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The Trending Controversy Behind an Extraordinary Mount Everest Rescue

Chinese social media played a significant role in shaping the outcome of this incredible Mount Everest story.




The extraordinary nighttime rescue of a female Chinese mountain climber at the treacherous altitude of 8000 meters on Mount Everest was already a notable news story in its own right. However, when it was revealed that the woman declined to assume the full US$10,000 rescue fee, the story quickly spread across Chinese social media platforms, sparking fervent discussions on courage and (in)gratitude.

Recently, the news of two Chinese mountain climbers giving up on their dream to reach the summit of Mount Everest in order to rescue a female climber in distress has garnered widespread attention.

What initially seemed like a heartwarming tale of heroism quickly sparked intense debate when the 50-year-old Chinese woman refused to fully compensate her rescuers.

This incident has ignited discussions among netizens, covering financial concerns, moral responsibilities, and the notion that no good deed goes unpunished.

Sacrificing a Costly Dream

On May 18th in Nepal, at an altitude of 7,950 meters, four members of the Hunan Mountaineering Team (湖南登山队) embarked on their journey from the C4 camp on the southern slope of Mount Everest with the goal of reaching the summit.

At approximately 20:30, team leader Fan Jiangtao (范江涛) spotted a Chinese female climber huddled on the roadside at an altitude of 8,450 meters. The woman’s clothes were severely torn, one hand was exposed and blackened, and her face was coated with a thin layer of ice.

The woman seemingly undertook her climb without the aid of a Sherpa, who are typically experienced mountain guides and partners of climbers, belonging to the Nepalese ethnic group. They provide guidance and support to climbers during their ascent to different camps and, ultimately, the summit.

At an altitude of 8,000 meters on Mount Everest lies the treacherous “death zone,” where rescuing others can endanger the lives of the rescuers.

Despite initially intending to proceed with their ascent, Fan made the courageous decision to rescue the woman anyway. Along the way, he encountered another team member, Xie Ruxiang (谢如祥).

Luckily, Xie’s Sherpa guide was strong, and in order to convince the guide, Xie promised a reward of $10,000 if the Sherpa could safely bring the survivor back to the camp. Through the collective efforts of multiple individuals, including the determined Sherpa, they successfully brought Ms. Liu, who was in grave danger, back to the C4 camp.

A photo of the mountain climbers rescuing Ms. Liu, source: Beijing Evening News.

Consequently, the two rescuers had to relinquish their long-held dream to reach the summit of the Mount Everest during this significant year, which marks the 70th anniversary of the first human ascent. Not only was reaching the summit at this particular time of great importance to the mountain climbers, they also spent approximately 400,000 yuan (around US$57,000) in preparation and training fees.

Mountain of Wealth?

As the Mount Everest rescue story gained attention on Chinese social media after Hunan media outlets reported it, news emerged on June 3rd that the rescued woman allegedly intended to contribute only part of the rescue fee owed to the Sherpa who had aided in her rescue.

This information was later confirmed by one of the rescuers, Fan Jiangtao. Fan revealed that the woman had given a tip of merely $1,500 to the Sherpas, while other members of the team gave $1,800. Additionally, she expressed willingness to pay only $4,000 of the total $10,000 rescue fee.

“This angered me, and I informed her that if she maintained this attitude, I did not want any of that money, and she need not give it to me,” stated Fan. Consequently, Fan and the other rescuer, Xie, ended up paying the $10,000 fee themselves.

Fan Jiangtao (left) and Xie Ruxiang (right) after rescuing Liu, source: Beijing Evening News

As the hashtag “Woman Rescued on Everest Does not Want to Pay the Full Rescue Fee” (#珠峰被救女子不愿支付全部救援费用#) received over 370 million views on Weibo, the story ignited a fierce online debate.

While some netizens argued against criticizing Ms. Liu without knowing the full context of her personal financial circumstances, many others condemned her, stating that financial constraints should not serve as an excuse for individuals engaging in such mountain climbing endeavors, especially on Mount Everest.

Several Weibo users discussed how climbing Mount Everest would require a minimum budget of at least 500,000 yuan (approximately US$70,000) to cover expenses such as climbing permits, gear, guides, flights, not to mention the necessary training and preparation time.

Considering the widely acknowledged high costs associated with climbing Mount Everest, including rescue fees, many contend that Ms. Liu’s refusal extends beyond a mere financial issue. Additionally, most commenters suggest that Liu should not impose the burden of her rescue expenses on the rescuers.

One Weibo user expressed, “[If I were her], even if it meant going bankrupt, I would still borrow money to cover the training and preparation fees of those two rescuers [due to their failed summit attempt], let alone $10,000!”

The Farmer and the Snake

After the media exposed Ms. Liu’s refusal to pay the full amount, the two rescuers made an appeal to netizens, urging them not to engage in online harassment towards the rescued woman. They emphasized: “Rescuing people is our duty, and whether or not she expresses gratitude is her own choice. These are two completely separate matters.”

However, many argued that their critical remarks about Liu were not to be equated with ‘online harassment,’ asserting that individuals should face consequences for their actions.

Some Chinese social media users also suggested that individuals displaying ingratitude like this are unworthy of being rescued. They drew parallels to the well-known Chinese fable of “the farmer and the snake” (农夫与蛇, nóngfū yǔ shé), where a compassionate farmer saves a freezing snake during a cold winter, only to be bitten and killed by it later on. People argue that no good deed goes unpunished and also use the idiom “it’s hard to be a good person” (好人难做, hǎo rén nán zuò).

The farmer and the snake, image via

Liu was also labeled as a “white-eyed wolf” (白眼狼, bái yǎn láng), a term used to describe someone particularly heartless and cruel. One Weibo user commented, “We should collectively raise money to send her back to the mountain.”

Concerns were also raised that this incident might have implications for future rescues involving climbers in distress, as it could make other climbers more hesitant to come to the aid of those in need.

Various state media outlets, including Nanfang Daily (南方日报) and Hongxing News (红星新闻), urged the woman to take responsibility and acknowledge the heroic actions of the rescuers. By emphasizing the importance of not discouraging selfless acts like this, the story continued to generate online discussions, with netizens actively putting more pressure on the case.

More to the Story

On June 10, there was a somewhat unexpected follow-up to the story. As reported by and other Chinese media outlets, Ms. Liu traveled to Changsha on June 7th to personally meet her rescuers and thank them for what they did for her.

In an in-depth article titled “They Gave up Reaching the Mount Everest Summit to Save Someone: Why Did the Rescued Person ‘Not Thank Them’ and ‘Not Pay Her Rescuers’?” (“他们放弃登顶珠峰救人:被救者为何“不感谢”“不付救援费?”), the Chinese magazine Sanlian Lifeweek (三联生活周刊) shared additional details about the entire incident, addressing some lingering questions.

According to the article, Ms. Liu arrived in Kathmandu on May 6th this year. Just 13 days later, she was found in a perilous situation, struggling for her life during her Mt Everest summit. This short time frame between her arrival and summit is highly unusual, as the usual preparation, climbing, and acclimatization period takes around 40 days.

Ms. Liu had registered with the Chengdu-based Kaitu Mountaineering company (成都凯途高山户外运动有限责任公司) to climb Mount Everest and paid them 400,000 yuan (US$56,110) for the expedition. The woman had allegedly spent all her savings to fulfill her dream of climbing Mount Everest.

As an experienced cross-country runner, the 50-year-old woman was in good physical condition and had undergone prior training for the expedition. Interestingly, she was also part of the same mountaineering team as her rescuers Fan and Xie.

Before commencing her journey, Ms. Liu discussed her climbing plans with the team leader of the company. Despite informing them that she needed to complete the summit and descent within just 20 days because her employer at a state-owned company would not allow a longer abscence, she was assured it was feasible. Normally, an Everest expedition takes about two months.

Although Ms. Liu embarked on the mountain separately from the other team members from Hunan, she had a Sherpa accompanying her. However, due to unfortunate circumstances and miscommunication, she found herself stranded and exhausted at an altitude of approximately 8000 meters, with limited oxygen, before being discovered by Fan Jiangtao at 20:30 on May 18th.

The difficult rescue of Liu took place after dark, image via

Liu’s Sherpa had apparently signalled the need to return to the C4 camp for boiled water, and Liu couldn’t communicate her physical exhaustion and desire for him to stay. She then found that she was unable to detach herself from the rope due to the locking mechanism of the carabiner getting stuck, rendering her immobile.

Fan and later Xie never expected to find their team member on the mountain, assuming she had withdrawn from the expedition long ago upon learning that her job wouldn’t allow her to be away for 40 days. Without Fan and Xie, Liu’s life would have been lost on the mountain.

The Sanlian Lifeweek article doesn’t feature an interview with Liu herself but emphasizes that she is not a wealthy person and works an office job. It also highlights her introverted nature, which might have contributed to the perception of her being ungrateful.

During her visit to Changsha on June 7th, Liu finally had dinner with Fan Jiangtao, Xie Ruxiang, and several other team members to address mixed emotions and misunderstandings after her rescue. Allegedly, she also brought US$10,000 and an additional 20,000 yuan ($2800) to give to Fan and Xie, although they declined the offer.

Meanwhile, the Chengdu-based Kaitu Mountaineering company has now stepped forward and declared their commitment to bearing the financial burden of Liu’s rescue. They acknowledge the role they played, along with their Sherpa, in contributing to Liu’s predicament.

In a statement released on June 10, the company expressed gratitude towards the rescue team and announced that they had reached an agreement with the rescuers, the Sherpa rescue team, and Ms. Liu regarding the coverage of expenses (#珠峰被救女子所雇登山公司发文#).

Despite understanding the complete story, many netizens still express their inability to comprehend why Liu didn’t come forward earlier to cover the entire amount.

Others also think that being an introverted person has nothing to do with not being able to properly express gratitude for someone saving your life.

And then there are also those who are happy with the current outcome and the role played by social media in pressuring the responsible parties to provide financial compensation: “Without the internet, this never would have happened.”

By Zilan Qian and Manya Koetse

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Stories that are authored by the What's on Weibo Team are the stories that multiple authors contributed to. Please check the names at the end of the articles to see who the authors are.

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China Memes & Viral

The Benz Guy from Baoding and the Granny Xu Line-Cutting Controversy

While the public initially supported ‘Grandma Xu’ and criticized the Benz driver from Baoding, the narrative took an unexpected turn.

Manya Koetse



Following the rapid spread of a video capturing a man and woman involved in a road rage incident, Chinese netizens named and shamed them. But when the situation turned out to be different than it seemed, the focus of the story shifted, emphasizing the responsibility of the so-called ‘melon-eating masses’ actively participating in these kind of hyped-up incidents.

A Baoding license plate with the number 冀F8656Z briefly became China’s most talked-about car tag this week following a road rage incident that was captured on camera (see video). The incident involved the passenger of a black Mercedez-Benz, who went viral on Chinese social media for smashing the hood of another car at a ferry terminal in Zhanjiang. The altercation was triggered by a dispute over line-cutting.

The incident occurred on the afternoon of January 29 at Zhanjiang’s Xuwen Port, where vehicles were queuing up in the car and coach ticket lane. When a Mercedes-Benz Vito attempted to cut into the line, a white Chery car – with an older woman in the passenger seat – refused to yield. In response, the alleged Mercedes owner (male) and another passenger (female) angrily exited their vehicle and scolded the white car’s driver and passenger, as well as slamming their hood and seemingly causing damage to the car.

Meanwhile, the black Mercedes, apparently driven by a third individual, proceeded to cut in line and eventually drove off after the passengers got back in.

The 71-year-old lady in the white car who recorded the incident, Ms Xu or Granny Xu (徐老太), just so happened to have a relatively large social media following on a Douyin account run by her daughter (五莲徐八月). When she posted the video of the incident online, her 500,000 followers (now 800,000) came into action to name and shame the couple who insulted and intimidated her. As a result, the license plate, clearly visible in the footage, became a top trending search query.

This phenomenon, wherein netizens unite to research and expose information about individuals involved in controversial incidents, is also known as the “Human Flesh Search Engine” (人肉搜索) in Chinese (read more).

On January 30, the story started gaining massive attention on Chinese social media and online media sites. What mostly angered people was not just the arrogant and aggressive behavior of the Benz passengers, but also the fact that they acted so rude and entitled toward an elderly lady.

It came out that the aggressive man, the 40-year-old Mr. Wang, is a teacher at Hebei Agricultural University, and people started targeting their anger towards the Agricultural University, the city of Baoding, and even Hebei province as a whole.

The couple triggered China’s meme machine and popped up in various funny edited images.

“Do not cut in line” bumper stickers showing the Benz guy from Baoding.

They even appeared on some online merchandise, namely on bumper stickers warning others not to cut in line.

Another Point of View

While the public initially supported ‘Grandma Xu’ and criticized the Benz driver from Baoding, the narrative took an unexpected turn. Because in the midst of this controversy, dashcam footage from the Mercedes Benz also surfaced online, along with other images showing the scene from different angles.

This footage offered an alternative perspective, revealing that the Benz driver was attempting a zipper-style merge into the lane but was intentionally blocked by the white car, with the passenger filming the confrontation.

Later on, the surveillance video from the Xuwen Port was also released (video). That 7-minute video showed the entire conflict from the start, and although it showed that the Mercedes driver was at fault for cutting in line and damaging Xu’s car, it also showed that the Chery car was not without fault.

The new information caused a shift in public opinion as people started to think the Ms Xu purposely misrepresented the situation by omitting her role in the traffic altercation. It also became evident that, contrary to initial assumptions, Ms. Xu was not the driver of the white sedan at all; instead, a younger male was behind the wheel.

Bird’s eye view images of Xuwen Port also revealed that in lane 7, where the altercation occurred, all cars eventually merge in a zipper-style pattern.

As a result, both the Benz driver and the elderly lady now faced public condemnation – one for traffic misconduct, the other for distorting the truth on social media.

The Role of the Melon Eaters

As online discussions about the entire incident are still unfolding, there’s been a change in what people focus on regarding this story.

Initially, the rude and agressive Benz guy and his female companion, a meme-worthy couple, were the main topic of conversation. Then, as people started realizing the role played by the so-called ‘granny’ influencer – who edited and posted the footage in such a way that made her seem like the mere victim, – they were angry at her.

Ultimately, however, some commentators and bloggers noted that it is actually the so-called ‘melon eating masses’ who are responsible for making this story go viral and choosing sides without knowing all the facts. The Chinese term is chīguā qúnzhòng (吃瓜群众), translated as melon-eating masses or peanut gallery, referring to the netizens who are enjoying the spectacle as it unfolds, sharing details or opinions with limited knowledge.

While the story is still simmering online, the the Xuwen County Public Security Bureau has imposed a 10-day administrative detention and a fine of 500 yuan ($70) on Mr Wang for his actions of smashing the hood of the car. Ms Xu reportedly is getting her car fixed, renewing the entire hood of the dented sedan.

The original video that sparked all the controversy has since been removed from Ms Xu’s Douyin account.

In the end, the story has a negative impact on both Wang and Xu, which will probably haunt them for some time to come. The only one benefiting is the seller of ‘please don’t cut in line’ bumper stickers, which have since become a viral success.

Regardless of all disagreements regarding this incident, there’s one thing virtually everyone agrees with, especially during this busy Chinese New Year travel season: bad traffic etiquette and cutting in line is not cool, and resorting to aggression and vandalism is never the solution.

By Manya Koetse

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China Insight

A Snowball Effect: How Cold Harbin Became the Hottest Place in China

Part of Harbin’s enormous success can be attributed to a snowball effect, but the hype is also the result of a well-coordinated campaign.

Manya Koetse



There is one topic that has been dominating Chinese social media recently: Harbin and its remarkable influx of tourists. How can the buzz surrounding this frosty city be explained?

The new year has just started and Harbin already seems to be the hit of 2024. The capital of China’s Heilongjiang Province, which is famous for its Ice and Snow Festival and Russian heritage, has been dominating trending topics on Chinese social media from late December well into this second week of January.

Every day recently, there’s another hashtag about Harbin that is hitting the hot charts on Chinese social media platforms Weibo, Douyin, and Xiaohongshu. Whether it is about Harbin travel, food, or funny memes, there seems to be an endless stream of stories and topics coming from the city in China’s northeast.

The sudden hype surrounding Harbin is similar to that of Zibo in 2023. The Shandong city, known for its local BBQ culture, became all the rage in spring of last year for its joyful atmosphere and post-pandemic celebratory mood.

Is Harbin the ‘Zibo’ of this 2023-2024 winter season? How come the historical city became such a social media phenomenon?

Harbin’s Hottest Festival

This year marks the 40th edition of the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival (哈尔滨国际冰雪节), which is the largest ice and snow festival in the world. The official opening ceremony on January 5th not only celebrated the milestone of the 40th edition but also highlighted Harbin’s role as the host city for the 2025 Asian Winter Games. This will also be the first festival after the end of China’s ‘Zero Covid’ policy (the event was previously still held but kept much smaller).

Harbin winters are tough, with temperatures plummeting to as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit) or even colder. The idea for a Harbin ice festival first emerged in the late 1950s, when local officials wanted to cheer up the city and its residents in the dark and gloomy winter days.

They therefore introduced a winter festival centered around the idea of ice lanterns, of which the history goes back to the fisherman on the Songhua River using candles inside frozen blocks to give light on long winter nights. The festival was successful from the start; nearly 250,000 people participated in the 1963 edition (Dewar et al 2001, 524).

First edition of the Snow and Ice Festival in 1963.

After the Cultural Revolution put a halt to the festivities in 1966, local authorities reviewed the festival again in 1984, and revived it as an event to boost the local economy. About a decade later, it had already become one of the biggest of its kind globally, with its ice sculpting competitions and snow sculpture parks, including thousands of ice structures and spectacular lantern venues.

This 2023-2024 season turns out to be another important moment for Harbin and its ice festival. In November of 2023, the city launched a press conference in which they stressed the importance of strengthening the city’s position as an (international) leader in the field of ice and snow tourism in this post-pandemic era and fully focus on turning the season into a “people’s festival” and a “people’s event” (“使冰雪季和冰雪节真正成为人民的节日、百姓的盛会”).

From string quartets to hot air balloons, Harbin is going all out to entertain and impress visitors this year, and all the efforts are paying off.

More than two million people are expected to visit Harbin for this year’s festival, including its ‘Ice and Snow World’ (哈尔滨冰雪大世界) which opened on 18 December and will run until late February. This amusement park is a major attraction within the larger festival, and this 25th edition, with its 810,000-square-meter, is the largest-ever held.

In a time when Chinese domestic travelers are exploring their own country in new ways, from Special Force travel style to show-inspired journeys, the latest buzz surrounding Harbin is something that many simply do not want to miss out on, causing the coldest city to become one of the hottest destinations of the moment.

Turning Bad Publicity into Something Positive

On December 18, Harbin officially opened its Ice and Snow World to the public, welcoming thousands of visitors. This is also when the city and its festival first started trending on social media, but not necessarily in a good way.

Visitors initially complained that despite making reservations, they had to wait in lines at the entrance for hours, and that the time slot reservation system (分时预约) – introduced in Covid days – actually made things more difficult rather than facilitating a smoother crowd management process.

People also complained when Ice and Snow World issued a notice that they couldn’t accommodate more than 40,000 people and had already reached their limit during the early afternoon, therefore halting further ticket sales on the 18th. The 40,000 people limit seemed strange to many, who commented that other events and venues across China, such as Shanghai Disneyland, could welcome much more visitors.

People who had been waiting in line for hours starting shouting that they wanted their money back, and that incident went viral online as the “ticket refund incident” (#哈尔滨退票事件#, 170 million views on Weibo).

Not only did these incidents generate more public attention for the events taking place in Harbin, Snow World’s response also became a hot topic as they soon issued an apology, swiftly canceled the time slot reservation system, gave ticket refunds, and introduced a ‘first come first served’ system (#冰雪大世界取消预约制#, #哈尔滨冰雪大世界致歉#, 370 million views).

A side effect of this incident and how it was handled was that a so-called “underdog effect” became visible on social media, where many people started defending Harbin and Snow World. Supporters questioned whether visitors would similarly express frustration while waiting in lines at Disneyland or Universal Studios.

One Weibo blogger (@刘成春) wrote: “Please do not dismiss Harbin’s Ice and Snow World just because of some minor shortcomings. A group of simple, honest, hardworking people have spent days on end creating these sculptures with ice taken from the Songhua River at temperatures below minus 20. They’ve been making so much efforts, and Harbin just wants to present these works as gifts and the city’s signature to the people (..) Please don’t discredit the only snow and ice landmark of Northeast China.”

After the incident, this sentiment echoed widely on Chinese social media, where many believed in Harbin’s genuine efforts to make its snow and ice season a success, recognizing the sincerity and goodwill of those involved. The idea that Harbin really deserves to shine this season was further strengthened because of videos emerging on social media of previous Covid years, when the smaller festival looked empty and staff still worked hard to try and entertain the few visitors that were there.

Southern Little Potato Hype

On New Year’s Eve, videos showing celebrations in Harbin rapidly gained traction online, showing that Harbin was doing everything it could to entertain and create a welcoming atmosphere for its visitors.

These visitors have also become part of the buzz surrounding Harbin this season, mainly the emergence of the so-called “Southern Little Potatoes” (南方小土豆 nánfāng xiǎo tǔdòu). This term refers to the increasing influx of tourists from China’s warmer southern regions who are making their way to the snow-blanketed north.

The term “Southern Little Potatoes” humorously describes these southern tourists, especially women, who are frequently spotted sporting light-colored down jackets and hats. Their short height, distinct travel attire makes them stand out among the typically taller and darker-dressed locals in northeastern cities, leading to the playful potato comparison by northerners.

One of the ‘Southern Little Potatoes’ memes (via

As “Southern Little Potatoes” became a trending term online, southern tourists also started using it to make fun of themselves and it came to be used to highlight the warm and sometimes funny exchanges between the north and south.

The “Southern Little Potatoes,” who are not used to not used to ice, snow, and extremely cold weather, are also known to get into tricky situations, needing locals to help them out. On January 9, one tourist from the south went viral for stepping out of the train as he quickly wanted to experience licking a metal pole in freezing temperatures. The moment his tongue got stuck, the train staff kindly helped him get unstuck.

For locals, these silly southern tourists are a great business opportunity. One street seller started offering a supervised metal pole licking experience: you can lick a small metal pole for 5 yuan ($0.70), a bigger one for 10 ($1.40), and the tallest one for 15 ($2) (photo below).

Metal pole licking experience.

The Southern Little Potato trend has set off the online meme machine, as well as sparked a small local economy. Some Harbin taxi drivers, for example, promote themselves as being designated “little potato drivers” to serve their ‘friends from the south.’ Street sellers selling ‘little potato’ plush toy keychains for 15 yuan became all the hype.

Little Potato merchandise sold in the streets of Harbin (via

You could say that this general trend has also strengthened ties between the north and south. In Chinese, Harbin (Hā’ěrbīn 哈尔滨) is now affectionately shortened to ‘Ěrbīn‘ by visitors and netizens, with the dropping of the ‘Ha’ reflecting a more casual, friendly familiarity with the city.

A Snowball Effect

Although part of Harbin’s enormous (online) success can be attributed to a snowball effect that began after December 19/20, with people showing their appreciation for the city and joining the hype, the attention on social media was also a result of a well-coordinated campaign.

As described by Chinese media outlet The Paper (澎湃新闻), Heilongjiang Province’s Cultural and Tourism Department Party Secretary and Director He Jing (何晶) recently stated in an interview: “This year’s popularity [of Harbin] isn’t accidental; we’ve been preparing for a year.” He explained how, since early 2023, they started focusing on new media and social media strategies to promote Heilongjiang and Harbin in multiple ways.

For this season, Harbin Snow World made sure there were several online influencers and celebrities promoting the festivities, such as Chinese influencers Kiki (陈洁Kiki) and Barbin (Barbin.ili芭比) or Olympic champion speed skaters Fan Kexin (范可新), Zhang Hong (张虹), and Zhang Yuting (张雨婷). There are also various brand collaborations, such as with Tencent and its Game for Peace (和平精英). Local official media channels and big state media accounts also collaborate with Harbin in posting a lot of promotional videos related to festivities.

This year, Harbin also introduced all kinds of activities and venues to increase their appeal. The ice-made terracotta warriors, for example, or the hot pot restaurant housed within an ice structure, where even the tables are sculpted from ice. These are just some of the many ‘must-experience’ attractions in Harbin that have garnered attention on Chinese social media (#哈尔滨把火锅玩出了本地特色#).

There is also a 20-meter high snowman wearing a red hat, that has come to serve as a must-go photo opportunity for visitors. The local tourism ambassador, the Exploring Pinguin (淘学企鹅), with its cute appearance and orange backpack, is also one of those things that further adds to the appeal of Harbin and its Snow World.

Local authorities, including the tourism department, also pulled out all the stops to ensure visitors felt welcome and accommodated. They made sure local hotels and other business maintained fair prices despite the surge in tourists and to increase the focus on customer service.

They also made sure to listen to (online) feedback and quickly act on complaints. For example, after so many tourists from the south arrived at Harbin Airport and had to change into warmer clothing in the chilly central hall, they increased the number of airport dressing rooms, equipped with seats, mirrors, and carpets. This kind of attention to detail and drive to serve visitors is a strategy that has greatly contributed to Harbin’s current success.

You now see that the combined efforts of local authorities and businesses in Harbin, both online and offline, have cultivated a unique festive atmosphere. This atmosphere is contagious; it motivates locals to actively contribute to maintain the standards while also encouraging visitors to actively promote the city. This leads to new groups of visitors getting enthusiastic to travel to Harbin.

While this success is partly orchestrated, with authorities and state media being key players, there is also that ‘special something’ — a kind of genuine charm, sincerity, relatability, and likability — which is much harder to schedule through strategies. It’s an organic ingredient that is a major part of the buzz. In this way, Zibo and Harbin are very much alike.

Despite some criticisms about prioritizing short-term fame and social media hype for Chinese tourist destinations, it seems that Harbin’s success will be long lasting. As some social media users say: “I can’t make it this year, but I definitely will go to Harbin for the next season. I’ve never even seen snow in my life.”

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Ruixin Zhang and Miranda Barnes

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Dewar, Keith, Denny Meyer, and Wen Mei Li. 2001. “Harbin, Lanterns of Ice, Sculptures of Snow.” Tourism Management 22 (5): 523-532.

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