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

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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 editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Digital

Key Players, Digital Trends & Deep Dives: China Internet Report 2021

SCMP just launched its latest China Internet Report. (And What’s on Weibo readers can get a 30% discount on the Pro Edition!)

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As China’s tech sector has been facing an ongoing crackdown by Beijing regulations, a lot has been changing in the country’s digital environment over the past year. The new China Internet Report 2021 by SCMP gives an overview of the latest trends and developments.

When it comes to China’s online landscape, nothing ever stays the same. Over the past year, political, economic, and social developments and measures have once again changed the Chinese digital environment.

Giving a comprehensive overview of the key leaders and major trends dominating the Chinese online field, South China Morning Post (SCMP) issued its fourth annual China Internet Report.

China’s internet population has now risen to 989 million – last year’s report indicated an internet population of 904 million. By now, there are 853 million mobile payment users, which indicates that over 86% of the entire mobile internet population uses mobile as a way to pay.

As China’s internet population is still growing, and new online startups are still popping up every day, there have been tightening regulations on multiple fronts.

As laid out in SCMP’s report, regulations mainly focus on the four areas of antitrust, finance, cybersecurity, and data privacy. Regulatory actions targeting the monopolistic behaviours of China’s biggest internet companies are still ongoing, and the new Data Security Law came into effect on September 1st of this year.

While Chinese tech companies are seeing increased scrutiny at home, they have also been facing intensifying geopolitical tensions between China and other countries. Over the past year, the various probes and shutdowns into Chinese companies by countries such as the US and India have meant a serious blow to the market share of Chinese apps.

Meanwhile, the SCMP report highlights the trend of various older and newer Chinese (e-commerce) apps “downplaying” their Chinese origins when entering foreign markets. Shein is a good example of this development, but other players including Zaful, Urbanic, and Cider are also experiencing more success outside of China while not explicitly marketing themselves as Chinese e-commerce apps.

Another noteworthy trend explained in the new report is how China’s shifting demographics are creating new niche segments to compete over. The COVID-19 crisis is partially a reason why China has seen an increase in senior internet users, with an increasing number of online products and content catering to the elderly.

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) even issued special guidelines earlier this year for web pages and mobile apps to carry out so-called “elderly friendliness modifications.” Since this user group is still expected to see significant growth, the “silver economy” is an area that will only become more important in the years to come.

To check out all the main trends for 2021, China’s latest internet statistics, its top tech competitors, internet companies, and more, here’s a link to the free report.

The free report is 55 pages long and gives an overview of China’s latest internet numbers and players, covers the top cross-sector trends for 2021, including the tightening regulations and the bumpy road ahead for China’s tech IPOs.

The Pro Edition of China’s Internet Report 2021, also launched by SCMP, is 138 pages long and provides a deep-dive into ten relevant sectors – featuring insightful and useful analysis, data, and case studies relating to China’s e-commerce market, content & media, gaming, blockchain, fintech, online education, healthtech, smart cars, 5G, and Artificial Intelligence.

The China Internet Report Pro Edition is priced at US$400, but the team at SCMP has kindly reached out and made it possible for us to offer a special 30% discount to What’s on Weibo readers.

You’ll get the discount by using the discount code: WHATSONWEIBO30, or by clicking this link that will automatically include your discount code.

By Manya Koetse

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

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Insight

Goodbye 996? Weibo Discussions on Changes in Overtime Work Culture

Beijing made it clear that working overtime is illegal, but netizens are concerned about the realities of changing working schedules.

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Many people are tired of being forced to log long hours, but are also worried about how a national crackdown on ‘996’ working culture could impact their workload and income.

In late August of 2021, China’s Ministry of Human Resources & Social Security (人社部) and the Supreme People’s Court issued a joint clarification on the country’s legal standards of working hours and overtime pay.

Their message was clear: the practices of ‘996’ (working 9am-9pm, six days per week) and ‘007’ (working 24 hours seven days per week, referring to a flexible working system worse than 996) are illegal, and employers are obliged to obey the national working-time regime.

On Weibo, China’s state broadcaster CCTV published a 10-minute long video illustrating the 10 typical cases of overtime work laid out by the ministry and the top court. The moment was marked as the first time for the state-owned broadcaster to publicly comment on overtime work practices.

The Weibo post pointed out that “striving for success is not a shield companies can use to evade legal responsibilities,” and made it clear that employees have the right to “say no to forced overtime.”

The topics of overtime work and China’s 996 work culture generated many discussions on Weibo, with the hashtag “Ministry of Human Resources & Social Security and the Supreme Court Clarify 996 and 007 Are Illegal” (#人社部最高法明确996和007都违法#) generating over 420 million views on the social media platform.

 
“Without implementation and enforcement, the law is useless”
 

The current labor law in China bars employees from working more than 44 hours a week, and any overtime work must be paid.

Although the 996 practice is technically prohibited by law, many companies still enforce the hours informally.

Many employees revealed online that, although the 996 practice is legally prohibited, they were nevertheless being assigned job tasks that exceeded the prescribed working hours.

“Just finished work,” one Weibo user (@介也没嘛) posted with this picture, showing it’s nearing 11PM.

“I wonder if the workload will decrease after all. If it doesn’t change, it means people will now have to work voluntarily,” one Weibo user commented.

People also indicated that, since the start of the pandemic, remote work has become a new norm. Many companies have moved from office to working at home, making it harder to draw the line between regular working hours and overtime hours.

“What really matters is whether working from home includes overtime hours,” one Weibo user wrote. Many netizens complained that their companies wouldn’t explicitly stipulate a 996 schedule; instead, most of them disguise the overtime hours as ‘voluntary’ work.


Many commenters say it takes more comprehensive legislation and tougher law enforcement to really solve the issue of overtime work.

“These regulations are good, but they are basically impossible to implement. Even if they ban ‘996’ and ‘007’ there is no way to regulate the so-called ‘voluntary work,’” one Weibo user wrote.

Some people said that their companies have various performance assessments and that they feared that refusing to work more hours would make them lose their competitive advantage: “The burn-out (内卷 nèijuǎn, ‘involution’) is severe. It is too difficult for us. I have only one day off during the week and I’m so tired,” one person commented.

 
“We don’t need those who comfortably work 8 hours”
 

China’s 996 work culture has been championed by tech leaders and denounced by workers for years, and it has become an unwritten standard – not just in the tech sector but also in other industries.

While working long hours has been ingrained in Chinese workplace culture since the early days of the country’s internet boom, it later also started to represent ‘a road to success’ for Chinese tech entrepreneurs.

Many Chinese netizens blame Alibaba’s Jack Ma for praising the ‘996’ work system. In 2019, Ma called the 12-hour working day a “huge blessing,” causing much controversy online. During his talk at Kyiv International Economic Forum, Ma said: “(..) ‘996 is the spirit that I encourage Alibaba people to follow. If you want to have a bright future, (..) if you want to be successful, you have to work hard.”

On another occasion, the tech mogul reportedly said: “If you join Alibaba, you should get ready to work 12 hours a day, otherwise why do you come to Alibaba? We don’t need those who comfortably work 8 hours.”

Jack Ma, the co-founder of Alibaba Group described 996 as a ‘blessing’.

However, after the shocking death of one Chinese delivery man working for food delivery platform Ele.me and the widespread discussions about the ‘996 ICU’ project – which called on tech workers to add names and evidence of excessive hours to a ‘blacklist,’ – the 996 work culture has come under increased scrutiny.

Some people argue that the overtime culture is draining employees and creating an unhealthy work-life balance; others argue that they work for themselves and believe that putting in extra hours will eventually translate to individual success.

While economic growth has slowed down during the pandemic, most companies are persisting with long working hours because they are under pressure to achieve results.

According to an online survey conducted by an influential tech blogging account (@IT观察猿), more than one-third of participants claimed to have one day off per week, and more than one quarter claimed they didn’t have any weekend days off.

 
“The workload is the same, but the income has reduced”
 

Starting from August 1st, ByteDance, the Chinese company behind the popular short-form video app TikTok, dropped its ‘big and small week’ (大小周) – a schedule that previously required employees to work six days in a row every other week.

ByteDance is not the only Chinese tech company that has begun to cut back on its long working hours. More and more companies have decided to drop grueling work schedules.

Kuaishou, another Chinese short-form video app company, stopped scheduling weekend work in July. Since early June, Tencent – China’s largest game publisher – has encouraged people to clock out at 6 pm every Wednesday.

Although these changes seem to signal a positive development, there are also many people who do not support the new measures. When Bytedance announced the changes to its working schedule, news came out that one-third of the employees did not support the decision (#字节跳动1/3员工不支持取消周末加班#).

Those relying on overtime pay said abolishing overtime work will cut their take-home pay by around 20%. Indeed, the first pay-out after the new implementation at Bytedance showed an overall drop of 17% in employees’ wages.

“The workload is the same, but the income has reduced,” one Weibo commenter complained.

One trending discussion on Weibo focused on the question “Do companies need to make up for employees’ financial loss after the abolition of weekend work?” Many comments revealed the situation faced by thousands of struggling workers who value free time but value their income more.

Many on Weibo still wonder whether a company that abolishes ‘996’ will come up with an alternative to compensate those employees who will otherwise inevitably lose vital income.

By Yunyi Wang

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.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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