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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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Featured

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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Newsletter

Weibo Watch: Telling China’s Stories Wrong

“Quick, give me a ‘like’ so I can get my credit score up.”

Manya Koetse

Published

on

PREMIUM NEWSLETTER | ISSUE #29

 

This week’s newsletter:

◼︎ 1. Editor’s Note – Telling China’s Stories Wrong
◼︎ 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 – Wang Wenbin said “farewell”
◼︎ 6. What’s Popular – Versace’s new brand ambassador
◼︎ 7. What’s Memorable – The social media spectacle of the military drills
◼︎ 8. Weibo Word of the Week – “Back to the root”

 

Dear Reader,

 

This week, various English-language newspapers featured noteworthy headlines about a new Chinese chatbot launched on Monday.

The South China Morning Post appears to have been the first English-language newspaper to report on Tuesday that “China rolls out a large language model AI based on Xi Jinping Thought.”

Barely a day later, others started popping up like mushrooms. “China’s latest answer to OpenAI is Chat Xi PT,” headlined the Financial Times, writing: “Beijing’s latest attempt to control how artificial intelligence informs Chinese internet users has been rolled out as a chatbot trained on the thoughts of President Xi Jinping.”

These articles suggested that China had developed a new chatbot to counter free speech and create a Chinese rival to OpenAI’s ChatGPT.

“China chat bot trained to think like Xi Jinping,” the headline by Asia Financial reads. Other news sites featured similar ones: “Meet Chat Xi PT, the new AI chatbot that gives answers based on the Chinese president’s thinking,” and “What next? Kim-Jong-AI?”

The actual story is far less sensational. In reality, there is no Xi Jinping chatbot, no Chinese ‘Chat-GPT’ trained on his thoughts, and it’s untrue that the only Chinese version of a ChatGPT-like application would be run by the Party.

In our latest article here, we explain the true story behind the application, which is essentially an AI tool for people working or doing research in the field of Chinese cybersecurity and online information.

The name of the application is not ‘Chat Xi PT’ but the ‘Cyberspace Information Research Large Model Application,’ which is based on domestically available pre-trained language models and sources from seven major specialty knowledge bases, including one on ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism’, the corpus of political and economic ideas/theory developed by Xi Jinping which was incorporated into the Party Constitution in 2017.

 
Chinese Whispers
 

Over the years, I’ve observed how stories like these seep into the English-language media landscape and take on a life of their own, spreading like wildfire until it’s nearly impossible to correct misconceptions. It’s almost like the game “Chinese Whispers,” where a message is passed around in whispers, often resulting in a completely distorted version of the original.

The English-language news discourse on China’s Social Credit System is a prime example of this game. The Social Credit System became a prominent news topic in the West since 2017, and reports like this one by abc.net.au made sure that Orwellian stories about “personal scorecards” and dystopian nightmares popped up in every newspaper until people outside of China actually started believing they were true.

Unfounded reports about the Social Credit System became so rampant that even sources usually known for sticking to the facts got it wrong. Another time, one American news outlet reported that China’s Social Credit System was now tracking people eating dinner at Haidilao in Canada, creating a bizarre mix of credit scores and Chinese hotpot.

To this day, scholars like Jeremy Daum and Vincent Brussee are busy refuting the claims made in numerous articles and telling the actual realities of the Social Credit System, which, spoiler alert, is far less dramatic than the gloomy sci-fi headlines suggest. (Read more on social credit here).

How do journalists get it so wrong? It’s likely a combination of factors. In Dutch, we say, “to hear the bell toll but not know where the clapper hangs,” meaning someone has heard of something but doesn’t know the specifics. They report on something they’ve read but misunderstand and conflate things, leading to grossly inaccurate articles. For example, some reporters apparently believed ‘Chat Xi PT’ was the actual recent application’s name and that ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ referred to Xi’s private thoughts rather than a body of theories. Similarly, the Social Credit stories perpetuated the false claim that China has a centralized database where every citizen gets a ‘score’ based on their behavior.

But there’s more to it. The news media industry is tough, and some publications need clickbaity articles to attract readership. While stories about dystopian camera systems and Xi Jinping chatbots are popular, few would care about the launch of China’s “Cyberspace Information Research Large Model Application” (which is why this story is attracting zero attention in China).

Moreover, these China stories resonate with fears people in the US and Europe have about extensive digital surveillance and omnipresent technology in their own societies, as noted by Jeremy Daum in various interviews. These fears are intensified by the ongoing discourse about a ‘US vs China AI war,’ leading to exaggerated perceptions of China’s capabilities.

 
Telling China’s stories well
 

Under Xi Jinping, the idea of “telling China’s stories well” became a key task in foreign policy and news reporting to enhance China’s international image and strengthen its global influence through external propaganda.

This initiative includes creating (news) stories and narratives that align with Party goals; highlighting Chinese accomplishments, promoting the “Chinese dream,” showcasing traditional Chinese culture, presenting China’s rise as beneficial for global cooperation, and countering Western negative coverage of China.

The inaccurate and often sensationalized stories we see about China are problematic in many ways. They not only reflect biases and laziness among reporters and demonstrate tendencies to project worries onto China’s emergence as an AI powerhouse, they also increase misconceptions about the factual stories that need to be told. In doing so, they inadvertently strengthen China’s efforts to control its narrative and tell China’s stories “well” by making it so easy to discredit those who are telling China’s stories “wrong.”

At the same time, these stories fuel anti-Western sentiment on Chinese social media. Bloggers use these exaggerated accounts as evidence of foreign hostility toward China.

Sometimes, however, it also leads to some online banter about ‘silly foreigners’ buying into bogus stories. One popular Weibo post that received thousands of likes said:

There’s this online rumor which some foreigners believe, that China operates this system of “credit points” similar to Sesame Credit and that everyone’s closely monitored. If you behave badly, points will be deducted, and if your score’s too low, you’ll be locked up, and that and these “credit points” can be transferred to each other.

One top commenter responded:

Oh my god, this is just too funny hahaha! Quick, give me a ‘like’ so I can get my credit score up.”

Even ‘Chat Xi PT’ couldn’t dream this stuff up.

Best,
Manya

 

A closer look at the featured stories

1: About that story | This is the write-up I did this week about the ‘Xi Jinping chatbot’ following the many English-language media reports. It includes a full translation of the Chinese text the reports were based on and some key takeaways.

Read more
 

2: ‘One China’ Campaign 2.0 | Following the inauguration of Taiwanese president Lai Ching-te and China’s military exercises, Taiwan has been a trending topic on Chinese social media all week. Within a single day, the hashtag ‘Taiwan must return’ received a staggering 2.4 billion views on Weibo. Read all about China’s intensified social media propaganda campaign here.

Read more
 

3: “Retaliate against Society” | Earlier this week, a tragic stabbing incident at Mingde Primary School in Wenfang Town, Guixi City, Jiangxi, went viral on Weibo. The suspect, a 45-year-old local woman, was detained by police after attacking innocent people, including children, with a fruit knife, resulting in two fatalities.

Read more
 

 

What’s Trending

A recap of hot highlights

  • MONDAY 20 MAY
    • The tragic story behind the recent suicide of a 21-year-old Chinese gamer nicknamed ‘Fat Cat’ went viral earlier this month, touching upon broader societal issues from unfair gender dynamics to businesses taking advantage of grieving internet users.
    • The story went viral once again this week after local authorities issued a lengthy report to clarify the timeline of events and details surrounding the death of “Fat Cat,” which, among other conclusions, stated that there was no illegal fraud involved in the relationship that supposedly drove “Fat Cat” to his suicide. Read more here.
  •  

  • TUESDAY 21 MAY
    • Just a day after a woman attacked various people, including children, at a primary school in Guixi, another knife attack went trending on Tuesday.
    • The incident happened In Zigong, Sichuan, when a 52-year-old man assaulted a bus driver and a passenger with a knife after supposedly “suffering a seizure” on the bus. The man has been detained and the case is currently under investigation by local authorities. The two victims have been hospitalized and are not in critical condition.
  •  

  • WEDNESDAY 22 MAY
    • The social media accounts of three prominent Chinese influencers known for flaunting their wealth were blocked and banned from Douyin, Weibo, and Xiaohongshu this week.
    • Wang Hongquanxin (王红权星), Baoyu Jiajie (鲍鱼家姐), and Bo Gongzi (柏公子) were known for putting their luxury lifestyles on display on the internet. Together, they had millions of followers.
    • Chinese news outlet The Paper called the crackdown a “mini earthquake” for China’s luxury influencers. Read more on WWD here.
  •  

  • THURSDAY 23 MAY
    • A female student majoring in pharmacy at Peking University went viral on Thursday for using academic literature from CNKI to drastically improve her 800-meter track run time within a one-week timeframe. She found out that energy sources stored in muscles was crucial, and focused on improving her anaerobic endurance.
    • She improved her 800-meter running time from over four minutes to 3 minutes and 29 seconds. If you have access to Chinese academic literature and would like to see where she got her information from, the title of the journal article is “论中跑和长跑训练的生理机制和生化特点” authored by Liu Baoguo 刘保国.
  •  

  • FRIDAY 24 MAY
    • The death of the 14-year-old Japanese shiba inu dog Kabosu, known for inspiring the “doge” meme, went top trending on Weibo on Friday. The dog became a internet sensation in 2013 after a photo shared by its Japanese owner went viral. Kabosu’s popularity led to the creation of the Dogecoin cryptocurrency, and she became an internet icon globally.
    • In China, doge became a special emoji on major social media platforms like Weibo, WeChat and Douyin, mostly used as a symbol of sarcasm.
  •  

  • SATURDAY 25 MAY
    • Hunan TV’s singing competition “Singer 2024” remains a hot topic! The show has captured viewers’ attention by incorporating international talent and pitting them against renowned Chinese performers.
    • On Friday, American singer-songwriter Adam Lambert joined the competition, not only competing against Chinese stars but also against Chante Moore and Faouzia, who joined earlier and are still in the running. Read more about the show in our article here.
  •  

    What’s the Drama

    Top TV to Watch

    The highly anticipated second season of Joy of Life (庆余年) has been a hot topic in Chinese entertainment circles this week, especially as it topped the rankings among Chinese TV channel evening drama programs. This drama, touching upon themes of time travel, politics, power struggles, and romance, follows the journey of a contemporary man who wakes up as a baby in Southern Qing.

    To know:

    ▶️ The series is adapted from a Chinese web novel originally published from 2007 to 2009 by the successful author Mao Ni (猫腻).
    ▶️ The first season, which premiered in 2019, gained immense popularity and received praise from both audiences and critics.
    ▶️ Describing the anticipation for this show as “much anticipated” would be an understatement. The first season ended with a cliffhanger, leaving fans eagerly awaiting a second season for the past five years. The announcement of the second season was made in May 2023.

    Joy of Life 2 is available with English subtitles on Viki here.

     

    What’s Noteworthy

    Small news with big impact

    You might not expect it, but China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesperson Wang Wenbin (汪文斌) has a large fanbase on Chinese social media, where netizens are creative in editing images of Wang, adding quotes or drawings, and making special fan videos. Wang is often praised for his looks and expressions, with fans saying his facial features are “handsome,” “cute,” “adorable,” and saying that ‘Uncle Wang’ is just too “cool.” The widespread admiration for China’s MFA spokespersons like Wang has various social, cultural, and historical reasons, and nationalism also plays a big role in this.

    Wang Wenbin took on his role as spokesperson in 2020, but his online fan clubs report that he is now saying goodbye to take on another role. During his May 24th regular press conference, Wang ended with a serious ‘farewell,’ stepping down and shaking hands with the reporters in the room (see video here). Hundreds of netizens are sad to see their favorite diplomat go, and are wishing him well: ‘Goodbye, Uncle Wang. Wish you all the best in your new position. Thank you for speaking out over the past four years.'”

    A while back, I wrote an extensive report about the online fan culture surrounding Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin and the overall popularity of Chinese diplomats. You can check it out here.

     

    The latest buzz in arts & pop culture

    Chinese singer-songwriter and dancer Cai Xukun was a big topic of conversation on Weibo this week after news came out that he had become the global brand ambassador for Versace. In a joint post with Versace, Cai posted a photo of his Versace campaign with the phrase: “Be a Versace Man.” That post received a staggering 1.8 million likes in one single day.

    The post was noteworthy for multiple reasons. Just a year ago, Cai found himself embroiled in scandal following allegations that he had engaged in a one-night stand with a young woman who then turned out to be pregnant—and that he had demanded an abortion. The entire event led to a wave of comments from fans who expressed their disappointment with their idol.

    The news was not just a comeback for Cai; it also marks a definite pivot in Versace’s brand strategies away from Hollywood-focused faces. In 2023, the Italian fashion house announced South Korean rapper and singer-songwriter Hyunjin as a new Versace face: their first-ever Korean global brand ambassador. Other brand ambassadors, such as Chinese celebrities Zhao Lusi (Rosy Chao) and Ningning, also make it clear that Versace is focusing on speaking to new generations all across the world.

     

    What’s Memorable

    Best reads from the archive

    For this pick from the archive, we revisit an article from 2022, during the previous round of China’s major military exercises around Taiwan. Much like the current military drills, the online communications about it are arguably just as important as the exercises themselves. The social media spectacle surrounding the Taiwan military exercises is not a one-dimensional media effort but a dynamic interplay where state-led propaganda and grassroots nationalism meet. Read more here.👇

    Read more
     

    Weibo Word of the Week

    The catchword to know

    “Back to the Root” | Our Weibo Word of the Week is Dāngguī (当归), freely translated as “back to the root” in this week’s context of the propaganda campaign surrounding reunification with Taiwan.

    Since earlier in 2024, this term is used by Chinese state media in the slogan “Táiwān dāngguī” (#台湾当归#), which means “Taiwan must return [to the motherland].

    Separately, the two characters in dāngguī 当归 literally mean “should return.”

    However, the slogan is a play on words, as the term dāngguī (当归) as a noun actually means Angelica Sinensis, the Chinese Angelica root or ‘female ginseng,’ a medicinal herb commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine, native to China and cultivated in various East Asian countries.

    This play on words is also evident in the poster disseminated by People’s Daily, where Taiwan is depicted on the left and resembles a piece of the yellowish ‘female ginseng’ root.

    New poster by People’s Daily. ‘Taiwan’ on the left side resembles a piece of Chinese Angelica root (looks like ginseng). It is part of the character “归” (guī, to return, go back to). The remainder of the character consists of various slogans commonly used by Chinese official media to emphasize that Taiwan is part of China.

    Because of this context, where dāngguī 当归 both refers to the discourse of Taiwan returning to China and to the female ginseng root, a creative translation would be “back to the root.” If you want to be less creative, you could also say it’s the Taiwan “should return” campaign.

     
    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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