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Weibo Watch: The Paris Syndrome

Post-pandemic travel disillusionment to the ‘Unkillable One from Shijiazhuang’, an overview of noteworthy and trending topics on Weibo and beyond.

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PREMIUM NEWSLETTER | ISSUE #11

This week’s newsletter:
◼︎ 1. Editor’s Note – The Paris Syndrome hits close to home
◼︎ 2. What’s Trending – A closer look at the featured stories
◼︎ 3. What to Know – Highlighting 8 hot topics
◼︎ 4. What Lies BehindRaincheck for next week!
◼︎ 5. What’s Noteworthy – Rumored fall of Zhongzhi Enterprise
◼︎ 6. What’s Popular – How the TFBoys boosted Xi’an economy
◼︎ 7. What’s Memorable – Looking back: Swedish Chinese tourist gate
◼︎ 8. Weibo Word of the Week – “The Unkillable One from Shijiazhuang”

 

Dear Reader,

 

Half a year after China reopened its borders and around four months after resuming the issuance of tourist visas, there is much discussion surrounding the low number of foreign tourists traveling to China. The proportion of tourists from Europe, the U.S., Japan, and South Korea has significantly dropped.

As more incentives are introduced that might attract more inbound international visitors, such as making it easier for some foreigners to obtain visas upon arrival and letting travelers link their Visa and Mastercard accounts to Alipay and WeChat Pay, many still argue that there are numerous issues hindering smooth travel in China for foreign visitors. A recent report by Wall Street Journal suggested that visitors are staying away because of deteriorating relations between China and the West, but recent viral Twitter posts also highlighted practical reasons, including troublesome visa processes, challenges with digital payments in a cashless society, the Great Firewall, certain hotels not accepting foreign guests, and difficulties encountered when services require Chinese ID cards.

While closely following these tweets, we’ve also noticed a trend on Chinese social media regarding outbound travel to Europe during the same period. Earlier news reports had already mentioned that Europe is experiencing lower-than-expected bookings from high-spending Chinese travelers, and the anticipated ‘Chinese travel boom’ hasn’t materialized. For most Chinese citizens, traveling abroad has become difficult (securing visa appointments for some destinations is almost like a lottery) and more costly. Simultaneously, domestic tourism has become more popular and attractive than ever before, making Chinese holidays a preferred choice.

Consequently, those travelers who finally reached their destinations in Europe recently might have overcome some considerable obstacles to get there. But a recent surge in Europe-related posts within China’s travel-focused social media sphere indicates that for many Chinese travelers, their European adventures turn out to be quite underwhelming.

The phenomenon known as ‘Paris Syndrome’ describes the sense of extreme disappointment some individuals feel when visiting Paris, finding that the city doesn’t match their expectations due to the reality not aligning with the romanticized scenes from movies. While the term originated in the 1980s, typically applying to Japanese tourists experiencing culture shock in Europe, many recent accounts from Chinese travelers also express disillusionment with their European experiences.

Why? The most frequently mentioned reason is that they view Europe as “messy,” “chaotic,” and deficient in public safety to the point that travelers caution each other against going out at night. Many posts on social media recount incidents of theft in cities such as Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Rome, leaving individuals feeling helpless when they discover that the police couldn’t provide sufficient assistance. Some have even shared experiences of being robbed twice during a single trip, leaving them fearful and disheartened. As a result, Chinese popular Xiaohongshu app is filled with guides and tips on “how not to get robbed in Europe,” recommending special safety bags, hotel room locks, and additional luggage protection. However, some commenters suggest that the joy of traveling is ruined for them if going to European cities means one must prepare to be vigilant at all times and assume that “thieves are all around.”

Observing frustrated international travelers’ Twitter posts in China and the emotional posts from Chinese travelers in Europe, it seems that many of us are experiencing some form of the ‘Paris Syndrome’ recently. Especially during the Covid years, we built up our hopes about that one big trip we were going to make – surely it was going to be the best trip of a lifetime? But we get pickpocketed, we get denied at hotels, we get lost in translation, and we inescapably get disappointed.

Just recently, atop an ancient Chinese pagoda in Zibo, I shared tea for two with another solo traveler – a young teacher from northern China. As I mentioned being from Europe, he shared his hesitation about going there: “I’ve been hearing how unsafe it is for Chinese recently.” After an enlightening conversation, he confided that I was the first foreigner he had ever spoken to. Later, on another train, I received a message from an old friend in Paris who had seen one of my travel photos. He wrote: “You’re traveling in China all alone now? I’ve been hearing how unsafe it is for foreigners recently.”

An upside amidst the negative travel news regarding both Europe and China is that our expectations are lowered. Perhaps we can avoid the Paris Syndrome by venturing out ourselves and discovering that the rewards of travel are usually more meaningful than the disappointments. Breaking barriers and cultural distances entails getting closer to each other – quite literally. So, I expressed my hope to the young teacher I met in Zibo, that he would still decide to explore Europe. Similarly, I hope that China will be able to welcome more international visitors in the near future.

Read more about Chinese travelers’ experiences in Europe in our latest featured post. Zilan Qian and Ruixin Zhang contributed to this newsletter. If you’re still heading out this summer, I wish you happy, safe travels and meaningful experiences.

Best,
Manya (@manyapan)

 

A closer look at the featured stories

1: Chinese Robbed in Europe | My bag was stolen in Amsterdam, my phone was snatched in Paris, and my camera was robbed in Rome. Chinese social media is brimming with accounts from Chinese travelers sharing their unfortunate experiences of falling prey to theft during their trips to Europe. Getting robbed in Europe has become so common that Chinese apps like Xiaohongshu and Douyin are now flooded with numerous “Europe Anti-Theft Strategies” and “How Not To Get Robbed in Europe” guides.

Read more
 

2: Brick Lane Graffiti | In London’s Brick Lane, a wall covered with Chinese slogan graffiti sparked backlash from local art communities and Chinese diaspora recently, with many perceiving the graffiti as a show of support for the Chinese Communist Party. While some voices in China’s social media sphere defended the graffiti, many others condemned the makers for being disrespectiful and arrogant.

Read more
 

3: Milky-Spicy Trend | Some parents think it’s cute, others think it is funny. Dressing children in tight dresses and grown-up attire has evolved into a trend that is mostly visible on Chinese social media. An entire online economy has developed around the ‘Milky-Spicy Trend,’ which is embraced by some parents highlighting its innocence while disregarding potential negative consequences. But recently, Chinese media outlets and social media commenters are pointing out the dangers behind the trend.

Read more
 

 

What to Know

Highlighting 8 hot topics

Haohuanluo noodles have made it to space.

◼︎ 1. China’s among Countries with Lowest Birth Rates. The problem of China’s super low birth rates is not going to solve itself any time soon. A renowned professor of demography, Yuan Xin, made headlines this week for pointing out that China has become one of the countries with the lowest birth rates globally, projecting that China’s negative population growth will continue well into the 2070s. China’s expected number of birth rates for 2023 is 7-8 million, which is another record low. Just 12 million babies were born in 2020 (8.5 births per thousand), 10.6 million babies were born in 2021, and the latest number, published in January 2023, indicated that 9.56 million people were born, while 10.41 million died. 2023 would therefore see the lowest birthrate yet. (Various related trending hashtags on Weibo, one of them being ‘China Now among Countries With Lowest Birth Rates Globally’ #中国已成为全球生育率最低的国家之一#, 200 million views).

◼︎ 2. Xi’an Flash Floods. The village of Weixiping, Xi’an, saw a huge mudslide and flash flood on August 11, triggered by heavy rain. Local authorities set up a major rescue campaign, involving nearly 1000 team members including search & rescue experts and firefighters. According to the latest reports, 21 people died and 6 people are still missing. (Weibo hashtag “21 People Confirmed Dead in Xi’an Mud Slides” #西安泥石流已发现21名遇难者#, 5.8 million clicks; “Still 6 People Passing after Xi’an Landslide #西安泥石流灾害仍有6人失联#, 28+ million clicks).

◼︎ 3. Third Covid Wave. There has been a surge in social media posts this week about Covid infections and a third Covid wave in China. While one after the other posts photos online of their positive tests, one popular comment on Weibo said: “I’ve never had Covid yet, can you believe it?!” (Weibo hashtag “People Testing Postive for Covid for 3rd Time Emerging One by One” #
#新冠三阳的人开始陆续出现#
#, 450 million clicks)

◼︎ 4. Health Care Corruption Campaign. Recently, China had intensified its crack down on corruption in the health care system, triggering many discussions this week. The campaign, which aims to restore public trust in the medical sector after the pandemic, has already resulted in 168 hospital bosses being nabbed, as reported by South China Morning Post on Sunday. The newspaper further reported that at least two major pharmaceutical firm executives are now under investigation. We’ll report more on this topic as it keeps fermenting online. (Hashtag “Pharmaceutical Representatives Bribing Doctors” #医药代表性贿赂医生#, 520 million views).

◼︎ 5. Hebei Floods Aftermath. The aftermath of the devastating floods in Hebei has remained a prominent topic of discussion this week. For those affected, this might be the most challenging period as some return to find their homes in ruins. As the affected individuals strive to recover, heartening stories on social media showcase people coming together to provide support during this crucial time. For example, those local businesses going the extra mile to supply local schools with new books, or the supermarket in Zhuozhou that’s offering credit for purchases. According to the latest reports, Hebei may need two years to carry out post-flood reconstruction. (Various hashtags).

◼︎ 6. China’s Booming Vehicle Export. This week, reports surfaced that in the first half of 2023, China has overtaken Japan to become the world’s leading vehicle exporter. According to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, Chinese auto manufacturers exported 2.34 million vehicles globally from January to June, marking an impressive year-on-year increase of nearly 77 percent. (Various related hashtags, including “China World’s Biggest Exporter of Automobiles in First Half of 2023” #中国半年度汽车出口量居世界第一#, 480,000 views.)

◼︎ 7. Noodle Rocket. Haohuanluo (好欢螺) Snail Noodles, a famous Chinese noodle brand, successfully launched commercial rocket Ceres 1 on August 10 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China’s Gobi Desert, sending seven satellites into planned orbit. Obviously, it was not actually the noodle brand that launched it, but sponsored it, although its social media campaign would make you believe otherwise, with many netizens being surprised that their fav noodle brand made it to space. (Hashtag “Successful Launch of the Haohuanluo Rocket” #好欢螺号火箭发射成功#, 250 million clicks).

◼︎ 8. Return of the Tour Groups. While Chinese tour group trips had already resumed to certain countries in the post-zero-Covid era, China’s Ministry of Tourism made an announcement on August 10th, stating that the resumption of tour groups to additional countries and regions will take place. This now encompasses countries such as Japan and the US, broadening the spectrum of foreign destinations from 60 to 138. The Ministry also reminded outbound tourists to be well-prepared before each journey – which might include checking up on those ‘how not to get robbed in Europe’ guides!

 

What’s Noteworthy

Small news with big impact – by Zilan

Photo by Eric Prouzet

Rumored Collapse of Zhongzhi Enterprise Group |

Recently, a financial advisor from the third-party wealth management company Hengtian Wealth made a public admission about a potential financial crisis which is said to have unfolded after the Chinese asset management firm Zhongzhi Enterprise Group allegdly failed to meet its loan repayment obligations, affecting around 150,000 individual investors who had collectively invested over 3 million RMB (approximately 416,000 USD). The crisis is estimated to involve a staggering amount of 230 billion RMB (about 32 billion USD), and the largest investment by a single client exceeded 5 billion RMB (approximately 692 million USD).

These rumors sparked concerns in the financial world, triggering strong reactions from both investors and the general public. Meanwhile, the Zhongzhi Group has halted all fundraising and repayment activities. Once a trillion-dollar empire built over decades, the Zhongzhi Group, which controls Zhongrong International and a handful of listed companies, now faces a potential collapse, representing a stunning downfall for a previously respected financial institution.

In response, many netizens have commented with the phrase “poverty spared me from a disaster” (“贫穷使我逃过一劫”), as most investment thresholds start at 3 million RMB (416,000 USD), which they could not afford. While the default might temporarily spare most individuals, some netizens have pointed out that the dynamics playing out among the wealthy could ultimately harm those at the bottom. As of now, there has been no official confirmation from Zhongzhi regarding the widely circulated information. Discussions surrounding this matter on Weibo have been subject to censorship, with numerous netizens reporting instances of their posts being flagged by the company and subsequently removed.

 

The latest buzz in arts & pop culture

TFBoys Concert Rocks Xi’an | You might remember from our last Weibo Watch newsletter that the immensely popular Chinese pop group, TFBoys, created quite a stir within their fan community when they initially released tickets for their two-hour concert in Xi’an on August 6th, marking the band’s ten-year anniversary and their first live show since 2020.

The event unfolded with a certain degree of chaos and disorder (with reports of fainting fans and overwhelmed security personnel). However, recent news reports suggest that the concert has brought about numerous positive impacts for Xi’an, delivering a significant boost to the local economy. The revenue generated from ticket sales amounted to a staggering 35.76 million yuan (almost 5 million USD), consequently propelling the city’s tourism revenue to an impressive 416 million yuan (57 million USD).

In comparison to the same period in the preceding year, online bookings for accommodations in Xi’an surged by an impressive 738%. Notably, almost half of the TFBoys’ fans not only attended the concert but also took the opportunity to explore some of Xi’an’s scenic attractions. The fact that a single concert can trigger such a significant increase in tourism revenue underscores the triumph of the TFBoys. Debuting as one of China’s pioneering boy bands, the trio’s popularity remains steadfast and impactful.

 

What’s Memorable

Best reads from the archive

“This is killing!” incident | We already touched upon the ‘Paris Syndrome’ phenomenon in this newsletter, but the Sweden incident took things a step further – we might even liken it to a Stockholm Syndrome if the term weren’t already associated with something else. This incident became one of the most prominent topics on Chinese social media in 2018: the alleged mistreatment of a Chinese family in Stockholm during September ’18 ignited major discussions on Chinese social media, and even led to the Chinese Embassy in Sweden issuing a safety alert for Chinese tourists visiting the country.

The incident made headlines after bystander videos were posted on Chinese social media showing how a Chinese man was dragged out of a hotel by Swedish police, screaming “This is killing, this is killing!” It later showed his family members crying on the street outside of the hotel. Despite the family’s initial assertion of being subjected to severe mistreatment by the hotel without any valid cause, subsequent information revealed that the Chinese tourists had arrived significantly ahead of the designated check-in time and had chosen to remain in the hotel lobby. Nonetheless, this incident escalated to such an extent that it triggered a diplomatic dispute between Sweden and China.

Read more
 

 

Weibo Word of the Week

The catchword to know

“The Unkillable Shijiazhuang Guy” | Our Weibo Word of the Week is actually a phrase this time, namely 杀不死的石家庄人 (shābùsǐ de Shíjiāzhuāngrén), which translates to “The Unkillable One from Shijiazhuang.” This phrase has gained popularity among netizens recently as a way to express sarcasm.

Shijiazhuang serves as the capital and the most populous city of China’s Hebei Province. “The Unkillable One from Shijiazhuang” (杀不死的石家庄人) is actually a song released in 2022 by the local Hebei Communist Youth League. It serves as a ‘harmonious’ reinterpretation of the renowned 2010 Chinese song “Kill the One from Shijiazhuang” (杀死那个石家庄人) by the Chinese rock band Omnipotent Youth Society. The original song, which delved into the consequences of the planned economy in northern China and the turbulence stemming from widespread job losses, deeply resonated as a shared memory among an entire Chinese generation.

The adapted song title has since been employed by Chinese netizens to express sarcasm, partly poking fun at the Communist Youth League’s attempt to revise a song that once conveyed hardship into one echoing state propaganda. The song’s renewed attention stems from Shijiazhuang’s recent declaration to transform itself into a “Rock N Roll Center,” adopting the slogan “The Unkillable Shijiazhuang.”

This move has been met with an incredulous response from the public, leading to a surge of imaginative adaptations online. These creative reinterpretations humorously reflect individuals’ resilience within a constrained cultural and social environment – a skillful form of self-deprecating expression. As one netizen eloquently summed it up: the previous generation experienced unemployment, the current generation is grappling with it, access to esteemed universities became harder, and now even our city’s anthem has been altered. Despite it all, I continue to reside in Shijiazhuang – this is the true essence of being “the unkillable one from Shijiazhuang!”
 

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 👇🏼

Read more
 

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

Read more
 

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

Read more
 

 

What More to Know

Five Bite-Sized Trends

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

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

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

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

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

 

What’s the Drama

Top TV to Watch

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

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

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

 

What Lies Behind

Observations beyond the headlines, by Miranda Barnes

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

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

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

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

 

What’s Noteworthy

Small news with big impact

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

Read more
 

 

The latest buzz in arts & pop culture

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

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

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

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

Jia Ling singing a duet with her old self.

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

 

What’s Memorable

Best reads from the archive

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

Read more

 

Weibo Word of the Week

The catchword to know

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

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

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

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

Guess we all learned something new this Spring Festival!

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

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Chinese New Year

Weibo Watch: Late Little Rabbit

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

Manya Koetse

Published

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PREMIUM NEWSLETTER | ISSUE #23

 

Dear Reader,

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then,

Best,
Manya

References:

Huang, Cheng, Shiying Zhang, Qingguo Zhao, and Yan Lin. 2021. “Dragon Year Superstition, Birth Timing, and Neonatal Health Outcomes.” China Economic Review 66: 101594. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chieco.2021.101594.

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

 

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

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