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China Brands, Marketing & Consumers

The Achilles Heel of Zibo: Why Zibo’s Strength Is Also Its Weakness

As the entire country is watching how the Zibo BBQ hype has been unfolding, every little thing can create an online storm.

Manya Koetse



It’s like a Shandong ‘Disneyland,’ but with more people and longer lines. The city of Zibo has become a major tourist attraction, filled with lively atmosphere, cheap BBQ, and friendly people. But local business owners also face the downsides of operating in a city that has become so extremely popular.

The city of Zibo just keeps trending. After the Shandong city – known for its BBQ – suddenly became an online sensation and a super popular destination among young Chinese travelers, there has been a lot of discussion surrounding it.

The trend basically started with viral videos showing festive party scenes from Zibo in early April. After spending time in Zibo during ‘zero Covid’ quarantine, groups of Shandong students had returned to the city, allegedly as a way to thank Zibo for their hospitality and to boost local economy.

As Zibo BBQ scenes went trending, the snowball effect had begun and more people flocked to the city, wanting to get in on the hype and experience a night of Zibo BBQ themselves.

Zibo’s city marketing played a crucial role in promoting the trend, as they arranged special ‘Zibo BBQ’ high-speed trains (烧烤专列) and ‘BBQ buses’ – including souvenir gift bags – to enable convenient and fast travel for those coming to visit the city. They organized groups of volunteer service teams on the streets to assist and made sure police and medical teams are on standby at all hours of the day.

Chinese state media further boosted the Zibo trend by highlighting its success as a sign of post-Covid economic recovery of local tourism.

A Xinhua post about Zibo on Twitter, May 6, 2023.

Initially, online discussions focused on the lively scenes from Zibo and on how the city had managed to become such a viral hit.

But over the past week, there have been trending discussions that focus more on the downside of Zibo’s popularity. We previously translated a critical essay by Song Zhibiao which was (re)posted by Chinese professor Liu Yadong. The article condemned the Zibo hype for being superficial a sign of a greater societal problem.

Now, there is more focus on how the BBQ hype is affecting local business owners and residents. The “victims” (“受害者“) of Zibo’s sudden popularity are overworked BBQ sellers and those who lost their peaceful lifestyle in the industrial city due to tourists overcrowding the streets.

One of the reasons why Zibo’s popularity has raised so many questions is because the city was actually never known as a tourist destination. Its history and food culture were not particularly famous.

Actually, Zibo’s BBQ hype is not about a long-standing or renowned barbecue culture at all – it is about the lively atmosphere and social spectacle that comes with the BBQ scene, which mostly became a hit among domestic tourists due to the reputation of Zibo business owners being friendly and hospitable, and the prices being low.

But it is exactly those things, namely the city’s hype and its reputation for being cheap and friendly, that are are also its Achilles heel.

Low Prices, High Expectations

On May 4th, one Weibo post by a blogger who visited Zibo attracted a lot of online attention (#24人吃淄博烧烤花760元#). The person, a Shanghai-based creator with 1,5 million followers, described how they had spent 760 yuan ($110) on a Zibo BBQ dinner with a group of 24 people, so spending just a little over 30 yuan (or $4.5) per person.

Despite the low price, the blogger suggested that the prices in Zibo were “expensive” and that “the business owner must have made a lot of money.”

The post triggered a lot of discussion on the unrealistic expectations people have of Zibo. One top commenter wondered if the blogger had expected to receive money for having BBQ dinner with 24 people.

The blogger later apologized, saying that the sarcastic tone of the post had been misunderstood and the prices in Zibo actually are low and affordable.

The entire topic led to online discussions about people having unrealistic expectations about prices in Zibo, which then led to more people saying they would like to go to Zibo – only futher accelerating the trend.

Tempest in a Teapot

With all eyes on Zibo, it seems that any small issue can cause a social media storm these days.

One woman recently posted about finding a blade in her Zibo food, attracting a lot of attention. Although many netizens believed the post was fake and only done for clout, it did lead to local authorities investigating the case.

A post about finding a blade in Zibo bbq food went viral.

Another shop owner also became a victim of a blogger trying to smear her Lao Sun BBQ Restaurant business. On a night in April, a female tourist dined at the restaurant and took a drink and cookies from the restaurant without asking. When the boss charged her for it as part of the bill, she became upset and accused the shop of overcharging her for dipping sauce.

The issue became so big that the BBQ restaurant, that has been in business for three decades, started receiving thousands of harassing phone calls and abusive comments. Their shop was even temporarily blacklisted by local authorities before the owner could set the record straight (link).

Then there was a viral story about a local shop owner turning customers away due to limited capacity, and being accused of purposely discriminating against non-local visitors.

The owner broke down and apologized on his knees, allegedly because he felt he needed to uphold Zibo’s reputation (video). According to Chinese media, he has only been sleeping four hours every night in light of the Zibo craze.

When Hype Goes Wrong

For some, the Zibo craze has gone so far that they can no longer safely operate their business.

One small BBQ shop in Zibo recently went viral after its owner was filmed enjoying some quiet time in a folding lounge chair while his restaurant was empty. As soon as the video spread on social media, the shop’s name and location were shared, and people flocked to the location.

The owner of a small Zibo restaurant (金岭日日鲜牛肉店铺) was filmed chilling in his lounge chair.

In a matter of days, the store found itself unable to cope with the influx of people, leading the owner to declare that the shop was swamped and incapable of servicing such a large number of customers. The neighboring streets were unable to accommodate the traffic.

If you now search for the store on Douyin, you’ll find dozens of videos showing vloggers in front of the small restaurant and customers already lining up in front of it at 6.30 in the morning.

Visitor posing in the lounge chair in which the business owner was relaxing in a video that went viral.

Another case that went particularly trending is that of a business owner named Yi Yang selling duck in Zibo. In late April, one female visitor made a video while visiting his shop in which she asked Yi Yang if she could touch his muscles. After Yi Yang nodded, the woman reached out and touched his muscles.

Screenshots of the video through which Yi Yang unwillingly became an online celebrity.

This video then went viral and turned Yi Yang into an overnight celebrity. Although his hit status initially boosted sales, the crowds of people coming to his shop soon became so overwhelming that he could no longer run his business as usual (see video). As thousands of people came by his shop at all hours of the day, some even started harassing and physically assaulting the small business owner to get a chance to take photos with him.

As thousands of people gathered around his shop, Yi Yang was unable to continue working and closed his business.

As Yi Yang’s business temporarily closed, he is seeing significant losses and recently did a livestream in which he got choked up over his predicament (#淄博鸭头小哥直播中气到落泪#).

Party newspaper People’s Daily even published an article about the issue, condemning the exploitation of those who suddenly go viral overnight.

Time for Zibo to Cool Down?

From blocked streets to overworked shop owners, there are many signs that it is time for Zibo’s hype to cool down a bit. With the May day holiday behind us and the Zibo trend reaching its peak, this might inevitably happen anyway.

Some business owners have their own approach to making sure their shop is not hyped too much. One BBQ seller recently attracted attention for leaving 17 negative online reviews on his own business. It actually did not work: the system marked them as spam, deleted them, and it went viral anyway (#烧烤店老板为劝退游客自刷17个差评#).

Despite recent worries surrounding Zibo’s popularity, there are also many people who hope that other cities in China can also replicate its success, calling the ‘Zibo phenomenon’ the “hope of China” and a sign of a promising future for other smaller cities.

Financial writer Wu Xiaobo (吴晓波) recently wrote an article (“The Metaphor of Zibo BBQ”/”淄博烧烤的隐喻“) in which he stated that the popularity of Zibo represents a new model of democratic, free market governance that emphasizes public participation and shared responsibility, facilitated by the local government.

However, Weibo knowledge blogger ‘PYGZ’ (@平原公子赵胜) disagrees. In his recent Weibo post, he argues that people should not be naieve about Zibo’s success. According to PYGZ, the city’s popularity is not so much about the people and a free market, but about the government and strict oversight.

PYGZ points out that Zibo’s success can be attributed to its government’s implementation of special tourist transport, a ban on hotel price increases, police patrol teams, food quality control, countermeasures to an inflation in prices, ensuring fair treatment of tourists, and many other top-down measures. According to PYGZ, Zibo has flourished not because the government has let go of control, but because it has strongly overseen the latest developments.

Viewing Zibo’s success in this light, the government is likely to guide and counter the overhype of the city. Eventually, the cooling down of the Zibo trend will result from a combination of factors, including the waning of social media frenzy, the government’s efforts to control the hype and promote a more sustainable trend, and business owners taking necessary measures to get some much-needed rest.

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Zilan Qian

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Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of 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 Contact at, or follow on Twitter.

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China Brands, Marketing & Consumers

‘Carpet Pacific’: A Timeline of the Cathay Pacific Scandal Through Weibo Hashtags

Cathay Pacific flight attendants mocking non-English speaking passengers by saying, “If you can’t say blanket, you can’t have it,” has sparked a major controversy and caused a marketing catastrophe.

Manya Koetse



Last week, Xiamen Airlines was the focus of attention on Chinese social media after one of their pilots was caught secretly filming a female staff members in the ladies room. This week, the focus has shifted to Cathay Pacific, as the Hong Kong-based airline faced accusations of discrimination against travelers from mainland China.

The incident gained significant attention on May 22 when a user of the Xiaohongshu (Little Red Book) app shared a public complaint about the Hong Kong airline. In the post, the author, who claimed to have resided in Hong Kong for eleven years, expressed their inability to remain silent after witnessing overt discrimination on a Cathay Pacific CX987 flight from Chengdu to Hong Kong.

The passenger said they were seated near the area where the flight attendants rest and prepare meals, and that they could hear the cabin crew making fun of passengers who could not speak English. Passengers who tried to ask them for help in English about filling out immigration cards allegedly also received impatient responses. The passenger recorded some of their conversation, and later posted the audio clip online.

In one clip, you can hear the staff laughing about a passenger who wanted a blanket but could not properly say it in English. “If you cannot say blanket, you cannot have it,” they joked. Since some passengers allegedly had used the word ‘carpet’ instead of ‘blanket’, the cabin crew can be heard saying: “A carpet is on the floor.”

Since the incident was first exposed on social media, it turned into a major controversy and a marketing crisis for the Cathay Pacific company. As Cathay was condemned by million of netizens, many also vowed to boycott the airline.

Cathay Pacific has been hit hard by the pandemic, and was seeing an increased demand for travel into the Chinese Mainland since quarantine-free travel between Hong Kong the Mainland was finally resumed on January 8 of this year. Cathay is heavily dependent on the Chinese market, and approximately 70% of its revue reportedly comes from China (#国泰航空近七成营收来自中国#).

The incident has ignited anger due to the discriminatory treatment of mainland customers by a Hong Kong company, leading to further discussions on anti-Chinese sentiments in Hong Kong and the role of language in fostering (or hindering) national unity between mainland China and Hong Kong.

This is a timeline of the incident through Weibo hashtags that have gone trending over the past few days.

▶︎ The Cathay Discrimination Audio Leaked Online #国泰空乘歧视乘客录音曝光# (260 million views)

After a netizen posted about supposed discrimination against non-English speaking passengers by cabin crew members on the Cathay Pacific CX987 flight, the incident soon garnered widespread attention on Chinese social media, especially when the 30-second audio was also shared online (hear the audio snippet here).

▶︎ Cathay Pacific Apologizes #国泰航空致歉# (210 million views)

On May 22, Cathay Pacific soon issued a response apologizing for the passenger’s experience and promised a thorough investigation. However, their initial apology was considered inadequate by many netizens, and only sparked more debates about the discrimination against mainland Chinese passengers within Cathay’s work environment.

On May 23, Cathay Pacific issued a second apology via social channels, mentioning that they had contacted the passenger and that they had suspended the flight attendants involved.

▶︎ Cathay Pacific Uses Standard Mandarin to Apologize #国泰航空行政总裁用普通话道歉# (10 million views)

Lin Shaobo apologizes using Standard Mandarin, image via

During a media briefing in Guangzhou on May 24, Cathay Pacific CEO Lin Shaobo (林绍波) once again expressed his sincere apologies on behalf of Cathay for the incident. In doing so, he used Standard Mandarin, the national language of mainland China.

▶︎ Three Employers Fired for Discriminating Against Passengers #国泰航空3名歧视乘客空乘被解聘# (460 million views)

At this time, it was also announced that Cathay had completed their investigation into the matter and, in accordance with the company’s regulations, had dismissed the three involved cabin crew members. Lin Shaobo clarified that the airline maintains a “zero tolerance” approach towards any employees who violate the company’s rules and ethical standards.

▶︎ Cathay Pacific’s Flight Attendant Union Regrets the Incident #国泰空乘工会对空姐被解聘感到遗憾# (180 million views)

On May 24, there was some online turmoil over a statement issued by Cathay Pacific’s Flight Attendant Union (FAU). In the statement, the union expressed that Cathay is “facing a shortage of both manpower and resources, a significant increase in workload and low salaries.” Because these problems are ignored, Cathay is seeing an “extremely low” morale among cabin crew and more complaints regarding cabin service. “Nothing comes from nothing,” the statement said. The Union was criticized for “whitewashing” the cabin crew’s discrimination against non-English-speakers.

▶︎ No Official Support for The Union #国泰航空称空中服务员工会不代表国泰# (130 million views)

On May 25, Cathay Pacific issued a statement in which they clarified that The Union is an independent labor union and does not represent the company. They also clarified that did not support the union’s position nor agreed with it.

▶︎ Hu Xijin Recommends Mainland Passengers to Speak Mandarin #胡锡进建议乘国泰航空只讲普通话# (910,000 views)

Chinese political & social commentator Hu Xijin (@胡锡进) also responded to the Cathay incident in multiple posts. In one of them, he suggested that mainland passengers should primarily speak Mandarin when they fly Cathay in the future. Since so much of their customer base is from mainland, Cathay should have enough cabin crew speaking Mandarin, he argued. Hu also reflected on how Cathay also caused controversy in 2019, when it would not stop staff from joining the Kong Kong pro-democracy protests. According to Hu, the company should pay attention to “correcting the values” of their employees.

▶︎”Leaked” Internal Email Labeled as Fake News #国泰航空称网传英文内部信件为伪造# (77 million views)

Post by Cathay in which they deny that this “leaked memo” is authentic. Screenshot by What’s on Weibo.

In the meantime, some images circulated online that allegedly showed an internal Cathay Pacific memo by the company’s HK Express CEO Mandy Ng in which a warning was issued to be “cautious when engaging with customers from China and be aware of their media culture.” That memo was labeled as being false by Cathay Pacific.

▶︎ Hong Kong Perfomer Condemns Cathay for Incident #香港演员怒斥国泰空乘歧视乘客# (170 million views)

Hong Kong celebrity Maria Cordero, nicknamed ‘Fat Mama’ (肥妈) went trending on Weibo for condemning the Cathay Pacific crew members in a recent interview. “Is speaking English that important?” she wondered: “The whole world is learning Chinese!” She also expressed that the primary duty of flight attendants is to look after passengers and help solve their problems. If they are incapable of fulfilling their duty, they should be sacked.

▶︎ Blankets for Everyone #旅客称现在国泰的航班挨个发毛毯# (6.5 million views)

According to passengers flying Cathay after the ‘blanket incident,’ the cabin crew went around explicitly asking all passengers if they needed any blankets, making announcements in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese.

▶︎ Follow-up to the Incident #国泰航空空乘歧视乘客后续# (26 million views)

As the Cathay scandal keeps fermenting online, one commenter expressed a common viewpoint by stating: “If Cathay Pacific is so unwilling to serve Chinese people and they refuse to speak Mandarin, why don’t they clearly state that they don’t welcome Chinese passengers? They can’t have it both ways by earning money from Chinese tickets without providing the same level of service.”

Meanwhile, an online meme has gained popularity, depicting ‘Cathay Pacific’ as ‘Carpet Pacific’ in reference to the controversial comments made by the cabin crew.

Other memes include the quote: “If you cannot say blanket, you cannot have it,” or include the phrase “no zuo no die” – a popular internet meme that basically means ‘what goes around comes around.’

Those flying China Southern Airlines or Eastern Airlines are posting about their warm on-board blankets, joking: “I didn’t even have to say ‘blanket’ and still got it!”

By Manya Koetse

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China and Covid19

Repurposing China’s Abandoned Nucleic Acid Booths: 10 Innovative Transformations

Abandoned nucleic acid booths are getting a second life through these new initiatives.

Manya Koetse



During the pandemic, nucleic acid testing booths in Chinese cities were primarily focused on maintaining physical distance. Now, empty booths are being repurposed to bring people together, serving as new spaces to serve the community and promote social engagement.

Just months ago, nucleic acid testing booths were the most lively spots of some Chinese cities. During the 2022 Shanghai summer, for example, there were massive queues in front of the city’s nucleic acid booths, as people needed a negative PCR test no older than 72 hours for accessing public transport, going to work, or visiting markets and malls.

The word ‘hésuān tíng‘ (核酸亭), nucleic acid booth (also:核酸采样小屋), became a part of China’s pandemic lexicon, just like hésuān dìtú (核酸地图), the nucleic acid test map lauched in May 2022 that would show where you can get a nucleic test.

Example of nucleic acid test map.

During Halloween parties in Shanghai in 2022, some people even came dressed up as nucleic test booths – although local authorities could not appreciate the creative costume.

Halloween 2022: dressed up as nucliec acid booths. Via @manyapan twitter.

In December 2022, along with the announced changed rules in China’s ‘zero Covid’ approach, nucleic acid booths were suddenly left dismantled and empty.

With many cities spending millions to set up these booths in central locations, the question soon arose: what should they do with the abandoned booths?

This question also relates to who actually owns them, since the ownership is mixed. Some booths were purchased by authorities, others were bought by companies, and there are also local communities owning their own testing booths. Depending on the contracts and legal implications, not all booths are able to get a new function or be removed yet (Worker’s Daily).

In Tianjin, a total of 266 nucleic acid booths located in Jinghai District were listed for public acquisition earlier this month, and they were acquired for 4.78 million yuan (US$683.300) by a local food and beverage company which will transform the booths into convenience service points, selling snacks or providing other services.

Tianjin is not the only city where old nucleic acid testing booths are being repurposed. While some booths have been discarded, some companies and/or local governments – in cooperation with local communities – have demonstrated creativity by transforming the booths into new landmarks. Since the start of 2023, different cities and districts across China have already begun to repurpose testing booths. Here, we will explore ten different way in which China’s abandoned nucleic test booths get a second chance at a meaningful existence.


1: Pharmacy/Medical Booths

Via ‘copyquan’ republished on Sohu.

Blogger ‘copyquan’ recently explored various ways in which abandoned PCR testing points are being repurposed.

One way in which they are used is as small pharmacies or as medical service points for local residents (居民医疗点). Alleviating the strain on hospitals and pharmacies, this was one of the earliest ways in which the booths were repurposed back in December of 2022 and January of 2023.

Chongqing, Tianjin, and Suzhou were among earlier cities where some testing booths were transformed into convenient medical facilities.


2: Market Stalls

Market stalls instead of nucliec acid testing booths. Image via Sina.

In Suzhou, Jiangsu province, the local government transformed vacant nucleic acid booths into market stalls for the Spring Festival in January 2022, offering them free of charge to businesses to sell local products, snacks, and traditional New Year goods.

The idea was not just meant as a way for small businesses to conveniently sell to local residents, it was also meant as a way to attract more shoppers and promote other businesses in the neighborhood.


3: Community Service Center

Small grid community center in Shizhuang Village, image via Sohu.

Some residential areas have transformed their local nucleic acid testing booths into community service centers, offering all kinds of convenient services to neighborhood residents.

These little station are called wǎnggé yìzhàn (网格驿站) or “grid service stations,” and they can serve as small community centers where residents can get various kinds of care and support.


4: “Refuel” Stations

In February of this year, 100 idle nucleic acid sampling booths were transformed into so-called “Rider Refuel Stations” (骑士加油站) in Zhejiang’s Pinghu. Although it initially sounds like a place where delivery riders can fill up their fuel tanks, it is actually meant as a place where they themselves can recharge.

Delivery riders and other outdoor workers can come to the ‘refuel’ station to drink some water or tea, warm their hands, warm up some food and take a quick nap.


5: Free Libraries

image via sohu.

In various Chinese cities, abandoned nucleic acid booths have been transformed into little free libraries where people can grab some books to read, donate or return other books, and sit down for some reading.

Changzhou is one of the places where you’ll find such “drifting bookstores” (漂流书屋) (see video), but similar initiatives have also been launched in other places, including Suzhou.


6: Study Space

Photos via Copyquan’s article on Sohu.

Another innovative way in which old testing points are being repurposed is by turning them into places where students can sit together to study. The so-called “Let’s Study Space” (一间习吧), fully airconditioned, are opened from 8 in the morning until 22:00 at night.

Students – or any citizens who would like a nice place to study – can make online reservations with their ID cards and scan a QR code to enter the study rooms.

There are currently ten study booths in Anji, and the popular project is an initiative by the Anji County Library in Zhejiang (see video).


7: Beer Kiosk

Hoegaarden beer shop, image via Creative Adquan.

Changing an old nucleic acid testing booth into a beer bar is a marketing initiative by the Shanghai McCann ad agency for the Belgium beer brand Hoegaarden.

The idea behind the bar is to celebrate a new spring after the pandemic. The ad agency has revamped a total of six formr nucleic acid booths into small Hoegaarden ‘beer gardens.’


8: Police Box

In Taizhou City, Jiangsu Province, authorities have repurposed old testing booths and transformed them into ‘police boxes’ (警务岗亭) to enhance security and improve the visibility of city police among the public.

Currently, a total of eight vacant nucleic acid booths have been renovated into modern police stations, serving as key points for police presence and interaction with the community.


9: Lottery Ticket Booths

Image via The Paper

Some nucleic acid booths have now been turned into small shops selling lottery tickets for the China Welfare Lottery. One such place turning the kiosks into lottery shops is Songjiang in Shanghai.

Using the booths like this is a win-win situation: they are placed in central locations so it is more convenient for locals to get their lottery tickets, and on the other hand, the sales also help the community, as the profits are used for welfare projects, including care for the elderly.


10: Mini Fire Stations

Micro fire stations, images via ZjNews.

Some communities decided that it would be useful to repurpose the testing points and turn them into mini fire kiosks, just allowing enough space for the necessary equipment to quickly respond to fire emergencies.

Want to read more about the end of ‘zero Covid’ in China? Check our other articles here.

By Manya Koetse,

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

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

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