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Top 10 Most Popular Smartphones in China (Fall/Winter 2020)

From OPPO to iPhone, these are the most popular smartphones in China at the moment.

Manya Koetse

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These are the most popular smartphone brands and devices in China right now. An overview by What’s on Weibo.

It’s been a while since What’s on Weibo last did a top 10 of most popular / top-rated smartphones in China (link). Because the latest smartphone models have been attracting a lot of attention on Chinese social media recently, it is high time for another update.

Apple’s iPhone 12 series, Huawei’s Mate 40, and Samsung’s Note 20 series are among the most discussed smartphones this season, but there are so many more devices gaining popularity over the past few weeks and months.

In previous years, there was a strong focus on bezel-less screens, trendy designs, and selfie camera quality. Now, there’s a shifting focus on 5G, (8K) video and multiple cameras, fast charging technology, and overall fast performance. All models in this list are 5G ready.

For this list, we loosely follow the popularity rankings of Zol, a leading IT portal website in China that compiles its lists based on the data provided by its own Internet Consumer Research Center (ZDC 互联网消费调研中心).

Since its top ten rankings are changing every day, we also take into account how much views and clicks these latest models are receiving on social media site Weibo. If multiple models of the same series occur in different places in the official rankings, we’ve put them under one ranking together (e.g. the OPPO Reno 4 SE and the OPPO Reno 4 Pro, or the Huawei Nova 7 Pro and Huawei Mate 40).

China’s most popular smartphone brands at this moment are OPPO, Vivo, Huawei, Apple, and Honor.

When popular Weibo blogger Gǎojī Juéshì (@搞机爵士,2.1 million fans) recently asked his followers which flagship phone of the moment they would choose – Apple’s iPhone 12, Huawei’s Mate 40, or Samsung’s Note 20 – a majority of 49% of respondents voted for the Huawei brand. 43% voted Apple, and 8% voted Samsung.

Although the number one of this list, the OPPO Reno4, has consistently been holding the number one spot in last week’s ranking, the other models are shifting places in the top rankings, so this is not an ‘official’ top ranking list, just one that is compiled by us following the latest trends.

 

1. OPPO RENO4 SE & PRO (8GB/128GB/5G)

OPPO is a Guangdong-based brand officially launched in 2004. It is mainly known for targeting China’s young consumers with trendy designs and smart marketing. Its product quality combined with successful online marketing has made the brand super popular throughout the years.

For the Reno4, TF Boys member Wang Junkai (@王俊凯, aka Karry Wang) who has nearly 79 million fans on Weibo, is the OPPO brand ambassador promoting this model. One Weibo post by Wang promoting the Reno4 SE received over 735,000 comments and one million likes.

The OPPO Reno4 SE was officially launched in China in late September of 2020 and is not yet available for the international market.

The Reno4 SE has a 6.43-inch AMOLED display (1080 x 2400 pixels) and comes with a triple rear camera setup (48MP, 8MP, 2MP). Noteworthy is its 32MP (!) selfie camera.

It comes with 8GB of RAM and 128GB storage (no expandable storage). Some of the Reno4 SE’s other highlights include the 65W fast charging and 5G connectivity support. The smartphone runs Android 10 OS, topped with OPPO’s own ColorOS 7.2.

On Weibo, the OPPO Reno4 SE hashtag (#OPPO小光芒Reno4 SE#) has 710 million views at the time of writing.

The Oppo Reno 4 Pro is also listed in Zol’s top ranking list, ranking 8 at the time of writing. This model is slightly bigger, with a Super AMOLED display and extra memory card slot. It also has NFC and a more high-end camera. It is priced around ¥3799 ($566).

The OPPO Reno4 SE is priced at ¥2499 ($373) at JD.com and Tmall, and is one of the cheaper devices in this list – its price is nowhere near that of the Samsung Note 20 Ultra or the iPhone 12, making it much more affordable to many. The Reno4 SE smartphone comes in three color options: Super Flash Black, Super Flash Blue, and Super Flash White.

 

2. VIVO X50 PRO (8GB/128GB/5G)

At time of writing, not only does the Vivo x50 Pro hold the number two spot in the top popular smartphone rankings, but Vivo is also ranking as the second most popular smartphone brand in China at this moment (OPPO being number one).

Like OPPO, Vivo is another Chinese domestic brand that has gained worldwide success, first entering the market in 2009. Its headquarters are based in Dongguan, Guangdong.

When it comes to marketing its smartphones, Vivo has really focused on camera quality over the past years. Its earlier Vivo x27 device was launched as a “night photo wonder tool,” and for the Vivo x50 Pro, there is again this focus on “redefined photography,” camera light sensitivity and stabilization.

The main camera is a 48MP “Gimbal” main camera, accompanied by a 13MP, 50 mm prime portrait camera, a wide-angle lens, and 60 x optical zoom camera.

Collaborating with state media outlet CCTV, there recently was a Golden Week social media promotion of the device showing beautiful night photos from the Summer Palace.

The Vivo x50 Pro was launched in June of 2020. The slim device has a 6.56 inch AMOLED display, 1080 x 2376 pixels. Due to its powerful processor, 90 Hz high refresh & 180 Hz touch sampling rate, and gaming-centric features, the Vivo x50 Pro will also be appreciated by gamers.

By now, the Weibo hashtag associated with the Vivo x50 series (#vivo X50系列 超感光微云台#) has gained over 1.7 billion views.

Many people on social media also share their own photos shot with their Vivo x50 Pro.

The Vivo x50 Pro 5G is priced at ¥3998 ($596) at e-commerce sites such as JD.com. It comes in Dark Blue and Light Blue colors.

 

3. Huawei Nova 7 Pro (8GB/128GB/5G) and Huawei Mate 40 (8B/128GB/5G)

Both the Huawei Nova 7 Pro and Huawei Mate 40 are in the top ranking lists of this moment. Huawei also ranks number three in official top-ranking smartphone brand lists of this moment, coming in before Apple in popularity.

The Huawei Nova 7 was released in April of 2020, and the Huawei Mate 40 series was released in China on October 30 with the Mate 40, Mate 40 Pro, and Mate 40 Pro+ (we’ll update this when more news comes out). The Mate 40 and Mate 40 Pro were previously on pre-order sale, and reportedly sold out within 30 seconds. The Mate 40, which ranks highest in popularity at this time, is an ‘entry-level’ device within the Mate 40 series.

The Huawei Mate 40 comes with a 6.76-inch Flex OLED display with a 2722 x 1344 pixels screen resolution, a 90Hz refresh rate, and a 240Hz touch sampling rate. There’s been a lot of hype surrounding the Huawei Mate 40 since it was said it would come with “a feature” that was still to be disclosed – which turned out to be the digital yuan wallet feature.

The older Huawei Nova7 Pro is a dual-sim device. It has a 6.57-inch display (1080 x 2340) and a 64MP + 8MP + 8MP + 2MP rear camera, the front camera being 32MP + 8MP.

The Weibo hashtag for the Huawei Nova 7 series (#华为nova7#) has nearly 2 billion views on Weibo at time of writing, with the Huawei Mate 40 garnering 1.2 billion views on its hashtag page (#华为Mate40#).

The Nova 7 pro is priced at ¥3699 ($550). The Nova 7 Pro was released in the colors Midnight Black, Silver, Forest Green, Midsummer Purple, and Honey Red. The Mate40 is ¥4999 ($745).

 

4. Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (12GB/256GB/5G)

Together with Apple, Samsung currently is among the most popular smartphone brands in the PRC that is not made-in-China. The brand seems to have been able to win back consumer’s trust after previous problems with overheating and exploding batteries.

The Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra were launched in summer 2020. Both are top-notch devices, with a Snapdragon 865 Plus processor and a 10-megapixel selfie camera, and of course, the Note’s landmark ‘S Pen’ including new gestures.

What makes the ‘Ultra’ device different from the Galaxy Note 20 is its Gorilla Glass Victus back (which is more durable and has better drop resistance), its AMOLED screen, 108-megapixel camera, and its microSD card slot – making it possible to expand the  256GB storage with a Micro-SD of up to 1TB. Despite the price difference, the aforementioned features make it understandable that the ‘Ultra’ is a more popular choice over the Samsung Note 20 device.

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra shoots 8K video, the highest-resolution video recording available. It is also the first Note with a 120 Hz refresh rate display. For reference:  a standard smartphone display usually refreshes at 60 times per second, or at 60 Hz. This high refresh rate means you get smoother animations and navigation. The device also has a 240Hz touch sampling rate (the frequency at which the display polls for touches on the display).

With its 6.9 inch (1440 x 3088) display, the Note 20 Ultra is the biggest phone on this list. It weighs 208 grams.

On Weibo, the hashtag “Samsung Note 20” (#三星note20#) has over 330 million views. The Samsung Note 5G Ultra is available in bronze, white, and black, and is available from ¥9199 ($1370), making it the most expensive phone on this list. Although many people on Weibo say they do like this phone, the high price is an obstacle, with some saying: “The price just kills me.”

 

5. OnePlus 8Pro and 8T (8GB/128 GB/5G)

“Never settle” is the slogan used by OnePlus, a Shenzhen-based Chinese smartphone manufacturer founded by Pete Lau and Carl Pei in December 2013.

Both the OnePlus8Pro and the cheaper 8T models are ranking high in current top listings. The 8T was released in October of this year, while the Pro version came out earlier in April.

Both phones come with Dual-SIM, AMOLED display (120 Hz refresh rate), Gorilla Glass 5 front and back, 4K video, stereo speakers, NFC, and 48MP main cameras.

The Pro is the bigger phone – with its 6.79 inch screen and 199 grams, it comes quite close to the Samsung Note 20 Ultra. It also has a slightly more advanced quad camera.

The OnePlus 8 series hashtag (#一加8#) currently has some 1,3 billion views on Weibo.

The OnePlus 8 Pro received quite some attention on social media earlier this year, when it turned out that its ‘Photochrom’ color filter, using infrared sensors, could see through some materials, such as plastic.

The OnePlus 8 Pro 5G is priced at ¥5399 ($805), the OnePlus 8T model is priced at ¥3399 ($507).

 

6. iQOO 5 (12GB/128GB/5G)

The iQOO is not well-known outside of China, but it is actually a sub-brand of Vivo. iQOO is owned by the BKK Group (步步高), which also owns OPPO, OnePlus, and RealMe.

The iQOO 5 was released in August of this year. Its AMOLED display is about the same size as the OnePlus8T (6.56 inch), they both have 120Hz refresh rate screen, dual SIM, and the two phones actually seem to be competitors in multiple ways, although the iQOO is the pricier option.

The iQOO has a 16-megapixel selfie camera, its rear camera is a 50MP, along with a 13MP ultra-wide angle and 13MP depth sensor. It has 8K video recording.

On social media, the iQOO is mainly marketed as a ‘fast phone’ – and in doing so (#iQOO 5 超能竞速#) it has reached 370 million views on its hashtag page at time of writing.

The iQOO 5 is priced at ¥4298 ($640) and comes in blue or grey.

 

7. OPPO FIND X2 PRO (12GB/256GB/5G)

The OPPO Find X2 Pro was already launched in March of 2020 and yet it still is one of the most popular phones of the moment in China – even though it is also one of the more expensive devices in this list.

With its 6.7 inch display, it is just as big as the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max, and in some ways it could be argued that it is a real competitor. With its 48 MP/13MP/48MP main camera and 32MP selfie camera, and, among others, stereo speakers and fast-charging features, it’s a fancy device.

Some reviewers argue the design is better than the Apple iPhone Pro, and that its display is more impressive.

The OPPO Find X2 series hashtag page (#OPPO Find X2#) has over 1.8 billion views on Weibo.

Priced at ¥5999 ($895), the OPPO Find x2 Pro comes in Black, Orange, Light Grey, Green, Lamborghini Edition, with the orange/grey/green editions all made from (vegan) leather instead of glass or plastic.

 

8. IPHONE 12 (4GB/128GB/5G) & IPHONE 12 PRO MAX (6GB/128GB/5G)

Despite its relatively high price, the iPhone 12 is still very popular in China – but at time of writing, still lags behind a bit in the top-ranking lists, and does not come up in the top five lists (yet).

The Apple iPhone 12 and the Pro Max were both announced on October 13, with the iPhone 12 launched later in October, along with the Apple iPhone 12 Pro. The Apple iPhone 12 Mini, like the Pro Max, is yet to be released.

The iPhone 12 is the smallest and lightest model of the 12 / 12 Pro / 12 Pro Max trio. It has a 6.1 inch (1170 x 2532) Super Retina XDR display, which is also among the smaller device displays in this list. The phone is also marketed as “the world’s smallest, thinnest, lightest 5G phone” with the “best iPhone display ever.” It comes with a dual 12-megapixel camera on the rear and a 12-megapixel selfie camera on the front.

It’s actually hard to track the views on the iPhone 12 series on Weibo since there are so many different hashtags relating to iPhone12 news – this in itself gives an idea of how popular this phone is. The most used “iPhone 12” hashtag (#iphone12#) has a staggering 9 billion views.

The iPhone 12 comes in the Black, White, Red, Green, Blue colors, and is currently priced at ¥6299 ($940) in China. The 12 Pro Max, with a giant 6.7-inch display and fancier camera, is priced at ¥9299 ($1387) – making it the most expensive phone on this list.

 

9. HONOR X10 & HONOR 30 (6GB/128GB/5G)

Together with the super popular OPPO’s Reno 4 SE, the Honor X10 and Honor 30 are among the more affordable devices on this list, with the X10 being slightly more popular than the more expensive Honor 30.

Honor is perhaps not as well-known outside of China as other Chinese smartphone brands are.  Honor (荣耀), established in 2013, is the budget-friendly sister of the Huawei brand. The company’s sub-brand has been doing very well over the past years. Honor focuses on great value for money, and in doing so, targets younger consumers, not just with its relatively low prices, but also with its trendy designs.

The Honor X10 5G was released in May of this year, the Honor30 was released a month earlier. Size-wise, display-wise, price-wise, these Honor devices could compete with the newer OPPO Reno 4 device, with many of their specs being similar. Both devices support expandable memory.

The Honor 30 is slightly better than the X10 when it comes to pixel density and CPU speed, but this model also has a better camera setup (40+8+8+2 MP versus 40+8+2 MP).

The X10, however, has a stronger battery (4300mAh) and a bigger screen (6.63 inches).

Honor30 hashtag (#荣耀30#) has garnered 3,5 billion views on Weibo thus far; the X10 is also popular on social media (#荣耀x10#) with 1,1 billion clicks.).

The Honor X10 is priced at ¥2199 ($328). The Honor 30 is ¥2699 ($402).

 

10. XIAOMI 10 (8GB/128GB)

Since the launch of its first smartphone in 2011, Beijing-brand Xiaomi has become one of the world’s largest smartphone makers.

The Xiaomi 10, released in May 2020, is a dual SIM device that comes with a 6.67-inch (2340 x 1080) AMOLED display with a 90 Hz refresh rate, a strong 4780 mAh battery, and 108+13+2+2 MP rear camera. It also supports 5G and has quick charging, so it’s a very 2020 device. According to Gadgets Now, the Xiaomi 10 “lives up to the hype.”

With over 3,2 billion views on the Xiaomi 10 hashtag page on Weibo (#小米10#), the Xiaomi brand also succeeded to create an online hype earlier this year. Discussions were mostly focused on the model’s camera performance and its screen.

The Xiaomi 10 is priced around ¥3499 ($521), with cheaper deals available. It comes in black, grey, green, and pink.
 

For clarification, we’ll list the aforementioned devices again, based on pricing, with the most expensive devices coming first. Note that these are the approximate prices for the Chinese market, which might be (very) different outside of China:

1. iPhone 12 Pro Max / ¥9299 ($1387)
2. Samsung Note 20 5G Ultra / ¥9199 ($1370)
3. iPhone 12 / ¥6299 ($940)
4. OPPO Find x2 Pro / ¥5999 ($895)
5. OnePlus 8 Pro 5G / ¥5399 ($805)
6. iQOO 5 / ¥4298 ($640)
7. Vivo x50 Pro 5G / ¥3998 ($596)
8. OPPO Reno4 Pro / ¥3799 ($565)
8. Huawei Nova 7 Pro 5G / ¥3699 ($550)
9. Xiaomi 10 / ¥3499 ($521)
10. OnePlus 8T / ¥3399 ($507)
11. Honor30 / ¥2699 ($402)
12. OPPO Reno4 SE / ¥2499 ($373)
13. Honor x10 / ¥2199 ($328)

By Manya Koetse

NB: This post is not a sponsored post in any way. This article may, however, include affiliate links that at absolutely no additional cost whatsoever to you allows this site to receive a small percentage in case you purchase something after you click.

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.

©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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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

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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.

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China Brands & Marketing

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

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

Manya Koetse

Published

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Manya Koetse 

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

 

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