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Top 10 of the Most Evil Power Women in China’s History

They might have lived centuries ago, but are still the talk of the day in Chinese books, television shows and online media. They were often beautiful on the outside but cruel on the inside. They were rebels of their time, and would bewitch men with their charms to get what they wanted- some of them changed China’s history because of it. A top ten list of the most evil and powerful women in China’s history.

Manya Koetse

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China has a long history of notoriously strongheaded or ruthless women. This is a list compiled by What’s on Weibo of 10 women in China’s history who are often referred to as “evil” in (online) media.

They might have lived centuries ago, but are still the talk of the day in Chinese books, television shows and online media. They were often beautiful on the outside but cruel on the inside. They were rebels of their time, and would bewitch men with their charms to win more power – some of them changed China’s history because of it. From ten to one: a top 10 of evil power women in China’s history, carefully selected and compiled by What’s on Weibo based on different online Chinese charts and books about ‘evil’ women of China.

(Updated April/2018: Check out our recent video on this topic here).

 

SECRET ROMANCE & LAVISH SPENDING

10. Lu Xiaoman (陆小曼)
Lu Xiaoman was one of the most famous women in China’s roaring twenties. In her own time, she was considered scandalous: she had an extramarital affair, was then divorced, and led a lavish lifestyle.

Lu was born in an upperclass Shanghai family in 1903 and became known as a beautiful, well-educated and talented woman. She spoke fluent English and was a gifted writer and painter. She became married to the erudite Wang Geng. Within the first years of their marriage, Lu fell in love with one of Wang’s friends named Xu Zhimo, who was one of China’s most famous poets at the time. Zhimo had been married before, but was already divorced in what has been described as China’s “first modern divorce” (Lee 2007, 389).

Lu and the poet soon got tangled up in a complicated love-affair, while Lu was still married to Wang. Eventually, she got divorced herself and remarried to Xu in 1926. Xu soon found out that he could not afford Lu’s lifestyle. She lavishly spend their money on luxury goods, delicacies and extravagant nights out. She rented an expensive apartment and hired 14 servants. Lu’s luxurious lifestyle eventually got Xu in serious financial trouble.

During a fight over their expenses, the two got into a fight and Xu left their home for a trip, during which he died in a plane crash. Because Xu left during an argument, and because he took an old plane since he could not afford a modern one due to Lu’s spending, some argue that it was Lu Xiaoman who actually “killed” her husband (Sina 2014; Hong Lee&Stefanowska 2003, 389-391).

陆小曼Lu Xiaoman, on the right pictured together with Xu Zhimo.

 

FROM SUPERSTAR TO SUPERTRAITOR

9. Li Xianglan (李香兰)

Li Xianglan was an actress and singer who was loved by the Chinese people for her talent and beauty, but also hated by them for her nationality. She was a Japanese woman who pretended to be Chinese for many years. Yamagachi Yoshiko (her Japanese name) was born in 1920 Manchuria to Japanese parents. As the Sino-Japanese War was on the way, she jumped to superstar status. Being fluent in Mandarin, the Chinese audience did not know she was Japanese.

During these years, she played in seventeen different films, of which some were produced by Japanese studios to create pro-Japanese sentiment in China. When she was later arrested for treason, she had to expose her true nationality in order to avoid punishment.

She initially fled to the US and changed her name to Shirley Yamaguchi, but later settled down in Japan and took on the name Otaka Yoshiko, although she also remained known as Ri Koran (the Japanese pronunciation of her Chinese name).

Throughout her life, Li Xianglan had five different identities. When she passed away in the summer of 2014, many Chinese people still remembered her as a woman who lied about her identity and betrayed China. To know more about Li Xianglan, read ‘Caught Between China & Japan: Superstar Li Xianglan‘.

xianglanLi Xianglan.

 

INCEST & MURDER

8. Wen Jiang (文姜)

Her charm and beauty was praised in the oldest collection of Chinese poetry, the Classic of Poetry (诗经): Wen Jiang.  She lived during the 6th century BC as princess of the State of Qi, and became the wife of Duke Huan of Lu (present-day Shandong) with whom she had a son.

Wen Jiang was a politically powerful woman with a dark secret, as she was involved in an ongoing incestuous relationship with her own brother, Duke Xiang. When the affair was exposed, Duxe Xiang threw a big feast for his brother-in-law and got him drunk in the hopes of calming matters down.

The opposite happened, as things got out of hand and Duke Huang was killed on the same night – allegedly by the son of Xiang at his order. Although Wen Jiang initially was supposed to bring her dead husband’s body back to Lu, she ended up staying at the border of Qi and Lu, where her son build her a residence. She stayed there for the rest of her life (Cook 2007, 81).

wenjiangWen Jiang in contemporary imagery.

 

ADULTERY & INFANTICIDE

7. Zhao Feiyan (趙飛燕)

Zhao Feiyan (c. 32-1 BC) was a beautiful woman of humble origin who was called ‘flying swallow’ (feiyan) because of her ability to dance elegantly like a bird. The ruling emperor of the Han Dynasty, Cheng, became enticed with her. He turned Feiyan one of his mistresses together with her sister Hede.

Feiyan soon became powerful. Emperor Cheng became so attached to her that he got rid of his empress in favor of Feiyan, who now became empress in spite of her low societal background. Although she had taken the place of the first wife, she had one problem: she could not bear a son. She went to extreme measures to try to get pregnant. She started sleeping around with palace slaves in the hopes of getting pregnant.

When Cheng’s other concubines got pregnant, Feiyan forced them into abortions and killed any living children. As a result, the Emperor never had a heir. When Emperor Cheng passed away, Feiyan was arrested and sent to his tomb. This is where she commited suicide (Zhao 2000, 89).

zhaoThe role of Zhao Feiyan played by actress Tong Liya in the 2008 Chinese film The Queens (母仪天下).

 

THE REAL MADAME BUTTERFLY

6. Shi Peipu (时佩璞): ‘M. Butterfly’

Although Shi Peipu was not biologically a woman, ‘she’ needs to be on this list because of her incredibly crafty ways and the fact she has cross-dressed as a woman for over two decades.

Shi Peipu was a spy working for the Chinese secret service, and was involved in what has been called one of the “strangest cases in international espionage” (Wadler 2009). For twenty years Shi pretended to be a woman during a love relationship with French diplomat Bernard Bouriscot in order to gather intelligence information from him.

Shi Peipu originally was an opera singer and actor from Kunming, who moved to Beijing in the 1960s. The 26-year-old Shi met Bouriscot there at a Christmas party at the French embassy in 1964, where Shi came dressed as a man. Shi told Bouriscot that he was actually a female opera singer who had been forced by his father to present himself as a man because he desired a son so much. Bouriscot believed it, and their affair took off; a romance that also continued when Bouriscot was stationed abroad.

Shi got Bouriscot entangled in Chinese espionage practices and went to extreme measures to keep the Frenchman close, as ‘she’ even convinced Boursicot that she had become pregnant with his child. Shi adopted a boy and presented him as their alleged child. In 1982, Shi and Bouriscot moved to Paris where they were both arrested a year later. Boursicot attempted suicide when he discovered that Shi was actually a man. He was convicted of espionage and spent six years in prison.

Shi passed away in 2009. The Broadway play ‘M. Butterfly’ by David Hwang was based on this story. It was also turned into a film. About the affair, Boursicot later said: “When I believed it, it was a beautiful story” (KPBS 1993; Leung 2003, 119). Shi’s adopted child, Shi Dudu, lives in Paris and has a family with three sons.

peipuShi Peipu the opera singer on the left, on the right: Bouriscot and Shi Peipu at court.

 

ANYTHING FOR POWER

5. Wu Zetian (武则天): Empress Wu 

Wu Zetian (625-705) was an empress during the Tang Dynasty, and become famous for being the first and only female in Chinese history to rule the country as an emperor. She reigned China from 690, when she was 65 years old. Her status as emperor was not the only reason she became a famous historical figure: she was known for being extremely ruthless, going to utmost extremes in order to maintain power.

Wu Zetian was born into a rich family and was well-educated. She was only 13 when she was introduced to Emperor Taizhong. She became his concubine, although she also took a liking to his son Li Zhi. When the Emperor died, the 27-year old Wu then, unconventionally, became a concubine to Li Zhi. She had a baby daughter, but it was soon strangled to death. Wu accused the first wife of Li Zhi of murdering her baby, although it is commonly believed that it was Wu herself who killed it to frame Li Zhi’s first wife. She succeeded; the empress was deposed, and Wu rose in in rank. Her power grew even more when she had a son, who became the new emperor.

When the young man died of a stroke, Wu took over his rule. Some historians believe Wu in fact killed her own son to ascend the throne. She was declared emperor in 690. Wu was known for killing or locking up anybody that stood in her way. She had her own army of secret police to spy on her enemies and eliminate them. She eventually abdicated to let her third son rule. Not long after, she passed away at the age of 80 (Custer; WIWH 1996). The popular 2013 Chinese costume drama Women of the Tang Dynasty is based on the era of Wu Zetian the generations that followed.

xiaomanWu Zetian played by Hui Yinghong in the TV series Women of the Tang Dynasty (唐宫燕).

 

KILLING WITH CAKE

4. Empress Wei (韦皇后)

Empress Wei lived around the same as Wu Zetian. You might say Wu Zetian was a role model to Wei, as she tried to emulate her evil ways in order to gain power and influence. She was the wife of Emperor Zhongzong, Wu Zetian’s son, who was sent into exile when his brother was put on the throne. Wei joined her husband in exile. After 705, the emperor reascended the throne. At this time, Wei and the emperor had suffered many hardships while away from

After 705, the emperor reascended the throne. At this time, Wei and the emperor had suffered many hardships while away from court. Now that Wu Zetian had died, the spiteful Wei was determined to get a hold onto power. She began to interfere in state affairs. In order to get what she wanted, she manipulated and mobilized the clique of spies and supporters Wu Zetian had gathered while in power. In this way, Wei got to control the entire court. Her husband had become nothing but a puppet. She soon set out to remove and kill all of her enemies; she framed them with ingenious plots, got them exiled or executed. When her husband saw through her plans, she murdered him with poisonous steamed cakes – his favorite food.

In order to get what she wanted, she manipulated and mobilized the clique of spies and supporters Wu Zetian had gathered while in power. In this way, Wei got to control the entire court. Her husband had become nothing but a puppet. She soon set out to remove and kill all of her enemies; she framed them with ingenious plots, got them exiled or executed. When her husband saw through her plans, she murdered him with poisonous steamed cakes – his favorite food. Eventually her plans failed as her former sister-in-law jumped to power. Wei was beheaded in 710 (Peterson 2000, 202-206).

url-2Empress Wei played by He Saifei in the 2013 television series Women of the Tang Dynasty (唐宫燕).

 

RUTHLESS & LAVISH

3. Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后)

Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) is one of China’s most famous empresses, known for her ruthlessness and resilience. She was born into a distinguished family of Manchu lineage and arrived at the Forbidden City as a concubine to Emperor Xianfeng in 1851.

She soon became his favorite, especially after she had given birth to a son. Xianfeng often discussed political matters with Cixi. She became well informed on state affairs and gradually grew more powerful. When Xianfeng died, Cixi did everything she could to gain political power. She ordered the suicide of the emperor’s regents and had her own son Tongzhi crowned as emperor.

She governed the state during his reign and during that of her nephew Guangxu. When he was put on the throne, she ordered him to reclusion in a palace within the Forbidden City, isolating him from the world and leaving him to see nobody but his wife and servants, who were then either put to death or banished. She effectively ruled the Chinese government for 47 years. Cixi was known for squandering money on luxurious banquets and expensive jewelry. At her banquets, she would request to be served 150 different dishes. She drank from a jade cup and ate with golden chopsticks. She was known for putting her own interests ahead of the nation until the end of her rule. At the end of her life, she still held grudges against her nephew Guangxu. She killed him through arsenic poisoning. She died one day later (Hilton 2013; SACU 2001; Spence 1990, 217-218).

cixiThe empress in pictures. Right photograph is part of a photo series of the Empress Dowager, 1903-1904. To learn more about these pictures, see this info page about an exhibition themed around them.

 

MURDER, MANIPULATION & TORTURE

2. Empress Lü Zhi (吕后)

Empress Lü (241–180 BC) was the first woman to become Empress of China. She was the wife of Emperor Liu Bang (Gaozu), founder of the Han Dynasty. Lü was very intelligent and her role was crucial in centralizing her husband’s rule. She became infamous for her cruelty and persistence in gaining ultimate power.

Empress Lü had several aristocratic and influential families killed so that the Emperor (and she herself) would maintain authority. After he died, she turned against his concubines. One of them was Qizi, who was very much loved by the Emperor. Qizi had born the Emperor a son, Ru Yi, who was the new heir of the household; something the Empress was displeased with. She had the young boy poisoned to death, and later turned against his mother. She mutilated Qizi by chopping off her hands and feet, scooping out her eyes, making her deaf and dumb with toxins, and abandoning her in a pigsty.

Up to her dying day, Empress Lü was known to make others suffer so she could have all the power to herself (Yao et al 2010, 64; Peterson 2000, 45-51).

luThe role of Empress Lü played by Wang Ji in 2011 costume drama The Han Triump (大风歌).

 

A VERY EVIL, VERY EVIL WOMAN

1. Jiang Qing (江青) or Madame Mao

Jiang Qing (1914-1991) is often pinpointed as one of the most evil women from China’s history because of her role during the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping once called her a “very evil, very evil woman” (很坏很坏的女人). Jiang played an important role during the Mao years as she was married to Mao Zedong and influenced his policies, especially those on art and culture.

She met Mao when she went to Yan’an in 1937. She was an actress in the left-wing theatre, and had been married and divorced twice before. She soon started to live together with Mao. Although Jiang initially kept her distance in political matters, she gradually became more influential and involved during the 1950s. She strengthened Mao’s position (and her own) by making sure that all influential people in the government and work units were loyal to Mao and herself. She removed those who allegedly were not. She soon gathered a group of supporters around her, and focused on the destruction of her enemies.

In 1968, she had the children of her enemy Zhou Enlai tortured and killed. As Mao’s health declined, she grew in influence. Together with Yao Wenyuan, Wang Hongwen and Zhang Chunqiao she formed the Gang of Four. After Mao’s death, the Gang was soon overthrown and accused of “persecuting to death” an estimated 34,800 people during the Cultural Revolution and having “framed and persecuted” 729,511 others during the years they were in power. Jiang maintained that Mao had supported her and that she had only obeyed his will (Spence 1990, 680-681; Kristof 1991). Although Jiang was initially condemned to death, she was later sentenced to life in prison. She committed suicide at the age of 77 in 1991 (Lee 2007, 259-263).

jiangqingJiang qing in her young years on the cover of a movie magazine and pictured with Mao Zedong (right).

 

References

Cook, Constance. 2007. “Wen Jiang, Wife of Duke Huan of Lu,” In Lily Xiao Hong Lee and A.D. Stefanowska (eds), Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women, Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E. – 618 C.E., 81. New York: ME Sharpe.

Custer, Charles. “Wu Zetian, China’s Only Female Emperor.” Chinese Culture  http://chineseculture.about.com/od/historyofchina/fl/Wu-Zetian.htm (Accessed Dec 8, 2014).

Hilton, Isabel. 2013. “Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang – review.” The Guardian, 25 Oct http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/25/empress-dowager-cixi-jung-chang-review (Accessed November 19, 2014).

KPBS. 1993. “Theatre Preview M. Butterfly at North Coast Reportory Theatre.” KPBS On Air Magazine, August www.patteproductions.com/Previews/Archive/prev93/oa930800.htm (Accessed December 5, 2014).

Kristof, Nikolas. 1991. “Suicide of Jiang Qing, Mao’s Widow, Is Reported.” New York Times, 5 June http://www.nytimes.com/1991/06/05/obituaries/suicide-of-jiang-qing-mao-s-widow-is-reported.html (Accessed December 5, 2014).

Lee, Lily Xiao Hong and A.D. Stefanowska (eds). 2003. Biographic Dictionary of Chinese Women. The Twentieth Century: 1912-2000. New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Lee, Lily Xiao Hong. 2007. “Lu Xiaoman.” In Lily Xiao Hong Lee and A.D. Stefanowska (eds), Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women, Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E. – 618 C.E.,389-392. New York: ME Sharpe.

–. 2003. “Jiang Qing.” In Lily Xiao Hong Lee and A.D. Stefanowska (eds). 2003. Biographic Dictionary of Chinese Women. The Twentieth Century: 1912-2000, 259-263. New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Leung Li, Siu. 2003. Cross-Dressing in Chinese Opera. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Peterson, Barbara Bennett (ed). 2000. Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century. New York: M.E. Sharpe.

SACU. 2001. “The Life of Empress Cixi.” Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding http://www.sacu.org/cixi.html (Accessed December 5, 2014).

Sina 2014. “花钱太多:徐志摩养不活陆小曼.” Sina News, 3 July http://history.sina.com.cn/bk/mgs/2014-07-03/163294573.shtml (Accessed December 5, 2014).

Spence, Jonathan. 1990. The Search for Modern China. Norton&Company: New York.

Wadler, Joyce. 2009. “Shi Pei Pu, Singer, Spy and ‘M. Butterfly,’ Dies at 70.” New York Times, 9 June http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/02/world/asia/02shi.html (Accessed Dec 9, 2014).

WIWH (Women in World History). 1996. “Empress Wu Zetian.” Women in World History www.womeninworldhistory.com/heroine6.html (Accessed December 4, 2014).

Yao Dan et al. 2010. Chinese Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zhao Xiaoming. 2000. “Zhao Feiyan.” In Barbara Bennett Peterson (ed), Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century, 87-89. New York: M.E. Sharpe.

 

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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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11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Xiaoxiao Li

    December 9, 2014 at 11:57 pm

    “In 1968, she had the children of her enemy Zhou Enlai tortured and killed.” Not true. Zhou Enlai s well known for having no child.

    • Manya Koetse

      Manya Koetse

      December 11, 2014 at 11:28 am

      He did – they were adopted.

  2. Avatar

    Ricky

    December 10, 2014 at 5:50 am

    That was a fascinating article. I have been pondering why no one seems to trust anyone in Chinese culture. It seems these chess matches have been going on for centuries.

  3. Avatar

    Sania Bright

    April 20, 2015 at 7:41 am

    great list thanks for sharing

  4. Avatar

    Yan

    December 2, 2015 at 9:26 pm

    I don’t think Wu Zetian is evil. As a female ruler in ancient China, she has been highly appreciated throughout history by people, particularly by women. We can’t ignore her contribution. We can probably say that other women were evil, because they did terrible things without any contribution to society. I disagree with that Lu Xiaoman is evil. You shouldn’t say that she “killed” her husband. That’s discrimination.

    • Avatar

      Big Duh

      April 22, 2017 at 12:58 am

      Well, we all know that there are many rumors out there and maybe they are true. But if she actually killed a child, it doesn’t matter how she contributed to society, she’s still evil. You can contribute to society and still be an evil son of a bitch bastard that ruin innocent people’s lives.

    • Avatar

      Maggie

      June 2, 2017 at 1:54 pm

      I agree, she isn’t very evil. My parents and my relatives all think Wu Zetian aren’t evil. Maybe this is from a Chinese perspective. A lot of western articles say she is evil. But the Chinese wrote songs about Wu Zetian and how great she is. She made Buddhism the national religion. She made equal rights for women, and she made less taxes for the peasants. She’s ruthless, but probably not evil.

  5. Avatar

    Bernard R

    February 3, 2016 at 12:41 pm

    Informative and well-written, Ms Koetse. I’m thinking that Wei and especially Wu might’ve torn a page from the previous Nothern Wei Dynasty archives and the infamous Dowager Empress Hu, huuuu had poisoned her young son (and heir to the thrown) when he reached ruling age and replaced him with a different (2-yr-old) crown prince but was quickly overthrown by a general who was loyal to her late son and who promptly had her–along with the uncomprehending 2-yr-old Emperor–into the Yellow River to drown-
    Oh, which reminds me, who was the badass 18th or 19th century Chinese woman pirate? Powerful and viscious; evil too, if you don’t like pirates.

  6. Avatar

    anonymous

    August 20, 2017 at 1:48 am

    I just knew that Mao’s wife would end up at #1 on this list!

  7. Avatar

    MNRC

    May 4, 2018 at 12:56 pm

    The title of this article is incredibly misogynistic and smacks of patriarchal condescension. Why were any of these women “evil”? Because they had the nerve to do what any smart male emperor would have done in her place? Political intrigue, ruthless assassinations, and societal manipulation was the name of the game in the imperial courts of dynastic China and you either lived to tell your story or died trying. Any of the “evil” actions of these women were committed a million times more by male emperors throughout Chinese history.

    As a leader Wu Zetian was actually one of the best emperors China had ever seen. Chinese historians hate her because she was strong, unfeminine, and unapologetically power hungry; she was utterly ruthless–seizing and wielding power like a man when no woman had dared to do this so publicly in the past. Wu Zetian embodies feminist leadership and her actions were no worse than the male leaders that came before or after her. To condemn these powerful women as “evil” is to enforce sexist oppression on women who chose power over the life of a docile doormat there to be stepped on by men, husbands, sons, and an intensely patriarchal society.

    “She reformed the educational and governmental selection process so that talented people were promoted, regardless of rank. She boosted agricultural production by rewarding good administrators, punishing those who taxed the peasants too heavily, re-allocating land fairly and improving public works. She strengthened defence and foreign relations, so that by 697 AD, military threats in the far northwest had been overcome and territorial limits extended deep into Central Asia. She also completed the conquest of the upper Korean peninsula. Notably, she made Buddhism the favoured state religion ahead of Daoism.

    By the time she died 15 years later, Wu had created a powerful and prosperous regime and social stability. She was buried in the Qianling Tomb in Shaanxi province.” From http://yp.scmp.com/education/article/91619/wu-zetian-chinas-fierce-and-fearless-empress-and-feminist

    From a feminist perspective Wu Zetian demonstrated that women can be equally as powerful and effective leaders as men.

    • Avatar

      Tervashonka

      August 16, 2018 at 5:29 pm

      If a female emperor acts in the same evil way as a male emperor, that means they are both evil. Saying that atrocities carried out by female emperors is misogyny just because male emperors have been guilty of same kind of actions just does not make any sense.

      From a non feminist perspective Wu Zetian did indeed demonstrate that women can be equally as powerful and effective as men, but she also demonstrated that women can be just as ruthless and evil leaders as men. Therefore she indeed deserves a spot on this list.

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Backgrounder

These Are the Foreign Brands Apologizing to China amid Hong Kong Tensions

Who’s apologizing and why? An A-Z list of the foreign companies caught up in China’s online brand hunt.

Manya Koetse

Published

on

First published

Foreign luxury brands hoping to appease the Chinese market are walking on eggshells as the political crisis in Hong Kong is deepening. Chinese netizens and state media recently condemned foreign brands for showing any signs of disregarding the One-China Policy. An online witch hunt has begun: this is the list of brands.

While the political crisis in Hong Kong is deepening, the propaganda machine in mainland China is running at full speed to condemn anti-Beijing ‘rioters’ and promote the one-China principle.

As state media has been intensifying its news coverage on the situation in Hong Kong, with virtually all outlets using similar narratives, Chinese web users started to focus on foreign (luxury) brands and whether or not they list Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan as being part of China.

Starting on August 8, Chinese social media platform Weibo has seen dozens of hashtags taking over Chinese social media in relation to the big brand scandal; one foreign brand after the other was exposed as ‘ignoring’ China’s one-China principle on their website or products.

By the beginning of this week, the online brand hunt had almost become like an online contest, with thousands of netizens suggesting new brands that are allegedly not respecting China’s sovereignty.

Although the trend initially began with Chinese web users condemning brands -starting with Versace-, Chinese state media soon also reported about the online controversies and intensified the movement.

Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily wrote that Western brands are quick to apologize, but should also “learn from their mistakes” in the long run, and cannot disregard the One-China Policy if they want to do business in China.

“This is common knowledge, it’s the bottom line,” – online propaganda poster by People’s Daily shows foreign brands and a crack in the “One China” symbol.

State media outlet Global Times also published an illustration online, writing the slogan “China can’t be one bit less” (“中国一点都不能少”) that has been used by state media to emphasize China’s one-China principle since the 2016 South China Sea dispute.

Illustration by Global Times.

In response to the controversies, it has been raining apologies from foreign brands on Chinese social media the past days.

Who is mainly responsible for this online witch hunt? Although it first started with Chinese web users sharing images and screenshots of foreign brands and their ‘erroneous representation’ of China, state media and celebrities soon also started to play a major role in this issue and have contributed to the enormous snowball effect of the trend.

What’s the ‘correct’ way to list Hong Kong or Taiwan according to the one-China principle? Below is an image of the (adjusted) website of Valentino where it lists countries and lists Hong Kong and Taiwan as being part of China.

Here’s a list of the global brands have become tied up in controversy on the mainland this week (this list might still be updated):

 

● ASICS 亚瑟士

Japanese footwear brand

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/asicsofficial (240,000+ fans)

Hashtag:
“ASICS lists HK & Taiwan as Separate Countries” (#亚瑟士将香港与台湾列为国家#): 110 million views.

What’s the problem?
The ASICS website listed Hong Kong and Taiwan as countries.

Apology?
Yes, statement on August 12, followed by “ASICS apologizes” hashtag (#亚瑟士致歉#), 6,5 million views on Weibo. The footwear brand emphasized that it abides by the one-China policy and that it will correct its “mistakes.”

Consequences:
Besides some netizens who vow not to buy any of the brands in this list disregarding the PRC’s one-China policy, there are no indications as of now that the brand is affected by the issue.

 

● CALVIN KLEIN

American fashion brand

Brand Weibo account:
https://weibo.com/calvinklein (303,000 fans)

Hashtag:
“CK Exposed for Insulting China” (##CK被曝辱华##): 1,5 million views.

What’s the problem?:
Calvin Klein faced criticism for listing Taiwan and Hong Kong as separate countries or regions on its website.

Apology?
Yes, statement on August 13, followed by “CK apologizes” hashtag (#ck道歉#), 15 million views on Weibo.

Consequence:
Chinese actress Jelly Lin, Calvin Klein’s brand ambassador for the Asia-Pacific region, announced an immediate termination of collaboration with the American fashion house. The hashtag for this event (#林允终止与CK合作#) received no less than 510 million views. Zhang Yixing (Lay Zhang), a Chinese member of K-pop group Exo and a Calvin Klein model, warned the US clothing company to respect Beijing’s “one China” policy but did not stop working the brand (he did terminate collaborations with Samsung, also in this list).

 

● COACH 蔻驰

American luxury accessories company 

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/coachchina (4+ million fans)

Hashtag:
“Coach Lists HK, Macau, Taiwan as Countries” (#蔻驰将港澳台列为国家#): 6 million views.

What’s the problem?:
Less than 24 hours after Versace’s apology, Coach was among the second batch of brands, along with Givenchy, ASICS, and Fresh, to be exposed online for erroneous geographic listings. Coach got in trouble for a t-shirt displaying ‘Hong Kong’ as an independent region and listing ‘Taipei’ as belonging to ‘Taiwan,’ while Shanghai and Beijing are listed under China.

The tshirt that got Coach into trouble.

The brand was also found to have listed Hong Kong and Taiwan as independent countries under its website’s  “search country” option.

Apology?:
Yes, statement on August 12, followed by “Coach apologizes” hashtag (#蔻驰道歉#), 300 million views on Weibo.

Consequences:
Coach’s China ambassador, supermodel Liu Wen, said on Weibo on Monday that she had cut off her endorsement deal with the fashion label (#刘雯终止与蔻驰合作#, 6 million views) as the brand “seriously impacted the national sentiment of the Chinese people.” State media outlet Global Times suggested the brand faced “potential boycott in China.”

 

● FRESH 馥蕾诗

American beauty brand 

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/freshbeauty (339,500 milion fans)

Hashtag:
No separate hashtag for this incident.

What’s the problem?:
Fresh faced backlash for listing ‘Hong Kong’ as a separate region on its official (English) website.

Apology?:
Yes, statement on August 12, followed by “Fresh apologizes” hashtag (#fresh道歉#,) 8 million views on Weibo.

Consequence:
No known direct consequences.

 

● GIVENCHY 纪梵希

French luxury fashion and perfume house

Brand Weibo account:
https://weibo.com/officialgivenchy (1.5 milion fans)

Hashtag:
The topic ‘Givenchy T-Shirt’ (#纪梵希t恤#) became big on Weibo. The hashtag page has over 500 million views.

What’s the problem?:
Like Coach, Givenchy also got in trouble for a t-shirt displaying ‘Hong Kong’ as an independent region and listing ‘Taipei’ as belonging to ‘Taiwan.’

Apology?:
Yes, statement on August 12, followed by “Givenchy apologizes” hashtag (#纪梵希道歉#,) 290 million views on Weibo.

Consequence:
Chinese singer Jackson Yee terminated his brand partnerships with Givenchy (#易烊千玺与纪梵希解约# 680 million views).

 

● POCARI SWEAT 宝矿力水特

Japanese sport’s drink

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/pocarisweat (15400 fans)

Hashtag:
“Pocari Sweat Get Out of China”(#宝矿力水特滚出中国#) is one of the early hashtags associated with the Pocari controversy. With just over 300,000 views, it did not gain huge traction on Weibo.

What’s the problem?
Pocari Sweat is among the earliest brands – if not the earliest- to be caught up in the brand controversy relating to the protests in Hong Kong. As described by Japan Times, pro-democracy demonstrators praised Pocari after it pulled advertising from Hong Kong television station TVB, which protesters accuse of pro-Beijing coverage. Pocari became a popular drink among Hong Kong protesters.

Apology?:
The mainland China office of the brand issued two apology statements on July 11 and 21 in which it emphasized that it operates separately from the Hong Kong division and that it respects China’s “one country, two systems” policy.

Consequence:
Pocari Sweat was condemned by Chinese state media, but it is not clear if people in mainland China are drinking less Pocari because of the issue.

 

● VALENTINO 

Italian fashion house

Brand Weibo account:
www.weibo.com/valentinoofficial (413,000+ fans)

Hashtag:
No particular hashtag.

What’s the problem?:
Valentino listed Hong Kong and Taiwan as separate countries in the region/language menu on its foreign website.

Apology?:
Yes, statement on August 13, in which Valentino apologizes for making “a mistake” on its website. The website has since been changed.

Consequence:
No known consequences, the website seemed to be quickly adjusted, and many netizens expressed their praise for that and for the fact that the recent trend seems to make foreign brands more aware of the importance of respecting the One-China Policy.

 

● VERSACE 范思哲 

Italian fashion house

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/versacechina (850,000+ fans)

Hashtag:
“Versace Suspected of [Supporting] Hong Kong and Macau Independence” (#范思哲涉嫌港独澳独#): 3.2 million views.

What’s the problem?:
Versace is the first brand to be targeted in this week’s brand-hunting trend. An image of a T-shirt that listed Hong Kong and Macau as independent countries was first posted on Weibo by a female netizen on August 8, who wrote: “I discovered this recently, and wondered if the design of this t-shirt means that Versace is supporting Hong Kong independence?” Three days later, the image had circulated so much that it became a trending topic. Commenters called out the brand for being “two-faced” and for profiting from Chinese money while disregarding Chinese sovereignty.

Apology?:
Yes, statement on August 11, followed by “Versace apologizes” hashtag (#范思哲道歉#,) 860 million views on Weibo. In its statement, Versace stated that the t-shirts had already been recalled and destroyed in late July, and that the fashion house “deeply apologized for the controversy” that was caused by an “error in its t-shirt design.” Versace further stated that the brand “loves China” and “resolutely respects China’s territorial sovereignty.”

Donatella Versace, the designer and chief creative officer of Versace, also issued a personal apology through Instagram, writing: “Never have I wanted to disrespect China’s National Sovereignty and this is why I wanted to personally apologize for such inaccuracy and for any distress that it may have caused.”

Consequence:
Chinese celebrity Yang Mi ended her relationship with Versace. The announcement received a lot of attention on Chinese social media (#杨幂终止与Versace合作# 1.1 billion views).

 

● SWAROVSKI 施华洛世奇

Austrian jewelry company

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/swarovskicom (500,00+ fans)

Hashtag:
Swarovski, together with Calvin Klein, was one of the brands that popped up in the general ‘luxury brand scandal’ after the Versace controversy had snowballed and had moved to Coach, Givenchy, ASICS, and Fresh. The Swarovski issue was exposed just a bit later and had no separate hashtag on Weibo.

What’s the problem?
Swarovski went trending on Chinese social media for classifying Hong Kong as a country on its website.

Apology?
Swarovski issued an apology statement on August 13. The hashtag “Swarovski Apologizes” received over 750 million views on Weibo (#施华洛世奇道歉#).

Consequence:
Chinese actress Jiang Shuying, also known as Maggie Jiang, announced on Tuesday (August 13) that she would be ending her cooperation with Swarovski (#江疏影与施华洛世奇解约#, 410 million views).

 

CURRENTLY UNDER SCRUTINY BUT NO APOLOGIES:

 

● AMAZON 亚马逊

American e-commerce company

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/amazonchina (4.4 million fans)

Hashtag:
“Amazon T-shirts” (#亚马逊t恤#), 140 million views; “Amazon Sells Hong Kong Independence Shirts” (#亚马逊售卖港独T恤#), 18 million views.

What’s the problem?
Amazon is one of the latest brands to be added to the virtual PRC wall of shame of international brands going against Beijing’s “One China” principle. On August 14, screenshots of the Amazon e-commerce platform selling t-shirts promoting an independent Hong Kong and displaying anti-China slogans went viral on Weibo.

Reaction
Amazon did not apologize for the merchandise sold on its platforms, but the company did respond to ChinaNews (#亚马逊回应T恤事件#), emphasizing that Amazon always has and will respect China’s one-China principle, and abide by local laws of the countries Amazon is active in. There were also netizens on Weibo saying they understood that Amazon cannot be responsible for all the merchandise sold by its online shops around the world.

 

● SAMSUNG 三星 

South Korean Tech Company

Brand Weibo account:
https://www.weibo.com/samsung (2.8+ million fans)

Hashtag:
No separate hashtag for this issue, although the announcement that Zhang Yixing would terminate his contract with Samsung did receive over 980 million views, making it one of the bigger hashtags in this brand scandal.

What’s the problem?:
Samsung faced criticism on August 14 for damaging China’s “territorial integrity” by displaying choices Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan as “countries” on its website.

Consequence:
Chinese celebrity and K-Pop star Zhang Yixing (Lay Zhang) announced on August 13 that he would no longer work together with Samsung as a brand ambassador for “hurting the national feelings of Chinese compatriots” (#张艺兴与三星解约#, 980 million views!).

 

By Manya Koetse

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

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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Backgrounder

How the Hong Kong Protests Are Discussed on Chinese Social Media

“Hong Kong, the Pearl of the Orient, is no longer blooming, but covered in cuts and bruises.”

Manya Koetse

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Although discussions on the Hong Kong protests were initially silenced on Chinese social media, the demonstrations are now trending all over Weibo, with state media propagating hashtags and illustrations in favor of Hong Kong government and in support of the Hong Kong Police Force.

The political crisis in Hong Kong shows no signs of de-escalating after another series of mass demonstrations and violent clashes between police and protesters.

This week marks the ninth consecutive week of protests in Hong Kong. The first demonstrations started in March and April of this year against an extradition bill that would allow local authorities to detain and extradite people wanted in mainland China.

After demonstrations escalated in June, the bill was declared “dead” and suspended by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, but it was not formally withdrawn.

Protests have since continued throughout June, July, and into August, and are now about much more than the extradition bill alone – they are, amongst others, about greater freedom and democracy in Hong Kong, and about less political influence from the Beijing government.

Protesters are calling for Lam’s resignation and for democratic elections, and have denounced violent tactics and “abuse of power” used by the Hong Kong Police Force.

The absence of the police during an attack on residents by suspected gang members dressed in white shirts at the Yuen Long station on July 21 is one of the incidents protesters mention as police misconduct.

But there is also a division between demonstrators, and not necessarily one unified voice. There are also those, for example, who support Hong Kong police. And those who denounce the actions of angry protesters.

 

China’s Central Government Condemns Protests

 

Although authorities in mainland China initially remained quiet on the topic of the Hong Kong protests, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council, China’s top agency for handling Hong Kong affairs, held its first press conference on its stance regarding Hong Kong demonstrations on July 29.

Yang Guang, the office’s spokesperson, condemned the actions of protesters over recent weeks, saying that they “exceeded the boundaries of acceptable protest.”

On August 6, there was another press briefing where Yang Guang used stronger language to denounce the protests, saying that the “radical protests (..) severely impacted Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, pushing it into a dangerous abyss” and that those behind the demonstrations should not “misjudge” the situation and “mistake our restraint for weakness.”

 

Main Stances on Chinese Social Media

 

On Chinese social media sites, news and discussions on the Hong Kong protest were initially silenced (also see this article), but that has changed now.

Although discussions are still heavily controlled, the topic of the Hong Kong demonstrations has been dominating the trending streams over the past days on China’s popular social media platforms.

On Douyin, one of the most popular short video / social media apps in mainland China, there are dozens of different videos of violent incidents in Hong Kong that are being reposted and liked thousands of times.

On news app Toutiao, articles relating to the Hong Kong protests are in the recommended and ‘hot’ sections, while bloggers and news accounts on WeChat are also posting and reposting Hong Kong related content.

For the scope of this article, we will solely focus on Weibo – the narratives that are spread in daily discussions on the platform are comparable to those on other platforms.

Although the ensuing examples are the main types of posts on Hong Kong that are most popular on Chinese social media now, and definitely receive a lot of support, there are also posts with other views and ideas that might be blocked before ever making it to Weibo or other apps/platforms.

But the restrictions on free discussions on social media do not only relate to platform censorship.

Recently, there are also instances in which Chinese netizens speak out in support of the protesters in Hong Kong who then become a victim of the so-called “human flesh search engine.”

One female Weibo user, responding to the demonstrations in Hong Kong, wrote on August 5th: “Respect to every person out there striking and protesting!” Other Weibo users then made screenshots of her comment and revealed personal details about the woman (a 26-year-old Chinese citizen), labeling her a traitor.

One blogger reposting the woman’s photo and Weibo profile has 1,3 million followers, making this incident quite big and serving as a warning to other Weibo users not to spread their ‘politically incorrect’ views on the Hong Kong protests.

 

“Protect Hong Kong, Support the Police Force”

 

With over 5 billion views, the hashtag “Protect Hong Kong” (#守护香港#) is very popular on Weibo these days.

The hashtag is promoted by Party newspaper People’s Daily, that also launched another viral hashtag, namely “Officers, We Support You” (#阿sir我们挺你#, 300 million views).  The word for ‘officer’ used in this hashtag is “Ah Sir” or “阿Sir”, a uniquely Hong Kong form of address used for policemen and teachers.

Using the “Protect Hong Kong” and “Officers, We Support You” slogans, People’s Daily has also issued an illustration that shows three police officers carrying weapons and protective screens. Behind them are protesters, and above them is China’s Five-starred Red Flag.

Illustration by People’s Daily, issued on Weibo and other social media.

Online propaganda poster issued by China Daily on Weibo.

The main idea behind these hashtags/illustrations is that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) firmly supports the Hong Kong government and the Hong Kong Police Force in dealing with so-called “thugs” or “bandits”  (“暴徒”).

A common stance expressed by Chinese netizens is that pro-democracy protesters are “damaging public security” in Hong Kong and are “dividing the nation.”

“Talk about democracy and freedom in a fair and reasonable way,” one commenter writes: “Don’t talk about freedom and democracy while breaking the law and acting outrageous.”

“It’s horrible to see,” another person says: “The Pearl of the Orient is no longer blooming, but is now covered with cuts and bruises.”

Many stories of violence used against the police force are circulating on Chinese social media. Some videos show protesters using potentially dangerous laser pointers to shine directly in faces of police officers. Last Tuesday, student leader Keith Fong was arrested for possession of such lasers.

One particular trending story concerns a bald police officer named ‘Liu Sir’ (刘sir) who was violently attacked by a group of protesters on July 31st. The mob allegedly punched and kicked him, and assaulted him with sticks and objects before he pulled out his gun.

Photo by People’s Daily, shared on Weibo.

Officer Liu, who has sustained some minor injuries from the incident, responded to the incident writing in a text: “[I] just hate the fact that they are also Chinese – it feels wrong to hit them and also wrong not to. It really pains me!”

Officer Liu has become somewhat of a hero on Chinese social media, as his image is propagated by Chinese state media through photos and illustrations.

Image of Officer Liu shared on Weibo by netizen @李里言子.

The idea of ‘protecting’ Hong Kong and supporting its police force goes hand in hand with the idea that Hong Kong is, and “always will be,” a “part of China.”

Many commenters in the comment sections express their anger about Hong Kong protesters attacking police and throwing the Chinese flag into the water. “If you do not want to be Chinese, then don’t live on Chinese territory,” some write.

 

“Hong Kong’s Colonial Mentality” 

 

A post by an economics blogger (@同行中的我, 14674 fans) that received more than 6500 ‘likes’ on Weibo argues that one problem behind the protests is that Hong Kong youth are stuck in a “colonial mentality.”

The blogger says that Hong Kong people have a lack of patriotic education and have no “sense of belonging.” It is this Hong Kong mentality, the writer argues, that prevents the region from blooming. Without mainland China, Hong Kong is nothing, the post says.

This sentiment is reiterated by many commenters on Weibo, who write things such as “Without a country, you have no home.”

Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain in 1842 as part of the Treaty of Nanjing. July 1st of 1997 marked Hong Kong’s return to China, and the moment it became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the PRC, based on the principle of “one country, two systems.”

Those who are protesting for Hong Kong independence are also called “Pro HK Independence ‘Poison’” on Weibo (港毒分子, a wordplay with characters meaning ‘Hong Kong-independence/poison-members’: a derogatory term for those supporting Hong Kong independence).

“The Pro HK Independence Poison comes from Hong Kong education. Its education comes from its system. So to get rid of this poison, you first need to replace the system, and then change education in Hong Kong,” one person suggests.

 

“Biased Media Representations”

 

“Western media only use pictures that are taken out of context -they have an ulterior motive,” Weibo news blogger Jianhua (@建华Wei业) writes: “They fabricate news about Hong Kong police power abuse and violence.”

The accusation of Western media representing the Hong Kong protesters as the ‘good guys’ and the Hong Kong police as the ‘bad guys’ is repeated on Chinese social media quite a lot these days.

One major example is the aforementioned case of Sir Liu, as many media allegedly only forwarded those images or footage of the police pulling his gun, leaving out the part where he was attacked by protesters first.

Since there is a clear pro-Hong Kong Police Force dominant narrative on Weibo, many netizens defend the police and describe the protesters as violent and unreasonable rioters.

 

“US Meddling in Hong Kong Affairs”

 

Besides criticism on supposed biased media representations of the situation in Hong Kong, there is also criticism on the role of the United States in the Hong Kong protests.

One photo of American diplomat Julie Eadeh meeting up with student leaders involved in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement circulated on Chinese social media this week, with state media accusing the US of playing a role in “creating disorder” in Hong Kong.

Image posted on Weibo by CCTV.

“What Is America Up To?”(#美国居心何在#) is one of the hashtags related to the incident that is shared on Chinese social media, promoted by CCTV.

“What is America up to?” online poster designed and shared by CCTV.

“America has no right to meddle in Hong Kong affairs,” commenters on Weibo respond: “Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong.”

Adding fuel to this discussion is the fact that some Hong Kong protesters have recently started waving American flags at demonstrations (read more about that here).

Trending on August 9 is an incident in which a woman angrily pulled the American flags from protesters’ hands at Hong Kong airport. Many people on Weibo praise the woman for being so “courageous” to stand up to the demonstrators. “We just want Hong Kong to be stable and peaceful,” the woman stated to the media.

Others on Weibo call on protesters in Hong Kong to be reasonable. “I feel that the situation in Hong Kong is getting more and more complicated,” one commenter writes: “I hope the protesters can rationally overthink why they are participating in these demonstrations; they shouldn’t let themselves be used by others.”

“I just cannot make sense of what these angry youth are doing,” another commenter writes: “They are waving the American flag. But when they leave [Hong Kong], people won’t see them as Hong Kongnese – foreigners will all think they are Chinese. I just don’t get where they’re going.”

 
Keep an eye on What’s on Weibo for more related stories in the time to come. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and subscribe to notifications via the bell in this screen (Chrome/Firefox/Android).
 

By Manya Koetse

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

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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