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Weibo Watch: Forgotten Allies

Chinese online reactions to the war in the Middle East are intertwined with echoes of China’s own national suffering and its modern history.

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PREMIUM NEWSLETTER | ISSUE #16

This week’s newsletter:
◼︎ 1. Editor’s Note – Forgotten allies
◼︎ 2. What’s Trending – A closer look at the featured stories
◼︎ 3. What More to Know – Highlighting 8 hot topics
◼︎ 4. What’s Noteworthy – Taiwanese Chatbot or Made in Mainland?
◼︎ 5. What’s Popular – Baidu’s AI-Native Map
◼︎ 6. What’s Memorable – The Jewish refugees of Shanghai
◼︎ 7. Weibo Word of the Week – “Reverse Consumption”

 

Dear Reader,

 

‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ This Faulkner quote is timeless, and it’s particularly relevant in these times marked by global conflicts and wars, where complicated histories are interwoven with complex present realities. While the whole world is watching as the Israel-Hamas war rages, the positions taken by different nations, social groups, and international organizations are deeply entwined with religion, geo-politics, and, perhaps most significantly, with the weight of history.

Over the past two weeks, a noticeable pro-Palestine sentiment has emerged on Chinese social media, which is closely tied to the alignment of Chinese scholars and the government’s position. In a 2013 article, Yiyi Chen, Director of the Institute for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Peking University, predicted that China’s pro-Palestine stance would increasingly work against Israel in the long term – in contrast to the strong pro-Israel stance of the United States.*

Chen’s 2013 article is especially relevant because many of the observations he made a decade ago are now manifesting themselves in clear ways. For instance, he highlighted the significant increase in China’s pro-Palestine articles, a trend that is evident today. His prediction that China would take on a more proactive role in seeking a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict has also proven accurate.

A central point raised in Yiyi Chen’s article is that China’s leaning toward supporting the Arab side can also be attributed to some factors that are deeply rooted in China’s national history. First, he argues that the national mentality of being a “victim of imperialism” plays an important role in shaping the country’s foreign policy, and is reflected in China’s present-day sympathy for Palestinians, as they too are seen as sufferers from imperialism. In this view, the State of Israel was established with the backing of imperial powers of the time.

Second, Chen suggests that China’s pro-Palestine stance is also driven by a sense of reciprocity. The Chinese, he argues, show favoritism toward Palestinians because Arab countries supported China on the international stage during the 1960s and 1970s, a period when China was otherwise isolated due to strained relations with the West.

Alongside the recent surge in pro-Palestine sentiments on Chinese social media, there has also been a clear rise in anti-Semitic expressions, including hate-filled comments and images targeting Jews, often referencing to Nazi Germany or the Holocaust. This online anti-Jewish sentiment is surprising given the historical ties that China shares with the Jewish community, a connection that has experienced a “memory revival” both in China and Israel over the past two decades, coinciding with the blossoming of China-Israel bilateral relations.

In 1938, when Europe became increasingly perilous for Jews, around 20,000 Jewish refugees sought sanctuary in Shanghai, and the great majority survived the war. The history of Jews in Shanghai during World War II is preceded by a long history of the Jewish diaspora in China. China is the only country in East Asia where Jews have consecutively lived for the last 1000 years. Although the first Jewish population in Shanghai arrived much later in history, it rapidly grew into one of China’s most vibrant Jewish communities.

While portions of the old Jewish neighborhood in Shanghai have now disappeared, new initiatives are keeping its memories alive. The former synagogue in the neighborhood now houses the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, established in 2007 to commemorate the Jewish refugees who sought shelter in Shanghai. The museum frequently hosts new exhibits and events to engage the public. The historical revival of Shanghai’s Jewish history also takes place outside museums, as stories of war are narrated in popular culture and in online media.

Statue commemorating Jewish community in Shanghai outside of the Jewish Refugee Museum (photo by Whatsonweibo).

Beyond China’s historical role in providing a safe haven for Jewish refugees during the war, the Jewish-Chinese friendship also has a deeper dimension. Similar to how Chinese link their own scars of national humiliation to the present realities of Palestians, many Chinese also align the historical sufferings of China with the hardships endured by the Jewish community.

In light of the recent Israel-Hamas conflict, some Chinese commenters posting anti-Semitic comments and sharing hateful WWII-related images appear to have forgotten their Jewish friends and warm relations with Israel. The suffering they now mock is something that China has related to before. Simultaneously, these commenters are shifting their focus to the struggles of their other ‘forgotten’ allies on the opposing side of the conflict.

Chinese online reactions to the ongoing war in the Middle East, and the shifting alliances they remember or forget, are deeply intertwined with echoes of China’s own national suffering and its modern history, and reflects the intricate interplay of factors such as collective memory, foreign policy, and reciprocity. As these dynamics play out all over the world in different ways and national contexts, in a moment marked by confusion, anger, and intense emotions, it becomes increasingly important to recognize that while historical parallels and associations matter, these perspectives, preconceptions, and reflections also obstruct nuanced understandings that can actually contribute to less black-and-white thinking and more constructive discussions.

For more about this, also check out our feature article on Chinese reactions to the Israel-Hamas War. Miranda Barnes contributed to this week’s newsletter. As always: please don’t hesitate to reach out to me about the latest China trends you spotted and would like to know more about. Contact me via email or DM, or follow me on X for the latest news and trends (or on Instagram here and here).

Best,
Manya

* Chen, Yiyi. 2013. “The Basis of China’s Pro-Palestine Stance and the Current Status of Its Implementation.” Digest of Middle East Studies 22 (2): 215-228.

 

A closer look at the top stories

1. Pro-Palestine Sentiments | The Israel-Hamas war has been dominating discussions on Weibo. Amid the different Chinese responses to what’s happening in Israel and Gaza, recurring trends and narratives highlight how social media reactions and their pro-Palestine stance are connected to China’s own historical context and perceived global role, as well as Chinese anti-Jewish prejudices. We explore these dynamics in this latest (premium) article.

Read more
 

2: Singapore Slang | Interesting debate on terminology: is it time to rethink how Singapore is nicknamed in Chinese? In a recent column for Lianhe Zaobao, prominent author Wang Huidi argued that it’s time to stop referring to Singapore as “坡县” (Pōxiàn), which means “Slope County”. The Chinese slang term implies that Singapore is a small part of China. Wang highlights the power of words, suggesting that such terminology can negatively impact both Singapore and those who use it.

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3: A Leak at Tsingtao | A video that has circulated on Chinese social media since October 19 shows how an alleged worker at a Tsingtao Beer factory climbs over a wall at the raw material production site and starts to urinate. On Weibo, many people think it’s an undercover operation orchestrated by a rivaling company: one person peed, another leaked the video?

Read more
 

4: Featured by VOA | What’s on Weibo was featured on Voice of America News earlier this week. This article, by Liam Scott, focuses on the mission of What’s on Weibo, which celebrates a decade since its launch this year. This article highlights how it all started, the focus of our work, and the transformation of Chinese social media.

Read more
 

 

What More to Know

Highlighting 8 hot topics

Controversy over the Dalian marathon.

◼︎ 🌐 1. Belt and Road Forum. The third Belt and Road Forum was held in Beijing this week, with the One Belt, One Road Initiative celebrating its 10th anniversary. On October 17th, various foreign heads of state and government leaders who were attending the forum arrived at the Great Hall of the People. The next day, Xi Jinping delivered his opening speech on “Building an Open, Inclusive and Interconnected World For Common Development” (link). While the two-day global gathering was enthusiastically promoted on Chinese social media, it was overshadowed by the ongoing major crisis in the Middle East. The event was attended by 23 heads of state and government. (Hashtag:”10 Years of Belt and Road” #一带一路十周年# , 51+ million views; Belt and Road International Cooperation Forum #一带一路国际合作高峰论坛#, 83 million views).  

◼︎ 🇷🇺 2. Putin in China . On the morning of October 17th, Russian President Putin landed at Beijing Capital International Airport, marking his arrival for the Belt and Road Forum. His visit was highly anticipated, and various details surrounding his trip received close scrutiny on Chinese social media. One such detail was the alleged ‘nuclear suitcase’ that accompanied him during his trip, carried by officers, and which was caught on camera. Another moment that drew widespread attention was the news conference Putin gave at Diaoyutai. With the backdrop of red lanterns, that news conference had a strong Chinese ambiance. The uncommon and unique moment of seeing the Russian leader at this historic state guesthouse made many netizens feel proud of China and its role on the world stage. (Hashtag Putin Arrives in China #普京总统抵达北京#, 280 million views on Weibo).

◼︎ 🦸 3. Real Name Influencers. Chinese social media has been buzzing with discussions regarding a rumored upcoming implementation of a real-name system for Weibo influencers. If such a system were implemented, it would mean that the ‘Big Vs’, social media influencers with a substantial following and a verified account, would have to display their real name on their Weibo account page. This system appears to be on the verge of becoming a reality, as Weibo’s CEO, Wang Gaofei, personally tested it on his own page, stating that the rule would only apply to those influential self-media accounts with more than a million fans. Weibo already had a back-end real name registration policy, but this would be the first time that people would be obliged to also show their actual names on the front end. (Various discussions without hashtags, one Weibo hashtag is “It’s Time for Big Vs to Take Their Masks Off“ #大V早该卸马甲了#, 36.4 million views).

◼︎ 🐕 4. Dog Bite Incident. One topic that has emerged as a major social concern in China recently is the issue of dog safety and the increasing incidence of dogs biting humans. Although the topic is a recurring one on Chinese social media over the years, it has now again garnered considerable attention due to an incident in Chengdu’s Chongzhou, Sichuan Province, where a two-year-old girl was severely bitten by a dog on October 16. While the girl is being treated for her serious injuries at a local injuries, her family has crowdfunded 2 million yuan for her medical costs ($273.5k). As a result of this incident, other places in China, such as Hefei, have also increased their law enforcement efforts and punish dog owners who walk their dogs without a leash, either by capturing the dogs or imposing fines. (Various weibo hashtags, including “Police Notification Regarding Young Girl Bitten by Dog” #警方通报女童被狗咬伤#, 200 million views; #Family of the Girl Bitten by a Dog in Sichuan Has Raised 2 Million Yuan# #四川被狗咬伤女童家属已筹得200万元#, 170 million views).

◼︎ 🐣 5. Social Media Influencer Faking her Cheap Breakfast. A Chinese social media influencer named Zhang Tianqi (4+ million fans) triggered some online controversy this week for a video she did on doing a challenge by using only 100 yuan ($13.6) to have all kinds of breakfast at a traditional Dongbei Morning Market in Heilongjiang. However, people soon pointed out that the vlogger was misleading by making it seem that all the products she consumed were much cheaper than they actually are, and she was accused of hyping the market’s “low prices” for clout – which could be damaging to local stall owners and negatively impact local tourism. Zhang later admitted that she only got such low prices because she got a discount and got some items for free, and she soon deleted the video. But many commenters were not as forgiving, and suggested she should be banned for misleading the public. (Weibo hashtag “Apologies for 100 Yuan Breakfasts All over Dongbei Morning Market” #100元吃遍东北早市当事人道歉#, 96 million views).

◼︎ 🐺 6. “Celebrity Wolf”. A wolf in Kekexili, a natural reserve in Qinghai Province, bordering Tibet, has become known as a ‘celebrity wolf’ recently. The wolf was first known as an injured, lonely and skinny wolf who was separated from his pack. He rose to fame after he was fed by tourists who came across the wolf, lying by the side of the road, and felt bad for him. The wolf then seemingly discovered a new way of living and started begging other tourists for food, even wagging its tail when it sees cars arriving. The wolf is now looking well-fed and shiny as new, and his transformation has become a social media sensation. (Hashtag Kekexili Celebrity Wolf Fed by Tourists #可可西里网红狼被游客投喂# 5,3 million views; Kekexili Wild Wolf Famous after Being Fed #可可西里一头野狼被投喂成网红#, 4,8 million views).

◼︎ 🕊 7. Coco Lee’s Final Resting Place. On October 21, Chinese-American superstar Coco Lee, who passed away in July of this year, was buried in Wuhan, her ancestral hometown. A commemorative exhibition celebrating the life of the singer was held on the same day, drawing groups of devoted fans who came to bid their final farewell. Coco Lee started her career in Hong Kong in the 1990s but also achieved international recognition in the United States and beyond after recording her debut English-language album. Lee, who suffered from health issues and depression, took her own life at the age of 48. One trending topic that captured significant attention on Saturday revolved around the speech delivered by Lee’s mother, in which she openly denounced her former son-in-law for cheating on her daughter for “many years.” (Hashtags “Coco Lee Buried in Wuhan Today” #李玟今日将安葬于武汉#, 22 million views;
“Coco Lee’s mother strongly condemns Li Wen’s husband’s affair” #李玟母亲痛斥李玟丈夫出轨#, 260 million views).

◼︎ 🏃🏽‍♂️ 8. A Controversial Marathon Finish. The 33rd Dalian Marathon, held on October 15, gained widespread attention on Weibo due to a controversial incident involving Chinese marathon runner Yin Shunjin. During the race, Yin Shunjin appeared to be intentionally obstructed by a support vehicle, forcing him to navigate around it and costing him valuable time in the crucial final two minutes of the marathon. He ultimately finished in 7th place, with just seconds separating him from those who finished ahead of him. Many netizens expressed suspicions that this incident was a deliberate act, suggesting the possibility of marathon fraud. However, the event’s organizers and those responsible for the support vehicles have since maintained that it was an unfortunate mistake and not a deliberate act. This incident was not isolated, as several other marathons have also faced suspicious incidents and bizarre behavior. In response to these concerns, the Chinese Athletics Association has issued an emergency notice to standardize and regulate China’s national marathon and running events more effectively in order to prevent such incidents in the future. (Weibo hashtag “Dalian Marathon Responds to Yin Shunjin Being Obstructed by Car” #大连马拉松回应尹顺金被车挡#, 25 million views).

 

What’s Noteworthy

Small news with big impact

Taiwanese “Self-Developed” AI Claims It’s from Mainland China. | Earlier this month, Taiwan’s Academia Sinica (中央硏究院), the national academy, launched an AI chat model, the CKIP-Llama-2-7b chat AI, that had been promoted by several Taiwanese media outlets as a “new generation product independently developed by Taiwan.”

However, when users started asking the chatbot some particular questions, it gave unexpected answers. Upon asking which nationality it had, the bot stated it was from China and that Taiwan is part of China. Asked to name the national anthem, it replied “The March of the Volunteers” – China’s communist anthem.

In response to these issues, Academia Sinica in Taiwan stated that the model experienced “hallucinations” and took down the test version of the model. According to a report by RFA, party lawmaker Fan Yun commented on that the AI issue was “an information security issue and an issue of cognitive warfare.” Meanwhile on Chinese social media, the story caused some banter, and people humorously praised the AI model for staying true to its alleged Chinese roots.

 

The latest buzz in arts, marketing & pop culture

Bad at reading maps? Baidu’s got you covered | Baidu has been getting a lot of traction this week as it launched its “Prompt the World” flagship event at Beijing’s Shougang Park on October 17, where it unveiled multiple AI-native applications.

It was its first offline event since Covid-19, and a much-anticipated one since the tech giant announced its ambitious plan to reconstruct all of its products with AI-native thinking. Apart from announcing its new Ernie Bot 4 (文心大模型4.0), which allegedly is no longer inferior in performance compared to Open AI’s ChatGPT, and its renewed Baidu Wangpan (Baidu Cloud Drive) and other products, the announcement of its AI-native map powered by Ernie was especially well-received as “the world’s first artificial intelligence map” (#全球首个AI原生地图即将面世#, Weibo hashtag received 23+ million views).

The AI map comes with a personalized digital human image and is equipped with natural language interaction capability, offering flexible answers that claim to mimic “real human communication,” promising to enhance travel and decision-making efficiency. As the map learns as you go, it will also get to know you and predict where you’re going and which road to take. Even those who are bad at using other (digital) maps and navigation apps should be able to use it effectively. The application will be available on the market before the end of the year.

 

What’s Memorable

Best reads from the archive

Shanghai’s Jewish history | In light of this week’s surge of anti-Semitic sentiments on Weibo, we’ve selected this pick from our archives which highlights a very different perspective on Chinese-Jewish relations and the shared Chinese-Jewish history. As modern buildings mushroom and old neighborhoods disappear, the traces of Jewish history are fading in today’s Shanghai. But the past decade a seen a series of initiatives, such as a Jews in Shanghai musical and the launch of a Shanghai Jewish diaspora website, to keep the memories of China’s Jewish heritage more alive than ever. This is a very short history of Jews in Shanghai and how their history is remembered in 21st century China.

Read more
 

 

Weibo Word of the Week

The catchword to know

“Reverse Consumption” | Our Weibo Word of the Week is “反向消费” (fǎnxiàng xiāofèi), meaning ‘reverse consumption.’

As China’s biggest online shopping festival is coming up on 11.11 (Single’s Day), with pre-sales starting soon, the concept of Chinese young people engaging in ‘reverse spending’ or ‘reverse consumption’ – also known as ‘rational consumption,’ – became a hot topic on Weibo this week, with one related hashtag attracting over 380 million views (#年轻人开始反向消费了#).

‘Reverse consumption’ is a recent trend that is especially popular among Chinese young people, and that is all about pursuing sustainable and cost-effective products instead of focusing on consuming for the sake of buying brands or spending money. The trend does not necessarily suggest a focus on cheap products, but rather a refusal to celebrate consumerism and overpay for products that lack value for the price.

Some Weibo users view this trend as a reaction to the constant shopping festivals and the pressure on young people to keep buying more in the thriving Chinese e-commerce market, leading to increased luxury consumption. As consumer attitudes gradually begin to change, young people no longer simply believe that “expensive means good,” and are now being more rational in their shopping behavior that is more about ‘value for money.’

Chinese companies are responding to this trend. For instance, JD.com has themed this year’s online shopping festival around “Truly Affordable,” assuring customers of the best prices and a promise not to overcharge. Tmall is also adjusting to changing consumer sentiments and buying behavior by offering ways to save money on purchases and introducing a one-click price guarantee. This means that even if sellers fluctuate their prices during the festival, buyers will receive a refund for the price difference if they notice a drop in the price of an item they’ve already purchased.

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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Weibo Watch: “Bloglator in the Era of Social Media”

By examining the influence of the “tragically ugly” schoolbook case, Bai demonstrates that WoW reporting had considerable impact on overall international media coverage.

Manya Koetse

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PREMIUM NEWSLETTER | ISSUE #28

Dear Reader,

 

It’s been a little while since the last Weibo Watch newsletter. Those of you who follow me on X might already know that some personal circumstances have made it difficult for me to get a lot of work done this month following the unfortunate loss of two close family members and all the arrangements surrounding it. When it rains, it sometimes really does pour. However, life goes on, and I’m now ready to return to doing what I love most at What’s on Weibo. Thank you for your understanding as we dive back into the swing of things.

On that note, I am very happy to share some exciting news: my work at What’s on Weibo is the focus of a new study by Prof. Bai Liping (白立平) from the Department of Translation at Lingnan University (Hong Kong). The study, titled “Bloglator in the Era of Social Media: A Case Study of the Reports about the ‘Tragically Ugly’ Math Textbooks on What’s on Weibo,” has been published in Perspectives journal (2024, 1–16). You can find a link to the study here (limited free online copies available).

The study examines the role played by bloggers in the present-day news ecosystem, where social media has become increasingly important in various ways, making both news consumption and news production more multi-dimensional. In doing so, Bai zooms in on What’s on Weibo (WoW) as a prominent example of what he calls a ‘bloglator’: a blend of ‘blog’ and ‘translator’ to refer to someone who “translates, adapts, and recreates content from articles or posts on blogs, or does any translation on blogs” (3).

The research suggests that WoW’s work, reporting on trending topics on Chinese social media since 2013, constitutes a special form of news-related blog translation as well as blog-related news translation, carving out a special niche within journalistic translation and the broader news ecosystem.

Serving as a case study is an article published on the site in May 2022 about illustrations in a Chinese schoolbook series for children that triggered controversy on Weibo for their peculiar design and for being perceived as ‘aesthetically displeasing.’

The controversy began when concerned parents noted that the quality of the design in their kids’ math textbooks was ugly, unrefined, and overall weird.

The controversial schoolbook.

Children depicted in the math book illustrations had small, droopy eyes and big foreheads. Besides the poor design quality, many people found some illustrations inappropriate: a girl sticking out her tongue, recurring depictions of American flag colors, an incorrect depiction of the Chinese flag, a bulge in the pants of depicted boys, and boys grabbing girls. These elements led many to believe the books had “evil intentions,” with parents expressing concern that these “tragically ugly” books could negatively impact children’s aesthetic appreciation.

The explosive online discussions about the textbooks sparked a chain of events, covered in various articles here. Ultimately, it led to an official investigation by China’s Ministry of Education, holding 27 staff members accountable for their poor performance.

Among them were the Party Committee Secretary of the People’s Education Press, President Huang Qiang, who received a “serious warning” from the Party. Chief Editor Guo Ge was removed from office, along with others, including the head of the editorial office for elementary school mathematics textbooks. Illustrator Wu Yong and two other designers involved in the mathbooks reportedly will never work on national school textbooks or related projects again. The entire event was significant in various ways, also drawing increased attention to the quality of illustrations in teaching materials and shedding light on the dynamics behind Chinese schoolbook publications.

Bai’s study notes that WoW was among the first English websites to report on this topic, subsequently picked up by numerous other media outlets. While some sources, such as Australian news site news.com.au and The Guardian, included links or references to WoW, other news sites did not explicitly mention WoW but still used my translations, most notably the “tragically ugly” comment.

This non-literal translation of a Chinese phrase (most probably derived from 惨不忍睹 cǎn bù rěn dǔ “so horrible that one cannot bear to look at it”) exemplifies “translingual quoting,” a process where the original discourse is translated during quoting (6). You could consider it a ‘creative translation’ to convey meaning rather than exact words. As other reports also reproduced these exact words, it was evident what their source was. These two words ultimately became pivotal in the English coverage of the event; even today, a Google search directs you to this textbook controversy.

By examining the influence of the “tragically ugly” schoolbook case, Bai demonstrates that WoW reporting had considerable impact on the overall international media coverage of the event. It was cited by various English media outlets from Australia to the UK, from India to Hong Kong, including in traditional newspapers like The Independent, Sunday Times, and South China Morning Post.

He concludes:

“In the era of social media, just as Weibo has supplemented traditional media in the Chinese news ecosystem, WoW has filled a niche left by traditional media in the English news media ecosystem. Through WoW, readers can stay informed about the trending topics on Weibo, learn the views of the netizens and foster a deeper understanding of Chinese social and cultural life. The case study demonstrates that WoW’s reports about the tragically ugly math textbooks are consistent with its founder’s objectives of explaining the stories behind the hashtag and facilitating a better understanding of contemporary China, and that a ‘bloglator’ may play an important role in the evolving news ecosystem in this era of social media.”

Of course, I’m thrilled to see this finalized study on WoW’s impact in the news ecosystem. Beyond that, I value the term ‘bloglator,’ which aptly describes my role, and is different from the work done by journalists who translate news. It involves various strategies such as translingual quoting, providing explanations and background contexts, omitting irrelevant information, summarizing source texts, and most importantly, complete independence in choosing what to write about & the best way to cover it.

This independence enables WoW to spotlight interesting, noteworthy topics that help you stay connected to the Chinese social media sphere and its dynamics. As a subscriber, your support makes What’s on Weibo’s continuity possible. I look forward to working on many more topics in the future. Even the “tragically ugly” ones can sometimes turn out beautifully.

Best,

– Your ‘bloglator,’
Manya Koetse
(@manyapan)

 
References:

Bai, Liping. “Bloglator in the Era of Social Media: A Case Study of the Reports about the ‘Tragically Ugly’ Math Textbooks on What’s on Weibo.” Perspectives, (2024), 1–16. doi:10.1080/0907676X.2024.2343047.

 

A closer look at some featured stories

1: “Fat Cat Jumping Into the River Incident” (胖猫跳江事件) | The tragic story behind the recent suicide of a 21-year-old Chinese gamer nicknamed ‘Fat Cat’ has become a major topic of discussion on Chinese social media, touching upon broader societal issues from unfair gender dynamics to businesses taking advantage of grieving internet users. We explain the trend here👇🏼

Read more
 

2: TV show Triggers Nationalistic Sentiments | Forget about previous song competitions. Hunan TV’s ‘Singer 2024’ is all the talk these days. Besides memes and jokes, the show – which now invited notable foreign talent to compete against Chinese established performers – has set off a new wave of national pride in China’s music and performers on Chinese social media.

Read more
 

3: Storm over a Smoky Cup of Tea | Chinese tea brand LELECHA faced backlash for using the iconic literary figure Lu Xun to promote their “Smoky Oolong” milk tea, sparking controversy over the exploitation of his legacy. “Such blatant commercialization of Lu Xun, is there no bottom limit anymore?”, one Weibo user wrote. Another person commented: “If Lu Xun were still alive and knew he had become a tool for capitalists to make money, he’d probably scold you.”

Read more
 

 
This is an on-site version of the Weibo Watch newsletter by What’s on Weibo. Missed the last edition of our 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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Weibo Watch: The Battle for the Bottom Bed

“The battle for the lower bunk beds” (“下铺之争”) is a reflection of society and generational difference in China, touching upon expectations regarding the respect younger individuals should show the elderly.

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PREMIUM NEWSLETTER | ISSUE #27

 

This week’s newsletter:

◼︎ 1. Editor’s Note – Battle for the Bottom Bed
◼︎ 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 – Zara x Haidilao
◼︎ 6. What’s Popular – Martin Garrix x Huang Zitao
◼︎ 7. What’s Memorable – Social media in times of flood
◼︎ 8. Weibo Word of the Week – Coffin rooms

 

Dear Reader,

 

Sometime around last summer, a significant debate about train etiquette began trending on Chinese social media. Central to the discussion was a question that attracted over 190 million views on Weibo: Can passengers bring their own “bed curtains”?

The curtains in question (床帘 chuánglián, also 火车遮挡帘 huǒchē zhēdǎnglián) are often used in the cheapest class of sleeper cabins on Chinese trains, known as hard sleepers (硬卧 yìngwò). In these cabins, each compartment features six bunk beds, with three beds on each side separated by a small table. Only the bottom bunk offers sufficient space for seating and is also the most expensive among the three.

Example of Chinese hard sleeper train compartment, image via Sohu.

Train carriages usually comprise 11 semi-open compartments, each featuring a corridor and two foldable seats per cubicle. With so many people in one carriage, noise can become an issue, and privacy can be hard to come by.

“Bed curtains” have emerged as a popular strategy to combat these nuisances, creating a somewhat private and quiet space on trains without disturbance from fellow travelers. Essentially, they are pieces of fabric that can be easily secured above or on the sides of the bunk bed using clips or ropes. These days, Taobao sells them in various colors and patterns.

Bunk bed curtains, sold on e-commerce sites likes Taobao, turn lower bunk beds in a more private space.

Recently, the debate over these curtains reignited on Chinese social media, particularly focusing on how their use creates an additional barrier for other passengers, especially the elderly, to sit on the lower beds. This sparked discussions about whether younger passengers should consider swapping their lower bunk beds with senior passengers, who may find it difficult to access the middle and upper berths, where it’s often impossible for them to sit up straight.

The catalyst for these discussions was a viral video featuring an elderly lady confronting two young people who had hung covers on their bottom bunk beds. She accused them of selfishness for not allowing older passengers with upper bunk tickets to sit on their beds.

Many commenters expressed support for the young passengers in the video, emphasizing that they are not obliged to let other passengers sit on their bed. The topic unleashed a flood of stories of train annoyances about strangers sitting on people’s bottom beds, depriving them of privacy.

The topic further popularized the use of bed curtains, with commenters writing: “I dislike others sitting on my bed but find it difficult to confront them; this is such a clever solution!”

There are currently no explicit regulations prohibiting or allowing these bed curtains, as long as they do not cause inconvenience or block access to other bunks, but many people view them as “uncivilized” and “impolite.”

The online critics of bed curtains often fondly recall their experiences traveling on China’s sleeper trains in past decades. They reminisce about meeting strangers, sharing snacks, playing cards, and forming friendships—experiences characterized by less privacy, but more camaraderie.

As this discussion has been dubbed “the battle for the lower bunk beds” (“下铺之争”), it’s evident that it encompasses more than just seating arrangements. Some say it is a reflection of the current society. It touches upon societal shifts, traditional/cultural expectations regarding the respect younger individuals should show the elderly, and mostly, generational differences.

Unlike the older generations preceding them, Chinese younger generations, products of the one-child policy and growing up amid increasing prosperity, have undergone a significant transformation in their familial roles over the past decades. Not only were they both pampered and pressured to succeed, they also often enjoyed having their own rooms from a young age. Their upbringing has fostered a more individualistic perspective, a heightened emphasis on personal happiness, and a greater value placed on privacy.

Additionally, while previous generations typically ‘served’ their parents, you see that parents often prioritize ‘serving’ their children of younger generations, treating them as equals within the household. This has also led to different views on the interaction between younger and older members of society. Many younger people won’t accept Chinese seniors acting rude or entitled simply because of their age.

The “battle for the bottom bed” essentially symbolizes clashes between different generations. While older generations value communal experiences and respect for elders, younger generations assert their individual rights and prioritize personal space. Given the insufficient seating for all six passengers in current hard sleepers, they argue that it’s China Railways’ responsibility to adapt the layout to better cater to passengers’ needs.

Meanwhile, some Chinese ‘experts’ are cited by media, encouraging young people who have bought lower berths to be understanding and swap with the elderly for their convenience. A related hashtag on the matter was viewed more than 400 million times on Weibo, and the most popular replies basically told the experts to shove their suggestion up theirs. “I have the right to what I pay for,” some said: “If they need a lower bed, let them pay for a lower bed.”

Some bloggers comment that the very fact that this seemingly trivial topic has become such a major topic of debate on Chinese social media is a sign of a “regression in morality.” Some propaganda accounts raise the example of the humble PLA soldier Lei Feng, who would help out other passengers and train staff while traveling, instead of occupying a seat. While most do not expect the same of modern-day travelers, they do think that people, young and old, should show a little more understanding for each other.

In this light, another video garnered attention. It showed an elderly woman on a train politely requesting to swap a top bunk with a young passenger occupying a bottom bunk. The request was made on behalf of her 83-year-old travel companion, and they were happy to compensate for the price difference. That video received praise from netizens, who expressed that it’s the attitude that matters. The young passenger swapped beds with the older lady and did not accept payment for it.

In the end, it’s clear that kindness and empathy are cross-generational, and that communication always helps bridging differences.

In case you don’t feel like bridging differences on your next hard sleeper train, however, here’s the link to the bed curtains.

Warm regards,

– Manya Koetse & Miranda Barnes

 

A closer look at the featured stories

1: Chengdu Disneyland | Chengdu Disney is the latest viral hotspot on Chinese social media, and it’s probably unlike anything you’d imagine. How did an ordinary outdoor senior gym in a local Chengdu neighborhood become nationally known as ‘Chengdu Disney’? By mixing online trends with real-life fun, blending foreign styles with local charm, and adding a dash of humor and absurdity, Chengdu now boasts its very own ‘Chengdu Disney.’ We explain the trend here👇🏼

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2: Unleashing Flood of Stories | The recent marriage announcement of the renowned Chinese calligrapher/painter Fan Zeng and Xu Meng, a Beijing TV presenter 50 years his junior, has sparked online discussions about the life and work of the esteemed Chinese artist. Some netizens think Fan lacks the integrity expected of a Chinese scholar-artist.

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3: Yellen’s Favorites | Earlier in April, Yellen concluded her second trip to Beijing within a year, and once again, it’s not her official talks but rather her choices in food and drink venues that are sparking discussion on social media. From Yunnan classics to fusion cuisine, these are Janet Yellen’s picks for dining and drinking in Beijing.

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What More to Know

Five Bite-Sized Trends

◼︎ 🌧️ Guangdong Floods | Flooding, landslides, power outages. It’s been a rough few days in Guangdong. From the provincial capital Guangzhou to smaller cities like Shaoguan, Zhaoqing, and Qingyuan, exceptionally heavy rainfall since April 18 has brought significant problems to various areas. At least 4 deaths have been reported, with 10 people still missing. More than 100,000 people have been evacuated. The regions hardest hit are along the Beijiang River, which flooded on April 21. This marks the second flood of the river this year, with the first occurring on April 7, marking the earliest date in the season since floods in major Chinese rivers began being numbered in 1998. As with previous floods, social media is used as a channel to warn people about the ongoing situation, with further rainfall expected. Meanwhile, state media are honoring rescue workers as local heroes, or ‘those going against the tide’ (nìxíngzhě 逆行者).

◼︎ 🌋 Ijen Crater Death | A 31-year-old Chinese tourist tragically lost her life after falling from the edge of Indonesia’s Ijen volcano while attempting to take a photo. She tripped over her own long skirt, plummeting from a height of 75 meters early on the morning of April 20, while the tourists were there to witness the sunrise. With the May 1st holiday approaching, Chinese authorities, through social media, are using this incident as a cautionary tale to warn tourists of the hazards of prioritizing that ‘perfect social media photo’ over personal safety.

◼︎ 💀 Another University Poisoning Case | One recurring case that surfaces on Weibo is that of Zhu Ling, the female victim in the notorious 1995 thallium poisoning incident at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. Although Zhu Ling survived, she was left paralyzed and reliant on her parents for care for the rest of her life. The case remains unsolved, with many pointing to her roommate as the primary suspect. Now, a new suspected poisoning incident at a university has gained attention, following the death of a 25-year-old male student at Xiangtan University due to organ failure after seeking medical treatment. His 27-year-old roommate is currently under suspicion and has been detained. This is a case that is likely to draw further scrutiny in the time to come.

◼︎ 🏃‍♂️ Marathon Controversy | There was something fishy about the conclusion of the Beijing Half Marathon and the four runners at the finish line. In a video clip that went viral on Chinese social media (see here), viewers observed that three African runners seemed to intentionally slow down to allow Chinese competitor He Jie (何杰) to win the gold medal. Now, the Beijing Half Marathon Organizing Committee has announced the disqualification of all four runners for “breaching the rules of the competition,” nullifying their results, and reclaiming their trophies and medals. The Chinese Athletics Association has also introduced new regulations for discipline management in national events. It appears that the three African runners were “pace setters” who were not intended to be competing athletes, and sponsor/partner Xtep (特步), a sports equipment company, was responsible for not properly identifying them. Consequently, the company has been terminated as a partner. Marathon fraud and the importance of properly regulating major sports events has become a recurring topic on Chinese social media. Last October, the Chinese Athletics Association issued an emergency notice to standardize and regulate China’s national marathon and running events more effectively after Chinese marathon runner Yin Shunjin appeared to be intentionally obstructed by a support vehicle, forcing him to navigate around it and costing him valuable time in the crucial final two minutes of the marathon.

◼︎ 🎲 Little Tuan Tuan Goes to Jail | Popular Chinese influencer “Little Tuan Tuan” (一条小团团), who has millions of followers on the Douyu livestreaming app, became a top trending topic on Chinese social media on April 23 after news came out that she had been arrested. The famous game livestreamer had already stopped airing since last month, but it only now became known that she is suspected of engaging in large-scale illegal gambling activities. In late 2023, Douyu’s chairman and CEO Chen Shaojie was also arrested for allegedly hosting online gambling, which is illegal in mainland China. At the time, state media already reported that the arrest of Chen may lead to a group of top game anchors being implicated due to their involvement in gambling and money laundering. After the earlier arrest of four other anchors, Tuan Tuan is the latest livestream host to be arrested, signaling a zero tolerance approach towards gambling activities in China’s game-focused livestreaming world. Little Tuan Tuan could face up to five years in prison.

 

What’s the Drama

Top TV to Watch

Best Choice Ever (Chéng Huān Jì 承欢记) is the latest Chinese TV drama hit. Produced by CCTV and simultaneously broadcasted on CCTV-8 and Tencent, it premiered on April 9, and some are already calling it the best romcom drama of the year. This urban family/romance drama centers around the story of Mai Chenghuan (麦承欢), a post-95 young woman living in Shanghai, who is preparing to marry her boyfriend Xin Jialiang (辛家亮), who comes from a wealthy family. However, when Chenghuan’s mum is doing all she can to meddle in their relationship, Mai Chenghuan must break free from her mother’s overbearing influence and focus on her own personal growth.

Noteworthy:

▶️ This drama is based on a book by the same name by Hong Kong writer Yi Shu or Isabel Nee Yeh-su, who is known for the strong, intelligent female characters in her stories.
▶️ The main protagonist is played by the super popular Chinese actress Yang Zi (杨紫), who previously starred in hit series such as Ode to Joy (欢乐颂) and The Oath of Love (余生).
▶️ This series is also airing in Thailand starting from April 29, but you won’t hear Yang Zi speaking Chinese there; the entire show will be dubbed in Thai.
▶️ The Shanghai Culture and Tourism office has also been involved in this production, that features some pretty scenes from around Shanghai, which is drawing in young visitors wanting to visit film locations like the Zhapu Road Bridge and Huaihuai Mansion.

You can watch Best Choice Ever online here (with English subtitles) via YouTube.

 

What’s Noteworthy

Small news with big impact

A short dress sold by Zara has gone viral in China for looking like the aprons used by the popular Chinese hotpot chain Haidilao. “I really thought it was a Zara x Haidialo collab,” some customers commented. Others also agree that the first thing they thought about when seeing the Zara dress was the Haidilao apron.

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The latest buzz in arts & pop culture

Dutch DJ Martin Garrix found himself embroiled in controversy following the first F1 China Grand Prix Music Festival in Shanghai, which took place from Friday to Sunday. Garrix was allegedly supposed to perform together with Chinese singer Huang Zitao (黄子韬), who initially complained via livestream that the DJ did not show up to their joint rehearsal, and then claimed the DJ showed disrespect by performing his song without him being present on stage. On Weibo, one hashtag about the incident attracted over 160 million views.

Both Huang and Garrix are popular on Weibo, where the Chinese singer has over 66 million fans while the Dutch DJ has more than 360,000 followers.

In response, Garrix promptly posted a video on Weibo refuting what he called “misinformation and lies,” asserting that he and Huang Zitao were never scheduled to perform together. Hearing about Huang’s complaints, he still invited him up on stage, but he never showed up (Garrix claimed he was hiding in the bathroom). Following this, the event organizers issued an apology for the confusion.

Online, opinions remain divided, with some defending Garrix and labeling Huang a “crybaby,” while others support Huang, arguing that Garrix was rude for not wanting to share the stage with the Chinese singer. Either way, it seems the two performers won’t be sharing a beer, nor a stage, anytime soon.

 

What’s Memorable

Best reads from the archive

This pick from our archive – in light of the current floods – revisits the flood of three years ago. The social media trends during China’s heavy rainfall and floods in Henan in July of 2021 show the multidimensionality of online communication in times of disaster. Facing the devastating downpours, Weibo became a site for participation, propaganda, and some controversial profiting.👇

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Weibo Word of the Week

The catchword to know

“Coffin Room” | Our Weibo Word of the Week is “Coffin Room” (guāncái fáng 棺材房), or even “Mini Coffin Room” (mínǐ guāncái fáng 迷你棺材房), referring to extremely tiny spaces being rented out at rooms.

The term “coffin room” isn’t new; it previously appeared in mainstream media to describe small cubicles rented out in Hong Kong to people who couldn’t afford larger spaces in the exorbitantly expensive housing market. However, it has recently resurfaced on Chinese social media to describe similarly cramped spaces in Shanghai.

One viral video showcased a rental room of about 5m² (approximately 53.82 square feet) with a makeshift sleeping space right behind a toilet, measuring about two meters long and one meter wide (approximately 6.56 feet long and 3.28 feet wide), all for a monthly rent of 300 yuan ($41). This so-called “coffin room” sparked controversy, with many deeming it absurd and a testament to Shanghai’s overheated housing market. However, the landlord mentioned that the room was already rented out to a Didi driver the day it was posted. See video here.

 
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