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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

China’s ‘Chanel’? Chinese Beauty Brand Florasis Is Raising Eyebrows on Weibo

Some netizens wonder if the Florasis PR team might have lost their marbles, as their strategy appears to have taken an unusual turn, featuring emotionally charged replies on Weibo.

Manya Koetse



Lost Marbles or marketing logic? Following its involvement in the Li Jiaqi ‘eyebrow pencil gate,’ Chinese beauty brand Florasis’ social media strategy has taken an unconventional turn. The domestic brand recently went trending after declaring its ambition to win over the global luxury cosmetic market, and its plans to challenge established giants like Louis Vuitton and Chanel.

In the world of Chinese cosmetic brands, all eyes are on Florasis (花西子) recently. This Chinese make-up brand gained significant attention earlier this month when the popular beauty influencer ‘Lipstick King’ Li Jiaqi promoted one of their eyebrow pencils during a livestream.

After some viewers questioned whether a single eyebrow pencil costing 79 yuan ($10.8) was perhaps too expensive, Li lashed out and suggested viewers should instead ask themselves if they worked hard enough to deserve a raise.

That moment triggered a social media storm (read here), and suddenly everyone knew about Florasis, which is known as Huāxīzǐ (花西子) in China.

“Huaxi Coins” and Public Mockery

The incident sparked a series of memes and discussions, and among them, the question of what one can buy with 79 yuan in China today was a big one.

While some suggested they could feed an entire family for one day with 79 yuan, others said that it would buy their office lunches for a week. This humorous situation gave rise to the term ‘Huaxi Coins’ or ‘Floracash’ (花西币), with netizens playfully using the price of one Florasis eyebrow pencil’s price as a new currency unit (one ‘Huaxi Coin’ equals 79 yuan/$10.8).

Although Li Jiaqi apologized to his viewers soon after his controversy, it took some time for Florasis to respond the controversy the brand found itself embroiled in.

Florasis, a brand established in Hangzhou in 2017, is deeply connected to Li Jiaqi, as he has been the chief brand ambassador since 2019 and has actively participated in their product development.

Li Jiaqi x Huaxizi/Florasis.

The entire social media storm prompted a heightened focus on why Florasis products are perceived as relatively expensive.

As reported by Qing Na at Dao Insights, one post that gained significant traction on September 12 revealed that a five-piece Jade Makeup Brush set from Florasis, priced at 919 RMB ($126.28), was, in fact, made by using synthetic fiber bristles, considered cheap and of lower quality. This revelation garnered over 240 million views in just a few hours, adding to the public mockery of the national beauty brand.

The Florasis Dream: Becoming a Leading International Luxury Brand

On September 19, Florasis/Huaxizi finally apologized on social media for its late response to the controversy, and the brand stated that the incident provided an opportunity for them to listen to “the voice of their consumers,” although they did not delve deeper into the price of their products.

Florasis apology on Weibo, screenshot.

Although people criticized the letter posted by Florasis and the words they used in it, their decision to release a statement initially seemed fruitful: they gained 20,000 new followers in a single night.

Chinese netizens picking apart the apology letter posted by Huaxizi/Florasis. Via Xiaohongshu user @边际平衡術.

While the entire situation drew more attention to the Chinese make-up brand, it also seems to have prompted Florasis to reconsider its own position in the cosmetics industry, both in China and globally. Because on September 26th, the brand publicly and somewhat suddenly declared its ambition of becoming a leading international luxury cosmetics brand.

“Me, Florasis, I’m 6,5 years old,” the post read: “I have a dream: to be a high-end brand, rooted in China, going global.”

Florasis announces its ambition to become a globally recognized make-up brand.

In their post, Florasis used a quote saying “A Positive Mindset Shapes Huaxizi’s Lifetime,” which is derived from the title of a well-known Chinese self-help book from 2012 called “A Positive Mindset Shapes a Woman’s Lifetime” (好心态决定女人一生).

One of the main ideas presented in this book, authored by Li Jin (李津), is that success can never come from a negative or pessimistic mindset; if you see yourself as a failure, you’re likely to fail, but if you envision success, you’re more likely to achieve it.

Next to Chanel: Confusion about Florasis’ Public Relations Tactics

The company’s ambition, on its own, may not be particularly surprising. As stated in a report published by Paicaijing (派财经), Florasis’ co-founder, Fei Man (飞慢), had previously questioned in an interview why Chinese brands were always associated with being cheap, expressing Florasis’ wish to break the “price ceiling” (价格天花板) and escape the ongoing “low price competition” (低价竞争) in China’s beauty industry by delivering high-quality products at a premium price.

However, the wording and the timing seemed odd, and the post created both banter and confusion about Florasis’ public relations tactics, especially because they did much more than that post alone.

On September 20th, approximately ten days after the ‘eyebrow pencil gate’ controversy, the company’s founder, Hua Mantian (花满天), made an announcement on his WeChat channel. He revealed that the brand would be distributing their premium eyebrow pencils, originally priced at 119 yuan ($16.3), during a livestream promotional event that night. They planned to give away free pencils to hundreds of viewers every ten minutes. By giving out over 10,000 free eyebrow pencils in total, the company allegedly hoped to gain more feedback on their product in order to further improve it. Over 400,000 people tuned in to that livestream.

Since then, Florasis seems to be doing all it can to catch the public’s attention, and some netizens even wonder if the editors at the Florasis PR team might have lost their marbles, as they keep posting a lot of unusual replies, – some emotional and somewhat unhinged, – to their own threads on their Weibo account.

Throughout September 26, the account posted dozens of texts/replies, responding to many netizens’ comments. Florasis not only declared its wish to be China’s ‘Chanel’ when it comes to beauty products, it also praised its own efforts in contributing to women’s mental health, preserving traditional culture, innovating cosmetics, and much more.

Their social media texts included phrases such as: “I’m super awesome,” or writing:

I’m really becoming a bit emotional. I established my own laboratory at just three years old! We now have over 200 research partners, and their leader is Li Huiliang (李慧良), known as the “Number One in Chinese Cosmetics Research and Development.” He’s like a superstar in the industry. We have five big innovation research and development centers, over 7000 square meters, larger than a football field. Don’t I deserve a gold star sticker for that?


As a Chinese brand, every generation has a mission. Our generation’s mission is to fight in the international market with high-end presence! You can mock and ridicule me, it’s ok [sad face emoji] I’m already neighbors with Louis Vuitton and Gucci at the [Hangzhou] West Lake [shopping street]! And I will be next to Chanel at Japan’s top-notch department store Isetan. Next up is France, Dubai, America, see you there!

Subsequently, the hashtag “Florasis Says It’ll Be Side-to-Side with Chanel” (#花西子称要和香奈儿门对门#) received over 470 million views on Weibo. Another hashtag, “Florasis Wants to Be a High-end Brand” (#花西子称想做高端品牌#), received more than 220 million views.

Mad Marketing

By now, the hashtag “Huaxizi Lost It” (#花西子发疯#) has also gone trending on Chinese social media platform Weibo, where people have different thoughts on what might have triggered Florasis’ social media behavior.

While some people really think that Florasis has gone crazy, others see the entire ordeal as a social media spectacle meant to distract attention from what happened with Li Jiaqi, or as a cheap marketing stunt.

One poll conducted by Sina News asked people about the situation. The majority of respondents believed that the social media editor must have lost their mind, while others considered it just another version of “bad marketing is still marketing” – suggesting that even if the publicity strategy is cheap or questionable, it is still used as a marketing tactic to gain attention.

Another question is: does it even matter what the reason behind this unusual online media approach is?

If Florasis is really letting its PR team run wild, it is doing so at a crucial moment, shortly after a significant controversy that cast the brand in a negative light. This moment calls for careful control rather than unconventional tactics. Furthermore, the social media strategy appears to be at odds with Florasis’ typical marketing image, which emphasizes tradition, glamour, and perfection.

If Florasis is using this strategy to attract and divert attention, it also appears that this approach is not yielding the desired results, as many people express a common sentiment: “I didn’t purchase Florasis before, and I certainly won’t be buying it now.”

By Manya Koetse

With contributions by Miranda Barnes

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China Brands, Marketing & Consumers

Bad Apples? Chinese Actor Liu Jin Smashes iPhone 13 Pro Max, Anger over ‘Chinese’ Employee Photo on Apple Website

Who’s the bad Apple? There’s much ado about Apple on Chinese social media this week, but things turn out differently than expected.

Manya Koetse



There is a lot of Apple anger on Chinese social media this week. Two separate trending topics have ignited discussions. One revolves around Chinese actor Liu Jin, who smashed his iPhone 13 Pro Max in front of the Apple flagship store, while another one centers on an image of an Apple employee deemed inappropriate by Chinese netizens. But both viral trends have unfolded with surprisingly ‘juicy’ twists.

The Chinese actor Liu Jin (刘金) has become a big topic of discussion on Chinese social media this week for a remarkable statement he made in a 2-minute video that has gone viral.

The ‘statement video’ shows the actor angrily throwing his iPhone 13 Pro Max on the ground until it breaks, right in front of the Wangfujing Apple flagship store in Beijing, pledging he will never buy another Apple product again and accusing the company of being arrogant and overbearing after running into some repair issues.

Liu Jin is an actor who played in various productions, but he made his major breakthrough in 2015 when he played in the Chinese CCTV series Don’t Let me See (别让我看见) and in the successful comedy movie Goodbye Mr Loser (夏洛特烦恼).

In the video, recorded on September 17, Liu explains he just visited the Apple store to get his iPhone back after bringing it in for repair. Liu claimed that he bought his iPhone 13 Pro Max in August of 2022 through the official store and that, after a year, it had a hardware problem that needed to be fixed.

From the video by Liu.

According to Liu, the Apple store has now returned the iPhone to him without repairing it, saying that the phone was “modified without authoritization” by a third party, and that Liu should pay a 6,960 yuan ($950) fee to get it fixed.

Refusing to pay such an amount of money, and denying he got the phone through a third party, Liu then smashes the iPhone on the ground until it is broken, promising never to buy Apple again.

A hashtag related to the video was viewed a staggering 270 million times on Weibo, where it became a top trending topic (#演员刘金苹果店前怒摔iphone#).

Apple vs Huawei Rivalry

The actor’s recent actions have garnered considerable attention, primarily because they coincide with the escalating rivalry between Huawei and Apple. This rivalry has become a prominent topic of discussion in China recently, due to various things coming together at the same time.

Notably, Apple unveiled its iPhone 15 shortly after Huawei introduced its latest flagship, the Mate 60 Pro 5G. Noteworthy enough (and unlikely coincidentally),it was launched on the same date as the return of Huawei executive daughter Meng Wanzhou from Canada in 2021 (read here).

The official launch ceremony for Huawei’s new products is coming up on September 25, and people are hoping to find out more about the powerful Kirin 90000s chip that is being used by Huawei despite facing heavy US sanctions regarding Chinese access to crucial chip technology.

Simultaneously, reports emerged about alleged Chinese restrictions on iPhones within government and state agencies, resulting in a significant decline in Apple’s stock value. The Foreign Ministry later stated that that China has actually not issued any law, regulation, or policy document to ban the use of Apple phones.

All of these developments have reignited the ongoing tech giant competition in China, that is now about much more than smartphones alone and has come to symbolize geopolitical rivalry, encompassing themes of nationalism, anti-Western sentiments, and a growing sense of pride in products made in China.

Much Ado about Apple Employee Photo

As Liu’s phone-smashing video went viral, so did another controversy concerning an Apple customer service employee’s photo depicted on the official website of Apple.

A Chinese netizen pointed out that a photo of an Apple Watch Specialist representative on the Apple site may have been purposely “insulting China” (辱华) due to the appearance of the person in the photo.

Initially, many people thought the image was specifically used on the Chinese-language Apple site, and that it concerned a Chinese individual with a hairstyle that resembles a queue: a single long braid of hair that was traditionally worn by male subjects of China during the Qing.

Some people also thought the individual had a pockmark near the mouth and that their looks reinforces stereotypes surrounding Chinese appearances regarding eyes and forehead. The image therefore sparked wide-spread resistance among netizens who thought Apple deliberately and inappropriately used such an image to show Chinese individuals as being backward and unattractive.

online poll with nearly 198,000 likes on Weibo, asking if this photo is appropriate or not (the majority voted that the photo was not appropriate).

On the same day as Liu’s video first came out, September 17, the topic of the “braid-wearing customer service representative” went trending, and the hashtag of “how do you feel about the Apple China website image of the braided customer service representative” (#如何看苹果中国官网辫子客服形象#) has since received over 200 million views on Weibo.

Political commentator Hu Xijin (胡锡进) also responded to the issue, explaining how the Chinese people are particularly sensitive to issues related to “perceived insults to China by Westerners,” due to historical and cultural factors which are further amplified by current tensions in US-China and broader China-Western relations.

Hu therefore argues that “American and Western companies should be more careful and cautious when promoting their products and try to avoid using images and texts that could be misinterpreted by Chinese people.”1

Who’s the Bad Apple?

But to what extent is criticism of Apple reasonable in both incidents?

In the case of the “braid-wearing customer service representative”, it soon triggered a response from Apple’s customer service (#苹果客服回应辫子客服形象#, hashtag with 180 million views) and led to more information.

It has since become evident that many assumptions about the image were unfounded. Contrary to the initial belief that the photo was exclusive to the Chinese page, it was also featured on Apple’s official websites in the United States, Japan, South Korea, and other countries.

Furthermore, it was revealed that the Apple employee in question is not of Chinese descent at all; she is a Native American female employee (also see Wen Hao’s post on this). Additionally, the perceived pockmark near her mouth was, in fact, a piercing.

In response to this, some people mocked Hu Xijin for how he responded to the controversy.

Photoshop meme mocking Hu Xijin.

But Liu’s video also turns out to be a bit different than the version of the story he presented.

The actor seemed to voice a popular public sentiment by taking a stand against Apple’s dominant position, that rivals that of China’s tech darling Huawei, by smashing an Apple smartphone in public.

But where is the proof that Liu actually bought his iPhone at an Apple store in 2022? Where is the receipt showing that his phone was indeed not coming from a third party that might have modified it?

To the dismay of many netizens, the actor refused to show the official store receipt of his Apple phone, and many people started to doubt if the actor might have just put on a show to gain attention at a critical moment in the market competition between Apple and Huawei.

Moreover, the actor’s story seemed even less credible when he tried to further explain it in a recent social media post.


As many netizens noted: the post he sent was actually sent from an iPhone.

By Manya Koetse

1 “(..)一些国人在西方人“辱华”的问题上很敏感,有其真实的历史和文化原因。目前中美关系很紧张,中西关系也不如过去,美国和西方公司在做产品宣传时,多一些细心、谨慎,尽量不要选用有可能引发中国人误解的图文,这是他们开展跨文化交流时一份应有的素养和水平。”

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