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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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China Media

The Beishan Park Stabbings: How the Story Unfolded and Was Censored on Weibo

A timeline of the censorship & reporting of the Jilin Beishan Park stabbing incident on Chinese social media.

Manya Koetse

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The recent stabbing incident at Beishan Park in Jilin city, involving four American teachers, has made headlines worldwide. However, on the Chinese internet, the story was initially kept under wraps. This is a brief overview of how the incident was reported, censored, and discussed on Weibo.

On Monday, June 10, four Americans were stabbed while visiting Beishan park in Jilin.

Video footage of the victims lying on the ground in the park was viewed by millions of people outside the Chinese internet by Monday afternoon.

Despite the serious and unusual nature of such an attack on foreigners visiting China, it took about an entire day for the news to be reported by official Chinese channels.

 
How the Beishan Incident Unfolded Online
 

In the afternoon of June 10, news about four foreigners being stabbed in Jilin’s Beishan Park started circulating online.

Among the first online accounts to report this incident was the well-known Chinese-language X account ‘Li Laoshi’ (李老师不是你老师, @whyyoutouzhele), which has 1.5 million followers, along with the news account Visegrád 24 (@visegrad24), which has 1 million followers on X.

They both posted a video showing the incident’s aftermath, which soon went viral on X and beyond. It showed how three victims – one female and two male – were lying on the ground at the park, bleeding heavily while waiting for medical help. A police officer was already at the scene.

As soon as the video and tweets triggered discussions in the English-language social media sphere, it was clear that Chinese social media platforms were censoring and blocking mentions of the incident.

By Monday night, China local time, many Weibo commenters had started writing about what had happened in Beishan Park earlier that day, but their posts became unavailable.

Some bloggers wrote about receiving an automated message from Weibo management that their posts had been taken offline. Others started posting about “that thing in Jilin,” but even those messages disappeared. On other platforms, such as Douyin, the story was also being contained.

By 21:00-22:00 local time, a hashtag on Weibo, “Jilin Beishan Park Foreigners” (吉林北山外国人), briefly became the second most-searched topic before it was taken offline. Weibo stated: “According to relevant laws, regulations, and policies, the content of this topic is not shown.”

A hashtag about the Beishan stabbings soon became one of the hottest search queries before it disappeared.

While netizens came up with more creative words and other descriptions to talk about what had happened, the focus shifted from what had happened in Beishan Park to why the topic was being censored. “What’s this? Why can’t we talk about it?” one Weibo user wondered: “Not a single piece of news!”

Around 23:30 local time, another blogger posted: “It seems to be real that four foreigners were stabbed in Jilin’s Beishan Park this afternoon. We’ll have to see when it will formally be reported on Weibo.” Others questioned, “Why is the Jilin incident so tightly covered up on the internet?”

Around 04:00 local time on June 11, the first media outlet to really report on what had happened was Iowa Public Radio (IPR News). Before that time, one Iowan citizen had already commented on X that their sister-in-law was one of the victims involved.

One victim’s family had told IPR News that the individuals involved were four Cornell College instructors. All four survived and were recovering at a nearby hospital after being stabbed during a park visit in China.

The instructors were part of a partnership with Beihua University in Jilin. Cornell College and Beihua University have had an active partnership since 2018, with Beihua funding Cornell instructors to visit China, travel, and teach during a two-week period. Members from both institutions were visiting the public park in Jilin City when they were attacked. The visit was likely intended as a sightseeing and relaxation opportunity during the Dragon Boat Festival holiday, when many people visit the park.

As reported by IPR News reporter Zachary Oren Smith (@ZacharyOS), U.S. Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks stated that her office was working with the U.S. Embassy to ensure the victims would receive care for their injuries and safely leave China.

 
Hu Xijin Post
 

Now that news of the attack on four Americans was all over X, soon picked up by dozens of international news outlets, the Chinese censorship of the story seemed unusual, considering the magnitude of the story.

Furthermore, there had still been no official statement from the Chinese side, nor any news reports on the suspect and whether or not he had been detained.

By the morning of June 11, an internal, unverified BOLO notice from the Jilin city Chuanying police office circulated online. It identified the suspect as 55-year-old Jilin resident Cui Dapeng (崔大鹏), who was still at large. The notice also clarified that there were not four but five victims in total.

At 11:33 local time, it seemed that the wall of censorship surrounding the incident was suddenly lifted when Chinese political and social commentator Hu Xijin (胡锡进), who has nearly 25 million followers on Weibo, posted about what had happened.

He based his post on “Western media reports,” and commented that this is a time when Chinese and American sides are actually promoting exchange. He saw the incident as a “random” one, which, regardless of the attacker’s motive, does not reflect broader sentiment within Chinese society. He concluded, “I also hope and believe that this incident will not negatively affect the exchanges between China and the US.”

Hu’s post spurred a flurry of discussions about the Beishan Park incident, turning it into a top-searched topic once again. His comments sparked controversy, with many disagreeing with his suggestion that the incident could potentially affect Sino-American exchanges. Many argued that there are numerous examples of Chinese people being attacked or even murdered in the US without anyone suggesting it would harm US-China relations.

Within approximately two hours of posting, Hu’s post was no longer visible and had disappeared from his timeline. This sudden deletion or blocking of his post again triggered confusion: Was Hu being censored? Why?

Later, screenshots of Hu Xijin’s post shared on social media were also censored.

 
A “Collision”
 

By the early Tuesday evening, June 11, Chinese official accounts and state media accounts finally issued a report on what had happened in what was now dubbed the “Beishan Park Stabbing Incident” (#吉林公安通报北山公园伤人案#).

Jilin authorities issued a report on what happened in Beishan Park.

A notice from local public security authorities stated that the first emergency call about a stabbing incident at the park came in at 11:49 in the morning on Monday, June 10, and police and medical assistance soon arrived at the scene.

The 55-year-old Chinese suspect, referred to as ‘Cui’ (崔某某), reportedly stabbed one of the Americans after they bumped into each other at the park (described as “a collision” 发生碰撞). The suspect then attacked the American, his three American companions, and a Chinese visitor who tried to intervene. Reports indicated that the victims were all transported to the hospital and were not in critical condition.

It was also stated that the suspect was arrested on the “same day,” without specifying the time and location of the arrest.

Later on Tuesday, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs addressed the incident during their regular press conference. Spokesperson Lin Jian (林剑) stated that local police had initially judged the case to be a random incident and that they were conducting further investigation (#外交部回应吉林北山公园伤人案#).

 
Boxer Rebellion References
 

With the discussions about the incident on Chinese social media less controlled, various views emerged, commenting on issues such as public safety in China, US-China relations, and anti-Western sentiments.

One notable trend during the early discussions of the incident is how many commenters referenced to the ‘Boxer Rebellion’ (1899–1901), an anti-foreign, anti-Christian uprising that took place during the final years of the Qing Dynasty and led to large-scale massacres of foreign residents. Many commenters believed the attacker had nationalist motives targeting foreigners.

Anti-american, nationalist sentiments also surfaced online. Some commenters laughed about the incident or praised the attacker for doing a “good job.”

However, the majority argued that this event should not be seen as indicative of a broader trend of foreign-targeted violence in China. They emphasized that Asians in America are far more frequently targeted in hate crimes than any Westerner in China, underscoring that this incident is just an isolated case.

This idea of the event being “random” (“偶然事件”) was reiterated in official reports, Hu Xijin’s column, and by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

But there are also those who think this might be a conspiracy, calling it bizarre for such a rare incident to occur just when Chinese tourism was finally starting to flourish in the post-Covid era: “Now that our tourism industry is booming, foreigners are getting stabbed? How could it be such a coincidence? Is it possible that this was arranged by spies from other countries?”

On Tuesday, social commentator Hu Xijin made a second attempt at posting about the Beishan Park incident. This time, his post was shorter and less outspoken:

“This appears to be a public security incident,” he wrote: “But this time, four foreign nationals were attacked. In every place around the world, there are criminal and public security incidents where foreigners become victims. China is one of the relatively safest countries in the world, but this incident still occurred in broad daylight in a tourist area. This reminds us, that we need to always keep enhancing the effectiveness of security measures to protect the safety of all Chinese and foreign nationals.”

Again, his post triggered some controversy as some bloggers discovered that Hu had previously argued against extra security checks at Chinese parks, which he deemed unnecessary. They felt he was now contradicting himself.

The differing views on Hu’s posts and the incident at large perhaps explain why the news was initially controlled and censored. Although censorship and control are inherent parts of the Chinese social media apparatus, the level of control over this story was quite unusual. Whether it was due to the suspect still being on the loose, public safety concerns, fears of rising nationalist sentiments, or the need to understand the full details before the story blew up, we will likely never know.

Nevertheless, this time, Hu’s post stayed up.

The Beishan Park incident is reportedly still under investigation.

By Manya Koetse

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Weibo Watch: The Last ‘T’ Standing

The last ‘T’ standing, Gaokao week, and why Chinese publishers are boycotting JD’s 618 festival.

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PREMIUM NEWSLETTER | ISSUE #30

 

This week’s newsletter:

◼︎ 1. Editor’s Note – The Last T-Word
◼︎ 2. What’s New and Noteworthy – A closer look at the featured stories
◼︎ 3. What’s Trending – Hot highlights
◼︎ 4. What’s On Screen – Top TV Shows to watch
◼︎ 5. What’s Remarkable – Taiwan students lack knowledge on Chinese history
◼︎ 6. What’s Popular – Will China save Lululemon?
◼︎ 7. What’s Memorable – Divorce peek after Gaokao
◼︎ 8. Weibo Word of the Week – “Sunscreen Warriors”

 

Dear Reader,

 

This week marked the 35th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, a time when censorship and online control in China intensify.

Ten years ago, around the 25th Tiananmen anniversary, I was browsing a bookstore in Beijing when I came across a book titled My Homeland in the 1980s (我的故乡在八十年代), its cover showing students reading and sitting at Tiananmen Square. The book, featuring dozens of interviews, was supposed to discuss the events of the 1980s in China, reassessing the era’s impact on the country today.

I immediately bought the book, as I was curious to see how this work, published in 2013, would narrate the events of the summer of 1989. Perhaps I was naive, but after carefully hopping from chapter to chapter, from page to page, I was stunned to discover that while the Tiananmen Square was referred to several times throughout the book, which thoroughly discussed happenings from 1980-1990, there was no reference to the student protests or June 4th at all. Not one single sentence—it was as if it had never happened.

Of course, the surprise wasn’t that big. I was well aware of the so-called ‘Forbidden Ts,’ highly sensitive and often censored topics which are closely tied to the end of Twitter in China and the rise of Weibo in 2009.

These ‘Three Ts’—which even have their own Wikipedia page—refer to Chinese taboo topics: Tiananmen, Tibet, and Taiwan. You might even call it the ‘Four Ts’ if you include Xinjiang (for T’s sake, borrowing the T from its old reference as East Turkestan).

 
“The Last ‘T’ Standing”
 

Many things were happening in the summer of 2009, following a period of a relatively free Chinese internet since 2006 that saw a flourishing of new BBS sites and social media networks, including Facebook and Twitter. The year 2009 was a year of change and key events: the Jasmine revolution was taking place, there was growing unrest in Xinjiang including the Urumqi riots, and it was the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown.

That year, online censorship was particularly strict, and various websites and discussion boards became inaccessible around June 4th. Some sites displayed a message stating they were “closed for maintenance,” leading to the day sarcastically being nicknamed “Chinese Internet Maintenance Day” (中国网站维护日).

For some sites, their temporary ‘maintenance’ became permanent. While American Twitter disappeared from China, the domestic Sina Weibo emerged—a new social media platform designed to keep information flows under control by censoring sensitive topics and hiding posts containing blocked keywords.

The ‘Four Ts’ remained highly sensitive, and often there would be no results at all when searching for a term like ‘Xinjiang.’

Throughout the years, however, in line with China’s rising importance on the world stage and its growing assertiveness under Xi Jinping, wolf warrior diplomacy, new strategies in digital propaganda, and other factors, most of the forbidden Ts have become not so taboo nor forbidden at all anymore.

There have been various extensive online discussions about Tibet or about Xinjiang – and what Western media are getting wrong about these topics. Nowadays, even the words for ‘Taiwan independence’ – once a censored term – are ubiquitous in China’s online environment as part of the intensified Taiwan reunification social media campaign.

The primary change in these topics is how official accounts now control the narrative, framing them in ways that are not politically sensitive but rather vehicles of Chinese pride and nationalism. This shift enables these subjects to be addressed because there is now an official online discourse providing a context for the conversation.

Tiananmen, however, is the last ‘T’ standing.

If anything, censorship surrounding this ‘T’ has seemingly only grown stricter. During the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen student protests in 2019, there was a complete shutdown of searches for this term on Weibo. As in previous years, Weibo quietly removed the candle icon from its collection of “frequently used emoticons” just before June 4, and also started removing other emojis deemed remotely sensitive, such as the leaf, the cake, the ribbon, and the present.

 
“Internet Maintenance Day”
 

During the Tiananmen anniversary in 2022, Weibo saw an uptick in posts using the English phrase “It’s my duty,” relating to a video of a young student in 1989 Beijing answering a foreign reporter on why he was off to march at Tiananmen Square (“Why? I think it’s my duty” – see video). Following this, any mention of the “It’s my duty” slogan was meticulously scrubbed from Chinese social media.

The term ‘May 35’, which became a code word for ‘June 4,’ is also censored, like so many other plays on words. No matter if it’s numbers, different characters, English phrases, or emojis – once a creative way to commemorate Tiananmen’s June 4 becomes popular on Weibo or other platforms, it’s swiftly removed.

This year is no different. As described by Alexander Boyd, the breadth of censorship in China during this 35th Tiananmen anniversary was “breathtaking.”

And so it was somewhat noteworthy when New Zealand national Andy Boreham, a Chinese state media (Shanghai Daily) worker, posted a long thread on X [Twitter] this week about the “Tankman” and Tiananmen, in which he attempted ‘to set the record straight’ by claiming that the idea of the “Tiananmen Square Massacre” is “a U.S.-led myth based on a very real set of events over a few weeks in 1989.”

The first part of Boreham’s now-deleted X thread, screenshot via Fergus Ryan @fryan.

The ‘T-word’ is obviously not censored on X, where Boreham tweets for a foreign audience, not a domestic one. But considering Boreham’s position within the Chinese state media apparatus and the guidance that comes with it,[1] his lengthy discussion of Tiananmen was still unusual. Boreham wrote about the protests and did not deny that there were many casualties, while mainly focusing on the alleged “Tiananmen Square massacre,” which he claimed did not occur. (DW News reporter Monir Ghaedi explains more about Boreham’s post here).

A day later, after Boreham’s post was shared over 5000 times, the entire thread was suddenly deleted.

Although he posted another tweet about Americans dying from gun violence on June 4th, Boreham did not address the deletion of his detailed Tiananmen thread.

Instead, he wrote: “It seems the world isn’t ready for the truth, or even just to face the idea that what they believe is only one version.”

Not a single mention of the deleted post—it was as if it had never happened. Perhaps Boreham’s response had a double meaning when he wrote “it seems the world isn’t ready for the truth”, including how China isn’t ready for this T, even if it’s happening on X. Maybe he had his own private “Internet maintenance day” this June 4th.

Best,
Manya

 

[1]Ryan, Fergus, Matt Knight, and Daria Impiombato. 2023. “Singing from the CCP’s Songsheet: The Role of Foreign Influencers in China’s Propaganda System.” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 35-36. https://ad-aspi.s3.ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/2023-11/Singing%20from%20the%20song%20sheet.pdf?VersionId=mdVBVPrFokz_xlEyhQdz0H3ZPmRs76el.

 

A closer look at the featured stories

1: Students vs. Chatbots | It’s Gaokao time! Over 13.4 million Chinese students are taking the national college entrance exams this week. For the first time, China’s Gaokao essay topic is about the latest AI developments, sparking discussions on social media platforms about whether AI is actually making life easier or not.

Read more
 

2: The Cost of Cheap Books | Interesting discussions are emerging ahead of JD.com’s major 618 shopping festival this year, following a joint statement from Chinese publishers declaring that the price war on books is no longer sustainable. Of course, bookworms always love getting a good deal on books, but when the deals are just too good, it could harm the publishing industry.

Read more
 

3: Uncle Wang Goes Phnom Penh | Various tribute videos are circulating on Chinese social media this week following the announcement that MFA spokesperson Wang Wenbin is starting his new post as China’s new ambassador to Cambodia. Wang served as the 32nd MFA spokesperson from 2020 to 2024. While some perceive his new role as a “downgrade,” it is more likely a reflection of his importance given the strengthening of Sino-Cambodian relations and Cambodia’s role as a key strategic partner to China in the region.

Read more
 

 

What’s Trending

A recap of hot highlights

  • THURSDAY 30 MAY
    • 270 million views for the hashtag “Gou Zhongwen Suspected of Serious Disciplinary Violations and Illegal Activities” #苟仲文涉嫌严重违纪违法#.
    • Gou Zhongwen is a Chinese politician who served as director of the State General Administration of Sports from 2016 to 2022. He is under investigation for suspected severe violations of Party discipline and the law.
    • The probe involving the retired Gou, who is currently being held in custody, is part of a wider government crackdown on corruption in sports. Read more on Caixin here.
  •  

  • FRIDAY 31 MAY
    • After a New York jury found Trump guilty on all 34 counts of falsifying business records in his hush-money criminal trial, his historic conviction – making Trump the first former U.S. president to be found guilty of felony crimes – went top trending on Weibo.
    • On Chinese social media, the Trump trial is seen as a spectacle to enjoy, a “historical performance” featuring “Comrade Trump” as the leading figure.
    • Political commentator Hu Xijin also commented on the issue, stating that the case triggers the curiosity of Chinese people because they mostly wonder about two things:
      1. Will Trump actually go to jail?
      2. Can he still run for president?
  •  

  • MONDAY JUNE 3
    • The topic “China has stopped giving away pandas for free for over 40 years” went trending on Weibo, garnering over 440 million views.
    • This refers to the policy shift in the 1980s when China stopped gifting pandas to friendly nations for free and switched to “lending” them for shorter periods, with all pandas and their offspring remaining Chinese property.
    • The policy, widely supported among Chinese commenters, sparked discussions because of Fu Bao, a panda born in 2020 as South Korea’s first naturally-bred panda.
    • •As part of China’s “panda diplomacy” program, Fu Bao was returned to China in early April, but South Korean netizens have now set up a petition to ‘bring back’ their beloved panda.
  •  

  • WEDNESDAY JUNE 5
    • Chinese streaming platform iQIYI faced an online storm this week after asking its paying members to pay an additional fee to watch a livestream of an event related to its hit show, “Become a Farmer.”
    • Adding to the frustration, the event itself was free for offline participants, leading to the hashtag “iQIYI – offline free, online paid” (爱奇艺 线下免费线上收费), which garnered 200 million views on Weibo.
    • The criticism comes at a time when members are already dissatisfied with price hikes and additional charges for higher streaming quality and early access to content.
    • To read more on the hit show “Become a Farmer,” check out our article here.
  •  

  • FRIDAY, SATURDAY 7&8 JUNE
    • Over 13.4 million students sat down for their Gaokao, the national college entrance exams, which started this week and dominated trending topics on Chinese social media.
    • Platforms like Weibo and Douyin saw a flood of videos featuring relieved students emerging from the exam room. For many, it’s finally time to relax after weeks of intense studying.
    • Some provinces and regions, including Henan and Jiangsu, are offering freebies for those who took the exam, such as free entrance to scenic areas.
  •  

    What’s the Drama

    Top TV to Watch

    The latest TV drama to create a lot of buzz and discussion this week is The Double (墨雨云间 Mò Yǔ Yún Jiān), a superdramatic romance/costume series starring, among others, Chinese actress Wu Jinyan (吴谨言), and Chinese actors Wang Xingyue (王星越) and Chen Xinhai (陈鑫海). Wu stars as the female lead, Xue Fangfei, the daughter of a county magistrate who leads a happy and privileged life until everything changes and she gets buried alive by her husband. Don’t worry, she’ll assume another identity to go on a quest for revenge.

    To know:

    ▶️ The series is adapted from the Chinese web novel “Marriage of the Di Daughter” (嫡嫁千金) by Qian Shan Cha Ke (千山茶客).
    ▶️ The Double immediately became top ranking on Youku’s drama list for 2024, becoming the fastest drama this year to hit 10,000 on Youku’s “heat index.” The series is also scoring well outside of China, scoring 8.5/10 on MyDramaList.
    ▶️ The drama is a true social media hit: its hashtag has received a staggering 1.59 billion views on Weibo.

    The Double is available with English subtitles on Viki here.

     

    What’s Noteworthy

    Small news with big impact

    Chinese state media have recently taken a new approach in the discourse surrounding cross-straits relations, highlighting how students in Taiwan lack knowledge about Chinese history and are victims of a “de-Chinafication” education policy. This policy is supposedly embedded in the Chinese history education in Taiwan.

    On May 30, state broadcaster CCTV News released a street interview video with Taiwanese students after their college entrance exams, asking them about Chinese history. Some students mentioned that Chinese history was only covered in one or two questions, while others responded with “What is Chinese history?” This topic quickly became the number one trending topic on Weibo (#台湾高中生问中国史是什么#).

    In online discussions, many netizens argued that Taiwan’s “pro-independence” education curriculum is purposely distorting views on Chinese history, allegedly leading to a lack of identification with being ‘Chinese,’ raising concerns about the long-term impact of such ‘educational policies.’

     

    The latest buzz in arts, marketing & pop culture

    American athletic apparel brand Lululemon has recently been trending on Chinese social media for two reasons. First, reports highlighted significant growth in the Chinese market. In the first quarter of 2024, Lululemon’s sales increased by 10%, with a notable 45% surge in revenue from China. Second, the company’s stock price recently dropped due to concerns over its outlook, exacerbated by the departure of a key executive, Sun Choe, and the significant slowdown in revenue growth in the Americas market in the final quarter of 2023.

    These developments have led to speculation in China about whether the Chinese market might be the one to ‘rescue’ the American brand, sparking conversations about the willingness of Chinese consumers to purchase the relatively pricey activewear brand.

    However, on social media, many believe Lululemon’s success in China might not be everlasting. Searching for ‘Lululemon alternatives’ on China’s online shopping platforms, some argue that a 50-yuan sweater ($7) is just as comfortable as the original, which costs over 1,000 yuan ($138). Chinese sellers claim that the Lululemon alternatives produced by Chinese OEM factories are indistinguishable from the real product at a much better price. This sentiment is echoed by many Chinese consumers, who find the cheaper made-in-China alternatives to Lululemon just as satisfactory. A related hashtag received over 140 million views on Weibo this week.

     

    What’s Memorable

    Best reads from the archive

    For this pick from the archive, we revisit an article from 2018 about the post-Gaokao divorce trend. For millions of Chinese students and their parents, the national college entrance exams – taking place this week – are incredibly stressful. To support their child’s performance, some unhappy couples decide to postpone their plans to divorce, leading to a spike in divorce rates shortly after the exams end. Read more here.👇

    Read more
     

    Weibo Word of the Week

    The catchword to know

    “Sun Protection Warriors” | Our Weibo Word of the Week is fángshài zhànshì (防晒战士), translated as “sun protection warriors” or “sunscreen warriors.”

    In recent years, China has seen a rise in anti-tan, sun-protection garments. More than just preventing sunburn, these garments aim to prevent any tanning at all, helping Chinese women—and some men—maintain as pale a complexion as possible, as fair skin is deemed aesthetically ideal.

    As temperatures are soaring across China, online fashion stores on Taobao and other platforms are offering all kinds of fashion solutions to prevent the skin, mainly the face, from being exposed to the sun.

    On the social lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu, women share all kinds of strategies to avoid sun exposure, from enormous sunhats to reverse hoodies. This extreme anti-sun fashion has led some users to label themselves or others as “sun protection warriors.”

    Some people think the trend is going too far, saying that fashionable women nowadays are more like “sunscreen terrorists” (防晒恐怖分子, fángshài kǒngbùfènzǐ).

    Image shared on Weibo by @TA们叫我董小姐, comparing pretty girls before (left) and nowadays (right), also labeled “sunscreen terrorists.”

    To see more examples of extreme anti-tan fashion and read more about this phenomenon, click here 👇

    Read more
     

     
    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.

    Featured image: Part of the image is based on photo taken by photographer Liu Xiangcheng, depicting dozens of students sitting down at Tiananmen Square.

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What’s on Weibo is run by Manya Koetse (@manyapan), offering independent analysis of social trends in China for over a decade. Subscribe to show your support and gain access to all content, including the Weibo Watch newsletter, providing deeper insights into the China trends that matter.

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