Connect with us

Backgrounder

The Rise of China’s Electronic Dance Music Scene: From Underground Culture to Online Communities

China’s electronic dance music: it’s status-quo, future, and why social media is key.

Luka de Boni

Published

on

Image via www.jammyfm.com

While most people would perhaps not expect to find a lively electronic dance music scene in the PRC, the popularity of the club culture is on the rise in China today. Social media plays a major role in its rapid expansion. What’s on Weibo talks to Rainbow Gao, an authority in the Chinese dance music world, and looks at the past, present and future of this scene in China.

Perhaps few foreigners would see China as a go-to destination for its electronic dance music scene. Surely, most Chinese also do not see their own country that way. But China’s club culture is on the rise.

Although most of the ‘dance music capitals’ are located in Europe and the US, the online music broadcasting platform Boiler Room – which is focused on electronic music – now lists two Chinese cities among its 100 locations, Beijing and Shanghai.

Created by producers and performed by DJs, ‘Electronic dance music’ is an umbrella term for percussion-based electronic music made for nightclubs, raves, and festivals. In Europe, electronic dance music is often simply called ‘Dance Music,’ with subgenres including techno, house, trance, etc. 1

In 2016, DJMag, one of the biggest electronic dance music magazines worldwide, listed a total of four Chinese clubs in its top-20-clubs ranking. And if one would walk around Shanghai or Beijing today, one would find a similar quantity and quality of good nightclubs there as in any major European city – although it might require some more effort to find the right ones.

Club Lantern in Beijing, photo by author.

Nevertheless, electronic dance music is generally still misunderstood, and, more importantly, under-commercialized, in China today.

The 54-year-old Rainbow Gao 2, an important face of Chinese electronic music and founder of the ‘The Mansionnightclub/hostel/concept, tells What’s on Weibo that the overarching obstacle to the spread and development of dance music in China is a lack of infrastructure and general awareness.

 

BACKGROUND: THE ELECTRONIC MUSIC SCENE IN CHINA

In the 1990s, dance clubs mainly focused on the music itself – they weren’t interested in making money.”

 

Since virtually no dance scene existed before Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening-up in 1978, a Western ‘party culture’ only started emerging in China during the 1980s. But at that time, parties were mostly concentrated around Western hotel bars in Beijing, and there were few dancing bars run by locals.

During the early 1990s, proper nightclubs started opening up in the big Chinese cities, mostly located in big hotels or in renovated cinemas. “During this period,” Rainbow Gao tells What’s on Weibo, “clubs and clubbers mainly focused on the music itself – they weren’t so interested in making money.”

Rainbow Gao, founder of ‘The Mansion’ Shanghai

The development of Chinese dance music continued throughout the 1990s. Through the efforts of Chinese pioneer DJs such as Ben Huang, a real underground scene started to emerge.

The first ‘Berlin-Basement-style’ clubs were opened 3, and the scene started gathering more attention. Later, DJs such as Weng Weng or Mickey Zhang started throwing their own parties and setting-up their own labels, showing that the spread of electronic dance music was well under way.

DJ Weng Weng (Organizer INTRO festival), image via The Beijinger.

Finding an audience was hard at first – according to an interview in the Beijinger with famous Chinese DJ Weng Weng, the first electronic dance music parties were actually organized and attended mainly by foreign exchange students.

But, as more and more young Chinese started appreciating the music, the culture, mixing, and promoting, the local scene slowly started to grow.

INTRO festival

In the 2000s, the underground scene experienced a slight setback. A series of money-focused nightclubs started to open, solely driven by commercial motives.

“For these clubs, the music itself is really the last thing they think about. Sales come first; how to sell tables to people, how to make the club look ‘busy’ by having foreigners drinking for free, hiring actors to attend,” Rainbow Gao says: “There is also this show-off culture, so if they buy a bottle of champagne, it is not unusual to light fireworks to make a spectacle out of it. It’s really about showing off and making money.”

Today, Chinese nightlife is a combination of these big money-focused clubs and smaller music-focused ones. But even in the shadow of these big money-making machines, China’s underground dance scene is still thriving.

Most large Chinese cities now have at least one big electronic-music nightclub. Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Shenzhen, Kunming, Guangzhou and Hangzhou are all popular destinations for Chinese DJs.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese, young and old, go out every weekend to listen to dianzi wuqu (电子舞曲 ‘electronic dance music’), haoshi yinyue (浩室音乐 ‘House music’), tie ke nuo (铁克诺音乐, ‘techno’) or chushe yinyue (出神音乐 ‘trance music’).

 

THE CHALLENGES OF CHINA’S ELECTRONIC MUSIC SCENE

Only passionate people invest money in these clubs, and they’ll do so from their own pocket.

 

The rise of the electronic music scene in China has not been without hurdles, and more challenges are lying ahead.

One of these hurdles lies in the fact that China can be a bureaucratic maze for those wanting to open a nightclub or organize a festival or concert. Rents are high, licenses expensive and clubs can be subject to police crackdowns.

The Dutch organizers of the international trance music-focused Transmission festival, which took place in Shanghai last week, apparently were relieved and satisfied about their event – which was an administrative nightmare to prepare. After having been through the whole procedure of organizing a festival in China, Rainbow Gao explains, they will now probably be able to organize a festival anywhere in the world.

Transmission Festival Shanghai (image 票虫网).

“If someone wants to open a club for the love of music, the first obstacle they face is very high rent. Then, as a club, you have to arrange many licenses, from the fire department, for security, police approval, approval from the cultural department – and this process is really difficult. Sometimes there can even be corruption – and sometimes the local leader in charge will not give his approval for fear of causing trouble,” Gao says.

Because of the high costs and small commercial appeal, music-focused nightclubs can also find it hard to find finance, unlike their money-focused counterparts.

“Investors won’t invest in those clubs: only passionate people invest money, and they do so from their own pocket,” states Rainbow, who never got her own initial investment back after founding The Mansion.

Another pressing challenge has to do with the Chinese general public’s lack of awareness or understanding of dance music’s cultural and commercial potential.

One example is that Chinese parents will rarely regard the jobs of ‘DJ’ or ‘producer’ as ‘real’ jobs, and will thus not always support their children in their artistic ventures. It is an issue not specific to electronic dance; many children growing up in Chinese families will be told that “if you want to be homeless, go get an art degree.”

Local governments can also be short-sighted, Rainbow complains: “The thing in China is there is not only the economic problem, i.e. people thinking about money over culture, but the problem is also the government. For example, I have been asking local governments to support ideas like the YinYang festival on the Great Wall, or the China Pavilion all over the world for years, but when I talk about it with them, they say they can only put money in ancient Chinese culture. But I think that it won’t really have an audience, while we already have one.”

 

WHY SOCIAL MEDIA IS KEY

The use of social media is crucial to developing the scene.”

 

Electronic music is alive and kicking on the internet in Europe and North America, where there are thriving online music-sharing platforms such as Soundcloud or Mixcloud, websites for buying music like Beatport or Juno, and, of course, a multitude of other social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat for DJs and clubs to promote their brands.

China also has domestic equivalents to these online platforms. But, according to online music magazine Factmag, it is key for the Chinese dance music scene to use its local social media more effectively in order to develop a unified presence online, in the same way that Western countries have.

At time of writing, the most popular music sharing websites in China are Xiami 虾米, an online music service providing recommendations and downloads services and belonging to the Alibaba group, and Douban 豆瓣, an independent social-networking platform focusing on the sharing of cinema, literature and music.

Xiami is, by far, the more used resource of the two; DJs such as Mickey Zhang have tens of thousands of listeners on Xiami, but only several thousands on Douban.

DJ Mickey Zhang (image via thebeijinger.com)

Xiami Music has a large music library with more than 3 million tracks, 330 kinds of music styles, tens of thousands of music radios, and over 500 thousand hits packages created entirely by users and self-developed algorithms, which can recommend good music to users. It also boasts a much broader user-base, unlike Douban, which fosters smaller, niche communities.

According to Chinese social media marketing company Chozan, most of the 60 million registered Douban users come from a well-educated, urban, middle-class background.

The platform is more niche-focused than other Chinese social media platforms and fits the needs of Douban users, who use it to view and share specific topics they are interested in; it is an online community based on user-generated content, predominantly focused on books, movies, and other (popular) culture related topics.

Of course, virtually all Chinese DJs and nightclubs also have Weibo accounts, where they often gather more followers than on Douban. But the problem with Weibo is that the range of topics covered is overwhelmingly broad – it can then be very hard to create communities centered around a specific genre of music. “On Weibo, people talk too much about everything, so it can be a little bit of a waste of time..”, Rainbow says.

Most music discussion groups (some of which we will list below) on Weibo do not focus on techno, house, or trance but rather on ‘underground’ music in general, or on all kinds of electronic dance music put together.

This is why, according to Rainbow, the online potential of dance music lies more with the development of Xiami and Douban: “I think that there is a great potential with new technologies for the spread of culture and music. For example, when I use Xiami today, I am so happy to see many young people writing and uploading music.”

Photo posted by Arkham on Weibo.

In this way, social media could provide the infrastructure necessary for the development of a thriving China-based electronic-music scene. Fostering creative online communities and online sharing can give opportunities to new generations of artists to get together, organize events, and share music and knowledge.

Social media could also help in increasing the general public’s awareness of different genres of music. According to Rainbow, the problem is not that Chinese people do not like dance music, but rather that many have never been exposed to it.

“The thing is – I have also seen a lot of poor countryside people who listen to music, but not electronic music, simply because they don’t know it yet. When we did the YinYang festival on the Great Wall, the first year (out of five) we had some promotional CDs and t-shirts which we gave to villagers who live there. The second year, they came to us asking for more CDs because they all loved it. Within a year, it [electronic music] became extremely popular among them. It’s just that they were not aware.”

Despite its relatively late beginnings, and the series of obstacles it faces, the electronic dance music scene in China has enormous cultural and commercial potential. And perhaps, social media could be the key to unlock it.

“People don’t really have a way to reach out. The use of social media is crucial to developing the scene,” Rainbow Gao concludes.

By Luka de Boni

 

EXTRA: WHO TO FOLLOW IN THE SCENE

 

What’s on Weibo has compiled a list of DJs, Nightclubs, labels and discussion groups to follow on Chinese social media. Not all artists/nightclubs/labels have pages on all platforms. Because Douban and Xiami don’t function on a follower-followee basis, but rather by the number of page visits or music streamings, the number of followers on these platforms have not been listed:

DJs to follow:

Mickey Zhang: Weibo – 2,800 followers. Xiami. Douban.

Weng Weng: Weibo – 4,800 followers. Douban.

Diva Li: Weibo – 13,000 followers. Xiami.

Yang Bing: Xiami.

 

Nightclubs to follow:

Arkham, Shanghai: Weibo – 19,000 followers. Douban.

Mansion, Shanghai: Weibo – 2,000 followers. Xiami.

Lantern, Beijing: Weibo – 9,000 followers. Douban.

TAG, Chengdu: Weibo – 6,600 followers. Douban.

 

Labels to follow:

Genome6.66MBP: Weibo – 2,000 followers. Xiami.

Asian Dope boys: Weibo – 5,400 followers.

 

Discussion groups/pages to follow:

Shanghai Nightclub Guide (上海夜店蹦迪指南): Weibo – 23,600 followers.

No Solution Music Network (无解音乐网): Weibo – 37,000 followers.

Mixmag China: Weibo – 12,000 followers.

Native Instruments China: Weibo – 10,000 followers.

Electronic music live performance equipment application and discussion (电子音乐现场演出设备应用及讨论): Douban – 4000 members.

National electric music musicians contact (全国电子音乐人联系): Douban – 3000 members.

 

Enjoyed this article? You might also enjoy our interview on The Early Days of Rock in China.

By Luka de Boni

1 In this article, electronic dance music refers to the styles of music that emerged in the 80s in Detroit and in Chicago, such as techno or house. The main components of these genres are 4/4 beats, with the repetitive rhythm of the music more important than the song itself. Note that electronic dance music should not be confused with EDM, which is its own musical genre. EDM is a term given by American journalists in 2010 to commercial electronic music in order to boost the genre’s commercial appeal. EDM music is more melodic, non-repetitive and focuses on the ‘drop’, a fast, noisy accumulation of cymbals and hi-hats to give the song a feeling of climax. EDM DJs are world famous – Martin Garrix, Aviici or David Guetta are well-known representatives. Electronic dance music DJs on the other hand are famous only within their community – names such as Maceo Plex, Pan-pot ir Richie Hawtin will probably not ring a bell.

2A DJ, model and entrepreneur, Rainbow Gao (高天虹) has been engaged in entrepreneurial ventures since the early 1990s. After a modeling career that spanned through the 1980s, she opened one of China’s first KTV rooms in 1992, hosted a podcast radio-show in Tianjin, and founded her first establishment ‘Sun Garden Bar’ in Beijing in 1995. Around this time, she became acquainted with electronic dance music while partying in Beijing. During the 2000s, she founded and managed a modelling agency. Since 2010, Rainbow has been heavily invested in the musical and cultural scenes, mostly through The Mansion, a nightclub and event-place which she owns and manages. The concept of The Mansion is simple: work, and you can sleep and eat there for free. Rainbow Gao explains: “Mansion as a club venue is creative in many ways . It’s not just about the music, it’s also about the community, the freedom, and not about the money … There is a free DJ school, and even a free bar-tending school.”

3The typical Berlin techno/house nightclub is set in a basement, or ‘bunker’. The concrete walls improve the sound-quality inside, and reduce the noise heard outside.

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.

Luka de Boni is an MA student in Chinese Studies at the University of Duisburg-Essen with a degree in (Chinese&Indian) History from the University of SOAS. De Boni has a strong interest in Chinese political culture and the role of Confucianism in modern-day China.

Continue Reading
2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Denis Doeland

    August 28, 2018 at 4:48 pm

    Great read! The music industry has been fundamentally transformed by the digital revolution. The production, distribution, marketing, promotion and consumption of music, and electronic dance music (EDM) in particular, have been digitized. Music professionals and festival organizers face new challenges and are able exploit new opportunities. Especially in China. Herewith some of the learnings I experienced with the dj’s and festivals I assist https://www.edmandthedigitalworld.com/2015/09/22/why-djs-and-festivals-should-change/

    • Avatar

      Frankie

      October 6, 2018 at 4:27 pm

      I completely disagree, China has no music scene at all. They have no taste in music at all. They let recordings play or only EDM. The people never dance. They hire girls to stand around in the clubs so that men come and spend money. It`s all fake. Foreign Dj`s need to play what the owners want. It`s a total drag. When a tune plays that has lyrics in the people sit down as they don`t understand anything else besides doef doef doef. No house,tech house, minimal,techno or trance. Complete waste of time and above all else all the alcohol is fake.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Backgrounder

Explainer: Ten Key Terms and Concepts of the 20th CPC National Congress

Take a look at the essential keywords and concepts surrounding the 20th Party Congress.

Manya Koetse

Published

on

What are the key terms and concepts mentioned in Xi Jinping’s speech that are propagated all over Chinese social media this week? Here, we explain ten important concepts and keywords that you are probably going to see much more of in the coming five years.

It is the week of the 20th CPC National Congress, China’s quinquennial major political event that is all about discussing and deciding on important Party issues, appointing Party leadership and officially announcing new governance concepts, thoughts and strategies proposed by the CPC Central Committee.

The Party Congress opened on Sunday, October 16, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivered his nearly two-hour-long speech reflecting on the recent past and the future of the Communist Party and the country at large, signalling the direction China will be heading.

In our earlier article covering Xi Jinping’s speech, we focused on how Chinese official channels turned parts of the work report into hashtags that were promoted on social media and then became trending topics.

Here, we will go over some of the terms and words that were used in the political report delivered by Xi and were propagated on Chinese social media as ‘key terms’ through general hashtags such as “Understanding These Key Terms from the 20th Party Congress Report,” “Studying the Essence of the 20th Party Congress” or “The New Era and Journey of the 20th Party Congress” (#看懂二十大报告中这些关键词#, #学习二十大精神#, #党的二十大新时代新征程#).

During the 19th CPC National Congress in 2017, Party newspaper People’s Daily published a vocabulary list containing 100 relevant words and terms. That list included terms such as “5G Era” (5G时代), “Sharing Economy” (分享经济), “The 20th anniversary of Hong-Kong’s return to China” (香港回归祖国20周年), “Made in China 2025” (中国制造2025), and other key terms that were deemed relevant in 2017 for China’s nearing future.

This Congress, there has not been a comparable official vocabulary list, but there have been various shorter lists and hashtags encouraging netizens to study key terms that are important to this year’s Congress and the Party goals. Many of these terms are visualized in infographics or explained in online posts and articles.

We’ve gathered some of these key terms from Xi’s speech here that are important to understand, not just for the fact that they are mentioned in Xi’s speech but also because they are specifically highlighted by various official channels.

 

1. Modernizing the Chinese Way 中国式现代化

This concept was mentioned at least five times throughout Xi Jinping’s address and it is one of most important themes of this Party Congress: “Chinese modernization” or “Chinese-style modernization” (中国式现代化 Zhōngguóshì xiàndàihuà).

While the 19th Party Congress was all about China’s ‘new era’ (新时代), this 20th Party Congress term grasps the idea of further modernizing the country in a ‘Chinese way,’ meaning a type of modernization in which typically Chinese features and characteristics (“中国特色”) are maintained.

This is a relatively new term. A tool that shows searches on the Chinese search engine Baidu indicates that it did not receive any significant amount of searches before spiking during the week 20th Party Congress.

Baidu trend search shows that the term “Chinese-style modernizarion” “中国式现代化” did not receive any significant searches before October 2022.

The concept, however, did pop up in Chinese official media discourse since late 2021, such as in one article published by Xinhua News on September 27 in 2021 titled “Grasping the Main Features of the New Path of Chinese-Style Modernization” (把握中国式现代化新道路的主要特征)

The idea of Chinese-style modernization is closely related to other key concepts such as “common prosperity for all” (全体人民共同富裕 quántǐ rénmín gòngtóng fùyù) and “harmony between humanity and nature” (人与自然和谐共生 rén yǔ zìrán héxié gòngshēng).

 

2. The Central Mission 中心任务

The term “central mission” (中心任务 zhōngxīn rènwù) was mentioned at least once in Xi Jinping’s address to convey how the central task of the CPC is to “unite and lead the people of all nationalities to build a strong socialist modern country,” and to “promote the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation with Chinese-style modernization.”

Although the term “central mission” itself is not particularly tied to the 20th Party Congress at all, it is now because of how it is being used in the new context of the Party’s ‘main goal’ in China’s ‘new era.’ People’s Daily also promoted a hashtag including this term: “The Communist Party of China’s Central Task from Now On” (#从现在起中国共产党的中心任务#”).

 

3. Top Priority 第一要务

The key term ‘top priority’ (第一要务 dì yī yàowù) refers to the Party pursuing the kind of “high-quality development” (“高质量发展”) that will lead to the further modernization of the country.

“High-quality development” was also mentioned in the 19th Party Congress report in 2017 to indicate a shift and a new phase in China’s economic development from a focus on high-speed growth to a focus on more high-quality development, which is also outlined in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025).

This means, among others, that there will be more focus on innovation-driven industries and technological advancement.

 

4. The “Two-Steps” Strategy “两步走”战略安排

In the segment of Xi’s speech where he addresses China-style modernization in the new era, he also mentions the “two steps” strategy (“两步走”战略安排 “liǎng bù zǒu” zhànlüè ānpái). This is not a new term and it has been previously introduced as part of China’s journey to becoming a strong, rejuvenated country – making China great again.

The two steps of this strategy are to realize ‘socialist modernization’ by 2035 and then to enter the next phase from 2035-2050 to build China into a “strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious and beautiful socialist modernization country.” The year 2049 will mark the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, and this is the moment when China’s “great rejuvenation” should be completed.

 

5. The Road to Follow 必由之路

At the end of Xi Jinping’s speech, he mentioned “the road to follow” (必由之路, bìyóuzhīlù) five times. On social media, the “road to follow” has been reiterated multiple times as well by official channels, including in a propaganda video published by CCTV.

The five ‘roads to follow’ mentioned in the Party Congress and in the state media videos are the following that are together presented as “the only road” the country and the Party must take. They are all linked together and are actually somewhat circular, namely:

– to develop socialism with Chinese characteristics, they must adhere to the overall leadership of the Party
– to achieve the “great rejuvenation” of China they must stick to socialism with Chinese characterics
– to reach this historic undertaking, they must be united in struggle
– to allow China to grow and develop in the ‘new era,’ they must implement the new concepts for development
– to be able to take this new road together & keep the Party full of vitality, they must follow the way of comprehensive and strict Party governance

 

6. Building Beautiful China 建设美丽中国

In the 20th CPC National Congress report, the idea of “building beautiful China” (建设美丽中国, jiànshè měilì Zhōngguó) was mentioned in the segment dedicated to the “green development” of China as part of its overall modernization. This includes environmental protection, pollution control, carbon reduction, and climate change awareness.

‘Beautiful China’ as a concept was first introduced during the 18th Party Congress in November of 2012 as part of China’s long-term environmental protection plan within the context of people’s welfare and the future of China.

 

7. Whole-process People’s Democracy 全过程人民民主

This concept of ‘whole-process people’s democracy’ (全过程人民民主, quán guòchéng rénmín mínzhǔ) is mentioned at least five times in Xi Jinping’s 20th Party Congress speech and it is one of the political concepts and terms proposed by Xi himself as part of Xi Jinping’s Socialist Thought with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. It was mentioned in the speech Xi gave during the celebration of the Party’s 100-year anniversary in 2021.

This so-called ‘whole-process people’s democracy’ is officially presented as a ‘process-oriented’ democracy that, despite being different from Western democracy, supposedly “covers all aspects of the democratic process and all sectors of society” through a combination of elections, consultations, decision-making, management and oversight.

This idea of China having its own particular kind of democracy – or perhaps having invented a Chinese version of what ‘democracy’ actually means – also suits the idea of Chinese-style modernization, in which China’s path to the future will not be like the route Western countries are taking, but instead combining modernization with Chinese features.

 

8. Socialist Culture 社会主义文化

‘Socialist Culture’ (社会主义文化, shèhuì zhǔyì wénhuà) comes up at least four times in the 20th Party Congress report. The term represents a cultural side of China’s modernization, and emphasizes that, in order to build a strong socialist country, there must also be a strong socialist culture.

Although not explicitly stated, official media propaganda inescapably plays an important part in the cultivation of a strong ‘socialist culture’ that is all about cultural self-confidence, cultural innovation, creativity, and ‘spiritual energy.’

At time of writing, the Baidu Trends tool did not have enough information to show any relevant data on the search engine interest in this particular term, but the idea of ‘socialist culture’ is by no means a new one. “Socialist culture with Chinese characteristics” was already proposed by Jiang Zemin (江泽民) at the 15th CPC National Congress in 1997.

The idea that building a strong socialist culture is important for the further development of China has been further cultivated over the past few years under Xi’s leadership. Also read this article in English titled “How to build a strong socialist culture” in Qiushi, the CPC Central Committee bimonthly.

 

9. Improve the Distribution System 完善分配制度

This phrase comes up once in the part of the 20th Party System report that disusses a fairer economic system with more equal employment & income opportunities and regulated wealth accumulation, encouraging hard work to get rich.

Although it is the first time that a regulation of wealth accumulation has come up in this way (and it is not explained what this actually means), the idea behind these concepts of the distribution system and wealth accumulation standardization is that of ‘common prosperity,’ one of the most important concepts guiding China’s recent policymaking.

‘Improve the distribution system’ (完善分配制度, wánshàn fēnpèi zhìdù) was explicilty mentioned as one of the key concepts for this week’s meeting by various channels, but it mainly is ‘the regulation of wealth accumulation’ that is featured in social media hashtags (#中国将规范财富积累机制#).

 

10. Focus 着力点

Many of the words or phrases propagated as ‘key terms’ for this 20th Party Congress are insignificant by themselves but are merely used to represent a bigger body of thoughts. The aforementioned “Top Priority,” “Central Mission,” and “Road to Follow” are all just words that only mean something within the context of Xi Jinping’s speech.

Another example is “Major Principles” (“重大原则” zhòngdà yuánzé) which is also included by CCTV in this list of most important keywords, but which actually just goes back to the same ideas that are referred to in the other terms, namely strengthing the overall leadership of the Party, adhering to the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics, emphasizing people-centered ideology, etc. – which is similar to the idea behind the “Road to Follow” (必由之路) keyword.

Explanation of ‘Major Principle’ concept in English and Chinese by People’s Daily, posted on Weibo.

Then there is the keyword “focus,” 着力点 (zhuólìdiǎn), which is about the focus of China’s economic development.

In China’s coming years, the economic focus should be placed on the real economy (实体经济). This literally is also a hashtag promoted on Weibo by CCTV this week (“Put the Focus of Economic Development on the Real Economy” #把发展经济的着力点放在实体经济上#).

Different from the Financial Economy, the Real Economy is the realm of economy that is about businesses, production, and the direct exchange/purchase of goods or services.

Also part of this ‘focus’ is China’s new industrialization, manufacturing, product quality, aerospace, transportation, new technology, and digital China. Another related term that is proposed as one of the keywords of this Party Congress is ‘innovation’ (创新, chuàngxīn).

Please check in with us again this week as we will keep an eye on social media trends surrounding the CPC National Congress. Don’t forget to subscribe. For previous posts on the Party Congress, check 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:

Images via Weibo account of Communist Youth League, CCTV, and People’s Daily.

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.

Continue Reading

Backgrounder

“Guarding the Green Horse” – How China’s Health Code System Provided Solutions and Generated Problems

The Health Code system and the ‘Green Horse’ meme have become part of everyday life in a zero-Covid China.

Manya Koetse

Published

on

Since 2020, China’s Health Code apps have become utterly ingrained in everyday life as a pivotal tool in the country’s ongoing fight against Covid-19. What is the health code system, what are its implications, and why have so many Chinese netizens become obsessed with holding on to their ‘green horse’?

 

This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, forthcoming publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yì Magazin here.

 

There is the Grass Mud Horse,1 the River Crab,2 and now another mythical animal is living in China’s social media jungle: the Green Horse. The Green Horse is a cute bright green horse-like animal, a treasured creature that will protect you during your travels and keep you safe from quarantines and lockdowns at a time of China’s zero-Covid policy. The Green Horse will watch over you, but in return, you have to do everything you can to defend it.

‘Green Horse’ in Chinese is 绿马 lǜmǎ, which sounds exactly the same as the word for ‘green code’ (绿码), referring to the green QR code in China’s Covid health apps, which have become a part of everyday life in China since 2020. In a social media environment where homophones and online puns are popular and ubiquitous, it did not take long for the ‘green code’ to turn into the ‘green horse.’

The Green Horse, image via Weibo.

China’s health code system was designed as a solution to resume work and daily life during the pandemic and is widely praised in the country as a pivotal tool in combating the spread of the virus. But it has also given rise to new problems and has triggered resistance against a new kind of digital governance.

 

A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO CHINA’S HEALTH CODE SYSTEM

 

In February of 2020, when China was in the midst of the fierce battle against the novel coronavirus, the country’s tech giants competed over who would be the first and the most efficient in providing digital solutions to aid the anti-epidemic fight.

Within eight weeks after the start of the initial Wuhan Covid outbreak, Alibaba (on Alipay) and Tencent (on WeChat) developed and introduced the ‘Health Code’ (jiànkāngmǎ 健康码), a system that gives individuals colored QR codes based on their exposure risk to Covid-19 and serves as an electronic ticket to enter and exit public spaces, restaurants, offices buildings, etc., and to travel from one area to another.

Scanning a green code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

Hangzhou, Alibaba’s hometown, and Shenzhen, Tencent’s home base, were the first cities in China to introduce the Health Code in early February of 2020, and other cities soon followed in collaboration with either Tencent or Alipay. By late February, a nationwide health code system was first embedded in WeChat (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Now, people can receive their Covid-19 QR codes via ‘mini programs’ in Alipay or WeChat, or via other provincial government service apps. Apart from the personal health code apps, there is also the ‘Telecommunications Big Data Travel Card’ (通信大数据行程卡), better known as the ‘green arrow code,’ which tracks users’ travel history and is also available inside WeChat or can be downloaded as a standalone app. Its goal is to track if you’ve been to any medium or high-risk areas over the past 14 days.

The Green Arrow Code is used to track people’s travel history of past 14 days (Image via 人民视觉).

The health code system is not as centralized as you might expect it to be. Instead, it is fragmented and sometimes complicated. There are basically two kinds of Health Codes in China. One is the ‘Health Information Code’ (防疫健康信息码) provided by China’s national government service platform (link) which can also be used by those without mainland ID cards (including people from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan).

The other kind of Health Code, which is the one that is most used across China, is the local version of the health code system provided by each province/municipality. There are at least 31 different regional health code applications, from Beijing’s ‘Health Kit’ (北京健康宝) to Shanghai’s ‘Suishenma’ (随申码), from Jiangsu’s ‘Sukang Code’ (苏康码) to Anhui’s ‘Ankang Code’ (安康码). There are sometimes also separate health code apps being used within one province (e.g. in Shenzhen both the local Shen-i-nin 深i您 app as well as the Yuekang Code 粤康码 are being used).

These local Covid health apps are developed by different provinces and cities, and they are not always compatible with each other. This means that those traveling to different provinces or municipalities need to go through the inconvenient process of applying for different local health code apps depending on where they go. Although one single centralized system has been proposed ever since 2020, the process to unify the system is not easy since the various apps have varying functions and are managed by different local government departments (JKSB 2022; Lai 2022). In early September of 2022, China’s National Health Commission announced that it was working with relevant departments to improve the interoperability and mutual recognition of health apps across the country.

Do you get a Green, Yellow, or Red QR code? That all depends on personal information, self-reported health status, Covid-19 test results, travel history, and more – the health code system operates by accessing numerous databases. The Green color means you’re safe (low-risk) and have free movement, the Yellow code (mid-risk) requires self-isolation and the Red color code is the most feared one: it means you either tested positive or are at high risk of infection. With a red code, you won’t have access to any public places and will have to go into mandatory quarantine. Once the quarantine is finished and you’ve consecutively tested negative, the code will switch back to green again.

Three color codes in the Health Code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

By the end of 2020, around 900 million Chinese citizens were using Health Code apps and although there are no official records of the latest numbers, virtually anyone visiting or traveling anywhere within China will now use the health code system. Besides keeping records of your latest nucleic acid test results, the Health Code app also includes Covid vaccination records since 2021.

 

LEAVING THE ELDERLY BEHIND

 

Despite the efficiency of China’s health code system, it has not been without controversy. One major issue is that it basically forces Chinese citizens to have a smartphone and to download and properly use these apps. This creates a problem for younger children, those without access to smartphones, or those with lower levels of digital skills, including senior citizens.

Although the use of smartphones, the internet, and QR codes are widespread in China, where mobile payments are far more common than cash, more than 60% of Chinese aged 60 years and over still did not use the internet in June of 2020. In China’s ‘Zero-Covid’ era, it is becoming almost impossible for China’s digital illiterate to live a ‘normal’ life.

Chinese authorities have attempted to simplify things for Chinese seniors by making platforms more user-friendly and introducing alternative ways to enter venues, such as offline codes. But at a time when systems differ per region and some venues do not have the tools to check offline (paper) codes, many elderly still struggle (see Gu & Fan 2022).

“They did nucleic acid testing in my grandma’s community compound today,” one woman from Shanxi writes on Weibo: “There are many elderly people in my grandma’s area, and I saw that so many of them had no smartphones, just senior mobile phones, but now they have to swipe a code to make an appointment for testing. One grandpa asked a staff member what to do without a smartphone, they just said it would be better to bring your son or daughter to do it for you. But all results also are processed digitally, so there’s no way for them to see it, and it’s really not easy for them to go to public places.”

On Chinese social media, there are many stories showing the difficult situations that some senior residents are caught up in because they do not have a smartphone or do not know how to get a Health Code.

In August of 2022, there was one viral story about an elderly man from Shandong walking ten kilometers every day because he could not take the bus without a health app. There was also another story about a visually impaired Hengyang resident who was unable to set up the code and was barred from using public transport. In May, a 70-year-old man got stuck inside the Wuxi train station for three days because he had no smartphone and had to scan a code in order to leave.

In another video that went viral, an old man got on a bus in Shanghai but had a hard time using his mobile phone to do the ‘venue check-in’ (场所码). When the bus driver got impatient, the man eventually got off the bus, saying he felt bad about delaying the other passengers.

“Heartlessness is scarier than the epidemic,” some Weibo commenters wrote in response.

 

RED CODE: CONTROVERSIAL DIGITAL GOVERNANCE

 

Another problem that concerns netizens in this Health Code era is that the code could pose an infringement of privacy and could be abused to limit citizens’ freedom of movement for reasons that are unrelated to Covid-19. There are still unclarities surrounding the app, such as what kind of information is exactly being collected, who is authorized to access the data, and how the data is processed and stored (Zhang 2022, 2).

Some people complain on social media that they do not understand why their Health Code is changing colors: “After I did a Covid test the other day, my Health Code was green. The day after, I woke up to a yellow code and after I had done my nucleic acid test again, it was still yellow. On the third day, it turned green. In the afternoon it turned yellow again. On day four, it was green again. Besides doing tests, I’ve been at home all this time. I’m stupefied.”

One incident where people who came to the city of Zhengzhou to protest suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red sparked major outrage on Chinese social media in June.

Earlier this year, thousands of Chinese depositors struggled to recover their savings in light of a major banking scandal in Henan Province. When dozens of affected depositors traveled to the provincial capital of Zhengzhou in June of 2022 to demand their money back, they suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red. The red code was unexpected and strange, considering that there were no new reported Covid cases in their vicinity. Accompanying family members who made the exact same journey reportedly did not see their Health Codes change, raising suspicions that the duped depositors were specifically targeted and that their Health Codes were being manipulated.

“Who is in charge of changing the Health Code colors?” became a much-asked question on social media platform Weibo, with many blaming local Henan authorities for abusing their power and trying to stop rural protesters from raising their voices in Zhengzhou. Although Henan authorities claimed they did “not understand” what had happened, five local officials were later punished for their involvement in assigning red codes to bank depositors without authorization (Wu 2022).

The incident sparked more discussions on the legal and privacy risks surrounding the health code system. Although many people in China support the use of Health Code apps (also see Chen et al), there is also a fear that a lack of transparency and management could allow the health code system to turn into a surveillance tool used by the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

The influential media commentator Hu Xijin also gave his view on the matter, saying that Health Codes across the country should only be used for “pure epidemic prevention purposes.”

“The fact that Henan can make the health codes turn red of people who come to the city to protest says a lot about the power of the IT,” one Weibo tech blogger wrote. Another Weibo user wrote: “As ordinary people, we have voluntarily given up too much of our personal privacy and rights in order to cooperate with the epidemic prevention. The current abuse and misuse of health codes have caused serious infringement on the legal rights of citizens (..) The state should quickly incorporate health codes into a unified system and place it under strict management, and once the epidemic is over, the health code system should stop running immediately.”

 

A GREEN HORSE FUTURE?

 

But will the Health Code and the ‘Green Horse’ ever disappear from daily life in China? And if so, how would the collected data be handled? Although the pandemic era is not over yet (and the question remains what would qualify as ‘the end’), local Chinese governments and tech firms are already looking to see how the health code system could be implemented and how its uses could be expanded in a post-pandemic future (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Back in 2020, the China Healthcare platform (健康界) already published an article exploring the post-pandemic use of the health code system as a digital health passport and information system that could continue to play a significant role in medical care, social security, public transportation, and tourism.

On social media, some people worry that the health code system – and everything that comes with it – is here to stay indefinitely. One Henan-based blogger wrote: “In the future, I hope my son will visit my grave and tell me, ‘dad, now we no longer need our Health Code, nucleic tests or masks when we go to the malls and take trains or airplanes.'”

“If I would wake up tomorrow in a world without health codes, travel codes, Covid tests, lockdowns, wouldn’t that be great,” another person wrote on Weibo, another netizen adding: “My health code is normal. My nucleic acid test is normal. It’s just my mental state that has become abnormal.”

The fears of receiving a ‘Red Code’ are also palpable. Earlier in summer, videos showed people in Shanghai fleeing out of a local mall once they heard that someone in the building had received notice of an abnormal test result.  The same happened at a local IKEA store. Afraid of Health Codes turning red and getting locked in, people rushed to get out as soon as possible. Some even compared the scenes to a ‘zombie apocalypse.’

People fleeing from a local IKEA store after someone in the building got an abnormal test result.

Although there are serious concerns regarding the health code system, social media users also make light of it through the ‘Green Horse’ meme. The phrase “Bàozhù lǜmǎ” (抱住绿码/马) is often used on Chinese social media, a wordplay meant to mean both “Keep your code green” as well as “Hold on to your Green Horse.”

Selection of ‘Holding on to the Green Horse’ memes.

Following the trend, Wuhan set up a giant green horse at a public square in the city, which soon became a popular place for people to take selfies. The meme is also a profitable one for businesses. On Chinese e-commerce sites, you’ll find there are ‘Green Horse’ keychains, stickers, toys, mooncakes, and coffee mugs.

Green Horse merchandise on Taobao.

As cases of Covid surged again in Chengdu, Shenzhen, and elsewhere in late August and September, worries over ‘keeping the green code’ grew again among those living in affected regions. One local Weibo blogger wrote: “I just couldn’t sleep the past few days, I kept checking my green code and latest Covid test results. It makes me anxious.”

“I feel safest at home,” others write: “This is where I can guard my Green Horse.”

“I hope this epidemic will go away soon,” one netizen wrote: “I hope we can all have our Green Horse and just keep it.”

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

 

1 Grass Mud Horse or Cǎonímǎ (草泥馬) is one of China’s social media ‘mythical creatures’ and an online meme. It is a word play on the vulgar Mandarin term càonǐmā (肏你媽), which literally means “f*** your m*m.”

2 River Crab is another ‘mythical creature’: Héxiè (河蟹) is literally ‘river crab’ but sounds the same as héxié (和谐),”to harmonize,” referring to online censorship.

 

References (other sources linked to inside the text)

Chen, Wenhong. Gejun Hang, and An Hu. 2022. “Red, Yellow, Green, or Golden: The Post-Pandemic Future of China’s Health Code Apps.” Information, Communication & Society 25 (5): 618-633.

China Healthcare 健康界. 2020. “国家卫健委推行”一码通”健康码未来不止于”通行.”” CN Healthcare, 21 December https://www.cn-healthcare.com/article/20201221/content-547951.html [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Gu, Peng and Yiying Fan. 2022. “In ‘Zero-COVID’ China, the Elderly Are Becoming Ever More Marginalized.” Sixth Tone, 9 Aug https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010908/in-zero-covid-china-the-elderly-are-becoming-ever-more-marginalized [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

JKSB 健康时报网 [Health Times]. 2022. “国家健康码和地方健康码区别何在?专家:国家平台更接近理想状态.” JKSB, August 27 http://www.jksb.com.cn/html/redian/2022/0827/177853.html [Accessed 1 Sep, 2022].

Lai, Xianjin. 2022. “Unified Health Code Can Bring More Convenience, Efficiency.” China Daily, April 6 https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202204/06/WS624ccc73a310fd2b29e55269.html [Accessed 31 August].

Liang, Fan. 2020. “COVID-19 and Health code: How Digital Platforms Tackle the Pandemic in China.” Social Media + Society (Jul-Sep): 1-4.

Wu, Peiyue. 2022. “Zhengzhou Officials Punished Over Red Health Code Saga.” Sixth Tone, 23 June https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010627/zhengzhou-officials-punished-over-red-health-code-saga- [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Zhang, Xiaohan. 2022. “Decoding China’s COVID-19 Health Code Apps: The Legal Challenges.” Healthcare 10 (1479): 1-14.

 

Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

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

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Facebook

Contribute

Got any tips? Or want to become a contributor or intern at What's on Weibo? Email us as at info@whatsonweibo.com.
Advertisement

Become a member

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.    

Support What’s on Weibo

What's on Weibo is 100% independent. Will you support us? Your support means we can remain independent and keep reporting on the latest China trends. Every contribution, however big or small, powers our website. Support us from as little as $1 here.

Popular Reads