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Weibo Watch: Frogs in Wells

Taiwan elections discussions remained relatively muted on Weibo, with limited hashtags and controlled narratives. Read more about what’s trending, from Harbin to Xinjiang, in this 22nd edition of Weibo Watch.

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PREMIUM NEWSLETTER | ISSUE #22

This week’s newsletter:
◼︎ 1. Editor’s Note – Frogs in wells
◼︎ 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 – Xinjiang as copy cat
◼︎ 6. What’s Noteworthy – Balloons up in the air
◼︎ 7. What’s Popular – Jia Ling’s back in the spotlight
◼︎ 8. What’s Memorable – Gu, the controversial snow princess
◼︎ 9. Weibo Word of the Week – “Southern Little Potatoes”

 

Dear Reader,

 

While the Taiwan elections have been making headlines in international media for the past two weeks, discussions about the topic haven’t been as buzzing on Chinese social media.

As voters across Taiwan headed to the polls to elect a new president, the world watched closely as the three-way race between Kuomintang’s Hou Yu-ih, Taiwan People’s Party’s Ko Wen-je, and Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party unfolded. Meanwhile, Weibo’s trending topic lists were predominantly filled with entertainment and travel news.

In the hours following the news that Lai Ching-te (赖清德) was elected to be Taiwan’s president, you could almost hear the crickets on the social media platform, where the only news accounts posting about the election’s outcome on Saturday evening were the Russian state-owned Ruptly and RT. Hashtags that had been active earlier in the day suddenly disappeared during the night, including the “Taiwan elections” (#台湾选举#) hashtag, and new ones like “Lai Ching-te wins the 2024 Taiwan regional leadership election” (#赖清德赢得2024年台湾地区领导人选举#).

Since the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power in 2016, Chinese official media have described the ruling party as collaborating with “external forces” to seek independence and pursuing policies hostile to the mainland. Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, has stated that he is determined to safeguard Taiwan from threats and intimidation from Beijing and to maintain the cross-strait status quo.

“We can only wait for the mainland media to announce the results,” one prominent Taiwan-focused blogging account remarked on Saturday night, awaiting Chinese state media to come up with the ‘correct’ headlines and hashtags needed to facilitate further discussions on the platform.

By 22:45 Beijing time, about three hours after the election results made international headlines, Chinese official media channels such as Xinhua and Global Times finally reported about Lai’s win, citing spokesperson Chen Binhua of the Taiwan Affairs Office. He stated that the DPP win does not represent the Taiwanese mainstream; that Taiwan is a part of China; and that the island’s future reunification with the motherland will not be affected. Comment sections were switched off.

Some bloggers wondered why Weibo had seemingly blocked the election results from the hot search lists and why the topic was so controlled. After all, they said, isn’t this just about “the new governor of Taiwan province”? Some commenters jumped on other popular hashtags, mainly related to the super popular ‘Weibo Night’ event, to express views on the elections or how underreported they were. Weibo commenters also used phrases such as “poison frogs,” “Tai[wan] frogs,” or “the frog village has elected its new chief” to discuss the election results.

On Chinese social media, people from Taiwan are often referred to as frogs, inevitably leading to other frog-related phrases to talk about the island. The ‘Taiwan frog’ meme, which has become especially widespread during Tsai’s rule, is a reference to the well-known fable by philosopher Zhuangzi about a frog in a well who does not believe it when a turtle tells him that the world is bigger than the view from the well. The frog stubbornly denies the existence of the wider world and asserts that nothing lies beyond what he can see. The idiom ‘frog in the well’ (井底之蛙 jǐngdǐzhīwā) thus refers to people who are narrow-minded and who have a limited outlook on their life and surroundings.

The frog meme is used to describe Taiwanese who are thought to be confined to their island’s perspective and unable to see beyond it. It’s a play on words, as Tai-wan 台湾 and Tai-wa 台蛙 (= Tai-frog) sound similar. Mainlanders started calling Taiwanese ‘little frogs’ (蛙蛙) when they encountered Taiwanese commentators talking about the mainland as if it were underdeveloped and backward, seemingly unaware of China’s rapid progress over the past decades. A notable example is a Taiwanese TV host who, years ago, claimed that people in China couldn’t even afford boiled tea eggs and packaged pickled vegetables, sparking many jokes on Chinese social media.

Of course, there is some irony in Chinese netizens referring to Taiwanese as if they’re stuck in a well when Chinese narratives about Taiwan are so controlled and are mostly focused on cross-strait relations alone. On Sunday morning, the election result finally showed up in Weibo’s top trending lists with the hashtag “Taiwan is part of China, this basic fact won’t change” (#台湾是中国一部分的基本事实不会改变#). The hashtag had received over 260 million views by afternoon. Its main post by CCTV accumulated over 6329 replies. However, only 17 of them were visible, each and every single one reaffirming: “There is only one China.”

In this social media age, both in China and globally, it’s all too easy to find ourselves in echo chambers and filter bubbles, where we’re exposed only to voices that echo our existing beliefs — aren’t we all ‘frogs in the well’ at some point? Observing discussions about Taiwan on Western social media platforms, most commenters tend to narrow their focus to the elections, framing them as purely geopolitical. This perspective can create the impression that Taiwanese voters only express views that can be labeled as ‘pro-US,’ ‘anti-mainland,’ or ‘pro-China.’

“It’s not war with China that Taiwan’s young voters worry about, it’s jobs, housing, wages,” BBC’s Tessa Wong posted on X, where political scientist Sheena Chestnut Greitens added: “Important reminder: outside observers view Taiwan’s election primarily through the lens of geopolitical tensions and the threat of conflict, but many Taiwan voters also prioritize more bread-and-butter issues.”

Not everything is about great power struggles; not everything is about China vs the US; and not everything is a competition. This reminds me of something else I’d like to briefly share with you here. When The Guardian reached out to me a few weeks ago and asked if there was a topic I found particularly noteworthy in 2023 when it comes to China’s online environment, I immediately knew I wanted to write about the exploding popularity of ChatGPT, which also became a major topic of discussion across Chinese social media channels at that time: why was ChatGPT not “made in China”? You can read my debut piece for The Guardian, “In the Race for AI Supremacy, China and the US Are Traveling on Entirely Different Tracks,” through this link here.

Miranda Barnes and Ruixin Zhang contributed to this Weibo Watch newsletter, which I hope you find useful.

Best,
Manya

(PS You can also find me on Instagram and Threads nowadays but I’m still most active on X here.)

 

A closer look at the featured stories

1: A Snowball Effect | Harbin has been trending every 👏 single 👏 day 👏 on Chinese social media over the past two weeks. The hype surrounding the city and its Snow and Ice Festival is similar to the buzz surrounding Shandong’s Zibo in 2023, and it shows that Chinese tourism boards are seriously stepping up their game in the post-Covid travel era. But although the Harbin hype is the result of a well-coordinated marketing campaign that has been in the making for a year, there is also that special something, the organic buzz, that has snowballed the city’s success this season ✨ . Read all about it here 👇🏼

Read more
 

2: Show-Inspired Journeys | The Chinese TV series Meet Yourself has significantly boosted the popularity of Dali in Yunnan. The series’ success, coupled with the official funding behind it, not only underscores the impactful role of Chinese television dramas in tourism but also illustrates how Chinese travel destination promotional strategies are being reshaped in a competitive post-Covid era.

Read more
 

3: From Avant-Garde Writer to Scruffy Pup | On Chinese social media, Yu Hua has transcended his status as one of China’s most renowned contemporary writers. Surrounded by memes, online jokes, and fans born after 2000, he has emerged as a cultural icon for China’s younger generations. His rise as an online celebrity highlights that Chinese youth value relatability and likability over literary prestige.

Read more
 

 

What More to Know

Five Bite-Sized Trends

Besides the bigger international news topics such as the Taiwan elections, Japan earthquake, Middle East crisis, or the Epstein list, these bite-sized topics also went trending on Chinese social media 👇

◼︎ 🌟 Weibo Night | As every year, Weibo Night, unsurprisingly, managed to become the no 1 entertainment topic of the week. It is the much-anticipated live-broadcasted ceremony that looks back on Sina Weibo’s hottest celebrities, entertainment productions, and happenings of the past year. Hosted by the Sina media company, the night has been a recurring event since 2003 – long before the Sina Weibo platform was launched. The night was initially known as the ‘Sina Grand Ceremony’ (新浪网络盛典) until it turned into the ‘Weibo Night’ (微博之夜) in 2010. This year’s edition took place on January 13 – check in on What’s on Weibo later for the highlights. For last year’s list of winners, check here. (Weibo Hashtag “Weibo Night” ##微博之夜##, billions of views, 970 million views on Friday alone and a staggering 7.6 billion views on Saturday!).

◼︎ 🍎 Homeless Chinese PhD graduate in NYC | The story of a Chinese academic who turned from a “genius student” in physics at Fudan University to a homeless man in the US has gone viral recently. The man named Sun (孙) first attracted attention due a Chinese vlogger spotting him sleeping on the streets in New York. After graduating, doing his PhD in the US and obtaining a green card, the man dealt with mental issues and started wandering the streets for 16 years. With help coming from all directions, the 54-year-old Sun is now off the streets and will possibly get help in returning to his family in China (Weibo hashtag “Homeless Fudan Doctor Gets In Touch with Hometown” ##复旦流浪博士已与家乡取得联系##, 180 million views; “Family Members Already Know Fudan Doctor Who Stayed in US Is Wandering NY Streets” #家属已知复旦留美博士流浪纽约街头#, 290 million views).

◼︎ 💍 One-third of 30-Something Urbanites Are Single | Some remarkable social trends found in China’s 2023 Population and Employment Statistics Yearbook (中国人口和就业统计年鉴2023) have recently triggered online discussions. According to the statistics, the unmarried rate among the 30-year-old population in China’s urban areas now exceeds 30%. Experts explain that this is mostly related to Chinese younger generations postponing marriage due to spending longer time in education and also because of the relatively high cost of living. At the same time, China’s rural areas have also seen a staggering decrease in marriage rates (in 25-29 age group over 47% is unmarried), which can mostly be explained due to a gender imbalance in marriageable age groups. (Weibo hashtags “30% of 30-Somethings in Chinese Cities are Single” #全国城市30岁人群未婚率超30%#, 27+ million views; “Late Marriage Trend Has Spread from Cities to Villages” #晚婚已从城市蔓延到农村#, hashtag page taken offline).

◼︎ 🍣 Fukushima Food Poisoning | Lots of Japan news went trending on Chinese social media this month, from the devastating earthquake along Japan’s western coast to the Japan Airlines jet collision. Smaller Japan news that went trending this week is a collective food poisoning incident that took place in Fukushima earlier this month. Among many guests who stayed and dined at a local Fukushima hotel, 101 people fell ill after eating raw fish. Last year, Japan also saw several other large-scale food poisoning incidents. This Fukushima incident especially went trending on Chinese social media within the context of the release of treated radioactive water from the ruined Fukushima nuclear plant, which became one of the biggest social media topics in 2023. Although unrelated, netizens link the food poisoning incident to the dangers of radioactive water (Weibo hashtag “100 people in Japan’s Fukushima Get Food Poisoning from Eating Raw Fish” ##日本福岛百人因吃生鱼片食物中毒##, 160 million views).

◼︎ 🐼 Yaya’s Weight Gain | Panda Yaya became one of the most discussed pandas of 2023. This female panda resided in the Memphis Zoo in the United States for most of her life and attracted significant attention on Chinese social media platforms after netizens expressed concern about her seemingly thin and unhealthy appearance. When the beloved panda finally returned to Beijing after two decades, her arrival became a true social media spectacle. Now, living in the Beijing Zoo, Yaya is often spotted enjoying her bamboo dinners and she clearly gained a lot of weight, much to the delight of netizens who see this as a sign that the panda is doing much better in China than in the US. (Weibo hashtag “Yaya Became A-Letter Chubby Panda”” ##丫丫胖成了A字熊##, 120 million views).

 

What’s the Drama

Top TV to Watch

We’re introducing this new short Weibo Watch segment to keep you in the loop about some of the most-discussed TV dramas and series in China, as they’re a significant part of China’s online environment. While the South Korean TV drama Death’s Game (#死期将至#), of which Part 2 was released on Jan 5, has been popular on Chinese social media recently, it’s Wong Kar-wai’s Blossoms Shanghai (繁花) that is among the top trending Chinese TV dramas at the moment. The series first started airing on CCTV-8 and Tencent Video on December 27.

Adapted from Jin Yucheng’s award-winning novel, Blossoms Shanghai is set in 1990s Shanghai and tells the story of the young man A Bao (played by the ‘Weibo King’ Hu Ge 胡歌) who aims to become a successful businessman and self-made millionaire during China’s booming economic reform period. The series portrays a sharp contrast between the man’s troubled past and the city’s vibrant present. Noteworthy:

▶️ This is the first TV drama produced by Hong Kong film director Wong Kar-Wai, internationally acclaimed for movies such as Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love.
▶️ Particularly noteworthy is the inclusion of the now 91-year-old renowned Chinese actor You Benchang (游本昌), famous for his iconic role as the legendary monk Ji Gong in the 1980s. Despite his age, the actor spent entire days on set with his much younger colleagues, enduring ten-hour working days.
▶️ Due to the success of the series, locations featured in it are experiencing an influx of visitors, especially Shanghai’s Huanghe Road (黄河路). Shanghai’s Fairmont Peace Hotel on Nanjing East Road, also featured in Blossoms Shanghai, has even introduced a new menu featuring various dishes that also come up in the series.

An international/subtitled online release is expected soon, but if you’re in China, you can watch via Tencent here.

 

What Lies Behind

Observations beyond the headlines, by Miranda Barnes

Similar to Zibo in 2023, it’s the city of Harbin that has successfully generated a significant social media buzz this season, attracting hordes of winter tourists. On the other side of Northern China, Xinjiang Province is also eager to step into the spotlight.

While the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival celebrated its official opening ceremony on January 5th, Xinjiang’s Ili Prefecture hosted an event to promote its first Tianma Ice and Snow Tourism Festival. The Snow Festival, scheduled to open on January 14th at Zhaosu County’s Wetland Park, will feature various winter activities and ice & snow sculpture exhibitions. By incorporating folk culture elements and highlighting its numerous ski resorts, local authorities aim to position Xinjiang as the third trending tourist destination after Zibo and Harbin.

However, the ‘online buzz’ surrounding Xinjiang hasn’t unfolded exactly as they had hoped. Local Xinjiang residents began expressing their opinions on social media, including on promotional videos on Douyin, cautioning tourists about high prices. For example, they pointed out that their popular spicy fried chicken dish (辣子鸡) could cost over 200 RMB (US$28), more than double the price elsewhere in China. A well-known Xinjiang vlogger suggested that budget-conscious tourists might find visiting the region in the summer more economical, while others criticized Xinjiang for the overcharging of tourists. Following the flood of online comments, the Xinjiang Culture and Tourism Department (新疆文旅) closed several Douyin comment sections.

Xinjiang’s efforts to go viral as a tourist destination show that it takes more than official propaganda to create a buzz – people are looking for genuineness, value, and that one special thing that makes it all worthwhile. During the summer of 2023, Xinjiang actually had an initial strong moment of domestic tourism recovery. After the pandemic years and strict zero Covid policies, many Chinese travelers were eager to experience something new and prioritized unique locations over a low budget. Now that the initial travel craze phase has passed, travelers are back to focusing on getting value for money and won’t accept being overcharged.

One definite upside of this marketing fail is that Chinese netizens very much appreciate how local Xinjiang residents gave travelers the heads up about the status quo. One commenter said, “After reading all the comments, I find Xinjiangers are so honest and lovely; this made me want to go visit! Maybe next time, they [local authorities] should promote their people instead.”

 

What’s Noteworthy

Small news with big impact

Tens of thousands of balloons were released into the sky during New Year’s Eve in Nanjing’s city center. While the scene created a spectacular count-down moment that went viral on social media, the aftermath wasn’t so pretty. In the week after the celebration, numerous balloons littered Nanjing’s commercial district — caught in trees, entangled in bushes, and even stuck on traffic lights.

To clean up this post-celebration mess, a local landscaping company was mobilized, with hundred workers utilizing multiple aerial work platforms and working around the clock for seven days to clear the Nanjing streets of the lingering balloons.

But the impact went well beyond Nanjing’s city center. Days after the event, balloons that were released in Nanjing were found as far as Hangzhou (#在杭州发现南京跨年夜气球#). Beyond the environmental impact and the extensive cleanup efforts, the use of hydrogen balloons also poses safety risks.

Hydrogen is highly flammable, and balloon encounters with high-voltage lines or open flames can result in explosions and significant damage. This actually also happened this New Year’s, creating hazardous situations for the crowds standing below the small, local explosions in the air (#跨年夜集体放飞气球引爆响#) – this is something that Chinese fire departments have also been warning about through online channels.

Nanjing is just one of the cities where thousands of balloons were released for New Year’s Eve; there were also major balloon release events in cities such as Chongqing, Chengdu, Xi’an, and Wuhan. On Weibo, numerous users have been vocal about highlighting the downsides and negative impact of these kinds of balloon releasing events.

See videos here.

 

The latest buzz in arts & pop culture

The Spring Festival holiday is known for its peak box office performances in China, with audiences eagerly anticipating the films released during this period. Last Lunar New Year, blockbuster hits like Wandering Earth II, Full River Red, and Hidden Blade made waves. This year, there’s considerable buzz around YOLO (热辣滚烫), the latest film from Chinese comedian and director Jia Ling.

Recently, Jia Ling emerged back into the spotlight after a year-long break from the public eye. On Weibo, the acclaimed actress shared that during this year, she directed her second film while also portraying the lead character. In this role, she plays a woman who drastically changes her life after being withdrawn from social life and who takes up boxing, for which Jia Ling shed approximately 100 pounds (50 kg).

Jia Ling’s remarkable weight loss for her upcoming film quickly became a trending topic, with her Weibo announcement garnering nearly 60,000 responses in just one day. Many view this dramatic change as a testament to Jia Ling’s incredible dedication to her work. After her successful and award-winning director’s debut Hi, Mom in 2021, this upcoming film is also expected to do very well during the holiday. YOLO (热辣滚烫) is set to premiere in Chinese theaters on February 10. Read more here👇.

Read more
 

 

What’s Memorable

Best reads from the archive

As we’re back in the snow season, we’ve picked this article from our archive from one year ago which explores how and why Eileen Gu, the American-born freestyle skier and gold medallist, became an absolute viral sensation in China. Gu represented China in the 2022 Beijing Olympics and received praise for her excellent halfpipe World Cup performance during the 2023 Chinese New Year.

At the same time, Gu’s success also generated many discussions about her alleged privileged status, especially within the context of her being praised as a role model for Chinese (female) younger generations. Read here 👇

Read more

 

Weibo Word of the Week

The catchword to know, by Ruixin Zhang

“Southern Little Potatoes” | Our Weibo Word of the Week is “Southern Little Potatoes” (nánfāng xiǎo tǔdòu 南方小土豆).

The term “Southern Little Potatoes” (南方小土豆) is all the rage recently in the context of the hype surrounding Harbin. This ice-and-snow tourism season has seen a huge influx of tourists from the warmer southern regions who are heading north to the snow-blanketed Harbin or other destinations in the Three Northeastern Provinces (东北三省).

The southern tourists visiting China’s cold northeast tend to stand out due to their smaller stature, light-colored down jackets, and newly-bought winter hats. Their appearance not only contrasts with that of the typically taller and darker-dressed locals, but some people also think it makes them look like little potatoes. After the term ‘southern little potato’ became popular due to a viral video, some southern tourists, especially women, also adopted this term to humorously describe themselves.

The playful term quickly caught on, and locals started using it as a humorous marketing strategy to attract more southern visitors. Harbin street sellers are now selling plush keychains of “southern little potatoes,” and even local taxis are inviting the “baby potatoes” to get on board (土豆宝宝请上车) for complimentary rides. Through jokes, memes, and media stories about these ‘potatoes,’ a narrative has been constructed about the city of Harbin taking care of and pampering these ‘naive,’ ‘little’ visitors.

Although the term is meant to be affectionate, not everyone appreciates it. As the term predominantly refers to smaller women, some critics feel that by making “Southern Little Potatoes” (南方小土豆) part of its Ice and Snow economy promotion, Harbin is actually being somewhat chauvinistic and is contributing to sexism while reinforcing stereotypical perceptions of southern women.

While some critical bloggers are arguing that the term is harmful and derogatory, the majority of netizens are still using the term for light-hearted banter about the enthusiasm of southern visitors and the hospitality of the northerners welcoming them.

 
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.

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PREMIUM NEWSLETTER | ISSUE #24

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.

Best,
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 👇🏼

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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!

 
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China Travel

Olympic Swimming Fu Yuanhui Gets Help via Weibo Following Taxi Scam

Olympic champion Fu Yuanhui, known for her ‘mystical powers,’ turned to social media when she faced a tourist scam.

Manya Koetse

Published

on

“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 plea for help that Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui (傅园慧) posted on Weibo on Saturday morning, February 17. The popular athlete informed her followers that she was around the Changbai Mountain Scenic Area, a popular winter tourist destination in China’s Jilin Province, when her driver suddenly demanded more money from her.

Shortly after posting about her predicament, Fu Yuanhui sent out an update: “Thank you all for following, the Jilin Ministry of Culture and Tourism swiftly stepped in, the problem is already solved now. Thanks everyone.”

Following these posts, Fu Yuanhui and the Changbai incident quickly went trending on Weibo, where many people commented that her situation was only resolved so quickly because she is famous.

Fu Yuanhui became a Chinese internet sensation eight years ago, after her performance and interviews during the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. When talking to reporters, Fu was excited, positive, and refreshingly honest. She introduced the popular phrase “mystical powers” (洪荒之力, literally: power strong enough to change the universe) when explaining that she was swimming extra fast because she was “using all ‘mystical powers'” (read more). She also went viral for expressing genuine delight upon discovering she had won a bronze medal, and for disclosing that she did not swim very well another time because she was on her period.

Fu Yuanhui charmed Chinese audiences after her disarming interviews during the Summer Olympics in 2016.

Following her Olympic success, Fu gained many fans on social media. On Weibo, she has over 7 million followers.

It is clear that her fame and relatively large following played a role in how fast her issue was resolved. Not only did the local authorities step in, the driver who extorted her reportedly was also quickly punished for his actions and received a 30,000 yuan fine (US$4215). A related hashtag, published by state media outlet CCTV, went viral and received over 130 million views on Weibo (#对傅园慧加价黑车司机被罚3万元#).

While most are glad to see the driver get punished so soon, many commenters argue that it’s unfair for someone like Fu Yuanhui to receive swift assistance while many ordinary travelers across China facing scams during this holiday season struggle to get the help they need.

On February 16, a Chinese family of five was kicked off a tour bus during their trip in Lijiang, Yunnan, because they had refused to purchase a bracelet worth 50,000 yuan ($7,025) as instructed by their tour guide during a visit to a jade shop. This incident also went viral on Weibo (#一家人旅游未买5万手镯被赶下车#, 130 million views), sparking outrage over local travel scams and the perceived inaction of tourism authorities.

A significant factor in these discussions is how Chinese local tourism authorities have been ramping up their marketing efforts following the pandemic and China’s zero-Covid policy. Seeking to attract more domestic tourists, they’ve been exploring new strategies to promote their hometowns, particularly among younger generations. Since early 2023, various tourism bureau chiefs from across China have gone viral on platforms like Weibo, Douyin, and beyond for their innovative social media campaigns.

The marketing success of certain destinations, such as ‘BBQ town’ Zibo, has also inspired other cities or regions throughout China to go all out in presenting their best side. Some of them, such as Harbin, have succeeded in becoming yet another holiday hit.

While these kind of campaigns are generally applauded, many believe that actions speak louder than words. They argue that besides focusing on social media campaigns, local tourism authorities should do more to protect common travelers against scams, rip-offs, and fraud.

“What will you do next time this happens?” many ask, and: “what should normal people without a big social media following do when this happens to them?”

“Fu Yuanhui is a public figure, which is why this case was resolved. For regular people, nothing would happen – we don’t get heard,” another person wrote.

While many criticize Jilin authorities for aiding Fu Yuanhui without effectively addressing tourist scams, most people don’t blame Fu Yuanhui at all for seeking the help she needed. “After all,” one commenter wrote, “She does have mystical powers.”

By Manya Koetse

With contributions by Ruixin Zhang

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