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This Was Trending in China in 2018: The 18 Biggest Weibo Hashtags of the Year

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It’s been an eventful 2018 on Chinese social media. What’s on Weibo lists the 18 topics that have generated the most views and discussions on Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo over the past year.

What’s trending in Western media when it comes to China is not necessarily what is trending on Chinese social media, too. While topics such as the Xinjiang ‘re-education centers’, China’s nascent Social Credit System, #MeToo in China, or the allegedly “banned” Winnie the Pooh movie were some of the biggest China-related topics on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook this year, Chinese internet users were discussing other things – some issues trending in the Western media were not as big within the PRC due to censorship, but some also simply weren’t as big because of a seeming lack of public interest.

What’s on Weibo has selected the 18 biggest hashtags that were trending on Weibo in 2018, mostly based on their total views, but also based on the impact they had on the meme machine, and the overall discussions that flooded Wechat.

This list has been fully compiled by What’s on Weibo.1 Please note that we have left some topics and hashtags out. One such example is the World Cup. While the World Cup hashtag (#世界杯#) has received a staggering 31 billion views on Weibo alone, this is a more general hashtag that has also been used before 2018; we have attempted to make a selection of topics that were the biggest of this year and 2018 alone.

Due to the scope of this article, some major topics such as the arrest of Richard Liu, the Changchun vaccine scandal, or the online success of the two vlogging farmers and their bamboo rats, did not make the cut, simply because other hashtags garnered more views.

Here we go –

 

#1 The Didi Murders

Hashtag “Female Passenger Murdered by Didi Driver” (#女孩乘滴滴顺风车遇害#) – 2,45 billion views on Weibo. Hashtag “Stewardess Killed in Didi Ride” #空姐滴滴打车遇害案# – 55 million views.

See article here

This year Didi Chuxing, China’s most popular car-hailing app, faced huge public backlash on Weibo, where netizens threatened to boycott the company amid safety concerns. Over the past years, Didi has seen dozens of cases where female passengers were assaulted by their drivers. The terrible murders of two young women in 2018 sparked national outrage.

In May of this year, the murder of a 21-year-old flight attendant by her Didi driver became a major topic of discussion on Weibo. The young woman, Li Mingzhu, was killed in the early morning when she was on her way home from Zhengzhou airport. The body of the driver who killed Li was later found in a nearby river. In August, the 20-year-old passenger Xiao Zhao was raped and stabbed to death by her Didi driver on her way to a birthday party on a Friday afternoon. Hours later, the driver was arrested.

What contributed to the major impact this topic had on social media was the fact that several people came forward on WeChat and Weibo to tell how Didi was warned beforehand: Xiao’s friend immediately contacted Didi after her friend had called out for help during that fatal ride, but she was told to wait and no immediate action was taken. Another female claimed she had already reported the driver to Didi for indecent behavior earlier that week.

In a rapidly changing society where companies such as Didi play an increasingly important role in how people travel and navigate their lives, the Didi murders not only showed the enormous responsibility these companies have in creating a safe environment for passengers, but also showed that the public expects these companies to provide these secure conditions.

After the August murder, Didi suspended its Hitch service, which pairs drivers and passengers traveling the same route (the young women were killed while using Hitch), and added several new safety features to make Didi safer for passengers and to quickly assist customers with any problems they might have.

 

#2 Flaunt Wealth Challenge

Hashtag “Flaunt Your Wealth Challenge” (#炫富挑战#) – 2,3 billion views

See article here

The ‘Flaunt Your Wealth’ or ‘Falling Stars’ hype, in which people post staged photos of themselves ‘falling’ out of their vehicles surrounded by luxury items, first spread on social media in Russia in the summer of 2018, and then made its way to other countries. In China, it became one of the biggest social media hypes of this year.

But besides those photos of seemingly rich Chinese ‘falling’ out of their super expensive cars surrounded by Gucci bags and Chanel make-up, there was also an anti-movement that became hugely popular. It showed how people were mocking the challenge by laying on the floor surrounded by their diplomas, military credential, or study books – defying superficial ideas on the meaning of ‘wealth’ and what it actually looks like.

 

#3 The Traveling Frog Craze

Hashtag “Traveling Frog” (#旅行青蛙#) – 2,1 billion views

See article here

1997 was the year of Tamagotchi, 2018 was the year of the Traveling Frog. The mobile game, designed by a Japanese company, took Chinese social media by storm this year, with thousands of people sharing their struggles in taking care of their virtual frog, which often goes traveling.

The game is characterized by its rather uneventful nature. While at home, the frog sits around and eats or reads, and while away, the player can’t do anything but take care of the garden and wait for their virtual friend to send them a postcard before finally returning.

There are various theories explaining the success of the game. Some say the uneventful app is appealing for young Chinese with stressful lives since it has a calming effect, others might suggest it offers a sense of ‘home’ in a society where fewer people feel at home where they live, and there were even some voices in state media ascribing the success to China’s low birth rates.

 

#4 Jin Yong Passes Away

Hashtag “Jin Yong Passes Away” (#金庸去世#) – 2 billion views on Weibo

The passing of Chinese wuxia novelist Jin Yong (查良鏞), also known as Louis Cha, became big news on Chinese social media this fall. Wuxia (武俠) is a genre of Chinese fiction that focuses on the adventures of martial artists in ancient China, and Jin Yong is regarded as one of the best – if not the top – authors within the genre. Many of his works, of which over 300 million copies were sold worldwide, have been turned into tv series and films.

Jin’s passing set off waves of nostalgia on Weibo, where thousands of netizens shared their favorite works and scenes, thanked the author for all he did, and praised his contributions to Chinese popular culture.

Another person who passed away in November of 2018 is the renowned Hong Kong actress Yammie Lam (藍潔瑛). News of her death also received millions of views on Chinese social media.

 

#5 Gene-modified Babies

Hashtag “First Case of Gene-Edited HIV Immune Babies” (#首例免疫艾滋病基因编辑婴儿#) – 1,9 billion Weibo views 

See article here

News that a Chinese researcher from Shenzen has helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies made international headlines in November of this year. He Jiankui (贺建奎) claimed that together with his research team, he succeeded in altering the DNA of embryos, making them resistant to HIV. The twin girls were born earlier this year.

On social media, the topic received many mixed reactions, with many condemning the researcher’s work, and others praising it. Chinese authorities launched an investigation into the research shortly after news came out, and He Jiankui has not been heard of since. Many people on Weibo are now wondering about his whereabouts, what will happen to him, and how this will further impact the lives of the two girls whose genes were edited.

 

#6 Golden Horse Ceremony’s ‘Taiwan’ Speech

Hashtag “Gong Li Refuses to Confer Award” (#巩俐拒绝颁奖#) – 1,9 billion views on Weibo

See article here

The annual Golden Horse Film Awards in Taipei turned out to be a painful confrontation between mainland actors and Taiwanese pro-independence supporters this year. Although Ang Lee, chairman of the Golden Horse committee, had probably hoped to keep politics out of the film festival, the atmosphere of the live-streamed event changed when award-winning director Fu Yue expressed her hopes for an independent Taiwan during her acceptance speech. Later on in the show, actor Tu Men from mainland China struck back on stage by saying he was honored to present an award in “China, Taiwan.”

Things got more polarized and political when famous Chinese actress Gong Li, at the end of the show, refused to get on stage with Ang Lee to present the award for Best Feature Film. The evening officially seemed ruined when, at the end of the night, it turned out that most mainland actors and producers declined taking part in the celebratory award dinner and went straight back to the mainland instead.

This was not the only topic this year that showed that the current and future status of Taiwan is still an incredibly sensitive topic that can set off waves of angry nationalism on social media. A brief visit to Taiwanese bakery 85°C by ROC President Tsai Ing-wen and the surfacing of an old video of actress Vivian Sung in which she called Taiwan her “favorite country” also triggered major discussions on cross-Straits relations.

 

#7 Chongqing Bus Plunges Into River

Hashtag “Why Chongqing Bus Plunged in the River” (#重庆公交车坠江原因#) – 1,4 billion Weibo views

See article here

In late October of this year, an incident in which a public bus plunged off a bridge into the Yangtze river, causing all 15 passengers to die, became a huge topic on Chinese social media. The security camera footage from inside the bus later showed how a passenger who apparently had missed her stop gets angry with the driver and starts hitting him with her mobile phone. The driver then abruptly turns the steering wheel, hitting oncoming traffic, crashes through the safety fence, and plunges into the river.

The incident caused major concerns over aggression in Chinese public transport, with other videos of similar incidents also making their rounds on social media. The city of Nanjing soon introduced security partitions on buses, and the existence of special “grievance awards” for bus drivers who do not respond to angry passengers also became a topic of debate. Many people on Weibo called for bus cards to be linked to one’s identity so that troublemakers will be able to be blacklisted from buses in the future.

 

#8 The Kunshan Stabbing Case

Hashtag (#追砍电动车主遭反杀#) – 1,25 billion views on Weibo

See article here

A bizarre road-rage incident in which a muscular and tattooed BMW driver attacked an innocent cyclist with a big knife, but then ended up dead himself, was the biggest story on Chinese social media this summer, triggering countless of memes.

The entire scene was caught on security cameras. In the night of August 27, a BMW switched from the car lane to the bicycle lane in the city of Kunshan (Jiangsu), colliding with a man driving his bike, who seemingly refused to give way. Two men then step out of their BMW vehicle to confront the cyclist, with one man going back to his vehicle, suddenly pulling out a long knife and going after the cyclist, stabbing him. During the fight, however, the BMW driver suddenly lets the knife slip out of his hands, after which the bike owner quickly picks it up. With the knife in his hands, he now starts attacking the BMW driver, who eventually dies of his injuries.

One of the main reasons for the mass focus on this incident was that there was an ethical question involved, namely: to what extent could this be regarded as legitimate self-defense? It did not take long for the answer to come out, as authorities ruled it self-defense in September. For many, the news was proof that justice had prevailed.

 

#9 The Dolce and Gabbana Controversy

Hashtag “D&G Show Canceled” #DG大秀取消# and “D&G Designer Responds Again” (#dg设计师再次回应#) 820 & 940 million views on Weibo 

See article here

Although 2018 was supposed to be a great China year for Italian luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana, things unexpectedly spiraled out of control in November of this year, while the brand’s “D&G Loves China” campaign was in full swing.

It started with criticism on a video that was launched by the fashion brand to promote its upcoming Shanghai show. The video, that shows a Chinese model failing to eat Italian food with her chopsticks, was deemed sexist and insulting by many. Things started going downhill real fast after screenshots of comments attributed to fashion designer Stefano Gabbana, in which he scolds China and makes derogatory remarks about Chinese, went viral. It soon led to the cancellation of the big D&G show in Shanghai.

Despite apologies issued by the D&G founders, many netizens called for a boycott of the brand. It is yet unclear to what extent the marketing disaster has affected the brand, but one thing this incident shows is that cultural insensitivities in marketing campaigns can soon lead to a public relations mess.

 

#10 Wang Baoqiang’s Divorce Drama Continues

Hashtag “Wang Baoqiang Beats up Ma Rong” #王宝强殴打马蓉#) received some 520 million views before it was taken offline 

See article here 

Will there be another year when the 2016 split between Chinese celebrities Wang Baoqiang (王宝强) and ex-wife Ma Rong (马蓉) does not make into the top-trending lists?! Ever since the dramatic divorce of the two became one of the top hashtags of 2016, their fights have continued to be a major topic on Chinese social media.

This time, Chinese actress Ma Rong claimed that her ex-husband attacked her when she came to pick up her children at his house in early December. Dramatic photos and hospital footage soon made their rounds on Weibo, but when news came out that the ‘attack’ might have been staged, and that Ma Rong had caused a scene at her ex’s house, netizens condemned the actress for her actions.

The incident became a major source of inspiration for the Weibo meme machine, where others imitated the dramatic Ma Rong photo and photo-shopped it into gossip magazines.

 

#11 The High-Speed Train Tyrants

Hashtag “High-speed Train Tyrant Woman” (#高铁霸座女#) – 505 million views and #高铁霸座事件# – 110 million views

See article here

The two train tyrants of 2018 will probably go down in China’s social media history for their meme-worthy and bizarre behavior, that triggered a storm of criticism online. Both of their bad behaviors on high-speed trains were caught on video.

In August of this year, one rude man from Shandong, who refused to give up the seat he took from another passenger, became known as the “High-Speed Train Tyrant” (高铁霸座男 gāotiě bà zuò nán) on Chinese social media. A video showing the man’s rude behavior went viral, and netizens were especially angry because the man pretended he could not get up from the stolen seat and needed a wheelchair – although he did not need one when boarding the train.

In September of 2018, a woman from Hunan, who was dubbed ‘High-Speed Train Tyrant Woman’ (高铁霸座女 gāotiě bà zuò nǚ) by Weibo netizens, had also taken a seat assigned to another passenger while riding the train from Yongzhou to Shenzhen. Despite the conductor’s reasoning, she refused to get up from her window seat to return to her own seat.

Netizens soon linked the two ‘Train Tyrants,’ creating dozens of memes that showed the two as lovebirds getting married. The incidents also showed public support of China’s nascent Social Credit System, with many calling for a system that would allow these kinds of misbehaving people to be blacklisted from public transport in general.

 

#12 Invictus Gaming: The E-Sports Craze in China

Hashtag “The Meaning of IG Championship”  #IG夺冠的意义# – 540 million views on Weibo

See article here

People were going absolutely crazy over the success of China’s e-sports when ‘Invictus Gaming’ (IG) became the first Chinese team to win the League of Legends World Championship. Students were hanging banners from their dorm rooms, videos of cheering crowds in school canteens flooded Weibo, and dozens of new memes surfaced on Chinese social media. One of them showed two monkeys with a big “Congratulations IG” above them and one wondering “What is IG?!”, and the other telling him just to follow the rest in congratulating them anyway, signaling that many people had never heard of ‘Invictus Gaming’ before, and were clueless about the top trending lists being filled up with this new topic.

China’s e-sports craze also made one Weibo post the most popular of all time, when billionaire Wang Sicong announced he would be giving away more than $160,000 to Weibo users to celebrate the victory of the Chinese team.

 

#13 The Boy who was Duped at the Hair Salon

Hashtag “Hairline-boy expressions” (#发际线男孩表情包#) – viewed  470 million times on Weibo

See article

What was supposed to be a quick visit to the hairdresser turned into a disaster when the 18-year-old Wu Zhengqiang (吴正强) was presented with a 40,000 yuan ($5750) bill and a bad haircut. Although the teenager eventually could pay a much lower amount of money to the salon, Wu turned to local media to tell about his unfortunate haircut, and shared that he was not just sad about losing the money, but that he was also unhappy with his new hairstyle and hairline.

The story soon went viral and triggered the creation of dozens of new memes across Chinese social media, turning the duped boy into one of the biggest internet sensations of 2018.

 

#14 Meng Wanzhou WeChat Moments Post

Hashtag “Meng Wanzhou’s WeChat Moments Post after Release” (#孟晚舟保释后发朋友圈#) – 380 million views on Weibo

See article

The December 1st arrest of Meng Wanzhou (孟晚舟), the financial officer of Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technology – which happens to have been founded by her father, Ren Zhengfei (任正非), – became huge news in China and across the world.

Meng was detained during a transit at the Vancouver airport at the request of United States officials. She is accused of fraud for violating US sanctions on Iran. Meng allegedly helped Huawei get around these sanctions by misleading financial institutions into believing that subsidiary company ‘Skycom’ was a separate company in order to conduct business in Iran. Chinese officials, demanding Meng’s release, have called the arrest “a violation of a person’s human rights.”

Meng was released on bail on December 11th. She then shared an update on her Wechat ‘Moments’ page, which received mass attention on Weibo. It showed the feet of a ballet dancer along with a quote saying that “there is suffering behind greatness” (伟大的背后都是苦难). Meng also thanked people for their support, and in doing so, once again received thousands of supportive messages on social media.

 

#15 The Tang Lanlan Case

Hashtag “The Truth about the Tang LanLan Case” (#汤兰兰案真相调查#) – viewed 340 million times on Weibo (also 汤兰兰性侵案 => hashtag now removed, then 50 million views)

See article 

The news story of a decade-old abuse case caused an uproar on Chinese social media in late January of 2018, when many netizens on Weibo believed that reporters of the story were biased and were harming the privacy of Tang Lanlan, the alleged victim in the case.

In 2008, a then 14-year-old girl named Tang Lanlan (汤兰兰, pseudonym) accused her father, grandfather, uncles, teachers, the rural director and neighbors of sexually abusing her since the age of seven. It later led to the prosecution of 11 people for rape and forced prostitution of a minor – including Tang’s own parents. As some of those people, including Tang’s mother, had since been released after serving their sentence, they sought the attention of the media in claiming that Tang, now 23 years old, had fabricated the story and that they were searching for her.

Netizens harshly criticized Chinese media outlets such as The Paper for featuring the story and giving away details about the identity of Tang, saying they should protect the victim instead of choosing the side of those convicted. The outrage was so huge that some reporters were even doxxed by netizens, and that articles and hashtags were removed, making the Tang Lan Lang case the greatest clash between Chinese media and netizens in 2018.

 

#16 Foreigners’ “Preferential Treatment”

Hashtag “Pretend to be foreign and Ofo gives back deposit right away” (#假装外国人ofo秒退押金#) – 250 million views. 

See article

There have been many topics over the past year that involved national pride and Chinese social media users feeling insulted or discriminated against. One such topic is the recent collective anger directed at bike sharing platform Ofo for allegedly helping foreigners much quicker than Chinese nationals.

A Weibo user who did not feel like waiting for hours on the phone to get his Ofo deposit back decided to pose as a foreigner to see if it would help. He sent an email in English via Gmail to Ofo, requesting his deposit back. It worked. He posted about it on Weibo, and millions of people responded with anger. Earlier in 2018, there was also outrage when a short movie went viral on Chinese social media that exposed the big differences between the dorm conditions of Chinese students and of foreigners studying in China.

 

#17 The Sweden Controversy

Hashtag “Chinese Tourists Abused by Swedish Police” #中国游客遭瑞典警察粗暴对待# and “Swedish TV Show Insults China” #瑞典辱华节目#– 170 and 50 million views on Weibo

See article here and here

The alleged maltreatment of a Chinese family in Stockholm ignited major discussions on Chinese social media this September when footage showed how a Chinese man was dragged out of a hotel lobby by Swedish police, while his elderly parents were crying on the sidewalk. The dramatic footage was shot after the tourists arrived at their hotel long before check-in time, and were refused permission to stay overnight in the lobby. When they refused to leave, police got involved.

Chinese media greatly criticized Swedish authorities for how they handled the incident, and it even led to the Chinese embassy in Sweden issuing a safety alert. Not long after, a satirical Swedish TV show made fun of Chinese people through a sketch that listed a number of do’s and don’ts for Chinese tourists, including “not taking a poo outside of historical places.” The TV show added fuel to the fire and was condemned by Chinese social media users. The Chinese embassy in Sweden denounced the satirical Swedish TV show for “maliciously attacking” China. The entire ordeal did not do any good for the relations between Sweden and China, that have already been tense due to the imprisonment of Swedish-Chinese author Gui Minhai.

 

#18 Fugitives on the Loose

Hashtag “Two Fugitives on the Loose” (#两名重刑犯逃脱#) – 170 million views

See article here

It was almost like a movie: two criminals spectacularly escaped from a Liaoning prison and the entire country went on a manhunt, with authorities giving out a big reward for those who’d catch them and setting out drones to catch the two.

Social media played an important role in the search for the fugitives, that took place in early October of this year. Ten thousands of people closely followed the ordeal, as security footage from a local store was posted online only hours after their escape, showing the two criminals buying some food and cigarettes. Within 50 hours of their escape, the fugitives were captured by the police through the help of local villagers.

While you’re here, also check out the top 30 best books to understand China we published earlier this year!

By Manya Koetse

*1 (We kindly ask not to reproduce this list without permission – please link back if referring to it).


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Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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Backgrounder

Digital Art or Visual Propaganda? China’s New Wave of Online Political Satire

Political, patriotic art mocking Western leaders is welcomed by social media users and propagated by Chinese officials.

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Image by What's on Weibo, highlighting various digital artworks by @乌合麒麟, @半桶老阿汤.

A specific genre of political satire has been gaining popularity on Chinese social media lately, with some images even making international headlines. While political satire mocking Chinese authorities is generally soon taken offline, these online works are brought to the limelight by Chinese official channels. Is it grassroots digital art? Or is it official visual propaganda?

When the parody image ‘The Last G7’ went viral on Chinese social media in June of 2021, it made international headlines for insulting the G7 summit, the West and Christianity, ridiculing ‘double-faced’ Australia, bashing Japan over Fukushima water, and offending India’s COVID19 situation. There was enough satirical symbolism and detail in the image to offend virtually any country that was -implicitly- portrayed in it.

Some media headers suggested the image was created by Chinese state media, others said it was done by ‘Chinese trolls’ or Chinese authorities.

The image was actually created by a Chinese computer graphics illustrator from Beijing who is active on social media, where he also sells his digital art online.

Online political satire in China has been around since the early start of social media in China and is often seen as a form of online activism. In media articles and academic literature focused on online political satire in China, the phenomenon is often discussed within the framework of censorship and dissidence, as a practice of resistance against Chinese authorities. Political satire can exist in many forms, from funny word jokes to catchy songs, from viral gifs to sophisticated cartoons.

Renowned Chinese political cartoon artists such as Badiucao (巴丢草), Hexie Farm (蟹农场), Kuang Biao (邝飚), and Rebel Pepper (变态辣椒) were previously active on Chinese social media platform Weibo, and their accounts were shut down dozens of times before publishing their work within China’s online environment became virtually impossible.

These artists are known for drawing cartoons that criticize and mock Chinese leaders, the central government, or their policies. Their work fits the narrative of online political satire being used as a weapon to resist authoritarian rule in spite of the highly censored online climate they exist in (Shao & Liu 2019, 517).

What exactly is political satire? It is “a specific form of criticism that ridicules political figures, events, or phenomenon” (ibid). Visual political satire is especially relevant within the context of Chinese social media because images allow for a creative form of expression, an outlet to critique political events, that is harder to detect by online censors than the use of potentially sensitive words and terms.

But what if political satire does not critique the Chinese party-state at all? What if it actually does not conflict with party ideology, or even suits the narratives that are propagated by Chinese officials?

 

Recent Examples of Chinese Political Satire on Social Media

 

In late December of 2020, a photoshopped image of an Australian soldier murdering a child stirred controversy on social media and beyond. The soldier, who is holding a knife to the throat of a child, is standing on an Australian flag, the shadows of bodies can be discerned lying on the floor. The image – which alluded to the report regarding unlawful killings of Afghan civilians and prisoners by Australian troops – was shared on Twitter by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian. The controversial post led to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanding an apology from China.

The computer graphic by Wuheqilin that was shared on Twitter by a Chinese official.

In January of 2021, around the time of Biden’s inauguration, another satirical work was shared on Twitter by a senior producer of CGTN (@Peijin_Zhang) and others. Like the earlier image, this political satire was also full of details and symbolism. It shows American President Biden holding a bomb in front of a White House background, while Trump is taken away by officers and Kamala Harris is standing by an open grave reserved for Biden – shovel in hand. The text underneath the image says: “What a paradise of freedom, democracy, and sweet air.”

Artwork titled ‘失乐园·末日余晖’ ‘Paradise Lost-Afterglow’ created by ‘半桶老阿汤’ aka ‘Half Bottle Of Old Soup.’

At the time of the online controversy over the Xinjiang cotton ban by the BCI in March of 2021, another digital illustration titled “Blood Cotton Initiative” made headlines for featuring (BBC) journalists in KKK-style hoods interviewing a scarecrow in a field, cotton-picking slaves in the background.

The image is a response to the allegations of forced labor and human rights abuses in Xinjiang, which various Chinese officials and state media have condemned as being ‘false,’ ‘manipulative,’ and ‘hypocritical’ in light of many western countries’ own human rights records. The image was shared on Twitter by, among others, the official account of China Daily Asia (@Chinadaily_CH) and China Daily Hong Kong (@CDHKedition).

“Blood Cotton Initiative” (血棉花) by Chinese artist Wuheqilin.

In June of 2021, another political satire made headlines, as mentioned earlier in this article. It was the image mocking the G7 members who issued a summit communique that called on China to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms,” especially in relation to Xinjiang and Hong Kong autonomy, and also pushed for a new inquiry into the origin of the Covid-19 virus (link to pdf). The image, which is a parody of The Last Supper mural painting, is titled ‘The Last G7’ (最后的G7).

Image ‘The Last G7’ created by ‘半桶老阿汤’ aka ‘Half Bottle Of Old Soup.’

The image shows various animals sitting around the table, supposedly to represent Germany (left), Australia, Japan, Italy, US, UK, Canada, France, and India. Behind them are oxygen tanks, while the elephant on the right (India) is still receiving IV treatment and is not participating in the table talks. The Akita dog (Japan) is serving a green drink from a radioactive tea cattle while the bald eagle in the middle (US) is turning toilet paper into money. The beaver (Canada) is tightly holding on to a Chinese doll – a reference to Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou who has been in Canada ever since she was arrested during a stopover by Canadian police in 2018. On the table, there is a cake with the Chinese flag on it. 

“Through this we can still rule the world,” the words above the image state, while the text on the wall in the image says: “We have freedom and democracy.” State newspaper Global Times shared and explained the political satire in an article on June 13.

 

The Creators Behind the Artwork

 

Recent Chinese political satire images circulating on social media have been labeled as ‘propaganda’ by many commenters on Twitter, who assume the images were originally published by Chinese state media outlets. But although these images were often shared by official (media) accounts, their creators are seemingly unaffiliated with state media.

Chinese social media has seen a surge of (CG) artists dedicated to creating patriotic art and political satire mocking Western powers. At this time, the two most noteworthy names are Wuheqilin and Bantong Laoatang.

 
‘WUHEQILIN’ 乌合麒麟
 

The aforementioned Australian piece and the ‘Blood Cotton Initiative’ image both were created by Wuheqilin (乌合麒麟), a professional computer graphic (CG) artist with over 2.8 million followers on his Weibo account, which he opened in 2009. Wuheqilin’s real name is Fu Yu (付昱, 1988) – a business owner and art director from Harbin.

Although Wuheqilin became especially famous for his controversial Australia image of November 2020, his work was featured by Chinese state media before that time. In June of 2020, Global Times (English version) called him a “Wolf Warrior artist” who “strives to use new art to spread truth and inspire patriotism.”

Wuheqilin published his first political artwork on his social media account in 2019, at the time of the Hong Kong protests. In this work, titled ‘A Pretender God,’ the artist takes a critical stance towards the demonstrators, showing them bowing to a monster-like figure resembling the Statue of Liberty.

‘A Pretender God’ by Wuheqilin.

Another one of Wuheqilin’s recent viral pieces is titled ‘G7’, an old-looking photograph that was a satirical comparison of the G7 foreign ministers to the leaders of the Eight-Nation Alliance that invaded northern China in response to the Boxer rebellion in 1900. This image was also shared and explained by Global Times.

‘G7’ by Wuqihelin.

Wuheqilin clearly focuses on showing the dark side, hypocrisy, and supposedly bad intentions of Western powers in international politics. Noteworthy enough, he often uses English phrases in his work to emphasize his point, which may suggest he also intends for his art to be noticed by media and politicians outside of China.

Although Wuheqilin is most famous for political satire mocking Western powers, he also makes non-satirical patriotic art, such as the piece he dedicated to Chinese agronomist Yuan Longping (袁隆平), China’s ‘Father of Hybrid Rice,’ who passed away in May of 2021.

“I Always Had Two Dreams” “我一直有两个梦想” by Wuheqilin.

Over the past year, Wuheqilin and his work are often praised by Chinese official media outlets. It is often shared by English-language state media, or retweeted by Chinese officials or media accounts that are active on Twitter. Together with the fact that Wuheqilin uses English in his artwork, his work has gained major attention both in- and outside of China.

 
‘HALF BOTTLE OF OLD SOUP’ 半桶老阿汤
 

The creator of ‘The Last G7’ image and the White House image is active on social media under various names. On Weibo, where he has over 39,000 followers, the artist is known as @半桶老阿汤 (Bàntǒng lǎo ā tāng). On Twitter, he has an account under the name ‘Half Bottle Of Old Soup’ (@Half_soup), a direct translation of his nickname. The artist also has a site under the name Henry Yu. His webshop is under the ‘Laoatang’ nickname, which we will use here.

Laoatang is a concept designer and computer graphic artist from Beijing. On his Weibo account, the artist has been sharing artwork by himself and others for years. Like Wuheqilin, he has an online cloud link where people can download artworks for free, but he also has a site where people can support him by buying digital art files for the small price of 10-15 yuan ($1.5-$2.5).

Like Wuheqilin, Laoatang’s artwork is also often focused on mocking the supposed hypocrisy of Western powers regarding international affairs involving China. ‘The Last G7’ was the first work by Half Soup to make (international) headlines, but he previously did many other works in response to political affairs.

His work ‘That’s What U.S. did'(‘这是你们的愚蠢行径,我们不会’) was published at the time when news over the BCI [Better Cotton Initiative] Xinjiang cotton ban over forced labor concerns made waves in China.

‘That’s What U.S. Did’ by 半桶老阿汤

The image is part of a computer graphic video that shows black slaves working in American cotton fields while singing ‘My Lord Sunshine Sunrise.’ The next scene shows how one black man is held at gunpoint by a white hooded figure, a scarecrow with a BCI logo showing in the foreground. The words “That’s what U.S. Did, Not Us!” come up while two black figures can be seen hanging from the gallows.

In a different style, Laoatang has also created various other political satire illustrations. One from June 2021 is called ‘Investigate Thoroughly! Except Here’ (‘彻查!除了这儿’). It shows members of the WHO research team standing in front of the American army biochemical lab at Fort Detrick which is closed and guarded by Biden. In the background, there’s the scenery of a happy and open Wuhan city.

‘Investigate Thoroughly! Except Here’ (‘彻查!除了这儿’) by 半桶老阿汤 / Half Bottle of Old Soup

The illustration is a response to U.S. calls for a thorough investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus in China, while a possible link between the Fort Detrick institute and the COVID19 pandemic are allegedly ignored. This image was also shared by the Communist Youth League on social media.

 
OTHERS & INTERTEXTUALITY
 

Online creators such as Wuheqilin and Laoatang move in certain Chinese social media circles of artists producing work in similar genres who share each other’s work and comment on it. At times, there is also some kind of intertextuality or connection between these artworks.

A good example of this intertextuality is the work by the artist who is active on Weibo under the name ‘钢铁时代2011’ (Gangtie Shidai 2011). In December of 2020, they published the artwork below that reflects on the international commotion involving the Australian soldier image by Wuheqilin, which was tweeted out by Chinese official Zhao Lijian.

“Damn it, they know what we’ve done” by @钢铁时代2011 [Gangtie Shidai 2011].

The image shows artist Wuheqilin holding up one of his artworks relating to the alleged Australian war crimes in Afghanistan, while Zhao Lijian is holding up the other image by Wuheqilin. In the front, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is depicted turning his back to the images, with the sentence: “Damn it, they know what we’ve done.”

During the controversy over the BCI ban on Xinjiang cotton, there was also an outpour of online (unofficial) political art. Beijing illustrator Yang Quan @插画杨权 (1990) is also among those creating online political/patriotic art. He published an image titled “Cotton is Soft, but China is Strong.”

‘Cotton is Soft, But China is Strong’, by @插画杨权.

The dog has the letters “H” and “M” coming from his bloody mouth, referring to fashion chain H&M which was one of the major Western brands publishing a statement regarding the ban on Xinjiang cotton (read more here). Again, as in most of the recent works produced by the artists in this genre, the message of the image is reinforced through a text in English, suggesting the work is also meant for an international audience to understand.

 

In Between Censorship and Propaganda

 

Propaganda is part of Chinese media, and a ‘new’ kind of propaganda has been part of Chinese social media propaganda efforts over the past few years (also see here, here, here, here).

But separated from those mainstream, more centralized propaganda efforts, the artists mentioned in this article are part of a ‘new wave’ of political satire on Chinese social media because:

– They are independent artists and/or not officially part of state media outlets or the CCP Propaganda Bureau.
– Their style is very different from official (online) propaganda posters and imagery.
– Their works are labeled as ‘art’ and have definite artworks qualities; they are unique, are made with skill and technique, and are filled with symbolism and detail.
– Their works are praised and welcomed by state media outlets and/or government officials, as these are shared and propagated through multiple official channels.
– These artists and their creations are widely celebrated and praised by Chinese social media users.

The phenomenon of artists who are unrelated to official agencies creating political art that is then used as a tool for propaganda is not unique in the history of Chinese propaganda or that of other countries, but it is very noteworthy in the context of the short history of social media in China, where political satire is often targeted at Chinese government officials and policies and therefore censored.

Perhaps you could say it is not surprising at all that the political satire we see most in Chinese social media today is directed at foreign leaders and Western powers, since any images mocking the Chinese government would be censored immediately.

But to solely interpret these political images through this one-dimensional view would not do justice to the artwork, the artists, nor to the art aficionados, since there are several influences at play within the creation of this genre.

> Digital Art & Nationalism

There are many young artists in China today who are patriotic and nationalistic, and who use art as a way to express their political views. They do so in various ways, through personal websites, social media, cloud downloads, etc, providing an alternative to official, controlled media sources. Propaganda sometimes becomes art, and art sometimes becomes propaganda. These dynamics do not automatically turn these artists into ‘Chinese trolls,’ as some foreign media labeled them.

Artists such as Wuheqilin or the aforementioned artist named Yang Quan all belong to the post-80 generation. In this current, post-Mao generation, you find a “fourth generation” of nationalism, as described by Peter Hays Gries in China’s New Nationalism. This nationalism is very much alive in China’s online environment, and it is fused with anti-western sentiment that partly builds on the “one hundred years of humiliation” of China at the hands of the West (Zhang 2012, 2). Although this generation, that grew up amid China’s rapid economic growth, did not directly experience the past humiliations upon which their nationalist narratives are constructed, this history remains central to understandings of Chinese national identity and its place in the world today (Wang 2-11).

As pointed out by Tao Zheng (2012), the articulation and promotion of nationalist views by individuals and groups independent of the state have been a significant part of Chinese online culture for many years, with several online movements and campaigns focusing on pointing out “western arrogance and prejudice.” The current wave of political digital art is just another form of expression of this type of “cyber nationalism.”

> Building Communities

Another reason why it would be too crude to simply label China’s recent online political satire as ‘propaganda’ is because it has emerged from a dynamic digital environment where netizens engage in a participatory activity of creating, sharing, commenting, recreating, connecting, etc. – and it is through these practices that the artworks become meaningful.

In ‘The Networked Practice of Online Political Satire in China’ by Guobin Yang and Min Jiang (2015), the authors argue that the sharing and circulation of online political satire in China is a “networked social practice” that is actually more important than the meaning and significance of the content itself. It is a grassroots political expression that, in their mode of unofficial network operation, could be seen as “popular mobilizations against power” (216). Yang and Jiang also emphasize the social function of political satire, where the reception is just as relevant as the production.

> A Fine Line

In the end, the question of whether these works are grassroots digital artworks or official propaganda pieces is perhaps not one of either/or: they are both. They saw the light as digital artworks and then became tools within a framework of official propaganda once they were praised, shared, and used by Chinese state media and officials to project their own strategies.

The creators of these artworks, however, walk a fine line. When their artworks no longer suit the strategic interests propagated by official channels, they are still at risk of being censored within the highly controlled digital environment they operate in. In that case, their online influence, magnified by official actors, could actually be held against them.

For now, artists such as Wuheqilin are thriving on Chinese social media. In his last post, Wuheqilin drew his own conclusion about the current state of China’s online environment, writing:

For the public intellectuals and those with vested interests who once held on to the power of speech, these are perhaps the darkest times, because their “decade-long campaign for Enlightenment has been lost.” But for ordinary Chinese netizens, for those who love this country and believe in it, we have unprecedented confidence, creativity, and cohesion. These are the best of times, and we are marching towards the brightest future.”

 

By Manya Koetse (@manyapan)

With special thanks to Piervittorio Milizia.

References

Gries, Peter Hays. 2004. China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy. Berkely and London: University of California Press.

Shao Li, Liu Dongshu. 2019. “The Road to Cynicism: The Political Consequences of Online Satire Exposure in China.” Political Studies 67(2): 517-536.

Yang, Guobin and Min Jiang. 2015. “The Networked Practice of Online Political Satire in China: Between Ritual and Resistance.” The International Communication Gazette 77(3): 215-231.

Zhang, Tao. 2012. “Anti-CNN and ‘April Youth’: Anti-Western Sentiment in Youth-oriented Chinese Online Media.” In Hernandez, L. (ed.), China and the West: Encounters with the other in Culture, Arts, Politics and Everyday Life,
Cambridge Scholars, 1-16.

Zheng Wang. 2012. Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations. New York: Columbia University Press.

Featured image created by What’s on Weibo, highlighting and using parts of various digital artworks by @乌合麒麟, @半桶老阿汤.

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Backgrounder

The Concept of ‘Involution’ (Nèijuǎn) on Chinese Social Media

Nèijuǎn (involution) has become a commonly used term on Chinese social media, but what is it?

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Chinese TV drama A Love for Dilemma (“小舍得”) has reignited an ongoing debate about the problem of ‘involution’ in Chinese society today.

A scene from the Chinese TV drama A Love for Dilemma (“小舍得”) has reignited online discussions on the concept of nèijuǎn 内卷, “involution,” which was also a top buzzword in China in 2020.

A Love for Dilemma is a 2021 TV drama directed by Zhang Xiaobo (张晓波), who also worked on other hit series including Nothing But Thirty. This season’s popular TV drama A Love for Dilemma is themed around family, parenting, and China’s competitive education system.

In the series, two stepsisters compete against each other over the school results of their children. The family’s ‘grandpa’, played by famous actor Zhang Guoli (张国立), tries to create harmony around the dinner table between his daughter and stepdaughter, but the rivalry between the two and how they raise their children intensifies nevertheless.

Scene from A Love for Dilemma.

While stepsister Tian Yulan urges her little son to work hard in school and focus on his grades so that he can go to the best high school and university, sister Nan Li places more emphasis on the general development of her children and wants them to enjoy their childhood. Both mothers, however, question their own choices when facing challenges with how their children perform at school.

The specific scene that has ignited current discussions is a dialogue between the husbands of the sisters, who sit outside to talk about the education system and how it sometimes feels like everyone is in a theatre watching a show together until one person stands up from their seat. This makes it necessary for other members of the audience to also stand up, until everybody is standing.

The dialogue continues, with the two talking about how it does not stop at the people standing up. Because then there are those who will take it a step further and will stand on their seats to rise above the others. And then there are even those who will grab a ladder to stand higher than the rest. But they are still watching the same show and their situation has actually not changed at all – except for the fact that everybody is now more uncomfortable than they were before.

Many netizens found it striking how this dialogue explains how the term ‘involution’ is used in China nowadays. After the show aired, the hashtag “How to commonly explain involution” (#如何通俗解释内卷#) became a trending topic in the week of April 19, receiving 260 million views in a few days.

 
What Is ‘Involution’?
 

As explained by Jialing Xie in this top buzzword article on What’s on Weibo, involution describes the economic situation in which as the population grows, per capita wealth decreases. Since recently, this word has come to be used to represent the competitive circumstances in academic or professional settings in China where individuals are compelled to overwork because of the standard raised by their peers who appear to be even more hardworking.

The term ‘involution’ and how it is used today comes from a work by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz titled Agricultural Involution – The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia (1963). In this work, Geertz explores the agricultural dynamics in Indonesia during the colonial period’s Cultivation System, where a radical economic dualism existed within the country: a foreign, Dutch economy and a native, Indonesian economy (p. 61-62).

Geertz describes how the Javanese faced a deepening demographic dilemma as they saw a rapidly growing population but a static economy, while the Dutch, who organized Javanese land and labor, were only growing in wealth (69-70). Agricultural involution is the “ultimately self-defeating process” that emerged in Indonesia when the ever-growing population was absorbed in high labor-intensive wet-rice cultivation without any changing patterns and without any progress (80-81).

When Geertz used the term ‘involution’ to describe the dynamics in Indonesia, he built on the work of another American anthropologist, namely Alexander Goldenweiser, who also used the term to describe “those culture patterns which, after having reached what would seem to be a definitive form, nonetheless fail either to stabilize or transform themselves into a new pattern but rather continue to develop by becoming internally more complicated” (Geertz 1963, 81).

 
The Involution Concept in the Chinese Context
 

The popular use of the Chinese translation of ‘involution’, nèijuǎn 内卷, started to receive attention in Chinese media in 2020. It is deviating from the original use of the term and is meant to explain the social dynamics of China’s growing middle class.

As suggested in the article “‘Involution’: The Anxieties of Our Time Summed Up in One Word” by Zhou Minxi (CGTN), the popularity of the term comes from “a prevalent sense of being stuck in an ever so draining rat race where everyone loses.”

China’s ever-growing middle class is now facing the question of how they and their children can remain in the middle class in a situation where everyone is continuously working harder and doing all they can to rise above the rest. Xiang Biao, a professor of social anthropology at Oxford University, is quoted by Zhou:

The lower class still hopes to change their fate, but the middle and upper classes aren’t so much looking upward, and they are marked by a deep fear of falling downward. Their greater fear is perhaps losing what they already have.”

The term ‘involution’ often comes up together with criticism on China’s ‘996’ work system (working from 9am-9pm, 6 days a week). Although Alibaba founder Jack Ma once called the 12-hour working day a “blessing,” the system is a controversial topic, with many condemning how Chinese (tech) companies are exploiting their employees, who are caught in a conundrum; they might lose their sanity working such long hours, and might lose their job and future career prospects if they refuse to do so.

But the term also comes up when discussing China’s education system, where competition starts as early as kindergarten and the pressure on children to succeed in the ‘gaokao’ college entrance exam starts many years before it takes place.

This image shows the “juan” 卷 character from ‘nei juan’ (involution) changing into a person on their bike with laptop. Image via http://www.bajieyou.com/new/431e6ef39aac4a6da232671122f66ff4

This discussion also came up with a now-famous image of a student riding his bike while also working on his laptop, using every moment to study. This was then also called “Tsinghua Inversion” (清华内卷), referring to one of China’s top universities, where competition is so vicious that students must double their efforts to catch up with others.

 
‘Involution’ Discussions on Chinese Social Media
 

By mid-2020, ‘involution’ attracted the attention on Weibo when popular academic accounts started discussing the term. Recently, ‘involution’ is used so often on Chinese social media that it has already gone beyond its original context, leading to many people discussing its meaning.

“We are forced to work overtime and are unable to resist, and yet it seems that everyone is doing it out of free will,” one Weibo user says, with another person adding: “The abnormal state of inversion has already become our normal state.”

A popular legal blogger (@皇城根下刀笔吏) on Weibo writes:

It is an internal bottomless vicious cycle of competition. For example, everyone used to work eight hours per day, five days per week. Then one company comes up where people work twelve hours per day, six days per week. Then this company will have major competitive strength in the market economy. But the outcome is that other companies are also compelled to do the same in order to compete. As time goes by, all companies will shift to a twelve-hour workday, six days a week, and job applicants entering the market can’t find any eight-hour workday positions for five days a week anymore. So, if another company wants to beat its competitors, it will have to introduce a seven-day workweek. And then other companies will need to follow in order to make a living. That is involution.”

By now, there are various images and memes that have come to represent the meaning of ‘involution’ in present-day China, such as one cram school sign saying: “If you come we will train your kids, if you don’t come, we will train the competitors of your kids.”

“The society’s resources are in short supply and to obtain the limited supplies, people are all madly practicing their skills to obtain them – regardless if they need them or not,” another Weibo user says.

Most comments relating to the discussion of ‘involution’ on Chinese social media express a sense of fatigue with an ongoing rat-race in the education and employment market.

On the interest-based social networking platform Douban, there are even some support groups for people who feel stuck in ‘involution’ and are looking for a way out. The “Center for Victims of Involution” (内卷受害者收容中心) group has over 3000 members, with smaller groups such as “Let’s Escape Involution Together” (我们一起逃离内卷) having a few dozen participants.

The generation that is mostly affected by this sense of socioeconomic stagnation is the post-90 generation. In 2020, a record high of 8.74 million university graduates entered the job market, but their chances of finding a job that suits their education and personal expectations are slim; many industries are recruiting fewer people than before in an employment market that was already competitive before the COVID19 pandemic. It leaves them facing a troubling Catch 22 situation: they will be stressed and pressured if they do not find that top job, but when they do, they are often also stressed and pressured.

It is a recurring topic on social media. Five years ago, a song by the Rainbow Chamber Singers (彩虹室内合唱团) titled “The Sofa Is So Far” immediately became a hit in China. Many young Chinese recognized themselves in the hardworking and tired people described in the lyrics, which started with: “My body feels empty / I am dog-tired / I don’t want work overtime.”

How to get away from the involution rat race is also a much-discussed topic on Weibo, where the hashtag page “How can young people resist involution” (#年轻人如何反内卷#) has received over 280 million views.

Some suggest the answer to ending the vicious cycle is to find a way to get rich fast, others suggest that not getting married and staying child-free is also a way to alleviate the pressure to participate in this zero-sum game.

Tech blogger Sensai (@森赛), who has over 2 million followers on Weibo, advises young people to find their true interest and to invest in it before the age of 30. Doing something that sparks joy, such as learning a new language or working on art, might start as a hobby but could turn into a valuable side business later, Sensai says.

For some, however, that goal seems unattainable. “I am already working 15 hours a day, how could I ever do that?!”

“This is just bringing us into a whole other level of involution,” others write.

In order to watch A Love for Dilemma (小舍得), the show that started so many of these discussions this month, you can go over to iQiyi or YouTube.

By Manya Koetse

References

Geertz, Clifford. 1963. Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Zhou Minxi. 2020. “‘Involution’: The anxieties of our time summed up in one word.” CGTN, Dec 4 https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-12-04/-Involution-The-anxieties-of-our-time-summed-up-in-one-word-VWNlDOVdjW/index.html [20.4.2021].

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©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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