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Weibo Watch: An Explosive Situation

It’s been an explosive week on Chinese social media. Since Tuesday, when Japan formally announced its decision to start releasing waste water from Fukushima, related topics have been dominating Chinese social media platforms.





This week’s newsletter:
◼︎ 1. Editor’s Note – A toxic mix of factors
◼︎ 2. What’s Trending – A closer look at the featured stories
◼︎ 3. What More to Know – Highlighting 8 hot topics
◼︎ 4. What Lies Behind – Report on anti-Black racism in China
◼︎ 5. What’s Noteworthy – Yellen’s magic mushrooms
◼︎ 6. What’s Popular – China’s “Lord of the Rings”
◼︎ 7. What’s Memorable – Anti-Japanese riots
◼︎ 8. Weibo Word of the Week – “Harvesting chives”

Featured header contains work by Weibo creator “A Boy Who Loves to Learn” @一个热爱学习的男孩, and by Toutiao writer “It’s Not That Complicated” @局势很简单


Dear Reader,


It’s been an explosive week on Chinese social media. Since Tuesday, when Japan formally announced its decision to start releasing waste water from Fukushima into the Pacific, related topics have been dominating Chinese social media platforms.

It’s not that often that you see such huge topics on Chinese social media, swelling like a tidal wave, sweeping through threads, comments, and spanning various sectors of society — engaging state media, businesses, influencers, celebrities, and the public.

Grocery stores experienced an influx of people stockpiling salt, with some even reselling it. Individuals queued for hours to purchase a bag of salt, and some headed to salt manufacturers for bulk purchases.

This salt frenzy stems from collective concerns about the impact of Fukushima water on food safety. Despite an existing ban on Japanese seafood, there’s unease that salt – in the near future and in the decades to come – might also become compromised due to radiation fears. There’s also a believe that salt might help in case of radiation pollution (iodized salt, however, is actually no antidote for radiation).

Some China-based Japanese restaurants made headlines for removing their Japanese decorations, advertising with their “international” cuisine – Our salmon’s from Norway! The sea urchin’s from Russia! -, or just openly telling customers they’re really not Japanese. One popular Weibo post joked that “the Japanese restaurant downstairs has finally admitted they’re not really Japanese.”

The ripple effect included consumers boycotting Japanese beauty products. On e-commerce platforms, tearful fish sellers faced worries about their business future due to contamination fears.

In the English-language social media sphere, critics dismissed the panic as unwarranted, stressing that the disposal is well within safety limits, and the environmental impact on seafood is negligible. “All of this consternation, just because of some low levels of tritium?” some asked.

Well yes.

But when you mix that with collective memories of war and humiliation, profound anti-Japanese sentiments in a deeply cyber-nationalistic environment, a media landscape where state reports on the hazards of Fukushima water amplify existing eco-anxieties, skepticism toward the G7, and a society where official narratives aren’t always trusted and individuals take their own safety precautions.. witness a rather explosive scenario, culminating in public unease, panic buying, and social media overflowing with hostile comments targeting Japan.

This weekend, there are many state-led hashtags trying to calm the storm, reassuring the public about salt abundance, managing over-anxiety, and ensuring the safety of domestic fish consumption. Ultimately, the anti-Japanese demonstrations of 2012 have shown the potential impact of online sentiments on real-life situations. As a precaution, the Japanese Embassy in Beijing has cautioned Japanese citizens against speaking Japanese too loudly in public and remaining vigilant. In the end, no party desires online unrest to escalate into physical violence – neither Chinese authorities, Japanese residents in China, business owners, nor everyday individuals who might be affected by such outbursts because of the clothes they wear, the car they drive, or the shop they work at.

This is our 12th ‘Weibo Watch’ newsletter, and I hope you’re enjoying the format and finding it helpful for catching up on key trends in China’s online media scene, alongside our regular website content. We’ve been tweaking the delivery schedule—weekly or every other week—and given the considerable research and effort that go into our articles (especially since I’m still primarily managing What’s on Weibo on my own), I’ve determined that it would work best to send you a more comprehensive newsletter every two weeks, coupled with a quick update on our latest articles every week.

We’ve launched our soft paywall ten months ago and while we’ve made strides (thanks to you!), we still need more subscribers to sustain our operations. If you appreciate what we do, please recommend What’s on Weibo to friends/colleagues. Your input and personal messages have been incredibly valuable, adding to our discussions on Chinese (social) media developments and improvement of the platform – so I’m super grateful for your engagement.

Miranda Barnes, who has a keen eye for the latest trends, and Zilan Qian, who’s been writing about insightful topics all summer, have contributed to this week’s newsletter.

Manya (@manyapan)


A closer look at the top stories

1: Top Trends Surrounding Fukushima Water | There have been furious responses from Chinese media and netizens after Japan started releasing Fukushima water into the ocean: “The entire world will remember what the Japanese government did this day.” Over the past few days, at least five out of the top ten trending topics on Baidu’s hot news lists and the Weibo platform are linked to the discharge from the nuclear plant and its potential direct and indirect consequences. We explain the top 5 biggest hashtags on Chinese social media, and what’s behind them.

Read more

2:The Voice of Coco Lee | Another explosive topic this week is the scandal surrounding The Voice of China, also called Sing! China. A leaked audio recording of the late superstar Coco Lee discussing her negative experiences with the Chinese talent show became the no 1 searched topic on Weibo earlier this week. The accusations against the popular show have shaken up China’s entertainment circles and the online condemnation of ethical standards in the industry also has offline consequences.

Read more

3: Empty Hall, Full Buzz | A local Sichuan Bureau of Civil Affairs, where couples register and obtain their marriage certificate, launched a livestream to celebrate the marriage registration ceremony for new couples on August 22, marking the occasion of the Qixi Festival, often referred to as the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day. The celebratory livestream gained immense traction on Chinese social media, albeit for all the unintended reasons. Instead of a much-anticipated marriage boom (结婚潮), online viewers saw an awkward empty ceremony stage.

Read more

4: Two Blazes, Same Day | It was a noteworthy Tuesday in Tianjin this week. After a major fire broke out in the Xintiandi high-rise office building, Tianjin residents soon found out that another blaze was occurring not far away, causing the plumes of smoke from both incidents to be visible from multiple locations. These successive fires stirred a certain level of unease, further fueled by online rumors falsely suggesting a third fire was in progress. Although there are not many news reports on what exactly happened, the local fire brigade reported no casualties.

Read more


What More to Know

Highlighting 8 hot topics

“There’s something wrong with this water” meme.

◼︎ 1. China Responds to Japan’s Fukushima Water Disposal. The biggest topic of the week is, without a doubt, the Chinese response to Japan’s Fukushima water disposal and the anti-Japanese sentiments that have surfaced in online discussions along with a general public unrest. The first related trending topics already started on Tuesday when Prime Minister Fumio Kishida stated that, despite existing regional worries and opposition, they would begin releasing water from the ruined Fukushima nuclear plant on August 24. Although the move meets the safety standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency, China strongly opposes it. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin responded that ‘relevant departments’ in China would take necessary measures to ensure food safety. China already has tight import controls on Japanese food and has now taken extra measures to ban Japanese aquatic products. (Hashtag: “China Responds to Japan’s Formal Decision to Start Discharging [Water] Into the Sea #中方回应日本正式决定启动排海#, 320 million views).

◼︎ 2. BRICS Summit. The 2023 BRICS Summit (Aug 22-24) has remained a significant focus throughout the week in Chinese news and on Weibo, where related hashtags surged to the top of trending lists. While in Chinese media, mostly positive news was coming from South-Africa in light of Xi Jinping’s state visit and the Summit, international media were more concerned with the fact that Xi did not read his own speech for the Business Forum in Johannesburg. Instead, China’s commerce minister Wang Wentao spoke in his place. On Weibo, news of Xi’s speech was presented in a way that didn’t explicitly indicate he hadn’t given it himself. Another noteworthy moment showed how Xi Jinping’s security guards were blocked from entering the venue. However, this moment wasn’t showcased on Chinese social media. The annual summit was marked by discussions of expansion: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have been invited to become full members starting from January 1st next year. (Various related trending hashtags on Weibo, such as ‘BRICS Times’ #金砖时刻# or ‘Xi Jinping’s South Africa Journey’ #习主席非洲之行#, 410 million views).

◼︎ 3. Prigozhin’s Private Plane Crashes. Weibo saw a flurry of discussions regarding the reported demise of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in the early hours of August 24 after reports indicated that he was listed as a passenger on a plane that had crashed in the Tver Region of Russia. Chinese state media outlets soon shared the footage showing the plane plummeting from the sky. Drawing parallels to history, some likened Prigozhin’s situation to that of Lin Biao, a powerful politician who met his untimely demise in a 1971 airplane crash that many believe was deliberately orchestrated. (“Russian Media Report Prigozhin’s Private Plane Crashed” #俄媒称普里戈任的私人飞机坠毁#, 310 million views).

◼︎ 4. Trump in Custody.“History seems to unfold right before our eyes these days,” remarked a popular Weibo comment this week, reflecting the surge of major events. Amidst the Fukushima water disposal, BRICS, and Prigozhin’s passing, the attention also turned to the news of former U.S. President Donald Trump and his now-iconic mug shot. This image was captured as he surrendered to an Atlanta jail, facing charges of seeking to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results. On Chinese social media, Trump has always been a source of banter (link, link, link), and that was no different now. Some people imagined that with all this political intrigue, he’s become like a star in a South Korean soap opera (Weibo hashtag “Trump in Custody” #特朗普被收押#, 150 million views).

◼︎ 5. The Voice of China Stops Broadcasting. Following the online leakage of an audio recording in which the late Chinese celebrity Coco Lee expressed her dissatisfaction with the treatment she received from the production team of The Voice of China (also known as Sing! China), the reality TV show has emerged as a significant online topic. While the program initially dismissed the controversy surrounding the leaked recording, suggesting potential manipulation and ill intentions, the situation has now escalated to the point where the show’s broadcast has been suspended as of August 25th. Zhejiang TV, the broadcasting platform, issued a statement on Weibo, announcing an ongoing investigation. Consequently, the airing of the show has been temporarily put on hold. (Hashtag “The Voice of China Suspends Broadcasts” #中国好声音暂停播出#, 730 million views).

◼︎ 6. China’s 239 Million Singles during Qixi Festival. Talk of love was in the air this week, as China celebrated the Qixi festival, often referred to as the Chinese Valentine’s Day. While couples celebrated their love for each other, attention also turned to the growing number of single individuals in the country. The figure now stands at a staggering 239 million. This revelation surfaced from the China Population Census Yearbook (2020), which additionally revealed that the average age for first marriages has shifted to 28.67, marking a 3.78-year increase compared to 2010. “There are more people who don’t want to find a partner, and for those who want to, finding a partner has become more difficult,” one top commenter wrote. (Hashtag “China Has 239 Million Singles” #我国单身人口2.39亿#, 210 million views).

◼︎ 7. Banned for Life from Visiting Pandas. Perhaps it’s time to do another update to our ‘Meanwhile in Panda News‘ series, as there’s been quite some trending panda news again. There was the news that baby panda Fan Xing, who was born in a Dutch zoo, will soon be returned to China. Another trending news item concerns two visitors who fed bamboo shoots and peanuts to pandas in Chengdu. While other zoos in China hold less strict rules, the Chengdu Research Base is not to be messed with – the safety and well-being of the pandas is their top priority. Feeding the pandas resulted in a permanent ban for these two visitors from revisiting the Chengdu zoo. (“Two Tourists Get Lifetime Ban on Visiting Panda’s in Chengdu” #2游客被终生禁入成都大熊猫基地#, 19 million views).

◼︎ 8. Switzerland Hands Seized Cultural Relics Over to China. A handover ceremony in which Switzerland returned lost cultural relics to China, including a Ming Dynasty vase, and pottery from the Han and Tang Dynasties, became a number one trending topic on Douyin on August 25. During the handover ceremony, Ambassador Wang Shiting praised the collaboration between China and Switzerland in the field of cultural relics. Both countries underlined their commitment to combat illegal import and export of cultural relics. (Douyin hashtag “Switzerland Hands Over 5 Lost Cultural Relics to China 瑞士向中国移交5件流失文物).


What’s Behind the Headlines

Notes from the team

Screenshot shared on Weibo of VOA’s article on the HRW report.

Human Rights Watch: Addressing Anti-Black Racism on Chinese Social Media

A recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) argues that China needs to take more robust measures to combat anti-Black racism on social media platforms. The report suggest that both major social media platforms and Chinese authorities systematically fail to properly address this issue.

The assertion made by HRW that Chinese social media serves as a breeding ground for anti-Black racism is not new. This issue has previously attracted international criticism. Last year, BBC released a documentary titled “Racism for Sale,” exposing an online market for racist videos featuring African children made to dance and sing degrading phrases in Chinese such as “I am dumb” or “I am monstrous.” Afterward, Chinese e-commerce sites closed shops engaged in trading such videos, Weibo shut down numerous accounts sharing racist content, and government officials spoke out against such practices.

But HRW argues that there are many other manifestations of anti-Black racism in China.While the report does not delve deeply into the specifics of the content they consider racist, it does reference videos that perpetuate racial stereotypes, content that belittles interracial relationships, accounts that impersonate Black people, and state media shows featuring performers with skin darkened by makeup. Platforms like Bilibili, Kuaishou, Weibo, and Xiaohongshu should intensify efforts to remove this kind of problematic content, it argues.

While the HRW report raises significant concerns, its approach also falls short in effectively conveying this message to the Chinese people. It lumps together various issues and shows a lack of understanding of China’s online media environment and Chinese perspectives, and how China’s differing pace in addressing racial equality and anti-Black racism also stems from drastically divergent historical and social contexts (read). Telling the country in the world with the least internet freedom that they should censor more is not only somewhat Orwellian, it also strengthens existing frustrations in China that the West often acts as a morally superior enforcer on the global stage. Within this context of distrust, many suspect that when Western powers accuse China of being racist, particularly against black Africans, they actually mean to disrupt China-Africa relations because they fear China’s growing global influence.

Predictably, the common response among Chinese netizens to the report was that ‘the West’ was once again revealing its true intentions by pointing fingers at China, despite ongoing instances of racist violence occurring within their own nations. Consequently, the report ultimately misses the mark by not effectively raising awareness about anti-Black racism in China. Instead, it fosters a sense of distrust regarding the genuine motivations behind a report published with good intentions.


What’s Noteworthy

Small news with big impact

U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Yellen Had ‘Magic Mushrooms’ in Beijing |

It’s been weeks since the US treasury secretary visited Beijing, but her July visit has become a topic of discussion again after Yellen conducted an interview with CNN in which her noteworthy first meal in the Chinese capital was discussed. The restaurant where she had dinner is the Yunnan-themed ‘In and Out’ (一坐一忘), a local favorite in Beijing’s Sanlitun near the embassy area. Among other things, Yellen was served spicy potatoes with mint and stir-fried mushrooms, leading to online jokes about how the food would affect her.

The mushroom dish that is discussed here – and which has since become more popular – is called jiànshǒuqīng (见手青), which literally means “see hand blue” (in reference to turning blue when handled). It is the lanmaoa asiatica mushroom species that grows in China’s Yunnan region and is considered hallucinogenic, causing visions that locals call “xiǎorénrén” (小人人), literally: “little people,” referring to visual hallucinations where people see tiny humans. The fact that Yellen chose to eat such risky food on her first night in Beijing, ahead of important US-China talks, caused a great deal of hilarity on Chinese social media.

To prevent the mushrooms from causing poisoning and “seeing little people,” they must be handled with care and cooked thoroughly. Yellen claimed she did not have any ill effects from eating them, calling them “delicious.” Read more here.

Read more


The latest buzz in arts & pop culture

China’s ‘Lords of the Rings’ Needed Extra Support | Despite its initially underwhelming performance, the Chinese film Creation of the Gods I (封神第一部) has become a major summer box office hit in China, and the topic has become trending multiple times over the past week. With a planned budget of 3 billion yuan (approximately US$410 million), the mythological epic stands as the most ambitious and costly production in Chinese film history, having been in the works for years. Because director Wu’ershan first got the idea for this film when watching The Lord of the Rings in 2001, this first movie within the trilogy of the fantasy epic Creation of the Gods, also known as Fengshen Trilogy (封神三部曲) is also referred to as the “Chinese Lord of the Rings.”

However, despite the grand scale and hefty budget, the film struggled to capture much attention upon its theatrical release, and it took over two weeks for significant box office numbers to materialize. Social media played a pivotal role in its eventual box office success as viewers lauded the blend of traditional Chinese mythology with cutting-edge cinematic techniques. A devoted online community of fans contributed to the surge in ticket sales. This phenomenon is also called zìláishuǐ (自来水). This literally means ‘tap water,’ but it is a label for those netizens who spontaneously promote a film or artist without getting paid for it. Read more here.

Read more


What’s Memorable

Best reads from the archive

2012 Anti-Japanese Riots This week, the Japanese embassy in Beijing warned Japanese nationals not to loudly talk in Japanese in public and to be careful when going out. Although many ridiculed the warning on Chinese social media, the current anti-Japanese tensions in China might remind some of September 2012, when tensions eventually led to violent anti-Japanese protests (反日游行) in different cities across China, including in Beijing, over the status of the Senkaku/Diaoyu island group. The long-standing dispute reached a zenith after the Japanese government nationalized control of three of the largest islands, triggering people to take to the streets across the country to vent their anger.

The protests led to excessives; people ravaged Japanese businesses, smashed Japanese-branded cars, threw rocks at the Japanese embassy, and burned Japanese flags. There was also a mass boycott of Japanese goods. One man from Xi’an was hit in the head by demonstrators for owning a Japanese car. In 2016, four years later, he was still hospitalized for head injury. At the time, What’s on Weibo published an article about it which you can read in our archive here.

Read more


Weibo Word of the Week

The catchword to know

“Harvesting Chives” | Our Weibo Word of the Week is “割韭菜” (gē jiǔcài), which translates to “reaping chives.” This term refers to a situation in which inexperienced or uninformed individuals, symbolized by chives, are taken advantage of by more knowledgeable or manipulative people, often leading to financial losses for the less informed parties.

The term is widely used in the context of finance and investment, where a handful of market manipulators deceive numerous regular investors, who are often referred to as chives (“韭菜”), into buying overpriced assets. The manipulators then profit from these investments as prices suddenly plummet. The enduring vitality of chives as a plant serves as a metaphor for the unceasing influx of new investors who become ensnared in the manipulators’ schemes after the previous ones have already suffered losses and left the market.

“Harvesting Chives” or “Reaping Chives” has been frequently used amidst China’s recent property crisis, exemplified by major events like the payment suspension by Zhongzhi Enterprise Group and the potential bond default by Country Garden. Those affected by the crisis humorously label themselves as “chives” that have been harvested by a select group of senior figures within these enterprises, who are believed to have already transferred their ‘fruitful harvest’ elsewhere.

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.

Stories that are authored by the What's on Weibo Team are the stories that multiple authors contributed to. Please check the names at the end of the articles to see who the authors are.

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Chinese New Year

Weibo Watch: Stealing the Show

About the biggest controversy surrounding the 2024 Spring Festival Gala, ‘Chunshan Studies’, Jia Ling’s peak in popularity, and other must-know Weibo topics.





This week’s newsletter:
◼︎ 1. Editor’s Note – Stealing the show
◼︎ 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 Lies Behind – Celebrations and frustrations
◼︎ 6. What’s Noteworthy – Fu Yuanhui’s plea for help
◼︎ 7. What’s Popular – Multi-talented Jia Ling’s peak in popularity
◼︎ 8. What’s Memorable – The micro-film of the Spring Festival
◼︎ 9. Weibo Word of the Week – “Chunshan Studies”


Dear Reader,


It has been several years since I officially paused my PhD studies to dedicate my full attention to What’s on Weibo. My research focus during my studies was centered on the representation of the Second Sino-Japanese War in Chinese and Japanese popular culture, a topic I still find fascinating and relevant. However, one problem I encountered while doing my PhD was the constant allure of equally fascinating trends or topics to explore. The Spring Festival Gala is one such topic that always ranked high on my ‘PhD research wishlist.’

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the Gala by now, but just to recap: the CMG Spring Festival Gala, formerly known as the CCTV Spring Festival Gala, is the state media’s annual live television event broadcasted on the evening of Chinese New Year since 1983. It’s one of the most-watched variety shows globally, attracting an average of 700 million viewers. Over 679 million people tuned in to the live broadcast this year (by comparison, the latest Super Bowl had a viewership of 123 million). The Gala features various acts, including singing, dancing, and comedy, spanning approximately 4 hours.

The Gala holds immense significance for all involved parties, from production teams to performers and sponsors. It’s a convergence of culture and commerce, where the Party meets pop culture. CMG (China Media Group), under the direct control of the Central Propaganda Department of the Communist Party, utilizes the show to communicate official ideology, promote traditional culture, and showcase top national performers. Despite its commercial aspect, the Gala always remains highly political, blending official propaganda with entertainment. Over the years, it has also become a platform to showcase China’s innovative digital technologies.

Given its importance, it’s not surprising that every second of the show is closely examined, analyzed, scrutinized by an audience of millions. This also results in a new controversy surrounding the show virtually every year, whether it’s about a performance that is deemed racist or about jokes that are believed to be sexist, about who appeared and who did not come up, about magic tricks going wrong or an audience member caught on camera while picking their nose.

The controversy you need to know about this year concerns Chinese actor Bai Jingting (白敬亭). Together with Wei Chen (魏晨) and Wei Daxun (魏大勋), he performed the song “Going Up Spring Mountain” (上春山). Although the song itself initially wasn’t particularly noteworthy, the performance attracted major attention due to the positioning of the three singers on a tiered platform, representing a mountain, with Bai standing on the highest pedestal. After Bai sang his part of the song, it seemed like he was supposed to step down but he didn’t, so Wei Daxun sang from a lower step afterward. It was rumored that Bai Jingting may have intentionally vied for a more prominent position to attract more attention on stage, resulting in choreographic asymmetry and some apparent confusion among the performers.

Adding fuel to these rumors is the fact that Bai was the only performer wearing all black, while the other two wore white. After rehearsal videos of the performance were posted online, netizens noticed that in one video Bai initially stepped down after singing his part, and that he also wore white in another. This led to claims that Bai purposely changed his outfit last-minute to black, so that he could ‘steal the show’ while occupying the center position. It would also make it impossible for producers to switch to a rehearsed version of the song. (Although it’s a live show, every year’s Gala has a taped version of the full dress rehearsal that runs together with the live broadcast, so that in the event of a problem or disruption, the producers can seamlessly switch to the taped version without TV audiences noticing anything. A change in position or attire would make this impossible.)

While these are all mere rumors, they triggered widespread criticism of Bai, trending throughout the week. People accused him of having a bad character and wanting to steal the limelight, it even sparked the new term ‘Chunshan Studies’ (see our Weibo Word of the Week) and the video of “Going Up Spring Mountain” (上春山) became the Gala most replayed performance. The title ““Going Up Spring Mountain” took on an entirely different meaning and was even trademarked by a company in Shenzhen. It sparked memes, jokes, and led to people mimicking the song or editing images of the performance.

CCTV made it clear in a popular Weibo hashtag that “Every move in the Spring Festival Gala is carefully designed and precisely presented” (#春晚每一个走位都精心设计并被准确呈现#), suggesting Bai followed directorial instructions and never sought the limelight. It’s quite ironic that while the Gala usually wants to pretend that there is still some spontaneity involved, it now had to stress how there actually is none whatsoever to protect Bai’s reputation.

Also ironic is that while the entire discussion revolved around whether or not Bai was stealing the show, the song “Going Up Spring Mountain” actually did steal the spotlight and became the most-discussed act of the night. This year’s controversy adds to the Gala’s long list of noteworthy moments, each shedding light on the changing dynamics of China’s evolving media landscape, propaganda efforts, nationalism, gender issues, fan culture, and more. Perhaps it’s time for someone to undertake a PhD on that…

Miranda Barnes and Ruixin Zhang contributed to this Weibo Watch newsletter.

Manya (@manyapan)

PS Is there a China Studies topic that’s on your ‘wishlist’ too? Or have you come across any new trends or online phenomena that piqued your interest? I’m always eager to learn more about what fascinates you. Don’t hesitate to shoot me a message!


A closer look at the featured stories

1: The CMG Gala | The CMG Spring Festival Gala is not just an essential part of Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations, it is also the biggest televised media spectacle of the year. Over the entire last week, this four-hour extravaganza featuring forty-six performances has dominated social media conversations. In this article, we reflect on the highs and lows of this year’s edition of the world’s most-watched television program. Read all about it here 👇🏼

Read more

2: What a Mess | In the summer of 2023, it seemed like Messi’s popularity in China had reached its peak during a friendly match between Argentina and Australia held at Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium when a Chinese fan stormed onto the pitch and embraced Messi. The incident went viral and only garnered more appreciation for the soccer superstar, who extended his arms and reciprocated the hug. Fast forward eight months, and Messi’s reputation in China has plummeted to its lowest point. His highly anticipated appearance in a match in Hong Kong failed to materialize, leaving fans and organizers disappointed. Many suspect political motivations behind his absence, leading to widespread disillusionment among Chinese fans. (Updated with Messi’s response on 2/19).

Read more

3: Box Office Peak Season | During the Chinese Spring Festival, along with the National Day Holiday, movies tend to earn around 32.3% more on average. Sci-fi and action films are usually the most successful, followed by comedies. Last year, the Spring Festival box office revenues accounted for about 12.3 percent of the yearly total. This year, it was actually all about comedy and animation. Jia Ling’s latest movie was the most anticipated one. Check the big nine Spring Festival movies in our article below.

Read more


What More to Know

Five Bite-Sized Trends

◼︎ 🚙 Long Way Home | Sold-out tickets, overcrowded trains, traffic jams, and aggravated travelers – the Chinese New Year travel season has been a hot topic on Chinese social media recently, sparking various discussions. Over the weekend of February 17-18, terms such as ‘way home’ (返程) and ‘traffic jam’ (堵车) dominated Weibo as the eight-day Spring Festival holiday ended, with millions returning home after leisure travel and family visits. The situation was particularly severe in Hainan, where some endured waits of up to fourteen hours for a ferry, despite local authorities predicting a seven-hour clearance for traffic jams. China Daily reported that the provincial government increased the number of flights and ferries in hopes of avoiding mass congestion, but to no avail. As people nationwide faced difficulties returning home by train, boat, or car, more voices on social media called for amendments to the annual leave and public holiday system, advocating for a more staggered return to work to alleviate nationwide travel congestion (related Weibo hashtag: #海南离岛严重拥堵有人排14小时上船#, 130 million views).

◼︎ 👫 Holding Hand Gate Continued | Remember the 2023 so-called ‘Holding Hand Gate’? Chinese social media exploded after a local SOE official was snapped by a street photographer while taking a stroll with his mistress, a co-worker who had joined him on a Chengdu business trip. The viral video showed the woman elegantly dressed in a fitted pink ensemble, adorned with a $5000 Dior purse, walking hand in hand with the official, who sported a coordinated t-shirt and carried shopping bags. The man, PetroChina executive Hu Jiyong, was fired after his extramarital affair was exposed online. The woman, PetroChina employee Ms. Dong, was also dismissed. Now, the affair has again gone trending after Ms. Dong talked about the aftermath in a February 18 Douyin livestream, calling the commotion surrounding the exposed affair a particularly dark moment in her life, which she got through thanks to the help of her loved ones. However, the livestream was cut off halfway and the account was suspended for “violating the platform’s relevant regulations” (related Weibo hashtag #太古里牵手门女当事人直播间被封#, 270 million views).

◼︎ 🤖 OpenAI’s Sora | Since the American AI research company OpenAI introduced its new video generation model ‘Sora’ on February 16, it has become a big topic of discussion in Chinese media and on Weibo. Though not officially launched yet, demo videos released by Sora show what the new text-to-video model is capable of, allowing users to create very realistic, high-quality and detailed videos. In a recent column, Chinese political commenter Hu Xijin called Sora a “groundbreaking development” while also expressing worries over how these new technologies will impact the future of realistic film and the film industry at large. At the same time, Hu also wondered what the rapid progress of American AI companies means for China and its AI ambitions, calling the introduction of Sora a “warning” that China may be lagging behind when it comes to AI. If you’re interested to read more on this, I recently wrote an op-ed for The Guardian about the US-China race for AI supremacy: link. (Related Weibo hashtag #OpenAI首个视频生成模型Sora有多强大#, 28 million views).

◼︎ 🇷🇺 Navalny’s Death | The death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny shocked the world this week. The 47-year-old anti-corruption activist died in a maximum-security prison in Russia’s far north. A day before his death was announced, Navalny appeared in a court hearing, where he cracked jokes about needing money from the judge. In the years leading up to his death, Navalny endured chemical burns and survived poisoning attempts. In a video message, Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, held Putin accountable for her husband’s death. Chinese state media outlets reported Navalny’s death on Weibo, citing Russian statements that he suddenly fell ill after a walk in the prison on Friday, leading to shock and eventual passing. On Weibo, some commenters cynically dubbed his death as “Russia-style modernization,” while others criticized it as “Putin’s way,” labeling Putin as a ‘Czar’ or ‘Emperor.’ There were also remarks suggesting that Navalny’s demise was the foreseeable consequence of Russia’s intolerance toward opposition, and wrote that Navalny himself had opted to return to Russia after being treated in Germany in 2021 (related Weibo hashtag #俄反对派人士纳瓦利内狱中死亡#, 27 million views).

◼︎ 🦒 Giraffes on Weibo| Since I missed one newsletter edition (following the late little rabbit news), I haven’t had the chance to cover the giraffe incident on Weibo yet. Here’s a brief overview: In early February, around the 3rd, Weibo users flooded the US embassy’s account page with complaints about their economic struggles and plummeting stock market worries. The post they were responding to wasn’t related to China’s economy at all; it was about tracking giraffes in Namibia using GPS technology. This seemingly innocent post became a platform for discussing China’s post-pandemic economic issues and also included direct criticism of Chinese leadership. It’s not uncommon for Chinese netizens to use seemingly unrelated hashtags or posts to discuss sensitive topics, hoping to evade censorship. However, the giraffe thread was eventually censored anyway. Despite this, the post still garnered over 20,000 shares and nearly a million likes. Who would’ve thought wildlife conservation could be so popular? 🤡


What’s the Drama

Top TV to Watch

The TV drama “Amidst a Snowstorm of Love” (在暴雪时分) currently ranks number one on Weibo and Baidu’s Top TV drama rankings. The romantic drama tells the love story of snooker player Lin Yiyang (林亦扬, played by Wu Lei 吴磊) and nine-ball player Yin Guo (殷果, played by Zhao Jinmai 赵今麦). It is a genuine love story that showcases the chemistry between the two main stars, and the high ratings for the drama show that audiences were craving a straightforward drama that warms hearts on cold days. The drama premiered on February 2 and has since skyrocketed in popularity. The main hashtag on Weibo has received over 4 billion clicks, with 150 million views on February 19 alone.

▶️ This drama is an adaptation of the novel “Amidst a Snowstorm of Love” (在暴雪时分) by Chinese web novelist and screenwriter Mobao Feibao (墨宝非宝).
▶️ Singer Deng Dian (邓典D.D, b. 1999) performed the theme song for this drama, which has also become an online hit.
▶️ To realistically portray his characters, actor Wu Lei underwent snooker and billiards training before filming the drama. He also learned horse riding, archery, badminton, and tennis for other roles, leading some commentators to joke that he’s getting ready to compete in the “Olympics” of China’s entertainment industry.

You can watch Amidst a Snowstorm of Love with English subtitles via Viki here.


What Lies Behind

Observations beyond the headlines, by Miranda Barnes

Only a few days into the Chinese New Year, China had already registered over 3.5 billion passenger trips. The Spring Festival travel rush is known as the world’s largest annual migration, predominantly journeys back to hometowns and family reunions. And so, over the past ten days or so, social media was flooded with videos showing family members’ emotional reactions when they are surprised by the homecoming of loved ones. Videos showed tears, laughter, hugs, and gentle scoldings for not giving advance notice of arrivals. Many viewers admitted to being moved to tears by these heartfelt moments while scrolling on their phones. But during the Spring Festival, we gradually saw a shift in people’s posts as they reported from their hometowns, where happy family reunions often turned into dinner dramas.

Returning home after prolonged separation from parents often evokes mixed feelings among Chinese younger people. While they look forward to family gatherings and homemade comfort food, they also worry that their family might find out that the idealized portrayal of their lives over the phone doesnt exactly match the reality. The joy of reunion fades with each passing day.

“It’s my fourth day home and I’ve been offering to do all the dishes to nurture our family bond,” some said, “but now, on day five, an argument has finally broke out.” While the immediate triggers for family disputes may vary, underlying reasons are often similar, as shared by Weibo users. Comments like “All you do is stay glued to your phone,” “You can’t even support yourself with your income; do you know how much money your cousin is making?” and “When are you getting married? You’re embarrassing us,” are commonplace. One commenter lamented, “I’m currently locked up in my room after a disagreement with my family. They all say home is a safe haven, but we all know that returning home during Chinese New Year means stepping into the eye of a storm.”

Amid these challenging times, psychologists offer online tips to foster better understanding of the generation gap and improve communication. Nevertheless, many express the difficulty of engaging in equal and respectful conversations with their parents and elders. As one blogger reflected, “It’s always the same emotional cycle during the Spring Festival: a honeymoon phase to start with, followed by numerous arguments, and sadness upon leaving home in the end.”


What’s Noteworthy

Small news with big impact

“We hired a car and now we’re being extorted. Halfway through, they wanted us to pay more to buy tickets; we disagreed, so now the driver won’t continue driving. What should I do? Should I call the police?” This was the urgent plea for help that Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui (傅园慧) posted on Weibo on Saturday morning, February 17th. Following her post, Fu Yuanhui and the scamming incident quickly went trending on Weibo, and her situation was soon resolved. This also led to criticism, as people argued she only got help so quickly because she is famous. Read more via link below.

Read more


The latest buzz in arts & pop culture

So far, the Year of the Dragon is an especially fruitful one for Chinese actress and director Jia Ling (贾玲). Although the famous comedian had previous major successes with her directorial debut Hi, Mom in 2021, her current popularity is unprecedented: everyone is talking about Jia Ling.

We recently covered Jia Ling’s return to the spotlight after a year-long break from the public eye. Not only did she announce her new film YOLO (热辣滚烫), the actress also lost a staggering 110 lbs (50 kg) for her role.

Her movie turned out to be the biggest box office hit of the season. Of all the different box office premieres during the eight-day Spring Festival holiday, Jia Ling’s YOLO took the lead with 2.7 billion yuan.

YOLO (热辣滚烫) is an inspirational story about an overweight woman who finds new purpose and becomes fit through boxing. But it’s about more than the movie alone: Jia Ling herself has become a great source of inspiration to others. Besides acting and directing, she is now also singing and composing. This week, the music video for Jia’s song “Everything Is Still Possible” or “Everything Comes in Time” (一切都来得及) was released. In the video, the ‘new’ Jia Ling can be seen singing a duet with her former self, singing about the importance of loving yourself.

Jia Ling singing a duet with her old self.

After her box office success, hit song, and new appearance, it seems that Jia Ling is at the peak of her popularity. She’s become a role model for her talent, dedication, and style – she’s the hottest woman on Weibo.


What’s Memorable

Best reads from the archive

In light of the Spring Festival, we’ve picked this article from our archive from one year ago which explores a new genre that was introduced during the CMG Gala in 2023, namely the ‘micro film.’ While this year’s show also featured another short film by director Zhang Dapeng at the very beginning, the 2023 short film titled “Me and My Spring Festival Night” (“我和我的春晚”) truly captivated audiences. This 7-minute mini-film was a remarkable piece of storytelling with a surprising twist at the end. Many viewers hailed it as the highlight of the Gala, with some even going so far as to call it the best segment of the Gala they’d seen in a decade. Read more about the short film here 👇

Read more


Weibo Word of the Week

The catchword to know

“Chunshan Studies” | Our Weibo Word of the Week is “Spring Mountain Studies” or “Chunshan Studies” (Chūn Shān Xué 春山学), a phrase which has taken the Chinese internet by storm recently.

“Chunshan Studies” emerged as a result of the controversy surrounding the song “Going Up Spring Mountain” performed at the annual CMG Spring Festival by Bai Jingting (白敬亭), Wei Chen (魏晨), and Wei Daxun (魏大勋). Bai, the only singer of the three dressed in black and standing at the highest pedestal during the live performance, became the subject of online scrutiny when netizens accused him of purposely choosing his position and attire to steal the spotlight.

The incident became a hot topic, almost evolving into a full-fledged study with various related theories, hence netizens humorously started referring to it as “Spring Mountain Studies” or “Chunshan Studies”. Netizens meticulously scrutinized everything from wardrobe details to body language, searching for hidden meanings and subtle clues that may reveal the intentions of those involved and the truth of what happened on stage. On social media platforms Douyin and Bilibili, numerous “Chunshan Studies” videos emerged, providing frame-to-frame analyses of how Bai Jingting may have tried to seize the main position and supposed abnormal stage movements.

Chunshan Studies has become a distinct field of study focusing on the “Going Up Spring Mountain” controversy, but it also intersects with critical analysis, popular media discourse, and social studies. Some commenters believe that the discussions about Bai Jingting’s position on stage are actually about equity and ethical behavior.

Guess we all learned something new this Spring Festival!

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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Chinese New Year

Weibo Watch: Late Little Rabbit

Experts anticipate a small peak in “dragon babies” (龙宝宝) births this year. But many young people don’t care much for lunar birth timing.

Manya Koetse





Dear Reader,


With a record 9 billion passenger trips expected in the upcoming weeks, China’s Spring Festival travel rush is in full swing. Preparations for festivities and family reunions are underway, and the most auspicious year for baby-making is about to begin.

The Year of the Dragon, specifically the Wood Dragon, will commence on February 10th. While in some years, mothers are trying to deliver their babies earlier to make sure it is not born in what is considered a less lucky year (such as the Year of the Sheep), the dragon year is known for seeing an increase in (delayed) births. Many expectant couples and aspiring parents across China hope to deliver their babies in what is traditionally seen as the most auspicious year for a child to be born.

As a symbol of power once associated with the emperor, children born in the dragon year are believed to be destined for good fortune and are more likely to become leaders. “Wàng zǐ chéng long” (望子成龙) is a Chinese idiom that literally translates to “hoping one’s son becomes a dragon” and means to have great hopes for one’s offspring to succeed in life.

This year, experts anticipate a small peak in “dragon babies” (lóng bǎobǎo 龙宝宝) births. The last Year of the Dragon, 2012, also witnessed a temporary increase in births in mainland China. Some maternity wards even had to add beds, and expectant mothers were reminded to reserve their spot months in advance (Huang et al 2021; Hvistendahl 2013).

While a baby boom won’t solve China’s demographic problems, it would be welcomed this year. Earlier this month, the National Bureau of Statistics reported just 9.02 million births for mainland China in 2023, another record low after 2022 when only 9.56 million babies were born. It was the first time deaths outnumbered births in China since the Great Leap Forward in the 1960s.

Despite triggering discussions and concerns on Chinese social media, many young people suggest that the ‘experts’ worrying about China’s dropping birth rates should go ahead and have more babies themselves. Even a lucky dragon year won’t convince them to have children amidst youth unemployment and rising living costs.

Some feel that the Year of the Dragon only adds to the pressures they already face. In social media discussions, they come up with various reasons to disagree with parents and family members urging them to have a baby this year. After all, having a baby in the dragon year may make it harder for the child, facing increased competition in education and the workplace from fellow dragon babies.

On Weibo, Sina Finance recently conducted a poll, asking netizens if they deliberately choose a specific time, such as the dragon year, for having children. Despite strong traditional beliefs in lunar birth timing, nearly 80% of respondents said they would not pick a particular timing for their child’s birth, as any timing is considered the best timing.

I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment, and I’m thrilled to share some personal news with you: my baby boy Kai entered the world early last week, at the tail end of the Year of the Rabbit. Though not as mighty and bold as the Dragon, the Rabbit is cherished for symbolizing longevity, peace, and prosperity. Kai is not only healthy and strong but also irresistibly cute and cuddly, so I can definitely accept that he just couldn’t wait for the dragon year to make his debut. We’ll make do with the rabbit charm instead.

The arrival of my own late little rabbit this month is also why it has been quiet at What’s on Weibo over the past two weeks. Meanwhile, on Weibo, various topics trended; the Chunyun travel season started (Jan 26-March 6), a devastating landslide hit Yunnan, two deadly fires raised discussions, the Brendan Kavanagh incident unfolded and made international headlines, and Olympic champion Eileen Gu once again became a hot topic. We’ll get back to writing about these trends and much more in the coming weeks. Our next regular newsletter will be sent to you in the first week of the Year of the Dragon.

Until then,



Huang, Cheng, Shiying Zhang, Qingguo Zhao, and Yan Lin. 2021. “Dragon Year Superstition, Birth Timing, and Neonatal Health Outcomes.” China Economic Review 66: 101594.

Hvistendahl, Mara. 2013. “Enter the Dragons.” The Atlantic (Jan/Feb): 21-22.


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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