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Weibo Watch: Burning BMWs

About Qingming, nitpicking, Oppenheimer in Japan, other trends, and how we’re all burning BMWs in our own different ways.

Manya Koetse

Published

on

PREMIUM NEWSLETTER | ISSUE #26

 

This week’s newsletter:

◼︎ 1. Editor’s Note – Burning BMWs
◼︎ 2. What’s Been Trending – A closer look at the featured stories
◼︎ 3. What More to Know – Five bit-sized trends
◼︎ 4. What’s the Drama – Top TV to watch
◼︎ 5. What’s Noteworthy – For Yiwu, the Olympic Games have begun
◼︎ 6. What’s Popular – A Chinese song goes viral on TikTok
◼︎ 7. What’s Memorable – Which language does Ma Ying-jeou speak?
◼︎ 8. Weibo Word of the Week – Nitpicking

 

Dear Reader,

 

Expensive watches, cigarettes, jewelry, and liquor – there’s a wide array of offerings for ancestors beyond ‘ghost money’ and food. This week marks China’s Qingming Festival (清明节), also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day, a special time to honor family ancestors by visiting graves, making offerings, and burning spirit money and other paper tributes.

In this age of e-commerce, the ancient ritual of paper offerings has undergone some changes, becoming more diverse and extravagant. Thanks to platforms like Taobao, people now have instant access to a variety of ritual paper gifts. By burning them, it’s believed these offerings are sent to the afterlife, hopefully pleasing the ancestors.

As symbols of power and status evolve, gold and silver paper alone are no longer enough in the 21st century. Nowadays, one can purchase paper replicas of golden credit cards, iPhones, smartwatches, massage chairs, designer bags, rice cookers, furniture, air conditioners, refrigerators, bodyguard ‘puppets,’ and even BMW cars.

Examples of the various paper offerings available on Taobao: red BMW car, tablets & smartphones, air conditioner, luxury watches, creditcard, massage chair.

Some take it a step further and create entire paper replicas of two-story villas or palaces to honor their ancestors (see video). As many cities already grapple with air quality issues and smog, these customs have sparked discussions for years, with some places prohibiting burning incense and paper during Qingming.

People set up entire paper replicas of two-story villas to honor their ancestors (image circulating on Weibo).

This year, there’s been increased debate surrounding the burning of paper offerings during Qingming. Authorities in Jiangsu’s Nantong, one of China’s fastest-aging cities, recently announced a city-wide ban on the production and sales of paper effigies due to concerns over air pollution and fire safety risks.

The ban has sparked discussions across Chinese social media, particularly because Nantong authorities referred to the custom of burning paper as “feudal superstition” (“封建迷信”).

In China, the practice of making paper replicas of worldly items and ‘sending’ them to deceased family members through fire and smoke is at least a thousand years old. It’s a spiritual aspect of daily life that has become more than tradition alone – it’s deeply ingrained in many families’ lives.1

Image by The Paper, 2015: link.

The numerous comments on Weibo this week underscore how significant this topic is for many people. Some threads received over 179,000 likes and over 11,000 replies.

Although opinions vary, it’s evident that most people feel Nantong’s ban was too stringent and that they should be more cautious about banning centuries-old traditions. Some sarcastic comments suggest if they care so much about safety, they should focus more on food regulations instead.

Others note that the city has many Christian churches where people can honor their religion as they please, and that Chinese traditional folk beliefs should not be diminished or looked down upon compared to these Western-based religions.

The popular Weibo account “Xu Ji Observation” (@徐记观察), known for promoting positive online content and the “mass line,” suggested that while the practice of burning entire paper houses reaching two stories high should be abandoned, there should still be room for people to burn smaller paper offerings. There shouldn’t be a “one-size-fits-all approach,” they wrote.

Every year, hundreds of tons of paper are burned in Chinese cities. Besides the billions of yuan spent on paper itself, there are also considerable costs in terms of time and labor to clean up the ash piles.

Ultimately, the question revolves around what is considered ‘extravagant,’ ‘silly,’ or ‘superstitious,’ and where the line is drawn between tradition and absurdity. Some draw the line at anything taller than one story. Others believe anything beyond paper money alone is unnecessarily harmful to the environment, and everyone burning paper items should consider the negative impact.

What’s striking about these discussions is that while they focus on things literally going up in smoke, they also reflect on the world around us. After all, when people are driving around in huge SUVs, consuming plastics, wasting water, constantly buying new gadgets and laptops, and indulging in fast fashion, it seems odd to fuss over sacrificing a paper car for a beloved grandparent. In the end, we’re all burning BMWs in our own different ways. These discussions about where we draw the line, whether in our current world or in our rituals for the afterlife, will only become more prominent over time.

Despite all the discussions and controversy surrounding this Qingming festival, Nantong’s ban has been upheld. Officials argue that instead of elaborate paper items like puppets, purses, and palaces, ancestors would be just as pleased with flowers on their graves. Though less flashy, it’s much better for the environment.

Best,
Manya (@manyapan)


  1. Blake, C. Fred. Burning Money : The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011.

 

A closer look at the featured stories

1: China’s New City Marketing | 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 with its special take on malatang. City marketing in China will never be the same again. Read all about it here👇🏼

Read more
 

2: Micro Drama, Major Profit | Closely intertwined with the Chinese social media landscape and the fast-paced online entertainment scene, micro dramas have emerged as an immensely popular way to enjoy dramas in bite-sized portions. With their short-format style, these dramas have become big business, leading Chinese production studios to compete and rush to create the next ‘mini’ hit.

Read more
 

3: Bolt from the Blue | Two years after the tragic crash of MU5735, a new report on the ongoing investigation into the cause of the plane crash has been released. According to China’s Civil Aviation Administration, the report has found “no abnormalities” in the circumstances surrounding the MU5735 incident. Even after two years since the plane nosedived mid-air, people are still awaiting clear answers on what caused the devastating crash in Guangxi, which claimed the lives of all 132 people on board.

Read more
 

 

What More to Know

Five Bite-Sized Trends

◼︎ ⛑️ Taiwan Earthquake | After the 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck the east coast of Taiwan on April 3, expressions of solidarity and support for “our Taiwan compatriots” flooded Chinese social media. However, amidst these sentiments, there were also instances of people mocking the disaster, which claimed the lives of at least 9 people and left over 1000 injured. Weibo management cautioned users against posting content that “lacked empathy” in the wake of the devastating earthquake. Following the quake, Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council promptly offered disaster assistance, but Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council declined, stating that assistance was unnecessary. However, the decision by the Taipei government to accept Japan’s aid, specifically for using hi-tech equipment to detect signs of life, was criticized by netizens. Some nationalistic bloggers even commented that this would be an opportune time to “reunify with the motherland.”

◼︎ 😢 Ma Ying-Jeou’s ‘Voyage of Trust’ | At the invitation of Beijing, former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou is currently visiting the Chinese mainland. His 11-day trip to China began last Monday. It is anticipated that he will also hold a meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping next week. Accompanying Ma on this visit is a group of Taiwanese students, and the focus is on cultural exchange, labeled as ‘a voyage of trust.’ Last year, Ma made history as the first former Taiwanese leader to visit China. Given the escalating tensions over Taiwan’s status, his current visit holds particular significance. Serving as president from 2008 to 2016, Ma emphasizes peace and connectivity, according to his own statements. On Chinese social media, there’s much discussion about Ma’s tendency to become emotional quickly. He shed tears last year while visiting his family’s grave in Hunan, and this year, he displayed his emotional side on multiple occasions once again. Some people believe it’s inappropriate for a (former) leader to be so emotionally expressive. As one Weibo blogger questioned, “Ma Ying-jeou cries from dawn till night, from night till dawn. Can crying bring about the reunification with Taiwan?”

◼︎ 🥀 Chongqing Mother Kills Toddler Son | A video circulating on Chinese social media this week has shocked viewers, depicting a 37-year-old mother throwing her 3-year-old son out of a window from a 22nd-floor apartment in Chongqing’s Banan District. The tragic incident occurred on the morning of April 1st. Police reports indicate that prior to this, the woman also attacked her mother-in-law with a knife. While investigations are ongoing, there is speculation online regarding the mother’s mental state. Commentator Hu Xijin emphasized in a recent column the urgent need for increased awareness and support for mental health issues, stressing that it could be a matter of life or death. This case also evokes memories of the “Chongqing Siblings’ Falling Case” (重庆姐弟坠亡案) in 2020, where two siblings (a girl, 2, and a boy, 1) from Chongqing were killed after being thrown from a high-rise apartment window on the 15th floor. Their father and his girlfriend, who allegedly couldn’t accept the children from his previous marriage, were both sentenced to death for their crime and executed on January 31st of this year by lethal injection.

◼︎ 🎬 Oppenheimer in Japan | Japanese filmgoers’ mixed and emotional reactions to the American Oscar-winning movie “Oppenheimer” sparked discussions on Chinese social media this week. The movie finally hit Japanese cinemas on March 29, eight months after its initial premiere, which drew controversy in Japan due to the humorous marketing of the film alongside the release of Barbie (which led to the creation of the ‘Barbenheimer’ meme). The movie centers around the American ‘father of the atom bomb,’ Oppenheimer, and the events leading to the devastating bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It has faced criticism in Japan for being America-centric and failing to fully depict the horror of nuclear weapons. Chinese netizens showed little understanding for the mixed feelings about the movie in Japan. With the history of the Sino-Japanese War still very much alive in China today, some people wonder why many Japanese people do not have “mixed feelings” about paying respect to the war dead at the Tokyo Yasukuni Shrine. “They’re playing the victim again,” various commenters wrote. (For Dutch-speaking readers, I discussed this topic on Dutch Radio 1; listen to the interview here.)

◼︎ 🇺🇸 Yellen Again | U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is visiting China for the second time since summer this week, from April 4th to 9th. Yellen’s itinerary includes meetings with top Chinese officials in both Guangzhou and Beijing, aiming to address ongoing bilateral tensions and manage trade relations between the two countries. Apart from engagements with officials, Yellen will also meet with students and business leaders during her visit. This trip follows a recent phone call between President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. While many social media discussions focus on the key topics of Yellen’s visit, there is also curiosity among netizens about whether or not she will eat ‘magic mushrooms’ again during this trip. At the time of Yellen’s last visit in 2023, she went viral for dining at a Yunnan restaurant in Beijing, where she was served mushrooms that had hallucinogenic properties (read here).

 

What’s the Drama

Top TV to Watch

Given the current surge in popularity of Chinese short dramas, let’s introduce you to one of the hottest mini series of the moment: “Fortune Writer” (执笔, zhíbǐ) [“Writing”]. It’s a fantasy costume drama centered around Su Yunqi (苏云绮), who discovers she’s the villainous female lead in a novel—no happy endings for her. Unwilling to accept her fate, Su embarks on a mission to rewrite her life. Released on March 20, this short drama has a total of 24 episodes lasting about 15 minutes each—slightly longer than other popular ‘micro-dramas,’ some of which are only 2-3 minutes per episode nowadays.

Noteworthy:

▶️ This drama’s script is adapted from a series of stories shared on Zhihu’s short story platform, Yanyan Gushi (知乎盐言故事), by the author Lin Yannian (林言年), who also directed the drama.
▶️ In addition to the micro-drama and short story, there is also a podcast available, so fans of this series can enjoy reading, watching, and listening.
▶️ The widespread acclaim for “Fortune Writer” is seen as a sign that the Yanyan Gushi short story app might just be the next goldmine for the Chinese drama and film industry, as short story dramatization is becoming increasingly popular. To date, nearly a hundred stories or series published on Yanyan Gushi have been authorized for film and television adaptations.

You can watch Fortune Writer online here (no English subtitles), or on WeTV here with English subtitles.

 

What’s Noteworthy

Small news with big impact

The countdown to the Summer Olympic Games in Paris has begun. Even though we still have some 112 days to go before July 26, there is one city in China that is already fully immersed in the Olympic atmosphere. That city is Yiwu in Zhejiang province, where local companies have already exported $76 million worth of Olympic-related products to France within an eight-week timeframe. From shirts, scarves, and caps for sports fans to trophies and medals for athletes, Yiwu is manufacturing a diverse array of clothing, fan accessories, and other Olympic merchandise. Local businesses are currently operating at full capacity, with many working overtime to fulfill orders.

Yiwu, Zhejiang, is renowned as China’s largest “small commodities city” and, with its expansive International Trade City, serves as the global hub for Christmas merchandise. Following a report by CCTV on Yiwu’s soaring Olympic-related export sales, netizens have expressed pride in Yiwu’s entrepreneurial spirit: “I really admire the people of Yiwu for how fast they are in seizing business opportunities. Time and time again, they make accurate predictions and receive massive orders. Regardless of where the Olympics are held, it’s always Yiwu laughing all the way to the bank!” Others remarked, “We’re an export country, after all.”

 

The latest buzz in arts & pop culture

If you’re an avid TikTok user, you’ve likely come across numerous videos of users lip-syncing to a Chinese song. The song, titled “This Life’s Fate” (今生缘), has evolved into a social media challenge where TikTokers strive to deliver a flawless performance without necessarily understanding its meaning (watch video here). If you’re curious to learn more about the song behind this trend and what it actually means, continue reading here 👇.

Read more
 

 

What’s Memorable

Best reads from the archive

This pick from our archive takes us back to last year’s trip to the mainland by former Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou. One aspect of his trip received relatively little attention in the media, even though it generated some buzz among Chinese netizens: Ma’s way of speaking Chinese. What language did he use during his 10-minute speech at Hunan University and while he was paying repects at the graves of his ancestors? Jin Luo explains.👇

Read more

 

Weibo Word of the Week

The catchword to know

“Flashlight Evaluation” | Our Weibo Word of the Week is “Flashlight Damage Assessment” or “Portable Lamp Property” (tídēng dìngsǔn 提灯定损), shortened to “Flashlight Evaluation”, a term recently coined by Chinese netizens in response to a story where a landlord conducted a post-lease property inspection by carrying around a large lamp, meticulously shining it into every corner and inspecting every inch of the apartment.

In this context, “Flashlight Evaluation” actually means ‘nitpicking’.

The incident that gave rise to this term went viral on March 28, 2024, after a woman from Shangrao’s Yushan County posted a 10-minute video depicting her landlord inspecting the apartment for damage using a large portable lamp as she prepared to move out. After scrutinizing the property, which the landlord himself constructed, he reportedly compiled a list of all the (minor) damages he found and demanded over 10,000 yuan ($1380) in compensation from the tenant – a substantial sum, particularly considering the monthly rent was only 1200 yuan ($165) and the tenant resided there for just 22 days.

Following the incident’s online explosion, local authorities in Yushan County established an investigation team to probe the matter. According to the latest reports, the landlord has now refunded the tenant’s money. On top of that, he has been detained for throwing bricks at people. I bet he’s fun at parties.

 
This is an on-site version of the Weibo Watch newsletter by What’s on Weibo. Missed last week’s newsletter? Find it here. If you are already subscribed to What’s on Weibo but are not yet receiving this newsletter in your inbox, please contact us directly to let us know.

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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Featured

Weibo Watch: Telling China’s Stories Wrong

“Quick, give me a ‘like’ so I can get my credit score up.”

Manya Koetse

Published

on

PREMIUM NEWSLETTER | ISSUE #29

 

This week’s newsletter:

◼︎ 1. Editor’s Note – Telling China’s Stories Wrong
◼︎ 2. What’s New and Noteworthy – A closer look at the featured stories
◼︎ 3. What’s Trending – Hot highlights
◼︎ 4. What’s On Screen – Top TV Shows to watch
◼︎ 5. What’s Remarkable – Wang Wenbin said “farewell”
◼︎ 6. What’s Popular – Versace’s new brand ambassador
◼︎ 7. What’s Memorable – The social media spectacle of the military drills
◼︎ 8. Weibo Word of the Week – “Back to the root”

 

Dear Reader,

 

This week, various English-language newspapers featured noteworthy headlines about a new Chinese chatbot launched on Monday.

The South China Morning Post appears to have been the first English-language newspaper to report on Tuesday that “China rolls out a large language model AI based on Xi Jinping Thought.”

Barely a day later, others started popping up like mushrooms. “China’s latest answer to OpenAI is Chat Xi PT,” headlined the Financial Times, writing: “Beijing’s latest attempt to control how artificial intelligence informs Chinese internet users has been rolled out as a chatbot trained on the thoughts of President Xi Jinping.”

These articles suggested that China had developed a new chatbot to counter free speech and create a Chinese rival to OpenAI’s ChatGPT.

“China chat bot trained to think like Xi Jinping,” the headline by Asia Financial reads. Other news sites featured similar ones: “Meet Chat Xi PT, the new AI chatbot that gives answers based on the Chinese president’s thinking,” and “What next? Kim-Jong-AI?”

The actual story is far less sensational. In reality, there is no Xi Jinping chatbot, no Chinese ‘Chat-GPT’ trained on his thoughts, and it’s untrue that the only Chinese version of a ChatGPT-like application would be run by the Party.

In our latest article here, we explain the true story behind the application, which is essentially an AI tool for people working or doing research in the field of Chinese cybersecurity and online information.

The name of the application is not ‘Chat Xi PT’ but the ‘Cyberspace Information Research Large Model Application,’ which is based on domestically available pre-trained language models and sources from seven major specialty knowledge bases, including one on ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism’, the corpus of political and economic ideas/theory developed by Xi Jinping which was incorporated into the Party Constitution in 2017.

 
Chinese Whispers
 

Over the years, I’ve observed how stories like these seep into the English-language media landscape and take on a life of their own, spreading like wildfire until it’s nearly impossible to correct misconceptions. It’s almost like the game “Chinese Whispers,” where a message is passed around in whispers, often resulting in a completely distorted version of the original.

The English-language news discourse on China’s Social Credit System is a prime example of this game. The Social Credit System became a prominent news topic in the West since 2017, and reports like this one by abc.net.au made sure that Orwellian stories about “personal scorecards” and dystopian nightmares popped up in every newspaper until people outside of China actually started believing they were true.

Unfounded reports about the Social Credit System became so rampant that even sources usually known for sticking to the facts got it wrong. Another time, one American news outlet reported that China’s Social Credit System was now tracking people eating dinner at Haidilao in Canada, creating a bizarre mix of credit scores and Chinese hotpot.

To this day, scholars like Jeremy Daum and Vincent Brussee are busy refuting the claims made in numerous articles and telling the actual realities of the Social Credit System, which, spoiler alert, is far less dramatic than the gloomy sci-fi headlines suggest. (Read more on social credit here).

How do journalists get it so wrong? It’s likely a combination of factors. In Dutch, we say, “to hear the bell toll but not know where the clapper hangs,” meaning someone has heard of something but doesn’t know the specifics. They report on something they’ve read but misunderstand and conflate things, leading to grossly inaccurate articles. For example, some reporters apparently believed ‘Chat Xi PT’ was the actual recent application’s name and that ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ referred to Xi’s private thoughts rather than a body of theories. Similarly, the Social Credit stories perpetuated the false claim that China has a centralized database where every citizen gets a ‘score’ based on their behavior.

But there’s more to it. The news media industry is tough, and some publications need clickbaity articles to attract readership. While stories about dystopian camera systems and Xi Jinping chatbots are popular, few would care about the launch of China’s “Cyberspace Information Research Large Model Application” (which is why this story is attracting zero attention in China).

Moreover, these China stories resonate with fears people in the US and Europe have about extensive digital surveillance and omnipresent technology in their own societies, as noted by Jeremy Daum in various interviews. These fears are intensified by the ongoing discourse about a ‘US vs China AI war,’ leading to exaggerated perceptions of China’s capabilities.

 
Telling China’s stories well
 

Under Xi Jinping, the idea of “telling China’s stories well” became a key task in foreign policy and news reporting to enhance China’s international image and strengthen its global influence through external propaganda.

This initiative includes creating (news) stories and narratives that align with Party goals; highlighting Chinese accomplishments, promoting the “Chinese dream,” showcasing traditional Chinese culture, presenting China’s rise as beneficial for global cooperation, and countering Western negative coverage of China.

The inaccurate and often sensationalized stories we see about China are problematic in many ways. They not only reflect biases and laziness among reporters and demonstrate tendencies to project worries onto China’s emergence as an AI powerhouse, they also increase misconceptions about the factual stories that need to be told. In doing so, they inadvertently strengthen China’s efforts to control its narrative and tell China’s stories “well” by making it so easy to discredit those who are telling China’s stories “wrong.”

At the same time, these stories fuel anti-Western sentiment on Chinese social media. Bloggers use these exaggerated accounts as evidence of foreign hostility toward China.

Sometimes, however, it also leads to some online banter about ‘silly foreigners’ buying into bogus stories. One popular Weibo post that received thousands of likes said:

There’s this online rumor which some foreigners believe, that China operates this system of “credit points” similar to Sesame Credit and that everyone’s closely monitored. If you behave badly, points will be deducted, and if your score’s too low, you’ll be locked up, and that and these “credit points” can be transferred to each other.

One top commenter responded:

Oh my god, this is just too funny hahaha! Quick, give me a ‘like’ so I can get my credit score up.”

Even ‘Chat Xi PT’ couldn’t dream this stuff up.

Best,
Manya

 

A closer look at the featured stories

1: About that story | This is the write-up I did this week about the ‘Xi Jinping chatbot’ following the many English-language media reports. It includes a full translation of the Chinese text the reports were based on and some key takeaways.

Read more
 

2: ‘One China’ Campaign 2.0 | Following the inauguration of Taiwanese president Lai Ching-te and China’s military exercises, Taiwan has been a trending topic on Chinese social media all week. Within a single day, the hashtag ‘Taiwan must return’ received a staggering 2.4 billion views on Weibo. Read all about China’s intensified social media propaganda campaign here.

Read more
 

3: “Retaliate against Society” | Earlier this week, a tragic stabbing incident at Mingde Primary School in Wenfang Town, Guixi City, Jiangxi, went viral on Weibo. The suspect, a 45-year-old local woman, was detained by police after attacking innocent people, including children, with a fruit knife, resulting in two fatalities.

Read more
 

 

What’s Trending

A recap of hot highlights

  • MONDAY 20 MAY
    • The tragic story behind the recent suicide of a 21-year-old Chinese gamer nicknamed ‘Fat Cat’ went viral earlier this month, touching upon broader societal issues from unfair gender dynamics to businesses taking advantage of grieving internet users.
    • The story went viral once again this week after local authorities issued a lengthy report to clarify the timeline of events and details surrounding the death of “Fat Cat,” which, among other conclusions, stated that there was no illegal fraud involved in the relationship that supposedly drove “Fat Cat” to his suicide. Read more here.
  •  

  • TUESDAY 21 MAY
    • Just a day after a woman attacked various people, including children, at a primary school in Guixi, another knife attack went trending on Tuesday.
    • The incident happened In Zigong, Sichuan, when a 52-year-old man assaulted a bus driver and a passenger with a knife after supposedly “suffering a seizure” on the bus. The man has been detained and the case is currently under investigation by local authorities. The two victims have been hospitalized and are not in critical condition.
  •  

  • WEDNESDAY 22 MAY
    • The social media accounts of three prominent Chinese influencers known for flaunting their wealth were blocked and banned from Douyin, Weibo, and Xiaohongshu this week.
    • Wang Hongquanxin (王红权星), Baoyu Jiajie (鲍鱼家姐), and Bo Gongzi (柏公子) were known for putting their luxury lifestyles on display on the internet. Together, they had millions of followers.
    • Chinese news outlet The Paper called the crackdown a “mini earthquake” for China’s luxury influencers. Read more on WWD here.
  •  

  • THURSDAY 23 MAY
    • A female student majoring in pharmacy at Peking University went viral on Thursday for using academic literature from CNKI to drastically improve her 800-meter track run time within a one-week timeframe. She found out that energy sources stored in muscles was crucial, and focused on improving her anaerobic endurance.
    • She improved her 800-meter running time from over four minutes to 3 minutes and 29 seconds. If you have access to Chinese academic literature and would like to see where she got her information from, the title of the journal article is “论中跑和长跑训练的生理机制和生化特点” authored by Liu Baoguo 刘保国.
  •  

  • FRIDAY 24 MAY
    • The death of the 14-year-old Japanese shiba inu dog Kabosu, known for inspiring the “doge” meme, went top trending on Weibo on Friday. The dog became a internet sensation in 2013 after a photo shared by its Japanese owner went viral. Kabosu’s popularity led to the creation of the Dogecoin cryptocurrency, and she became an internet icon globally.
    • In China, doge became a special emoji on major social media platforms like Weibo, WeChat and Douyin, mostly used as a symbol of sarcasm.
  •  

  • SATURDAY 25 MAY
    • Hunan TV’s singing competition “Singer 2024” remains a hot topic! The show has captured viewers’ attention by incorporating international talent and pitting them against renowned Chinese performers.
    • On Friday, American singer-songwriter Adam Lambert joined the competition, not only competing against Chinese stars but also against Chante Moore and Faouzia, who joined earlier and are still in the running. Read more about the show in our article here.
  •  

    What’s the Drama

    Top TV to Watch

    The highly anticipated second season of Joy of Life (庆余年) has been a hot topic in Chinese entertainment circles this week, especially as it topped the rankings among Chinese TV channel evening drama programs. This drama, touching upon themes of time travel, politics, power struggles, and romance, follows the journey of a contemporary man who wakes up as a baby in Southern Qing.

    To know:

    ▶️ The series is adapted from a Chinese web novel originally published from 2007 to 2009 by the successful author Mao Ni (猫腻).
    ▶️ The first season, which premiered in 2019, gained immense popularity and received praise from both audiences and critics.
    ▶️ Describing the anticipation for this show as “much anticipated” would be an understatement. The first season ended with a cliffhanger, leaving fans eagerly awaiting a second season for the past five years. The announcement of the second season was made in May 2023.

    Joy of Life 2 is available with English subtitles on Viki here.

     

    What’s Noteworthy

    Small news with big impact

    You might not expect it, but China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesperson Wang Wenbin (汪文斌) has a large fanbase on Chinese social media, where netizens are creative in editing images of Wang, adding quotes or drawings, and making special fan videos. Wang is often praised for his looks and expressions, with fans saying his facial features are “handsome,” “cute,” “adorable,” and saying that ‘Uncle Wang’ is just too “cool.” The widespread admiration for China’s MFA spokespersons like Wang has various social, cultural, and historical reasons, and nationalism also plays a big role in this.

    Wang Wenbin took on his role as spokesperson in 2020, but his online fan clubs report that he is now saying goodbye to take on another role. During his May 24th regular press conference, Wang ended with a serious ‘farewell,’ stepping down and shaking hands with the reporters in the room (see video here). Hundreds of netizens are sad to see their favorite diplomat go, and are wishing him well: ‘Goodbye, Uncle Wang. Wish you all the best in your new position. Thank you for speaking out over the past four years.'”

    A while back, I wrote an extensive report about the online fan culture surrounding Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin and the overall popularity of Chinese diplomats. You can check it out here.

     

    The latest buzz in arts & pop culture

    Chinese singer-songwriter and dancer Cai Xukun was a big topic of conversation on Weibo this week after news came out that he had become the global brand ambassador for Versace. In a joint post with Versace, Cai posted a photo of his Versace campaign with the phrase: “Be a Versace Man.” That post received a staggering 1.8 million likes in one single day.

    The post was noteworthy for multiple reasons. Just a year ago, Cai found himself embroiled in scandal following allegations that he had engaged in a one-night stand with a young woman who then turned out to be pregnant—and that he had demanded an abortion. The entire event led to a wave of comments from fans who expressed their disappointment with their idol.

    The news was not just a comeback for Cai; it also marks a definite pivot in Versace’s brand strategies away from Hollywood-focused faces. In 2023, the Italian fashion house announced South Korean rapper and singer-songwriter Hyunjin as a new Versace face: their first-ever Korean global brand ambassador. Other brand ambassadors, such as Chinese celebrities Zhao Lusi (Rosy Chao) and Ningning, also make it clear that Versace is focusing on speaking to new generations all across the world.

     

    What’s Memorable

    Best reads from the archive

    For this pick from the archive, we revisit an article from 2022, during the previous round of China’s major military exercises around Taiwan. Much like the current military drills, the online communications about it are arguably just as important as the exercises themselves. The social media spectacle surrounding the Taiwan military exercises is not a one-dimensional media effort but a dynamic interplay where state-led propaganda and grassroots nationalism meet. Read more here.👇

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    Weibo Word of the Week

    The catchword to know

    “Back to the Root” | Our Weibo Word of the Week is Dāngguī (当归), freely translated as “back to the root” in this week’s context of the propaganda campaign surrounding reunification with Taiwan.

    Since earlier in 2024, this term is used by Chinese state media in the slogan “Táiwān dāngguī” (#台湾当归#), which means “Taiwan must return [to the motherland].

    Separately, the two characters in dāngguī 当归 literally mean “should return.”

    However, the slogan is a play on words, as the term dāngguī (当归) as a noun actually means Angelica Sinensis, the Chinese Angelica root or ‘female ginseng,’ a medicinal herb commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine, native to China and cultivated in various East Asian countries.

    This play on words is also evident in the poster disseminated by People’s Daily, where Taiwan is depicted on the left and resembles a piece of the yellowish ‘female ginseng’ root.

    New poster by People’s Daily. ‘Taiwan’ on the left side resembles a piece of Chinese Angelica root (looks like ginseng). It is part of the character “归” (guī, to return, go back to). The remainder of the character consists of various slogans commonly used by Chinese official media to emphasize that Taiwan is part of China.

    Because of this context, where dāngguī 当归 both refers to the discourse of Taiwan returning to China and to the female ginseng root, a creative translation would be “back to the root.” If you want to be less creative, you could also say it’s the Taiwan “should return” campaign.

     
    This is an on-site version of the Weibo Watch newsletter by What’s on Weibo. Missed last week’s newsletter? Find it here. If you are already subscribed to What’s on Weibo but are not yet receiving this newsletter in your inbox, please contact us directly to let us know.

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China Media

China’s Intensified Social Media Propaganda: “Taiwan Must Return to Motherland”

As ‘Taiwan’ is all over Chinese social media, the discourse is controlled and heavily influenced by Chinese official media accounts.

Manya Koetse

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PREMIUM CONTENT

Following the inauguration of Taiwanese president Lai Ching-te on Monday, Taiwan has been a trending topic on Chinese social media all week.

Chinese state media have launched an intensive social media propaganda campaign featuring strong language and clear visuals, reinforcing the message: Taiwan is not a country, Taiwan is part of China, and reunification with the motherland is inevitable.

On Friday, May 24, almost half of the trending topics on Chinese social media platform Weibo were related to Taiwan, its status, and China’s large-scale military drills around Taiwan that began on Thursday.

 

“Taiwan never was a country, and it will never become a country”

 

On Monday, Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, took office after winning the Taiwan elections in January of this year. He was handed over the leadership by Tsai Ing-wen, who served as Taiwan’s president for two four-year terms.

Before leaving office, Tsai spoke to the media and reiterated her stance that Taiwan is an independent, sovereign country. In his inaugural speech, Lai also echoed that sentiment, referring to Taiwan as a nation and urging its people not to “harbor any delusions” about China and cross-strait peace.

Although Chinese official sources did not say much about Lai’s inauguration on the day itself, Chinese state media outlet CCTV issued a strong statement on Wednesday that went viral on social media. They posted an online “propaganda poster” showing the word “unification” (统一) in red, accompanied by the sentence: “‘Taiwan Independence’ is a dead-end road, unification is unstoppable.

The hashtag posted with this image said, “Taiwan never was a country, and it will never become a country,” reiterating a statement by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi when Lai won the elections in early 2024.

The propaganda poster posted by CCTV on May 22 was all about “reunification.”

Within merely eight hours, that hashtag (“Taiwan never was a country, and it will never become a country” #台湾从来不是一个国家也永远不会成为一个国家#) received over 640 million views on Weibo, where it was top trending on Wednesday, accompanied by another hashtag saying “China will ultimately achieve complete reunification” (#中国终将实现完全统一#).

 

“With each provocation our countermeasures advance one step further, until the complete reunification of the motherland is achieved”

 

Starting on Thursday, China’s military exercises in the Taiwan Strait became a major topic on the Chinese internet.

“Joint Sword-2024A” (联合利剑—2024A) is the overarching name for the land, sea, and air military exercises conducted by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), designed to test the armed forces’ ability to “seize power” and control key areas of the island.

The political message behind these exercises, asserting China’s claim over Taiwan and showcasing its military power, is as visible online as it is offline.

On Weibo, People’s Daily live-blogged the latest details of the military exercises around Taiwan, including strong statements by the Ministry of Defense and experts asserting that the PLA has the capability to hit various crucial targets in Taiwan, including its southeastern air defense zone.

The Eastern Theater Command (东部战区) of the PLA also released a 3D animation to simulate the destruction of “Taiwan independence headquarters,” severing the “lifeline of Taiwan independence.”

CCTV Military (央视军事) posted that the ongoing PLA operation is aimed to break Taiwan’s “excessive arrogance.”

They quoted the spokesperson of the Ministry of Defense in saying: “With each provocation from [supporters of] ‘Taiwan independence,’ our countermeasures advance one step further until the complete reunification of the motherland is achieved.”

 

“The motherland must unify, and it will inevitably unify”

 

One relatively new slogan used in the online propaganda campaign regarding Taiwan this week is “Táiwān dāngguī” (#台湾当归#), which means “Taiwan must return [to the motherland].

However, the slogan is also a play on words, as the term dāngguī (当归) refers to Angelica Sinensis, the Chinese Angelica root (“female ginseng”), a medicinal herb commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine, native to China and cultivated in various East Asian countries.

In one poster disseminated by People’s Daily, Taiwan is depicted on the left – resembling a piece of the yellowish root – as a part of the character “归” (guī, to return, go back to). The remainder of the character consists of various slogans commonly used by Chinese official media to emphasize that Taiwan is part of China.

New poster by People’s Daily. ‘Taiwan’ on the left side resembles a piece of Chinese Angelica root (looks like ginseng).

These sentences include slogans like, “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.

Accompanying the “Taiwan Must Return” hashtag, People’s Daily writes: “‘Taiwanese independence’ goes against history, it’s a dead end. The motherland must unify, and it will inevitably unify. #TaiwanMustReturn#.”

Within a single day, the hashtag received a staggering 2.4 billion views on Weibo.

Although ‘Taiwan’ is all over Chinese social media, the discourse is controlled and heavily influenced by Chinese official media accounts. The majority of comments from netizens echo official slogans on the issue, expressing sentiments such as “Taiwan will never be a country,” “I support the ‘One China’ principle,” and “Taiwan is part of China.”

A post by CCTV regarding reunification with Taiwan garnered over 100,000 comments, yet only a fraction of these discussions were visible at the time of writing.

Amidst all the slogans and official discourse, there are also some bloggers expressing a broader view on the issue.

One of them wrote: “In the current official media lineup regarding ‘Taiwan is a province of China’, there are no longer any “warnings” or “demands” to be found. The rhetoric has shifted towards reprimands, and towards an emphasis on the legal principles behind the reclamation of Taiwan. I am convinced that a reunification through military force is no longer a ‘Plan B’ – it is the definite direction we are moving towards.”

By Manya Koetse

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