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Two Court Sentences Trending on Weibo: The Xuzhou Chained Mother Case and the Dalian BMW Driver Death Penalty

From Xuzhou to Dalian, the conclusion of these criminal cases was eagerly awaited, with varying opinions on the verdicts and sentences.

Manya Koetse



Chinese netizens have been closely following two criminal cases that saw major developments recently. A verdict came out in the Xuzhou chained woman case, and the BMW driver who killed five people was executed. Has justice been served?

The case of a mother of eight children who was found to be chained up in a shed next to the family home became one of the biggest social media topics in China in 2022.

The story first attracted nationwide attention in late January 2022 when a video of the mother, filmed by a local TikTok user, went viral and triggered massive outrage. People demanded answers about the woman’s circumstances and why her husband (Dong Zhimin 董志民) was seemingly exploiting their situation on social media.

The mother, who seemed confused, was kept in a dirty shed without a door in the freezing cold – she did not even wear a coat. Videos showed how her husband Dong Zhimin and their eight children were playing and talking in the family home right next to the hut.

Chinese internet users, from local reporters to internet sleuths and feminists, started investigating the case, wanting to find out who this woman was and if she might have been the victim of human trafficking (read ‘Twists and Turns in the Tragic Story of the Xuzhou Chained Mother‘).

Thanks to the ongoing social media attention surrounding the woman, and with the help of local authorities, it was eventually determined that the woman was indeed a victim of human trafficking and she was identified as Xiao Huamei (小花梅) from Yagu, Fugong County, who went missing – without anyone reporting her missing – in 1996.

On April 7th, 2023, the Xuzhou Intermediate People’s Court in Jiangsu Province delivered its verdict in the case. Dong Zhimin, Xiao Huamei’s husband, was found guilty of abuse and illegal detainment and was sentenced to nine years in prison.

Five other people were also sentenced for their involvement in the case. Shi Lizhong (时立忠), Sang Heniu (桑合妞), Tan Aiqing (谭爱庆), Huo Yongqu (霍永渠), and Huo Fude (霍福得) were found guilty of human trafficking.

Together with Shi Lizhong, Sang Heniu is the woman who lured Xiao Huamei away from her hometown under false pretenses in 1998 and sold her to a man in Donghai County for 5000 yuan ($725) before she ended up with Dong Zhimin. Shi and Sang were sentenced to 11 and 10 years in prison respectively.

It is not entirely clear what happened to Xiao Huamei later in 1998, but she was separated from the first man and was reportedly resold by Tan Aiqing to Huo Yongqu and Huo Fude for 3000 yuan ($435), who then took her to Huankou where she was again resold for 5000 yuan ($725) to Dong Zhimin. Tan Aiqing, Huo Yongqu, and Huo Fude received sentences of 11 years, 10 years, and 13 years respectively.

On Weibo, where the verdict went trending (#丰县八孩案一审宣判#), there were those who said justice has been served, but louder voices expressed that they thought the sentences imposed were still not harsh enough.

One concern people have is that Dong Zhimin has not been sentenced for human trafficking, while many people think that “selling” and “buying” should be equally punished: “Actually, the judgment was too light, the law should be amended and people who buy should also be punished for it.”

Then there are those who just want to know how Xiao Huamei – who is suffering from mental illness – is doing together with her eight children and what will happen to them now that Dong is in prison. Those questions are still left unanswered.


Execution of Culprit in Dalian Shocking Hit-and-Run Case


The execution of Liu Dong, a man who was sentenced to death for plowing into a group of pedestrians, was the other major criminal case that went trending recently.

On May 22 of 2021, a Saturday morning, a black BMW drove into a crowd of pedestrians in the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian, leaving five people dead and five injured.

The driver, who was soon arrested, was a man by the name of Liu Dong (刘东), who reportedly purposely drove into the crowd to take “revenge on society” after an investment failure.

In October 2021, Liu Dong was sentenced to death at the Dalian Intermediate People’s Court. Although Liu appealed, the initial ruling was upheld. With approval by the Supreme People’s Court of China (SPC), Liu Dong was executed on April 7th, 2023.

On social media, the execution attracted a lot of attention. One related hashtag, “Dalian BMW Driver Who Drove Into People Executed by Death Penalty” (#大连宝马撞人案司机被执行死刑#), received over 230 million clicks.

“He got what he deserved,” a recurring comment said.

Because the Dalian case is very similar to another incident that happened in January of this year in Guangzhou, many people on Chinese social media asked for an update on that case.

Five people were killed and 13 others were injured in that incident, which also involved a BMW driving into pedestrians at Tianhe Road in Guangzhou on 11 January, 2023. The shocking incident was all over Weibo, where one hashtag related to the topic received over 1.2 billion views at the time. Many hashtags were removed shortly after and are still offline now, three months later.

The horrific incident that happened in Guangzhou earlier in 2023 had many similarities to the Dalian hit-and-run case.

“The Guangzhou driver should be next,” many commenters wrote.


Support for Harsher Sentences


On Chinese social media, it is often those supporting the harshest penalties who seem to be in the majority. In the case of the BMW driver, the majority of comments commend the Chinese legal system for enforcing capital punishment. Regarding the Xuzhou chained mother case, a common sentiment is that the sentences should have been harsher.

Under China’s criminal law, penalties for trafficking women and children range from five years imprisonment to life or even the death penalty. But the maximum prison term for people who buy abducted or trafficked women is only three years.

There have been many discussions about this on social media, where many argue that the punishment should actually be the same regardless if someone sells or buys. Others say that those buying trafficked women or children should also be able to receive the death penalty.

In China, where capital punishment has a centuries-old history, executions are carried out by lethal injection or by shooting and always have to be approved and confirmed by the Supreme People’s Court.

“I’m in favor of the death penalty,” (“支持死刑”) is a recurring comment in discussions about the Dalian hit-and-run case. Looking at social media alone, it seems that an overwhelming majority of commenters support the death penalty in cases such as these.

In 2020, The China Quarterly published a study by Liu (2021) about public support for the death penalty in China. Based on national survey data, the author argues that although there is indeed strong support for the death penalty in China, it is perhaps not as strong as is commonly assumed.

According to the study by Liu, a majority of 68% of China’s citizens are for the death penalty, while 31% are opposed to it. At the same time, the study also showed that most Chinese people would agree to replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without parole (Liu 2021, 541).This sentiment is also reflected in some online discussions.

The level of support for the death penalty varies depending on which factor is given the most weight in the views of individuals. Some emphasize the ‘warning role’ of the death penalty, arguing that it has a deterrent effect. Others consider retribution an important reason to be in favor of the death penalty. Then there are those who think that the death penalty allows offenders to avoid facing the consequences of their crimes, and they suggest that spending life in prison would be a better way to make them pay for what they did.

The idea of capital punishment serving as a warning and deterrent is an important one in China. One study comparing death penalty views in China, Japan, and the US (Jiang et al 2010) found that while retribution is the most significant factor for Americans who support the death penalty, deterrence plays a more important role in Chinese and Japanese views in favor of capital punishment (868).

In the two trending cases, there is some disagreement online on whether or not justice was truly served. There is one thing that virtually everyone agrees on: they hope that the surviving victims and their families will find peace and happiness after everything they have been through.

By Manya Koetse 

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Jiang, Shanhe, Eric G. Lambert, Jin Wang, Toyoji Saito, Rebecca Pilot. 2010. “Death Penalty Views in China, Japan and the U.S.: An Empirical Comparison.” Journal of Criminal Justice 38.5: 862–869.

Liu, John Zhuang. 2021. “Public Support for the Death Penalty in China: Less from the Populace but More from Elites.” The China Quarterly 246: 527-544.

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©2023 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of 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 Contact at, or follow on Twitter.

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China Brands, Marketing & Consumers

More than Malatang: Tianshui’s Recipe for Success

Zibo had its BBQ moment. Now, it’s Tianshui’s turn to shine with its special take on malatang. Tourism marketing in China will never be the same again.

Manya Koetse



Since the early post-pandemic days, Chinese cities have stepped up their game to attract more tourists. The dynamics of Chinese social media make it possible for smaller, lesser-known destinations to gain overnight fame as a ‘celebrity city.’ Now, it’s Tianshui’s turn to shine.

During this Qingming Festival holiday, there is one Chinese city that will definitely welcome more visitors than usual. Tianshui, the second largest city in Gansu Province, has emerged as the latest travel hotspot among domestic tourists following its recent surge in popularity online.

Situated approximately halfway along the Lanzhou-Xi’an rail line, this ancient city wasn’t previously a top destination for tourists. Most travelers would typically pass through the industrial city to see the Maiji Shan Grottoes, the fourth largest Buddhist cave complex in China, renowned for its famous rock carvings along the Silk Road.

But now, there is another reason to visit Tianshui: malatang.

Gansu-Style Malatang

Málàtàng (麻辣烫), which literally means ‘numb spicy hot,’ is a popular Chinese street food dish featuring a diverse array of ingredients cooked in a soup base infused with Sichuan pepper and dried chili pepper. There are multiple ways to enjoy malatang.

When dining at smaller street stalls, it’s common to find a selection of skewered foods—ranging from meats to quail eggs and vegetables—simmering in a large vat of flavorful spicy broth. This communal dining experience is affordable and convenient for solo diners or smaller groups seeking a hotpot-style meal.

In malatang restaurants, patrons can usually choose from a selection of self-serve skewered ingredients. You have them weighed, pay, and then have it prepared and served in a bowl with a preferred soup base, often with the option to choose the level of spiciness, from super hot to mild.

Although malatang originated in Sichuan, it is now common all over China. What makes Tianshui malatang stand out is its “Gansu-style” take, with a special focus on hand-pulled noodles, potato, and spicy oil.

An important ingredient for the soup base is the somewhat sweet and fragrant Gangu chili, produced in Tianshui’s Gangu County, known as “the hometown of peppers.”

Another ingredient is Maiji peppercorns (used in the sauce), and there are more locally produced ingredients, such as the black fungi from Qingshui County.

One restaurant that made Tianshui’s malatang particularly famous is Haiying Malatang (海英麻辣烫) in the city’s Qinzhou District. On February 13, the tiny restaurant, which has been around for three decades, welcomed an online influencer (@一杯梁白开) who posted about her visit.

The vlogger was so enthusiastic about her taste of “Gansu-style malatang,” that she urged her followers to try it out. It was the start of something much bigger than she could have imagined.

Replicating Zibo

Tianshui isn’t the first city to capture the spotlight on Chinese social media. Cities such as Zibo and Harbin have previously surged in popularity, becoming overnight sensations on platforms like Weibo, Xiaohongshu, and Douyin.

This phenomenon of Chinese cities transforming into hot travel destinations due to social media frenzy became particularly noteworthy in early 2023.

During the Covid years, various factors sparked a friendly competition among Chinese cities, each competing to attract the most visitors and to promote their city in the best way possible.

The Covid pandemic had diverse impacts on the Chinese domestic tourism industry. On one hand, domestic tourism flourished due to the pandemic, as Chinese travelers opted for destinations closer to home amid travel restrictions. On the other hand, the zero-Covid policy, with its lockdowns and the absence of foreign visitors, posed significant challenges to the tourism sector.

Following the abolition of the zero-Covid policy, tourism and marketing departments across China swung into action to revitalize their local economy. China’s social media platforms became battlegrounds to capture the attention of Chinese netizens. Local government officials dressed up in traditional outfits and created original videos to convince tourists to visit their hometowns.

Zibo was the first city to become an absolute social media sensation in the post-Covid era. The old industrial and mining city was not exactly known as a trendy tourist destination, but saw its hotel bookings going up 800% in 2023 compared to pre-Covid year 2019. Among others factors contributing to its success, the city’s online marketing campaign and how it turned its local BBQ culture into a unique selling point were both critical.

Zibo crowds, image via

Since 2023, multiple cities have tried to replicate the success of Zibo. Although not all have achieved similar results, Harbin has done very well by becoming a meme-worthy tourist attraction earlier in 2024, emphasizing its snow spectacle and friendly local culture.

By promoting its distinctive take on malatang, Tianshui has emerged as the next city to captivate online audiences, leading to a surge in visitor numbers.

Like with Zibo and Harbin, one particular important strategy used by these tourist offices is to swiftly respond to content created by travel bloggers or food vloggers about their cities, boosting the online attention and immediately seizing the opportunity to turn online success into offline visits.

A Timeline

What does it take to become a Chinese ‘celebrity city’? Since late February and early March of this year, various Douyin accounts started posting about Tianshui and its malatang.

They initially were the main reason driving tourists to the city to try out malatang, but they were not the only reason – city marketing and state media coverage also played a role in how the success of Tianshui played out.

Here’s a timeline of how its (online) frenzy unfolded:

  • July 25, 2023: First video on Douyin about Tianshui’s malatang, after which 45 more videos by various accounts followed in the following six months.
  •  Feb 5, 2024: Douyin account ‘Chuanshuo Zhong de Bozi’ (传说中的波仔) posts a video about malatang streetfood in Gansu
  • Feb 13, 2024: Douyin account ‘Yibei Liangbaikai’ (一杯梁白开) posts a video suggesting the “nationwide popularization of Gansu-style malatang.” This video is an important breakthrough moment in the success of Tianshui as a malatang city.
  • Feb – March ~, 2024: The Tianshui Culture & Tourism Bureau is visiting sites, conducting research, and organizing meetings with different departments to establish the “Tianshui city + malatang” brand (文旅+天水麻辣烫”品牌) as the city’s new “business card.”
  • March 11, 2024: Tianshui city launches a dedicated ‘spicy and hot’ bus line to cater to visitors who want to quickly reach the city’s renowned malatang spots.
  • March 13-14, 2024: China’s Baidu search engine witnesses exponential growth in online searches for Tianshui malatang.
  • March 14-15, 2024: The boss of Tianshui’s popular Haiying restaurant goes viral after videos show him overwhelmed and worried he can’t keep up. His facial expression becomes a meme, with netizens dubbing it the “can’t keep up-expression” (“烫不完表情”).

The worried and stressed expression of this malatang diner boss went viral overnight.

  • March 17, 2024: Chinese media report about free ‘Tianshui malatang’ wifi being offered to visitors as a special service while they’re standing in line at malatang restaurants.
  • March 18, 2024: Tianshui opens its first ‘Malatang Street’ where about 40 stalls sell malatang.
  • March 18, 2024: Chinese local media report that one Tianshui hair salon (Tony) has changed its shop into a malatang shop overnight, showing just how big the hype has become.
  • March 21, 2024: A dedicated ‘Tianshui malatang’ train started riding from Lanzhou West Station to Tianshui (#天水麻辣烫专列开行#).
  • March 21, 2024: Chinese actor Jia Nailiang (贾乃亮) makes a video about having Tianshui malatang, further adding to its online success.
  • March 30, 2024: A rare occurrence: as the main attraction near Tianshui, the Maiji Mountain Scenic Area announces that they’ve reached the maximum number of visitors and don’t have the capacity to welcome any more visitors, suspending all ticket sales for the day.
  • April 1, 2024: Chinese presenter Zhang Dada was spotted making malatang in a local Tianshui restaurant, drawing in even more crowds.

A New Moment to Shine

Fame attracts criticism, and that also holds true for China’s ‘celebrity cities.’

Some argue that Tianshui’s malatang is overrated, considering the richness of Gansu cuisine, which offers much more than just malatang alone.

When Zibo reached hype status, it also faced scrutiny, with some commenters suggesting that the popularity of Zibo BBQ was a symptom of a society that’s all about consumerism and “empty social spectacle.”

There is a lot to say about the downsides of suddenly becoming a ‘celebrity city’ and the superficiality and fleetingness that comes with these kinds of trends. But for many locals, it is seen as an important moment as they see their businesses and cities thrive.

Even after the hype fades, local businesses can maintain their success by branding themselves as previously viral restaurants. When I visited Zibo a few months after its initial buzz, many once-popular spots marketed themselves as ‘wanghong’ (网红) or viral celebrity restaurants.

For the city itself, being in the spotlight holds its own value in the long run. Even after the hype has peaked and subsided, the gained national recognition ensures that these “trendy” places will continue to attract visitors in the future.

According to data from Ctrip, Tianshui experienced a 40% increase in tourism spending since March (specifically from March 1st to March 16th). State media reports claim that the city saw 2.3 million visitors in the first three weeks of March, with total tourism revenue reaching nearly 1.4 billion yuan ($193.7 million).

There are more ripple effects of Tianshui’s success: Maiji Shan Grottoes are witnessing a surge in visitors, and local e-commerce companies are experiencing a spike in orders from outside the city. Even when they’re not in Tianshui, people still want a piece of Tianshui.

By now, it’s clear that tourism marketing in China will never be the same again. Zibo, Harbin, and Tianshui exemplify a new era of destination hype, requiring a unique selling point, social media success, strong city marketing, and a friendly and fair business culture at the grassroots level.

While Zibo’s success was largely organic, Harbin’s was more orchestrated, and Tianshui learned from both. Now, other potential ‘celebrity’ cities are preparing to go viral, learning from the successes and failures of their predecessors to shine when their time comes.

By Manya Koetse

Independently reporting China trends for over a decade. Like what we do? Support us and get the story behind the hashtag by subscribing:

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China Media

Two Years After MU5735 Crash: New Report Finds “Nothing Abnormal” Surrounding Deadly Nose Dive

Nothing abnormal about the abnormal MU575 crash?

Manya Koetse



A new report by China’s Civil Aviation Administration has found no abnormalities in the circumstances surrounding the MU5735 incident. Two years after the flight nosedived in mid-air, people are still waiting for clear answers on what led to the devastating crash in Guangxi that killed all 132 people on board.

Two years ago on March 21, China Eastern Airlines flight MU5735 dominated Chinese social media headlines as the Boeing 737 crashed with 132 people on board.

The Boeing 737 was scheduled to fly from the southwestern city of Kunming to Guangzhou. However, it disappeared from radar near the city of Wuzhou, Teng county, just before 14:30 local time, roughly half an hour before its scheduled arrival in Guangzhou.

Around 15:30 local time, news of the crash began to spread on Chinese social media after the real-time flight tracking map Flightradar24 showed the flight dropping some 7000 meters within 120 seconds, leading some to believe it was a “bug.” Two hours later, China Eastern confirmed the crash.

A video showing the plane right before it crashed also went viral on Chinese social media. The footage, taken by cameras belonging to a mining company in Teng county, some 5.8 kilometers from the crash site, shows the plane nosediving from a clear blue sky in a matter of seconds. It plunged more than 20,000 feet in less than a minute.

Security cameras captured the plane nosediving.

A massive week-long search operation in forest-clad, muddy mountains near Wuzhou attracted a lot of attention on social media at the time. While rescue workers were still searching for the second black box, Chinese state media confirmed that all passengers and crew members were killed in the crash.

Search and rescue efforts after the 2022 March 21 crash. Image posted by Caixin on Weibo.

Although a preliminary report about the crash stated that there were no unusual weather circumstances nor abnormal communications before the crash occurred, a final report on the crash still had not come out by late 2022.

This week, on March 20, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) reported further details about the investigation into the MU5735 crash. According to the report:

  • All paperwork and qualifications held by the MU5735 flight and cabin crew were in order; they possessed the necessary licenses and certificates, underwent regular health checks, and adhered to standard duty and rest times.
  • The aircraft’s maintenance and certifications were up to date, and the maintenance personnel met all requirements.
  • No faults were detected with the aircraft itself before takeoff, and there were no abnormal conditions reported, neither with the weather nor radio communication. The loading of the flight met all requirements.
  • No anomalies were found in the qualifications of any personnel working at air traffic control, with normal functioning of communication, navigation, and surveillance equipment. There were no abnormalities in radio communication and control commands before the incident.
  • The qualifications of relevant personnel at the departure airport on that day met requirements, and facilities and equipment operated normally, following standard procedures.

In summary: no abnormalities were discovered. Compared to an earlier report, this one explicitly ruled out the aircraft itself as the possible cause. The report also stated that the research team will continue to investigate the causes of the incident.

The report on the ‘3・21 incident’ leaves many questions unanswered. The pilot and co-pilot in charge of the plane that day were highly experienced, boasting over 39,000 hours of combined flying experience. The 32-year-old pilot, reportedly following in the footsteps of his father who had also flown for China Eastern, had held the position of captain since early 2018. The 59-year-old co-pilot, allegedly on the brink of retirement, boasted over 30 years of flying experience. Meanwhile, the 26-year-old second co-pilot has been with the airlines for three years.

Despite multiple (foreign media) reports saying that the airplane was deliberately crashed, the latest CAAC update does not mention the possibility of deliberate action leading to the crash at all – and does not even hint at it. In 2015, a Germanwings flight carrying 150 people crashed in the Alps. The incident was later determined to be a deliberate suicidal act by the co-pilot, who had locked the captain out of the cockpit (the captain’s last words were reportedly ‘Open the damn door’). In the case of MU5735, it is unclear what information was gathered from the black boxes or if they were damaged.

A Weibo post by CCTV news about the CAAC report attracted over 108,000 likes and more than 11,000 comments. The majority of commenters express confusion or anger over the report and the lack of any mentions of deliberate actions leading to the crash. Some of the top comments said:

“If everything was normal, then explain if it was caused by people on the plane, or if it was caused by sudden external forces!”

“You still don’t have the contents of the black box??”

“What about any recordings?”

“You might as well have said nothing at all.”

“Another year has passed! I hope, sooner or later, that the truth will come out.”

Elsewhere on Weibo, people also wondered why, after two years, the CAAC came out with such a vague and inconclusive statement.

“There’s no need to be secretive [about what happened]. We should seek truth from facts (..) If not, the damage to the government’s credibility will be even bigger if we keep revisiting the issue every year.”

“I haven’t seen any air crash investigation lasting two years. Whether it’s mechanical failure, weather conditions, or human error, there’s usually a general idea of what has caused it.”

It is unclear when and if there will be more conclusions coming out regarding the ongoing investigation. It might again take until the next anniversary of the deadly incident until another statement is released. For many, it is all just taking too long. One commenter wrote: “There should be an investigation into this investigation.”

By Manya Koetse

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