on Weibo contradicted this by stating that the footballer has an injury to the “abdominal muscles”. The inconsistency added fuel to the fire, leaving fans feeling hurt and enraged.

As time went on, the conflicting information grew, without any clear answers emerging. Currently, the specifics of the contract between Inter Miami and the Hong Kong organizers remain undisclosed. However, on Weibo, users drew their own conclusions, making the hashtag “Messi breaks commercial bottom line” (#梅西爽约突破商业底线#) a trending topic.

 
A Political Battleground
 

The Messi storm still hasn’t blown over. Following the Hong Kong controversy, Messi came on as a substitute in Miami’s game against Vissel in Japan and his 30-minute stellar performance sparked heated debates on Chinese social media. Messi’s appearance in Japan was interpreted as him being “pro-Japan” and “anti-China,” turning a simple exhibition match into a political battleground.

A controversial video of Messi not shaking hands with the Chief Executive of Hong Kong and other government officials at the awards ceremony has been widely seen as a sign of disrespect toward Hong Kong and the Chinese government. As anti-Japanese sentiments surged, accusations against Messi flooded football forums.

A video titled “Messi’s Double Standards in Japan” by football influencer “Dishang zuqiu” (地上足球) gained significant traction. Among other things, the vlogger alleged that during Messi’s time at PSG, he used Japanese kanji on his kit, while all his teammates used proper Chinese characters to celebrate Chinese New Year. This video quickly gained over 2 million views, intensifying accusations of Messi’s anti-China stance. “I am a football fan, but first, I am Chinese,” expressed disappointed fans in various comment sections.

Despite its seeming absurdity, Messi’s absence has really become a political affair. The Hangzhou Sports Office issued a statement citing “obvious reasons” for the cancellation of the two friendly matches the Argentine national team had planned to play in China in March. The Chinese Football Association also suspended cooperation with the Argentine Football Association, removing all news related to Messi from its official website and social media.

Five days after the incident, media personality Hu Xijin posted on Weibo, stating that this matter “should not be politicized”, while emphasizing that “Messi is not that influential”, and suggesting that Chinese people should “look down upon” Messi.

On February 9, the eve of the Chinese New Year, Tatler Hong Kong, the organizer of this exhibition match, finally released a statement saying that they would offer those who purchased a ticket a 50% refund. They admitted that the contract stipulated Messi had to play for at least 45 minutes unless injured. Additionally, they revealed that upon learning Messi couldn’t play, they requested explanations from both Miami and Messi, which, unfortunately, did not materialize. The statement also expressed the organizers’ disappointment upon discovering that Messi still played in Japan, feeling it was “another slap in the face.”

In the summer of 2023, it seemed like Messi’s popularity in China had reached its peak during a friendly match between Argentina and Australia held at Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium when a Chinese fan stormed onto the pitch and embraced Messi. The incident went viral and only garnered more appreciation for the soccer superstar, who extended his arms and reciprocated the hug. Now, eight months later, Messi’s reputation in China has hit rock bottom.

The Hong Kong match and its aftermath will have lingering consequences for Messi. Not only have his matches in China been canceled, but it will also take time and effort to win back the hearts of Chinese soccer fans. “We now know how much you love Japan. China doesn’t welcome you anymore. Don’t come back,” one person posted on Messi’s Weibo page, where the footballer expressed his disappointment about not being able to play in Hong Kong and wished his fans a happy Chinese New Year.

For now, many fans are still left annoyed and puzzled, with many believing that Messi purposely did not appear at the Hong Kong match.

One Chinese football fan writes on Weibo: “I believe that Messi’s actions during this trip to Hong Kong are highly likely to be politically motivated. Whether this was because he was involuntarily influenced by powerful forces or because he is actively involved in politics himself, I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. Anyway, I’m no longer a fan.”

 
Update 2.19:
 

On February 19, the hashtag “Messi responds” (#梅西回应#, 320 million views by Monday night) went top trending on Weibo after Messi posted a video to his account. He wrote: “Happy Year of the Dragon, soccer friends! 🐲 Through this video, I want to clear up some things and once again express my gratitude to all the fans who came to support me and the team in Hong Kong, China. Thank you for your cheers, for your tifo support and love. Giving everyone a big hug 🙏🏼⚽️”

In the video, Messi states he wants to give his fans the “true version” of what happened in Hong Kong to avoid further speculation. Firstly, Messi denies that there were any political reasons for him not playing in Hong Kong or playing in Japan, stressing that he has visited China many times before since the start of his career: “I’ve had a very close and special relationship with China. I’ve done lots of things in China: interviews, games, and events. I’ve also been there and played many times for FC Barcelona and the national team.”

Messi then goes on to say that the reason he did not play in Hong Kong was because of an inflamed adductor, which got worse during his game in Saudi Arabia. As he really was not feeling well enough, he could not play in Hong Kong. As his situation improved, he was fit enough to play for a bit in Japan, “because I needed to play and get back up to speed.”

He adds: “As always, I send good wishes to everyone in China, who I’ve always had and continue to have special affection for. I hope to see you again soon.”

Although many fans do appreciate Messi’s statement, there are also numerous commenters on Weibo who still criticize the soccer player for not disclosing his injury earlier and lament the confusing communication surrounding the Hong Kong match, arguing that this video does not set the record straight.

This video marks Messi’s third response to the situation, following a press conference and a short Weibo post. The hashtag “Messi’s Third Response” (#梅西的3次回应#, #梅西3次表示希望再来中国#) also became a related hashtag.

Following all statements, some people have also had enough by now: “Are we done yet? Is it clarified enough now?”

Others argue that it might have been better for Messi not to post the video at all, as it reignites another social media storm just as the first one was calming down. The fact that the video was edited in the middle led to speculation about the omitted parts: what did he originally say? Why didn’t he release a video sooner? And why was Messi standing with his hands in his pockets?

In this way, the video seems to have a reverse effect, and however well-intended it may have been, it appears Messi is actually shooting himself in the foot.

By Ruixin Zhang and Manya Koetse

Featured image based on image posted on Weibo by @葡萄味的草莓萝妮

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©2023 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China History

A Chinese Christmas Message: It’s Not Santa Bringing Peace, but the People’s Liberation Army

On social media, Chinese official channels are not celebrating a Merry Christmas but instead focus on a Military Christmas.

Manya Koetse

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It is not Santa bringing you peace and joy, it is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Chinese state media and other influential social media accounts have been pushing an alternative Christmas narrative this year, which makes it very clear that this ‘Merry Christmas’ is brought by China’s military forces, not by a Western legendary figure.

On December 24, Party newspaper People’s Daily published a video on Weibo featuring various young PLA soldiers, writing:

Thank you for your hard work! Thanks to their protection, we have a peaceful Christmas Eve. They come from all over the country, steadfastly guarding the front lines day and night. “With our youth, we defend our prosperous China!” Thank you, and salute!

People’s Daily post on Weibo, December 24 2023.

The main argument that is propagated, is that this time in China should not be about Christmas and Santa Claus, but about remembering the end of the Korean War and paying tribute to China’s soldiers.

This narrative is not just promoted on social media by Chinese official media channels, it is also propagated in various other ways.

One Weibo user shared a photo of a mall in Binzhou where big banners were hanging reminding people of the 73rd anniversary of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War: “December 24 is not about Christmas Eve, but about the victory at Chosin Reservoir.”

Mall banners reminding Chinese that December 24 is about commemorating the end of the Second Phase Offensive (photo taken at 滨州吾悦广场/posted by 武汉潘唯杰).

Another blogger posted a video showing LED signs on taxis, allegedly in the Hinggan League in Inner Mongolia, with the words: “December 24 is NOT Christmas Eve, it is the military victory of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir” (“12.24不是平安夜,是长津湖战役胜利日”).

One social media video showed a teacher at a middle school in Chongqing also emphasizing to her students that “it’s not Father Christmas who brings us a happy and peaceful life, but our young soldiers!”

In the context of the Korean War (1950-1953), December 24 marks the conclusion of the Second Phase Offensive (1950), which was launched by the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army against the United Nations Command forces–primarily U.S. and South Korean troops.

The Chinese divisions’ surprise attack countered the ‘Home-by-Christmas’ campaign. This name stemmed from the UN forces’ belief that they would soon prevail, end the conflict, and be home well in time to celebrate Christmas. Instead, they were forced into retreat and the Chinese reclaimed most of North Korea by December 24, 1950.

The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, also known as the the Battle at Lake Changjin, is part of this history. The battle began on November 27 of 1950, five months after the start of the Korean War. The 2021 movie Changjin Lake (长津湖/The Battle at Lake Changjin) provides a Chinese perspective on the lead-up and unfolding of this massive ground attack of the Chinese 9th Army Group, in which thousands of soldiers died.

Especially in recent years and in light of the launch of the blockbuster movie, there is an increased focus on the Chinese attack at Chosin as a glorious victory and strategic success for turning around the war situation in Korea and defending its own borders, underscoring the military strength of the People’s Republic of China as a new force to be reckoned with (read more here).

This Chinese Christmas narrative of honoring the PLA coincides with a series of popular social media posts from bloggers facing criticism for celebrating Christmas in China.

One of them is Liu Xiaoguang (刘晓光 @_恶魔奶爸_, 1.7 million followers), who wrote on December 25:

Some people are criticizing me for celebrating Christmas Eve, because, by celebrating a foreign festival, I would be unpatriotic and forgetful of our martyrs. What can I say, in our family Christmas must be a big deal, even if I don’t come home it must be celebrated, because my mom is a Christian, and she’s very devout (..) So you see, on one hand I should promote traditional Chinese virtues, and show filial piety, on the other hand I should be patriotic and not celebrate foreign festivals.”

Meanwhile, other popular bloggers stress the importance of remembering China’s military heroes during this time. Influential media blogger Zhang Xiaolei (@晓磊) posted: “It’s not Santa Claus who gives you peace, it’s the Chinese soldiers! #ChristmasEve” (“给你平安的不是圣诞老人,而是中国军人!🙏#平安夜#”). With his post, he added various pictures showing Chinese soldiers frozen in the snow as also depicted in the Battle at Lake Changjin movie.

Throughout the years, Christmas has become more popular in China, but as a predominantly atheist country with a small proportion of Christians, the festival is more about the commercial side of the holiday season including shopping and promotions, decorations, entertainment, etc.

Nevertheless, Christmas in China is generally perceived as “a foreign” or “Western” festival, and there have been consistent concerns that the festivities associated with Christmas clash with traditional Chinese culture.

In the past, these concerns have led to actual bans on Christmas celebrations. For instance, in 2017, officials in Hengyang were instructed not to partake in Christmas festivities and several universities throughout China have previously cautioned students against engaging in Christmas-related activities.

Chinese political and social commentator Hu Xijin (@胡锡进) also weighed in on the issue. In his December 24 social media column, the former Global Times editor-in-chief wrote that there is no problem with Christmas Eve and the Second Phase Offensive victory day both receiving attention on the same day. Even if the younger generations in China view Christmas more as a commercial event rather than a religious one, it’s understandable for businesses to capitalize on this period for additional revenue. He wrote:

In this era of globalization, holiday cultures inevitably influence each other. The Chinese government does not actively promote the rise of “Western holidays” for its own reasons, but they also have no intention to “suppress foreign holidays.” Some Chinese celebrate “Western holidays” and it is their right to do, they should not face criticism for it.”

Although many Chinese netizens post different viewpoints on this year’s Christmas debate, there are some who just don’t understand what all the fuss is about. “December 24 can be both Christmas Eve, and it can be Victory Day. It’s not like we need to pick one over the other. We are free to choose whatever.”

By Manya Koetse

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