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The Lanjisu Fire That Changed China’s ‘Wangba’ Era

The tragic Lanjisu fire led to a nationwide crackdown on internet cafes in China.

Manya Koetse

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A Beijing internet cafe fire that killed 25 young people in 2002 has become part of China’s collective memory: it was a shift in China’s internet cafe era. June 16 marks the anniversary of this tragic event.

On June 16, 2002, at 2:40 a.m., a devastating fire broke out at a second-story Internet cafe (wangba 网吧) in Beijing’s Haidian, the city’s university district.

News of the tragic fire shocked the entire nation. The fire had instantly killed twenty people and severely injured 17, of whom five later died in the hospital.

All of the dead and injured people were students; 12 of them were from the prep school of the Beijing University of Science and Technology (Wang 2009, 86).

Lanjisu fire, June 16 2002.

Although it did not take long for firefighters to arrive that night, the fire at the Lanjisu (蓝极速, ‘Blue speed’) internet cafe was mainly so disastrous because windows were firmly secured with iron burglar-proof bars, leaving no option for people to escape. The only door was locked; it happened more often that wangba owners would (illegally) operate overnight behind locked doors (Qiu 2009, 33).

Investigators later ruled arson as cause of the fire at the cafe, which was located at Xueyuan Road 20. Traces of gasoline were discovered at the scene, and two teenage male suspects (13-year-old Zhang and 14-year-old Song) were arrested two days later.

The teenage boys were middle school students who used to play games at the internet cafe, but had gotten into a quarrel with other visitors and were not allowed to come in. To take ‘revenge’, they had purchased 1.8 liter of gasoline at a nearby gas station just 3-4 hours before they committed arson.

One of the suspects in 2002 (people.com.cn).

It was later revealed that the two boys both came from poor and shattered families, involving drugs and crime (Lifeweek 2003; Qiu 2015).

In August of 2002, a Beijing court sentenced the 14-year-old boy (Song X.) to life imprisonment, while the 13-year-old was sent to a juvenile re-education center as he was under the age of 14.

A third person, a 17-year-old female also named Zhang, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for being an accomplice; she gave the boys money to buy the petroleum, and knew what they were up to. A fourth minor, a 14-year-old boy by the name of Liu, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for being part of the arson plan. The internet cafe owner was sentenced to 3 years in prison for breaching business and safety rules. The gas station was fined 50,000 yuan for selling gasoline to two minors (Lifeweek 2003; Sina 2008).

 

A turning point in the wangba boom

 

The Haidian Lanjisu fire had a big impact on China’s booming internet cafe culture. Internet cafes had been mushrooming in China since the mid and late 1990s. It was the time of Tencent’s highly popular instant messaging software OICQ and multiplayer online games. By 2002 there were thousands of wangba across Chinese cities, many of them unlicensed and illegal, with no fire control equipment.

Internet cafe in 1990s (new.qq.com).

The Lanjisu fire made the problem of China’s wangba a national concern. Not just the unsafe conditions were a reason for worry, but also the impact the internet cafes had on China’s youth, with students spending days on end playing online games in these smoky rooms, leading to a rise in school absence and internet addiction. Beijing’s vice mayor Liu Zhihua condemned internet cafes as “opium dens” for the country’s youth.

The fire led to a huge crackdown on illegal internet cafes. The Beijing authorities launched a campaign that would stop the development of new internet cafes and that would screen all existing wangba one by one, and to close all unlicensed businesses immediately and to confiscate their operational tools (Wang 2009, 87). Across the country, approximately 400,000 internet cafes were closed (Sina 2008).

Second hand confiscated wangba computers (http://www.hkcd.com/).

It also led to the implementation of new rules, such as that there could no longer be internet cafes within a 200-meter radius of schools, that minors were not allowed to enter, and that they had to be closed between midnight and 8 am (Venkatesh 2006, 55)

Since 2005, the remnants of the Lansiju internet cafe have been on display at the Haidian Safety Museum.

Image via People.cn.

The fire is remembered in China as the “6.16 Wangba Big Fire” (6·16网吧大火), and is still being discussed on Chinese social media to this day.

By Manya Koetse

References

Qiu, Jack Linchuan. 2009. Working-Class Network Society
Communication Technology and the Information Have-Less in Urban China
. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Qiu, Jack Linchuan. 2015 (2009). “Life and Death in the Chinese Informational City: The Challenges of Working-Class ICTs and the Information Have-less.” In: Living the Information Society in Asia, Erwin Alampay Alampay (ed), 130-157. ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

Sina. 2008. “北京蓝极速网吧老板今安在.” Sina News, 29 Dec http://news.sina.com.cn/s/2008-12-29/100416941011.shtml [16.6.18].

Venkatesh, P. 2006. “China on the I-way.” In: Strategic Management: Concepts and Cases, Hitt, Duane & Hoskisson (eds), chapter 2. Mason: Thomson Higher Education.

Wang, Xueqin. 2009. “Internet Cafes. What else can be done in addition to rectification?” In: Good governance in China–a way towards social harmony : case studies by China’s rising leaders, edited by Wang Mengkui, Lchapter 8. London & New York: Routledge.

Zhuang, Shan 庄山, Ke Li 柯立, Li Wei 李伟, Wu Ang 巫昂. 2003 (2002). “两个纵火少年和25条生命” [“Two Minor Arsonists and 25 Lives”]. LifeWeek 2002 (26), online April 8 2003 http://www.lifeweek.com.cn/2003/0408/1594.shtml [16.6.2018].

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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 & Consumers

Tick, Tock, Time to Pay Up? Douyin Is Testing Out Paywalled Short Videos

Is content payment a new beginning for the popular short video app Douyin (China’s TikTok) or would it be the end?

Manya Koetse

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The introduction of a Douyin novel feature, that would enable content creators to impose a fee for accessing their short video content, has sparked discussions across Chinese social media. Although the feature would benefit creators, many Douyin users are skeptical.

News that Chinese social media app Douyin is rolling out a new feature which allows creators to introduce a paywall for their short video content has triggered online discussions in China this week.

The feature, which made headlines on November 16, is presently in the testing phase. A number of influential content creators are now allowed to ‘paywall’ part of their video content.

Douyin is the hugely popular app by Chinese tech giant Bytedance. TikTok is the international version of the Chinese successful short video app, and although they’re often presented as being the same product, Douyin and Tiktok are actually two separate entities.

In addition to variations in content management and general usage, Douyin differs from TikTok in terms of features. Douyin previously experimented with functionalities such as charging users for accessing mini-dramas on the platform or the ability to tip content creators.

The pay-to-view feature on Douyin would require users to pay a certain fee in Douyin coins (抖币) in order to view paywalled content. One Douyin coin is equivalent to 0.1 yuan ($0,014). The platform itself takes 30% of the income as a service charge.

According to China Securities Times or STCN (证券时报网), Douyin insiders said that any short video content meeting Douyin’s requirements could be set as “pay-per-view.”

Creators, who can set their own paywall prices, should reportedly meet three criteria to qualify for the pay-to-view feature: their account cannot have any violation records for a period of 90 days, they should have at least 100,000 followers, and they have to have completed the real-name authentication process.

On Douyin and Weibo, Chinese netizens express various views on the feature. Many people do not think it would be a good idea to charge money for short videos. One video blogger (@小片片说大片) pointed out the existing challenge of persuading netizens to pay for longer videos, let alone expecting them to pay for shorter ones.

“The moment I’d need to pay money for it, I’ll delete the app,” some commenters write.

This statement appears to capture the prevailing sentiment among most internet users regarding a subscription-based Douyin environment. According to a survey conducted by the media platform Pear Video, more than 93% of respondents expressed they would not be willing to pay for short videos.

An online poll by Pear Video showed that the majority of respondents would not be willing to pay for short videos on Douyin.

“This could be a breaking point for Douyin,” one person predicts: “Other platforms could replace it.” There are more people who think it would be the end of Douyin and that other (free) short video platforms might take its place.

Some commenters, however, had their own reasons for supporting a pay-per-view function on the platform, suggesting it would help them solve their Douyin addiction. One commenter remarked, “Fantastic, this might finally help me break free from watching short videos!” Another individual responded, “Perhaps this could serve as a remedy for my procrastination.”

As discussions about the new feature trended, Douyin’s customer service responded, stating that it would eventually be up to content creators whether or not they want to activate the paid feature for their videos, and that it would be up to users whether or not they would be interested in such content – otherwise they can just swipe away.

Another social media user wrote: “There’s only one kind of video I’m willing to pay for, and it’s not on Douyin.”

By Manya Koetse

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China Digital

Too Sexy for Weibo? Online Discussions on the Concept of ‘Cābiān’

Delving into the ongoing discussion on ‘cābiān’ and its influence on women’s expression in China’s digital realm.

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Chinese social media is seeing more discussions recenty on the blurred boundaries of Cābiān. This seemingly never-ending discussion raises questions – not just about sexually suggestive content, but also about the evolving perceptions of women’s bodies and freedom in the digital age.

In the fast-moving world of China’s internet, a new term has emerged: Cābiān (擦边). Originally a sports term describing a ball grazing the edge of a table (擦边球), it now primarily refers to the delicate balance in content that may be seen as sexually suggestive, teetering on the line between ‘sexy’ and ‘sexually explicit’ in the context of China’s internet culture.

The term mainly refers to women’s behavior, style, language, and actions that are considered inappropriate or that are pushing the boundaries of acceptability. Cābiān can be understood as borderline sexual content that basically navigates the boundaries of platform rules without actually breaking them. Nevertheless, is generally seen as ‘not in line’ with what is expected of Chinese women in today’s society.

This term has sparked controversy recently, prompting fervent debates surrounding its implications for women’s self-expression.

 
Too Sexy for Weibo? Jingchuan Liyu’s Divisive Pictures
 

Social media plays a central role in the “cābiān” debate. A recent example involves a Weibo post by Jingchuan Liyu (井川里予, @悲伤荷包蛋), a prominent Chinese influencer active on Weibo and Xiaohongshu.

Jingchuan Liyu is known for embodying both innocence and sensuality in her online persona. Mainly by male netizens, she has been labeled as a symbol of “chúnyù” (纯欲). This term signifies a blend of childlike innocence (纯洁, chúnjié) and allure (欲望, yùwàng).

Jingchuan Liyu became a focal point in the cābiān debate when she posted a series of photos during the summer of this year. While these photos didn’t violate any official guidelines, they departed from her typical “innocent yet sexy” style. In these pictures, she was seen wearing thongs and other undergarments, which apparently made some social media users uneasy.

The controversy surrounding the photos intensified when Jingchuan Liyu responded to these criticisms on her Weibo page. While her supporters defended her freedom to dress as she pleases, others viewed her photos as being more about provocative sexual suggestion than about freedom of fashion.

 
Dog-Headed Lolita: Judged, Harassed, and Labeled Cābiān
 

Beyond online debates, the condemnation of “cābiān” is also having real-world consequences. One recent example is the case of the Chinese influencer known as Dog-Head Lolita (狗头萝莉 @我是狗头萝莉).

Despite having a problematic childhood, ‘Dog-Head Lolita’ managed to turn her life around and became a successful streamer. But her reputation suffered a severe blow when explicit videos of her, recorded by her ex-boyfriend, were made public.

This incident and its aftermath damaged her career and, partly due to getting cheated by her manager, was left with a staggering debt of 6 million RMB ($836K). Trying to start an alternative career, Dog-Head Lolita took up selling Chinese pancakes (jiānbǐng 煎饼) at a street stall as a means to make a living and work towards repaying her debts.

In addition to her physical labor, she also posted short videos of herself selling pancakes online and continued to livestream and engage with her followers to generate more income.

While her efforts garnered sympathy and admiration from some netizens, she also faced accusations of using her pancake-selling business as a form of cābiān.

Her choice of attire, which emphasized her figure, became a central topic of discussion. Some netizens raised questions about whether her videos, showcasing her interactions with fans while selling pancakes, carried a sexual undertone. Moreover, there were arguments suggesting that her true business wasn’t selling pancakes but rather producing sexually suggestive content.

Some critics of Dog-Head Lolita went further and turned online criticism into harassment. Some filed reports regarding the hygiene conditions of her business, while others intentionally vandalized her pancake cart and left insulting messages on it.

Facing this harassment linked to accusations of being cābiān, Dog-Head Lolita voiced her frustration on her Weibo page.

She emphasized that her physique was something beyond her control and that selling pancakes shouldn’t be judged in the same way as her previous online presence. She complained that her livelihood was being scrutinized, even in the most ordinary and innocuous settings.

 
Challenging the Concept of Cābiān
 

Defining the precise boundaries of what is and is not cābiān is not easy, as it has become a catch-all term for anything remotely sexually suggestive, erotic, or resembling “soft pornography.”

While the distinction between suggestive and non-suggestive content remains hazy, new voices have emerged to challenge the very idea of “cābiān.”

Some believe that cābiān is a societal construct imposed on women, rather than an intrinsic concept. They argue that before the term “cābiān” gained popularity, suggestive pelvic dances were widespread in China due to the prevalence of K-pop boy groups, and male celebrities could appear shirtless and flirtatious on TV without anyone accusing them of “cābiān.”

But when it comes to women, the standards of cābiān can be unclear and are often unforgiving. This term is used not only to regulate their clothing choices but also their behavior or even facial expressions—essentially, anything a woman might do.

Once a female online influencer is seen as attractive and desireable, she seemingly becomes more prone to be labeled a “cābiān nǚ” (擦边女) – a woman who is seen as flaunting her sensuality within the context of social media and online platforms.

If this trend of labeling people as sexually suggestive continues, “cābiān” might turn into an unclear social rule, resulting in ongoing moral judgments of women, especially female online influencers.

On the other hand, some netizens see the increasing acceptance of women displaying their bodies in a sensual manner as a form of female empowerment.

One notable Weibo by ‘Wang’ede’ (@王饿德) post that gained a lot of attention suggested that there is a distinction between how others interpret women’s bodies and how women themselves perceive it. The post asserts that revealing skin and wearing “sexy” clothing can be a proactive expression of women’s own desires and confidence rather than solely meaning to please a male audience.

This active pursuit is seen as a form of ‘decolonization’ of the traditional patriarchal gaze— it’s described as “a reevaluation of women’s bodies by women themselves that allows us to reclaim ownership of our bodies,” as stated by the author of the post.

 
Neverending Discussions
 

As the debates continue, Weibo users are noticing a deadlock in these online discussions. Conversations about the who, what, and why of cābiān are recurring and appear to be never-ending.

In 2019, a significant debate arose concerning the attire worn by actress Rayzha Alimjan. In 2022, controversies revolved around busty women. There was also a cyberbullying incident involving a mother who had recently lost her son in a car accident and faced criticism for wearing elegant clothing and makeup (read). Most recently, there has been a series of new discussions, ranging from criticizing the latest TV drama starring singer/actress Lai Meiyun and onwards.

Contemplating this phenomenon, some internet users are thinking about the evolution of Jingchuan Liyu’s style. A decade or two ago, her aesthetic might have been categorized as ’emo,’ ‘alternative,’ or just seen as a form of decadent beauty. However, nowadays, it is quickly subjected to examination to determine whether or not it falls into the category of cābiān.

In the eyes of many Chinese netizens, this trend is seen as a discouraging step backward. Influential bloggers repost their previous cābiān-related Weibo posts from years or even just months ago, highlighting the seemingly futile nature of these discussions.

Who will be the next woman to be branded as cābiān? Will she face online insults and offline harassment? On Weibo, some express their exhaustion at being stuck in this repetitive loop, engaging in similar debates time and time again.

Perhaps it is time to reevaluate the term “cābiān” and engage in more meaningful discussions about women’s bodies and their freedom in China. As one netizen put it on Weibo: “Maybe we should redirect this energy toward discussions that genuinely promote progress instead of endlessly revisiting these cyclic debates.”

By Ruixin Zhang

edited for clarity by Zilan Qian & Manya Koetse

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