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“The First Weibo World War”: Is Weibo an International Social Media Platform Now?

Some see the rising relevance of Weibo in the international social media scene as a sign of a rising China.

Wendy Huang

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Over the past years, Weibo’s international significance has risen when it comes to celebrities and pop culture. With the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, Weibo’s role as an increasingly international social media platform has become all the more clear.

On Feb 21st, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed two decrees recognizing the self-proclaimed breakaway states Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) and the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) as independent and sovereign states.

Following the news, the Weibo account ‘Ukrainian Courier’ (@乌克兰信使), which is the verified information center of the Embassy of Ukraine in China, responded in Chinese via Weibo on February 22nd, condemning the move and urging the world to put an end to Russian aggression.

That post received about 12,000 comments within four hours after publishing. The hashtag ‘Ukraine Publishes a Statement on Weibo’ (#乌克兰在微博发表声明#) topped the trending list for hours, and so far has received about 350 million views.

One comment under the post, receiving more than 142,000 likes, is not about the content of the statement, but instead responds to what is happening on Weibo now:

“In my lifetime I didn’t expect to actually see such international affairs appearing on Weibo like it’s a public court.”

Comments of a similar nature – transcending the post content yet receiving many likes – could also be found days earlier, on February 15th, when the official Weibo account of the UK Prime Minister (@英国首相) published a post in Chinese saying:

“We are on the verge of a cliff. But President Putin still has time to step back and think. We urge everyone to participate in the dialogue. The Russian government should avoid doing what would be a disastrous mistake for the country.”

The comment that received the most likes (about 151,000) under the post is a short message to Boris Johnson, hinting that there should be a new season of the popular British mystery crime drama TV series Sherlock.

Two other popular comments also completely ignored the topic’s main subject, tagging the Weibo account of the Russian Embassy in China (@俄罗斯驻华大使馆) and saying: “He’s on the verge of a cliff, quick, push him off,” and “Solve the problem by yourselves please, you two are grown up enough.”

The next day, on February 16, the Weibo account of the Russian Embassy in China shared the UK Prime Minister’s post on their own account (twice), calling the Downing Street statement “absurd” and saying it was an example of the West propagating “information terrorism.”

Russian Embassy in China reposted the Downing Street statement twice.

In response, one commenter hinted at how US officials earlier claimed that Russia would initiate an attack on February 16, jokingly suggesting they meant this Weibo collision: “Oh, now I understand what ‘attack’ they were talking about.”

Another popular comment under the shared post was: “I could never have imagined that the war would start on Weibo.”

With more countries publishing their statements in Chinese on the Weibo platform, another hashtag also went trending, namely “Russia, the United States, Britain, and France have spoken out on Weibo” (#俄美英法纷纷在微博发声#).

One netizen called these Weibo interactions between countries in conflict “WWWI, short for the First Weibo World War.”

On Feb 24, Putin authorized ‘special operations’ in the Donbas region, making the words ‘Ukraine’ and ‘Russia’ peaking on Weibo.

Peaking terms ‘Russia’ and ‘Ukraine’ on Weibo (screenshot of Weibo Index @微指数 page)

On Feb 25, the Ukrainian Embassy in China posted a call on Weibo to raise money – dollars, euros, pounds – for the military. A hashtag dedicated to this topic (#乌克兰驻华使馆发博为军队募款#) received more than 53 million views. One Weibo user wrote: “What were you thinking when asking for donations on Weibo, but not including account information for Renminbi?”

On Feb 28, the same account published an updated post, this time including donation information for the Chinese currency. Though some Weibo users were questioning the legitimacy and compliance of this action – a comparable situation previously did not occur in China, – it did show that the Ukrainian Embassy read Weibo users’ comments and that they actually quickly acted to them.

There was a short period of time when jokes and misinformation started circling around the platform, but soon the Weibo platform announced that they were cracking down on those remarks. So far, Weibo has not banned any official accounts of other countries’ embassies or international organizations involved in the conflict.

Another recent Weibo post of the Ukrainian Embassy interacted with the Weibo account of the European Union (@欧盟在中国), and was basically a thank-you note for receiving global support, the words written in classical Chinese style.

The Russian Embassy in China also recently posted on Weibo again, this time with a video titled “How Ukraine Incites Hatred Towards Russia and Russians” (“乌克兰是如何煽动对俄罗斯和俄罗斯人的仇恨情绪的”).

Meanwhile, the latest Weibo post of the Embassy of the United States in China is promoting the word “peace” while using the supposedly apolitical hashtag “Learning English” (#英语学习#). However, in the comment section, many Weibo users did take the post as a political statement and accused the US of being a “peace-breaker,” posting images of America invasions in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Syria.

 

A New International Role for China’s Weibo?

 

The Russian Embassy in China has since long been on Weibo, using the Chinese platform for its “foreign diplomacy” with other countries. As early as 2014, the account already saw an online clash with another nation as it argued with the China-based Polish ambassador Tadeusz Chomicki on Weibo over MH17.

The Iranian and American embassies in China became all the talk on Chinese social media in 2020 when the US-Iran tensions also heightened on Weibo, where the two argued over the assassination of Soleimani. Their exchanges were all in Chinese. Later that same year, the U.S. and Iranian Embassies again fought on Weibo, this time over the so-called “Wuhan virus” stigmatization of Covid-19.

In addition to emerging as a platform for international diplomacy, Weibo has also become more important in international pop culture – and the drama that comes with it. In late 2021, when the divorce of the U.S.-born “King of Chinese Pop” Wang Leehom (王力宏) and his former wife Lee Jinglei (李靚蕾) played out on Weibo, also involving a female singer from Singapore, more Chinese netizens started wondering: is Weibo already an international social media space, as the platform has increasingly become a hotspot for official and popular international public conversations?

A post published on Dec 18, 2021, with the hashtag ‘The International Role of Weibo’, explaining the key functions of some Chinese social media platforms in a humorous manner. Weibo after Dec 19, 2021, was referred to as the Hague International Court of Justice, no longer just a typical old-style ‘court’ in China.

According to Weibo’s latest press release, its number of monthly active users (MAUs) was 573 million in December 2021, and its average daily active users (DAUs) were 249 million in December 2021.

Twitter, which has stopped reporting MAUs and switched its user reporting metric to monetizable daily active usage (mDAU) since Q2 2019, reported 217 million in Q4 2021. Its lastest number of average MAUs is 330 million as of Q1 2019 (for reference, Weibo’s MAUs were 465 million in that same period).

It seems that looking at users alone, Weibo is qualified enough to serve as a major social platform like Twitter. But as a platform originally launched and mainly operated in Chinese, the language seems to be the first barrier for more international users, along with its functionality and strict content management (censorship) system.

In March 2017, Weibo launched its international version specifically for overseas account holders. However, non-Chinese international users did not respond to that with too much enthusiasm and for that user group, Weibo never came near to Twitter. Google Trends shows how worldwide searches for the keyword Weibo were drastically low compared to those of Twitter.

Screenshot: Comparison between Twitter and Weibo in Google Trends in the past 5 years (via Google Trends).

In 2018, Weibo chose to focus more on the “overseas Chinese-speaking world” to gain a foothold in the worldwide social media market, rather than concentrating on English-speaking communities. Nonetheless, being China’s most popular social media platform for public dialogue, Weibo has still drawn in many foreign government departments, companies, celebrities, and international organizations.

There are many international celebrities using Weibo, including six of the top 10 most followed Twitter accounts. Through Weibo, where they usually post in English, they can stay in touch with their Chinese-speaking fans.

On Weibo, you will find the accounts of 80 tourism boards of different international cities and countries, over 20 international airports, more than 40 football clubs, and at least 50 foreign embassies in China are using Weibo to publish statements and interact with Chinese netizens, including the embassies that have been using Weibo to post statements in Chinese on the Ukraine crisis.

Some see the rising relevance of Weibo in the international social media scene as a sign of a rising China. “The British Prime Minister ran to Weibo shout at Russia, indicating that China’s international status has heightened and indicating that the role of Weibo has improved,” one blogger wrote.

Popular Weibo account VShanshan also agreed, writing:

“Because of the growing influence of China’s international position and Chinese online platforms, China’s social media platforms, and specifically Weibo, have in fact also become a battleground of the global public opinion war, and Weibo is now also at the forefront of the cyberwar between Russia and Ukraine. Before the Russian-Ukrainian military conflict and war happened, it already started on Weibo.”

On February 24th, when Russia announced the so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, the Weibo accounts of France, Germany, the Netherlands, the U.S., Poland, the UK, and others all posted statements on Weibo. One netizen proposed to call these international accounts the “Weibo United Nations.”

On that same day, the hashtag “World Peace” (#世界和平#) went trending on Weibo. Whether or not Weibo already is an ‘international’ social media platform is up for debate, but it is nevertheless evident that most Weibo users want to raise their voices for a peaceful international society. Hopefully, their voices will be heard.

Click here to see more of our articles on the Russia-Ukraine war.

By Wendy Huang

Edited for clarity by Manya Koetse.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. Please note that your comment below will need to be manually approved if you’re a first-time poster here.

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

Wendy Huang is a China-based Beijing Language and Culture University graduate who currently works for a Public Relations & Media software company. She believes that, despite the many obstacles, Chinese social media sites such as Weibo can help Chinese internet users to become more informed and open-minded regarding various social issues in present-day China.

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    LS2010

    March 5, 2022 at 6:04 pm

    Great article, nice job!

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About Lipstick King’s Comeback and His ‘Mysterious’ Disappearance

After Li Jiaqi’s return to livestreaming, the ‘tank cake incident’ has become the elephant in the room on social media.

Manya Koetse

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Earlier this week, the return of China’s famous livestreamer Li Jiaqi, also known as the ‘Lipstick King’, became a hot topic on Chinese social media where his three-month ‘disappearance’ from the social commerce scene triggered online discussions.

He is known as Austin Li, Lipstick King, or Lipstick Brother, but most of all he is known as one of China’s most successful e-commerce livestreaming hosts.

After being offline for over 100 days, Li Jiaqi (李佳琦) finally came back and did a livestreaming session on September 20th, attracting over 60 million viewers and selling over $17 million in products.

The 30-year-old beauty influencer, a former L’Oreal beauty consultant, rose to fame in 2017 after he became a successful livestreamer focusing on lipstick and other beauty products.

Li broke several records during his live streaming career. In 2018, he broke the Guinness World Record for “the most lipstick applications in 30 seconds.” He once sold 15000 lipsticks in 5 minutes, and also managed to apply 380 different lipsticks in another seven-hour live stream session. Li made international headlines in 2021 when he sold $1.9 billion in goods during a 12-hour-long promotion livestream for Alibaba’s shopping festival.

But during a Taobao livestream on June 3rd of this year, something peculiar happened. After Li Jiaqi and his co-host introduced an interestingly shaped chocolate cake – which seemed to resemble a tank, – a male assistant in the back mentioned something about the sound of shooting coming from a tank (“坦克突突”).

Although Li Jiaqi and the others laughed about the comment, Li also seemed a bit unsure and the woman next to him then said: “Stay tuned for 23:00 to see if Li Jiaqi and I will still be in this position.”

The session then suddenly stopped, and at 23:38 that night Li wrote on Weibo that the channel was experiencing some “technical problems.”

But those “technical problems” lasted, and Li did not come back. His June 3rd post about the technical problems would be the last one on his Weibo account for the months to come.

The ‘cake tank incident’ (坦克蛋糕事件) occurred on the night before June 4, the 33rd anniversary of the violent crackdown of the Tiananmen student demonstrations. The iconic image of the so-called ‘tank man‘ blocking the tanks at Tiananmen has become world famous and is censored on China’s internet. The control of information flows is especially strict before and on June 4, making Li’s ‘tank cake incident’ all the more controversial.

But no official media nor the official Li Jiaqi accounts acknowledged the tank cake incident, and his absence remained unexplained. Meanwhile, there was a silent acknowledgment among netizens that the reason Li was not coming online anymore was related to the ‘tank cake incident.’

During Li’s long hiatus, fans flocked to his Weibo page where they left thousands of messages.

“I’m afraid people have been plotting against you,” many commenters wrote, suggesting that the cake was deliberately introduced by someone else during the livestream as a way to commemorate June 4.

Many fans also expressed their appreciation of Li, saying how watching his streams helped them cope with depression or cheered them up during hard times. “What would we do without you?” some wrote. Even after 80 days without Li Jiaqi’s livestreams, people still commented: “I am waiting for you every day.”

On September 21st, Li Jiaqi finally – and somewhat quietly – returned and some people said they were moved to see their lipstick hero return to the livestream scene.

Although many were overjoyed with Li’s return, it also triggered more conversations on why he had disappeared and what happened to him during the 3+ months of absence. “He talked about a sensitive topic,” one commenter said when a Weibo user asked about Li’s disappearance.

One self-media accountpublished a video titled “Li Jiaqi has returned.” The voiceover repeatedly asks why Li would have disappeared and even speculates about what might have caused it, without once mentioning the tank cake.

“This cracks me up,” one commenter wrote: “On the outside we all know what’s going on, on the inside there’s no information whatsoever.”

“It’s tacit mutual understanding,” some wrote. “It’s the elephant in the room,” others said.

Some people, however, did not care about discussing Li’s disappearance at all anymore and just expressed joy about seeing him again: “It’s like seeing a good friend after being apart for a long time.”

By Manya Koetse 

Elements in the featured image by @karishea and @kaffeebart.

 

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More Than Just a Visit: Explaining the Chinese ‘Cuànfǎng’

‘Cuànfǎng’ became a popular word on Chinese social media and in official Chinese discourse this year. But what is it?

Jin Luo

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Since Pelosi’s stopover in Taiwan, the word ‘cuànfǎng’ has been all over Chinese social media to refer to this controversial visit. But ‘cuànfǎng’ is more than just ‘visiting’ alone. Jin Luo explains.

It was a sleepless night for many Chinese people when U.S. House Speaker Pelosi flew to Taiwan on August 2nd of 2022. A new Chinese word created in recent years, cuànfǎng (窜访) appeared in the official statement that was issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry at 11 pm that night, and subsequently it appeared all over social media.

Meanwhile, a pop song released more than 30 years ago titled “Tonight, Are You Coming or Not” (“今夜你会不会来”) suddenly became a Weibo hot topic before it was taken offline. What is this word lost in translation, and why did people suddenly get nostalgic over an old romantic song?

 
Cuànfǎng: A ‘Sneaky Visit’
 

Here is the original wording in Chinese and the official translation to English from the statement of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on the evening on 2 August:

In disregard of China’s strong opposition and diplomatic discontent, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited China’s Taiwan region” (“美国国会众议长佩洛西不顾中方强烈反对和严正交涉,窜访中国台湾地区.”) The word ‘visited’ in Chinese that is used here is “cuànfǎng” 窜访.

While the English verb “visit” is a neutral word by itself, the Chinese “cuànfǎng” 窜访 has much stronger connotations. According to the Wiktionary, the word is a derogatory, officialese way to say “to visit.” But it is not an easy word to translate, as there is no direct equivalent in English, and both the literal and implied meaning of the word need to be understood.

Cuànfǎng is actually a compound word: cuàn 窜 refers to fleeing, escaping, hiding, or running away; fǎng 访 refers to inquiring, seeking, or visiting.

Cuan as a compound character (Sohu).

To make matters more complicated, cuàn by itself is also a compound character. It is written as ‘竄’ in traditional Chinese: the top radical ‘穴’ means ‘hole,’ and the lower part is the character ‘鼠’ which means ‘mouse.’ The character, having the shape of a mouse hiding in a hole, therefore has the meaning of ‘hiding’ and ‘escaping.’

The origins of the character ‘cuan’ explained, image via Sohu.com.

The mouse or rat is an animal that is more often associated with negative things in Chinese culture. They are often considered sneaky, dirty, running around everywhere, and able to reproduce quickly. With mice so often carrying a negative association, cuàn ‘窜’ also refers to a kind of hiding and escaping that is negative or objectionable.

The second character fǎng 访 is a neutral word that simply means “to visit.”

At the New York Times, Chris Buckley captured the underlying meaning of this word in writing: “The Chinese word used in the official statements for ‘visit’ — cuanfang — connotes a sneaky or illicit encounter, not an aboveboard meeting.”

 
The Evolution of Cuànfǎng
 

Although it is a relatively new word, cuànfǎng already existed before the Pelosi incident and was not created in light of this controversial visit.

Since the word’s first appearance, translators have had some difficulties in properly translating the term into different languages.

Research papers in translation studies and international relations in China suggested that cuànfǎng is a “new derogatory term invented in recent years, specifically for the purpose of maintaining national security and unity, and condemning and exposing the national separatists” and “demonstrated the big wisdom of Chinese diplomatic discourse users; vividly described the image of the separatists, that they go on the run sneakily, just like thieves and mice” (source, in Chinese).

Other sources interpret it as “the unjust, improper visit conducted in order to reach hidden political agenda, to agitate and peddle the separatist ideas,” and:

1. You went somewhere where you were not supposed to go;
2. The visit was not accepted or welcomed by the (Chinese) government;
3. The purpose is to shake justice and create conflicts
” (source, in Chinese).

Cuàn was mainly meant to add an emotional aspect to the term and shows the contempt of the person who uses it.

Image via Wainao.

The word was first prominently used in Chinese official discourse when the Foreign Ministry in 2006 referred to the Dalai Lama’s visit to Israel. Since cuàn has the meaning of fleeing, it is especially suitable when referring to political dissidents who went into exile overseas.

Since then, it has been used again for further visits of the Dalai Lama to other countries (US 2014, Mongolia 2017), as well as for Rebiya Kadeer, Lee Teng-hui, Shinzo Abe, Joshua Wong, and others.

Although it is clear that the term is not only applied to Chinese dissidents, it is generally applied to those who conducted visits that were perceived to be hostile towards China, with Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit serving as a clear example.

Since the Dalai Lama has been living outside of China and conducted numerous visits to other countries, cuànfǎng was previously mostly used in this context until Pelosi’s visit, which ended up being good for more than 80% of the search results of cuànfǎng on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website.

If cuànfǎng is a word with such strong emotional connotations, why was it simply translated as “visit” in official English-language documents? Some say it is because of the mere difficulty to translate this word, while others say it is the routine sanitization of English translations by the Foreign Ministry.

David Gitter, president of the Center for Advanced China Research based in Washington D.C., said that the external goal of Beijing can be different from the internal goal towards the nationalist domestic audiences, and that “more accurate yet counterproductive translations … [often] breach normal diplomatic language.”

At this point, it remains up for debate whether this is a linguistic constraint or a political choice.

 
Tonight, Are You Coming or Not?
 

While the term cuànfǎng has been widely used in official discourse, it has also become a popular online word. Chinese netizens seemed to be as passionate as the Chinese Foreign Ministry – and perhaps even more so –  in condemning Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and demanding radical countermeasures.

Chinese netizens were watching the entire event unfold with mixed feelings – on the one hand, there was a strong sense of patriotism and anger, on the other hand, the massive attention to the event also turned it into something that was almost as exciting as a celebrity drama.

On that specific evening of Pelosi’s nearing arrival in Taipei, Chinese netizens were doing two things: watching real-time tracking of Pelosi’s flight, and listening to a classic pop song released in 1991 titled “Tonight, Are You Coming or Not” (今夜你会不会来) (video). Back in the previous century, Hong Kong singer Leon Lai expressed the emotions of someone waiting for his lover to arrive in this melodic song, singing:

“你是否愿意为我停留

Would you be willing to stay for me

今夜你来告诉我

Tonight, you tell me

你是否愿意陪我走过我的梦

Are you willing to accompany me through my dream?

我的所有

My everything

(Chorus)

今夜你会不会来

Tonight, are you coming or not?

你的爱还在不在

Is your love still there or not?

如果你的心已经离开

If your heart has left already

我宁愿没有未来

I would rather not have a future

今夜你会不会来

Tonight, are you coming or not?

你的爱还在不在

Is your love still there or not?

别让我所有的等待

Don’t let all my wait

变成一片空白

Go all in vain

 

In the middle of the uncertainty about whether Pelosi would come to Taiwan or not, this song served as entertainment for netizens and became a “collective carnival” of people jokingly applying the song to Pelosi, turning her into a ‘mysterious lover’ that might or might not show up. (Later, some were unable to play the song anymore, although it remains unclear if this was due to geographic restrictions or because the song was actually taken offline by censors.)

“Taiwan has been preparing for your cuànfǎng ‘sneaky visit’, are you coming or not tonight?” some netizens wrote, combining the title song with the cuànfǎng term. In doing so, Pelosi became both a ‘sneaky mouse’ and ‘mysterious lover’, both a target of condemnation and subject of fun and banter.

All jokes and cuànfǎng references aside, Pelosi did end up realizing that visit, and its aftermath, including a second Taiwan visit by a U.S. congressional delegation, has had a substantial impact on U.S.-China relations that were already strained before the move.

Will there be more cuànfǎng to Taiwan? It’s likely not an issue of if, but when. For next time, at least we’ve got cuànfǎng covered.

 

By Jin Luo 

Featured image by Alexa from Pixabay

 

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

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

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

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