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Social Media in Times of China’s Flood Disaster: Participation, Profits, and Propaganda

Manya Koetse

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Posters issued by People's Daily during the Henan floods.

The social media trends during China’s heavy rainfall and floods in July of 2021 show the multidimensionality of online communication in times of disaster. Facing the devastating downpours, Weibo became a site for participation, propaganda, and some controversial profiting.

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yi Magazin: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet. Read this article in German here.
 

Starting on July 17, 2021, China’s Henan Province experienced extreme rain that led to record-breaking flooding and soon forced thousands of people to leave their homes, completely disrupting normal life.

Several places in the region saw unprecedented rainfall. From 8pm on July 19 to 8pm on July 20, the provincial capital Zhengzhou experienced 552.2 mm of rainfall, which is 3.5 times more rain than Germany saw during its heaviest rainfall in 75 years on July 14-15 of this year.

The death toll from the torrential rainfall has risen to at least 302 people, with many remaining missing.

As emergency situations occurred across the region, social media came to play an important role in the response to the natural disaster. Weibo, one of China’s biggest social media sites, was utilized as a communication tool during the floods by regular netizens, official channels, and companies.

While the extreme weather continued, the Henan flood disaster played out on social media in various ways. There were those helping, those profiting, and then there were those profiting from helping. We will highlight some of these dimensions within the social media responses to Henan’s catastrophic floods here.

 

People Helping People


 

There is one hashtag on Weibo that was breaking records in July: ‘Help Each Other During Henan Rainstorm’ (#河南暴雨互助#) received a staggering 16.9 billion clicks just a week after it was first launched.

By creating an online ‘Henan Help’ community, Weibo facilitated active public participation in providing immediate assistance to those affected by the extreme weather and flooding.

As described by Wendy Huang for What’s on Weibo (link), an enormous volume of messages starting pouring in on Chinese social media since the start of the heavy rainfall from people disseminating relevant information on available resources and from those seeking and providing assistance.

Rather than being a messy collection of individual posts, netizens collectively participated in verifying, summarizing, highlighting, and spreading the online help requests posted by people from different locations. In doing so, they helped in speeding up the rescue work.

This is not the first time for Weibo to play an important role during a crisis or emergency. When Sichuan Province was hit by a deadly earthquake in 2013, social media enabled a fast and free grass-roots response to the disaster. The Sina Weibo platform allowed for efficient, immediate crisis communication, leading to teams of volunteers – organized via Weibo – heading out to the disaster zone to deliver donated tents, blankets, water, etc. and provide other forms of assistance (Levin 2013).

During the early stages of the Wuhan COVID19 outbreak, social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat were also used as practical communication tools for organizations and individuals to spread information or to ask for help. One example is how Weibo helped local volunteers organize teams to assist in taking care of people’s left-behind pets when they were unable to return to their homes due to quarantine or hospitalization.

As soon as the scale of the floods in Henan province became clear, social media users started donating money for flood relief efforts. By July 21st, while the videos of the devastating impact of the heavy rainfalls went viral, Weibo users had already contributed 20 million yuan ($3 million). That number soon rose significantly as more netizens, social influencers, and celebrities also started to donate and promote charity foundations.

Simply posting, replying, forwarding, and making comments itself was also a way of public participation during the Henan floods. While many news reports and social media posts were focused on what was going on in the provincial capital of Zhengzhou, the people in the more rural areas such as Weihui in Xinxiang started sounding the alarm by July 21st, pleading for netizens to pay more attention to their situation so that it would also enter the top trending lists. Sharing these posts to draw more attention to them also became a way of providing assistance.

By July 21st, half of Weibo’s top trending topics were related to the Henan floods.

 

Showing Support and Showing Off


 

Chinese netizens made a huge impact on how the Henan flood disaster was handled in the early stages, but companies in China also contributed to flooding relief efforts in many ways, while their actions simultaneously served PR goals.

On July 21st, one major company after the other announced its donation via social media. Tech giants Pinduoduo, Tencent, Meituan, Didi, and Bytedance all donated 100 million yuan ($15.4 million) each to help the rescue operations in Henan. Alibaba topped the list with a 150 million ($23 million) donation.

Besides donating 30 million yuan ($4.6 million), Chinese tech giant Huawei also sent a team of 187 engineers to provide assistance on the front line and 68 of their R&D experts worked on helping local operators in their network repair and maintenance work to ensure a smooth communication network in the disaster area.

The Henan floods also provided an opportunity for Western brands in China to win back public favor. Many Western companies triggered outrage in China earlier this year over their ban on cotton from Xinjiang (link). In light of the Henan catastrophe, Nike and Adidas each contributed 20 million yuan ($3 million), Uniqlo 10 million ($1.5 million), PUMA 5 million ($773,000), Burberry 1.5 million yuan ($230,000), and Zara and H&M each donated 1 million ($155,000).

Adidas, Nike, and Burberry announcing their donations via social media.

Their contributions, however, did not seem to do much for their public image. The donations barely received media coverage, and some social media users who did know about them complained that Zara and H&M did not give enough money. There were also many netizens who praised Chinese sportswear brands for donating money and condemned Nike for giving “zero yuan,” even though the company had already announced donating 20 million yuan.

The company that really managed to win the public’s favor through their Henan donation is Erke (鸿星尔克 ), a relatively small and low-key Chinese sportswear company that seemingly was not doing too well over the past year facing great domestic competition.

When Erke donated 50 million yuan ($7.7 million) to the Henan flood relief efforts, it attracted major attention on Chinese social media. The sportswear brand donated an amount that was ten times higher than, for example, the donation made by major coffee company Starbucks.

Erke announcing its donation via social media (Weibo).

After people found out that the Erke brand donated such a high amount of money to help the people in Henan despite its own losses, its sales went through the roof – everyone wanted to support this generous ‘patriotic brand.’ While netizens rushed to the online shops selling Erke, the brand’s physical shops also ran out of products with so many people coming to buy their sportswear. Some sales assistants were moved to tears when the store suddenly filled up with customers.

People lining up at an Erke shop, photo via UDN.com.

The Erke hype even went so far that Chinese livestream sellers of Nike and Adidas notified their viewers that they actually supported the domestic Erke brand.

Adidas livestream sellers supporting Erke.

Erke profited from helping Henan, but there were also those companies that wanted to profit from the Henan floods without actually helping.

One ad by the local real estate company Kangqiao Real Estate promoting its ‘high lands’ properties led to online controversy. The Kangqiao Group poster highlighted the height advantage to its real estate locations, using the slogan: “Highland – live in the highland and only let the wind and rain be your scenery.”

The company apologized for its insensitive marketing campaign on July 21st, the hashtag (#康桥地产致歉#) received over 130 million views, but the damage to its reputation had already been done. In a similar fashion, two other companies also promoted their “safe” real estate and parking lots during the Henan floodings, with one company using a photo of a flooded car in Henan to suggest what could happen when not using their services. It led to online outrage that these companies would use such a disastrous time for their own marketing purposes.

Other examples of people using the floods for their own publicity also went trending on social media, such as a group of Chinese online influencers who came to affected areas to record themselves, making a show out of the floods (photos below).

On July 27, some online influencers even went one step further to promote their channels and boost viewership. They traveled to Weihui, one of the province’s worst affected areas, and shamelessly stole a rescue boat, and headed into the waters without actually helping anyone. The incident prevented actual aid workers from doing their job and delayed the rescue work by four hours. It caused controversy on Weibo (#网红为拍视频偷救生艇谎称去救人#), with many wondering why these people would want to profit from a situation that was still so critical.

There were also online discussions on situations in which it was less clear to what extent people were in it for ‘the show.’ Chinese celebrities Han Hong (韩红) and Wang Yibo (王一博) both traveled to the affected areas for their charity work, but they were then accused of using the disaster for their own PR benefits. Many did not agree, saying they were “moved by their patriotism.”

 

Official Media Promoting National Solidarity

 

Most hashtags, videos, and trending topics on Weibo from the early moments of the rainfall and floods were initiated by regular netizens. Many people in the affected regions posted photos and videos of the local scenes themselves.

When the cars of the Zhengzhou subway line 5 were submerged in water due to flash floods on July 20, over 500 passengers were trapped. Footage of people in the carriages standing in chest-deep water that was still rising circulated on social media as rescue efforts were underway. Some hours later, rescuers managed to get people out safely, but 14 people did not make it out alive.

These kinds of unfolding events and tragedies were posted and reported on social media in real time by bloggers. Although official media channels and government accounts were also active in reporting incidents and releasing timely information, they soon focused on sending out a message of national unity and emphasized successful rescue operations and the competency of China’s relief efforts.

A similar approach to crisis communication on social media was seen during the outbreak of COVID19 and in other emergency situations – it is a route that has been taken for many years in the Party’s partnership with the media. In Media Politics in China (2017), author Maria Repnikova writes about the response to the Wenchuan earthquake (2008) when she points out how most official coverage concerning crisis management positively portrays the state’s rescue efforts and utilizes emotional projection of national unity and resilience, conveying an overall positive and people-centered narrative (118-121).

This patriotic discourse was also adopted in the social media coverage of the Henan floods by official channels. State media outlets were in unison in promoting hashtags such as “Stand Strong, Henan, We’re Coming” (#河南挺住我们来了#), “Zhengzhou, Hold On!” (#郑州挺住#), or “Shouldering Together with Henan” (#和河南一起扛#).

Online posters for the Henan Floods by CCTV, People’s Daily, and Xinhua.

In their news reporting, official media channels especially spotlighted people-centered stories. Some examples include the story of a 17-year-old boy who cried as he hugged the firefighter who rescued him, the news item on a 3-month old baby who was pulled from the ruins of a collapsed house in Xingyang, or the account of a Zhengzhou policeman who was so dedicated to his work that he hadn’t returned home in over 30 hours.

By July 21st, official Party newspaper People’s Daily had launched a hashtag titled “Touching Scenes of People Helping Each Other” (#河南暴雨中的感人互助画面#), which showed photos and videos of citizens working together in rescuing people from the water.

Another Weibo hashtag was titled “The Power of China during the Henan Rainstorms” (#河南暴雨中的中国力量#), which focused on the solidarity and compassion of the thousands of volunteers and rescue workers, stressing the idea that the people of China are able to get through difficulties together.

“We can get through this together,” online posters by People’s Daily.

The main message that is propagated by Chinese official media and government on social media is one that resonates with the general Weibo audience. Standing together with Henan and uniting in times of disaster is a sentiment that is strongly supported, not just by official channels, but by netizens, celebrities, and companies alike.

As the floods and relief efforts are still continuing in various parts of Henan Province, the messages of support and online assistance are ongoing. “Come on, Henan!” is the slogan that is sent out everywhere on Weibo, with people staying positive: “We can do this together. Everything is going to be alright.”

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

References:

Levin, Dan. 2013. “Social Media in China Fuel Citizen Response to Quake.” New York Times, May 11 https://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/12/world/asia/quake-response.html [7.30.21].

Repnikova, Maria. 2017. Media Politics in China: Improvising Power under Authoritarianism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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.

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

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 Brands & Marketing

The Price is Not Right: Corn Controversy Takes over Chinese Social Media

It’s corn! The “6 yuan corn” debate just keeps going.

Manya Koetse

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Recently there have been fierce discussions on Chinese social media about the price of corn after e-commerce platform Oriental Selection (东方甄选) started selling ears of corn for 6 yuan ($0.80) per piece.

The controversy caught the public’s attention when the famous Kuaishou livestreamer Simba (辛巴, real name Xin Youzhi), who has labeled himself as a ‘farmer’s son,’ criticized Oriental Selection for their corn prices.

Founded in 2021, Oriental Selection is an agricultural products e-commerce platform under New Oriental Online. In its company mission statement, Oriental Selection says its intention is to “help farmers” by providing the channels to sell their high-quality agricultural goods to online consumers.

Simba suggested that Oriental Selection was being deceitful by promising to help farmers while selling their corn for a relatively high price. According to Simba, they were just scamming ordinary people by selling an ear of corn that is worth 0.70 yuan ($0.10) for 6 yuan ($0.80), and also not really helping the farmers while taking 40% of their profits.

‘Sales king’ Xin Youzhi, aka Simba, was the one who started the current corn controversy.

During one of the following livestreams, Oriental Selection’s host Dong Yuhui (董宇辉) – who also happens to be a farmer’s son – responded to the remarks and said there was a valid reason for their corn to be priced “on the high side.” Simba was talking about corn in general, including the kind being fed to animals, while this is high-quality corn that is already worth 2 yuan ($0.30) the moment it is harvested.

Despite the explanation, the issue only triggered more discussions on the right price for corn and about the fuzzy structure of the agricultural e-commerce livestreaming business.

Is it really too expensive to sell corn for 6 yuan via livestreaming?

The corn supplier, the Chinese ‘Northeast Peasant Madame’ brand (东北农嫂), is actually selling their own product for 3.6 yuan ($0.50) – is that an honest price? What amount of that price actually goes to the farmers themselves?

‘Northeast Peasant Madame’ brand (东北农嫂).

One person responding to this issue via her Tiktok channel is the young farmer Liu Meina (刘美娜), who explained that Simba’s suggested “0.70 yuan per corn” was simply unrealistic, saying since it does not take the entire production process into account, including maintenance, packaging, transportation, and delivery.

Another factor mentioned by netizens is the entertainment value added to e-commerce by livestreaming channels. Earlier this year, Oriental Selection’s host Dong Yuhui and his colleagues became an online hit for adding an educational component to their livestreaming sessions.

These hosts were actually previously teachers at New Oriental. Facing a crackdown on China’s after-school tutoring, the company ventured into different business industries and let these former teachers go online to sell anything from peaches to shrimp via livestreaming, teaching some English while doing so (read more here). So this additional value of livestream hosts entertaining and educating their viewers should also be taken into account when debating the price of corn. Some call it “Dong Yuhui Premium” (“董宇辉溢价”).

Dong Yuhui (董宇辉) is one of the livestreamers that have turned New Oriental’s e-commerce into a viral hit.

In light of all the online discussions and controversy, netizens discovered that Oriental Selection is currently no longer selling corn (#东方甄选回应下架玉米#), which also became a trending topic on Weibo on September 29.

But the corn controversy does not end here. On September 28, Chinese netizens discovered that corn by the ‘Northeast Peasant Madame’ brand (东北农嫂) was being sold for no less than 8.5 yuan ($1.2) at the Pangdonglai supermarket chain (胖东来), going well beyond the price of Oriental Selection.

Trying to avoid a marketing crisis, the Pangdonglai chain quickly recalled its corn, stating there had been an issue with the supply price that led to its final store price becoming too high. That topic received over 160 million views on Weibo on Friday (#胖东来召回8.5元玉米#).

Behind all these online discussions are consumer frustrations about an untransparent market where the field of agricultural products has become more crowded and with more people taking a share, including retailers, e-commerce platforms, and livestreaming apps. Moreover, they often say they are “helping farmers” while they are actually just making money themselves.

One Weibo user commented: “Currently, ‘helping farmers’ is completely different from the original intention of ‘helping farmers.’ Right now, it’s not about helping farmers anymore, but about helping the companies who have made agricultural products their business.”

“I bought a corn at a street shop today for 4 yuan ($0.55),” one Weibo blogger wrote: “It was big, sweet, and juicy, the quality was good and it was tasty – and people are still making money off of it. So yes, 6 yuan for a corn is certainly too expensive.”

By Manya Koetse 

 

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China Brands & Marketing

How Made-in-China ‘Magical’ Winter Essentials Are Keeping Europeans Warm Amid Energy Crisis

Chinese manufacturers of heating equipment are the “invisible champions” of Europe’s energy crisis.

Manya Koetse

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Chinese companies are profiting from Europe’s energy crisis. Made-in-China electric blankets, electric kettles, sleeping bags, and hot water bottles are flying off the shelves and Chinese factories are working around the clock to meet the demand of European consumers.

“Chinese Electric Blankets Are the Magic Weapon Keeping Europeans Warm This Winter” (#中国电热毯成欧洲人今冬御寒神器#) and “Explosive Sales of Chinese Electric Blankets to Europeans” (#欧洲人买爆中国电热毯#) are among the popular hashtags discussed on Chinese social media this week in light of Europe’s ongoing energy crisis.

Chinese companies are seeing booming sales of winter essentials recently. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe is dealing with an energy crisis. Households and businesses across Europe are feeling the pinch: the shortage of natural gas has led to sky-high prices for heating and electricity. The explosions and subsequent gas leaks that occurred on the Nord Stream natural gas pipelines on September 26 have only made prospects bleaker.

Looking for creative ways to stay warm and reduce energy bills, made-in-China products are in high demand among European consumers, and Chinese factories are scaling up their production to meet the growing demand.

According to Toutiao News, some manufacturers in Dongguan are seeing the highest sales numbers in half a decade; sales volumes have tripled compared to the same period last year. This requires the factory workers to work in shifts of three so the production can continue around the clock.

Electric blankets are especially popular as they are relatively affordable and more cost-effective as they require less electricity to run compared to electric heaters. Chinese electric blankets are generally cheaper than local options.

Chinese media describe Chinese electric blankets as the ‘magical weapons to defend against the cold’ (“御寒神器”).

The word shénqì (神器), meaning ‘magical tool’ or ‘magical weapon’, is often used to refer to products or objects that provide a simple or smart solution to a pressing problem, such as these paint buckets that became a viral hit during Spring festival travel season; this ‘magical’ device to prevent grannies from dancing underneath your window; or this gadget to take revenge on a noisy neighbor.

 

“Now there’s even a joke saying the Yiwu electric blanket sellers are the ones who sabotaged the Nord Stream pipelines.”

 

Besides electric blankets, other made-in-China ‘magical weapons’ that have become popular amongst European consumers include electric kettles, wearable sleeping bags, thermal underwear, and hot water bottles.

Electronic knee warmer.

As this topic of Chinese winter products “taking over Europe” recently became a hot topic on Chinese social media, some people commented on how the prices for these products were much higher in Europe than in China.

In Europe, a simple rubber hot water bottle is usually sold for around ten euros ($10) while the exact same products are sold for around five to ten yuan ($0.70-$1.5) in China.

In this way, the European energy crisis turns out to be a lucrative one for Chinese businesses. Some bigger companies also manufacturing electric blankets saw their stock prices rise.

One joke circulating on Chinese social media suggests that Chinese electric blanket sellers from manufacturing cities such as Yiwu are the ones who sabotaged the North Stream pipes.

“I never expected China to get part of the profits,” one popular comment said, with the following comment saying: “Thanks to the silly Europeans for making a contribution to our economy!”

“I heard they’re even looking [to buy] our Chinese birthday candles, they’ve gone mad,” one Weibo user wrote, while others jokingly wrote: “We’re the real winners.”

In light of the run on electric blankets, Chinese netizens also came up with some alternative suggestions to stay warm.

“It would be better if they’d wear long underwear pants,” one commenter suggests, while others say that people could just “make love to generate electricity.”

“Use a hot-water bottle and drink lots of hot water,” some write, while others recommend European consumers to buy more hand warmers.

Hand warmer sold on Taobao for 128 yuan ($18).

“I suggest them to buy our Xinjiang cotton quilts, they are sustainable and you can save on energy,” one Weibo user wrote in reference to last year’s Xinjiang cotton boycott.

One Weibo user drew their own conclusion in light of the current developments: “I think we could safely say that the world can do without Russians, but we’ll always need China.”

By Manya Koetse with contributions by Miranda Barnes

 

Get the story behind the hashtag. Subscribe to What’s on Weibo here to receive our weekly newsletter and get access to our latest articles:

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

©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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