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Weibo Watch: Walking on Eggshells

In today’s Chinese social media environment, both foreign brands and local influencers must tread carefully, as even minor missteps can trigger significant consequences.

Manya Koetse

Published

on

PREMIUM NEWSLETTER | ISSUE #14

This week’s newsletter:
◼︎ 1. Editor’s Note – Walking on eggshells
◼︎ 2. What’s Trending – A closer look at the featured stories
◼︎ 3. What More to Know – Highlighting 8 hot topics
◼︎ 4. What Lies Behind – Dr. Pieke on China’s influence and interference
◼︎ 5. What’s Noteworthy – No consent to marry
◼︎ 6. What’s Popular – ‘Secret Agent Missions’
◼︎ 7. What’s Memorable – Meng Wanzhou back to the Motherland
◼︎ 8. Weibo Word of the Week – “Floracash”

 

Dear Reader,

 

Tears and apologies don’t seem to mean much in today’s social media era.

Not too long ago, a well-known Chinese female university professor known as ‘Xiangyi’ (相宜) posted an emotional video addressing an issue that happened some time ago. The professor, who previously became an internet celebrity with millions of followers, vanished from the public eye in 2022 due to criticism for her use of the phrase “our Japan” (“我们日本”) during a livestream when discussing Japanese authors and their works.

Xiangyi said “our Japan” three times and it sparked backlash, as viewers interpreted it as a sign of her loyalty to Japan over China. In her tearful video, she explained that it was merely a figure of speech (“口头语”), akin to saying, “This is our Teacher Zhang,” when introducing someone; “He is one of our Japanese authors.” While her choice of words did reflect her affection for the authors, it wasn’t necessarily an indicator of her greater commitment to Japan over China.

However, the consequences for Xiangyi were severe. She felt compelled to resign from her university position due to ongoing online harassment and “malicious reports.”

Xiangyi’s tearful video failed to garner sympathy from netizens, mirroring the response to ‘Lipstick King’ Li Jiaqi’s recent apology video for controversial comments made during a live stream. Both were dismissed as insincere and too little, too late.

In their recent videos, ‘teacher influencer’ and ‘beauty influencer’ Xiangyi and Li Jiaqi both cried and showed remorse over the controversy triggered by their livestreams.

Another recent social media controversy revolved around a photo on Apple’s Chinese-language webpage. It featured an Asian-looking individual with braided hair, leading some Chinese netizens to claim it insulted China. They believed the hairstyle resembled a queue, worn by male subjects during the Qing dynasty, and that Apple had deliberately and inappropriately used such an image to show Chinese individuals as being backward and unattractive.

It has since become evident that many assumptions about the image were unfounded. Contrary to the initial belief that the photo was exclusive to the Chinese page, the image appeared on Apple’s websites in multiple countries and featured a California-based Native American female employee, not of Chinese descent.

Nevertheless, many internet users and bloggers insisted that brands operating in China should pay more attention to the cultural context they operate in to avoid offending consumers. Although some also acknowledged the controversy was “excessive” or “overly sensitive,” a seeming majority still stood by their initial reaction to the photo.

This Weibo poll shows the image that caused controversy recently, with a majority of respondents suggesting this photo is “inappropriate.”

In recent years, many incidents that unfolded on Chinese social media, either in livestreams, online advertisements, or Weibo posts, have demonstrated that minor missteps can cause social media storms. One wrongly chosen word, image, or outfit can start an almost unstoppable wave of criticism that can end careers, close doors, and terminate accounts.

But what happens once livestreamers, celebrities, and brands have to watch their every single move? How does constant scrutiny affect creativity, humor, and authenticity? When the fear of causing offense becomes a threat to one’s reputation and livelihood, can open discussions still thrive? Are there still any images, advertisements, livestream channels or websites immune to controversy?

This discussion echoes debates seen on Western social media, where so-called ‘wokeness’ has become so divisive that it is harming support for the very issues it aims to be highlighting while ‘cancel culture’ can have detrimental impact on anyone whose opinions stir controversy.

In the Chinese context, social media has become an even greater pressure cooker for brands, influencers, and celebrities. Besides taking into account the legal limits of what they can say or do online, they must also navigate a labyrinth of unwritten rules, including those promoting moral and cultural values, projecting positivity and patriotism, all while delicately considering geopolitical and economic sensitivities.

Lately, some people have speculated that Li Jiaqi’s outburst during his livestream might have been a result of burnout and mental health issues stemming from years of striving to please various stakeholders, including audiences, companies, sponsors, platforms, and the media. It might be one of the most plausible observations about the situation. Regardless of the allure of money and fame, being an online influencer under constant public scrutiny on Chinese social media seems like an utterly exhausting job to have.

Best,
Manya (@manyapan)

 

A closer look at the top stories

1: Cross-Generational Living | Chinese nursing homes are changing their image in the social media age. While Chinese vloggers experiment with living in old people’s homes, and nursing homes are modernizing their facilities, some senior care centers are offering young people the chance to reside in their communities for free – as long as they spend some time with their elderly residents.

Read more
 

2: Bad Apples? | There is a lot of Apple anger on Chinese social media this week. Two separate trending topics have ignited discussions. One revolves around Chinese actor Liu Jin, who smashed his iPhone 13 Pro Max in front of the Apple flagship store, while another one centers on an image of an Apple employee deemed inappropriate by Chinese netizens. But both viral trends have unfolded with surprisingly ‘juicy’ twists.

Read more
 

3: The Lipstick King Controversy | Li Jiaqi, also known as Austin Li the ‘Lipstick King,’ has become the focus of intense media attention in China over the two weeks. The controversy began when the popular beauty influencer responded with apparent annoyance to a viewer’s comment about the high price of an eyebrow pencil. As a result, his fans began unfollowing him, netizens started scolding him, Chinese state criticized him, and the memes started flooding in. Why did this case blow up? We explore three reasons.

Read more
 

 

What More to Know

Highlighting 8 hot topics

Background photo: Lining up for Apple’s Pro Series in Beijing while the Huawei vs iPhone rivalry is flaring up. Image via Sina News.

◼︎ 1. Panic over Prefab Meals. As the new school season has started, the word “yùzhìcài” (预制菜), ‘pre-fabricated meal,’ is all over Chinese social media this week. This is partly because of angry parents discovering that their children’s school cafeterias have transitioned from freshly prepared meals to ready-made ones. This is part of a broader trend in China that has risen over recent years, but there is significant resistance to this change due to concerns over the meals lacking nutrition, containing too many additives, and not being safe enough. The Chinese Ministry of Education has responded to the controversy by stating that they do not encourage the widespread adoption of pre-made meals in schools; there is currently no nationally established unified standard for ready-made meals, and the top priority should be the “nutrition and healthy development of children.” (Various hashtags on Weibo, such as “CNR Discusses How Ready-Made Meals Are entering the Campus” #央广网评预制菜进校园#, 110 million views).

◼︎ 2. PhD Student Suicide. The death of a PhD student at Northwestern Polytechnical University (西北工业大学) in Xi’an became a major topic on Chinese social media this week. The male student, who majored in material science, faced challenges in both his studies and mental well-being. In the period before he jumped to his death, the man had exhibited unusual behavior and voiced concerns about others accessing his phone and computer. His death sparked conversations about the pressures faced by PhD students in China, particularly in STEM fields, and the concerning rate of depression among them. (Hashtag “31-Year-Old PhD Student Dies after Jumping Off Dorm Building” #31岁博士生宿舍楼坠楼身亡#, 160 million views).

◼︎ 3. Body Parts Found in Shijiazhuang. In a residential community in the Qiaoxi District of Shijiazhuang, neighbors were shocked when human body parts were found scattered around a residential building. Initially, fears of a homicide case spread across Chinese social media. However, the official investigation into the incident has since determined that it was not a homicide but a possible suicide. The victim has been identified as a 28-year-old woman who collided with a second-floor balcony during her fall from the building, resulting in the separation of her limbs. Foul play has now been ruled out. (Hashtag “Shijiazhuang Neighborhood: Remains of Human Body Suspected to Be Female” #石家庄某小区尸体残肢疑为女性#, 100 million views).

◼︎ 4. Uniqlo Incident. An incident that happened at a Uniqlo store in Xining on September 18 became a big topic of discussion. A female customer who was suspected of not paying for her purchases was physically restrained by two staff members who grabbed her by the neck and dragged her to the checkout counter. The incident quickly gained the attention of netizens after an eye-witness shared a video of the female customer breaking down in tears at the store. It later turned out that the customer had actually paid for all of her items, and the store staff was condemned for their violent behavior. The Uniqlo store in question was temporarily closed in light of the incident. (Hashtag: Female Customer Grabbed by Uniqlo Staff, Dragged Back to Checkout Counter” #女顾客被优衣库工作人员掐脖子拖回收银台#, 220 million views).

◼︎ 5. Bao’an Dies after Working in Hot Room The recent death of a 48-year-old security guard (commonly called ‘bao’an‘ 保安 in Chinese) has stirred significant online discussions after details surrounding the man’s death were exposed by his relatives. The man. Mr. Zhao, died a sudden death in his dormitory at night after another day working in the very hot security room where he spent most of his days. His wife later claimed the man worked 12-hour long shifts and had not had a day off for 190 days straight. On average, he worked 360 hours per month at the company, where he had worked for 14 years. His workplace, a cramped 10-square-meter room, was exposed to direct sunlight. During July and August, when the indoor temperature at his workplace exceeded 40°C (104°F), the man’s employer provided nothing but an electric fan to cool the security room. The family believes that the company seriously violated national laws, neglected the lives of its employees, and eventually led to Mr. Zhao’s “death by overwork” while being exposed to extreme temperatures. (Hashtag: “Bao’an Who Died in Hot Dorm Previously Complained about Heat in Room on Wechat Moments Four Times” #保安宿舍猝死曾4次发朋友圈称执勤室好热#, 260 million views).

◼︎ 6. iPhone 15 versus Huawei Mate 60. The rivalry between Apple and Huawei has been a trending topic lately, especially with Apple’s recent launch of the iPhone 15 shortly after Huawei introduced its latest flagship, the Mate 60 Pro 5G. While it’s evident which smartphone brand holds more favor in terms of nationalistic sentiments, criticism of Apple and its iPhone often appears to be more about words than actions. Thousands of Chinese consumers lined up for the latest iPhone model’s launch on Friday morning, and online sales saw a significant surge. (Hashtag “Do You Want the iPhone 15 or Huawei Mate 60?” #你要iphone15还是华为mate60#, 140 million views; “iPhone 15” #iphone15#, 710 million views).

◼︎ 7. Chinese Tourists: No Visa Needed for Thailand As of September 25, Chinese nationals can enter Thailand without a visa for a temporary stay of up to thirty days. This visa exemption, which will be in effect until February 29, was initiated by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin as a measure to boost local tourism. It is expected to attract an additional 5 million tourists to Thailand. Many netizens on Weibo expressed their excitement and welcomed this news. Earlier this year, Thailand gained popularity for its warm reception of Chinese tourists in the post-pandemic travel era. Thai authorities not only waived the requirement for Covid tests or vaccination proof but also went the extra mile by having Cabinet ministers personally greet Chinese tourists at Bangkok’s airport with flowers and gifts. (Hashtag: “Thailand Implements 5-Month Visa-Free Policy for China” #泰国对中国实施5个月免签政策#, 110 million clicks).

◼︎ 8. Putin is Coming to China. Over the past two weeks, while social and societal topics have taken the spotlight on Weibo and Douyin trending lists, there have also been trending discussions related to geopolitical affairs, with a particular focus on Vladimir Putin. Firstly, this was due to Putin’s significant meeting with Kim Jong-un. Secondly, China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, had a meeting with the Russian president in St. Petersburg this week. During their discussions, Putin confirmed his upcoming visit to Beijing in October for the Belt and Road Summit. This topic garnered significant attention, making headlines in multiple news outlets and ranking high in top trends on Baidu News. (Hashtags “Putin Meets Wang Yi #普京会见王毅#, 64 million views; “China Responds to Putin’s October Beijing Visit” #中方回应普京10月将访华#, 300k views).

 

What Lies Behind

Observations beyond the headlines

Dr. Pieke on China’s Influence and Interference

From suspicious balloons to new counter-espionage laws, there has been extensive discourse surrounding possible foreign interference in China over the past year. However, discussions about Chinese influence in foreign countries are equally lively, if not more intense.

Earlier this week, Amsterdam’s De Balie discussion center hosted an event dedicated to Chinese influence in Europe, with a particular focus on the Netherlands. At the core of this discussion was Professor Frank Pieke’s research (formerly of the University of Oxford and MERICS Berlin, now at Leiden University) on the influence and interference of the People’s Republic of China among the Chinese population in the Netherlands. This research was conducted on behalf of the Ministries of Justice and Security, Foreign Affairs, and Defense.

During the event, Pieke offered valuable insights and urged the audience to approach discussions about China’s political influence on other countries with greater nuance. Pieke argued that, both in the Dutch context and elsewhere, reactions to China are increasingly based on stereotypes or preconceived notions rather than the actual situation. Over the years, political institutions in the West and journalism have become more biased toward China, a trend that Pieke finds concerning.

This bias and preconception have a twofold impact. Firstly, it hampers relations with China, which are mutually beneficial in many ways. Secondly, it blinds us to the real concerns that Europe and other Western countries should have.

Pieke pointed out, “Nowadays, there is a tendency in ongoing debates to lump together all forms of contact with China and categorize it as ‘Chinese interference,’ whether it’s a friendly conversation over a cup of coffee, a briefing by the Chinese embassy, espionage activities by Chinese companies, or the way the Chinese government tries to influence people. This is something I continually caution against.”

Pieke emphasized the need to encourage extensive contact with China, as there are numerous forms of Sino-Dutch and Sino-foreign relations that are not only harmless but also desirable and fruitful. However, Pieke cautioned that certain trends and developments have the potential to be harmful, and Dutch authorities should pay special attention to these.

As long as we maintain bias and categorize all forms of contact with China together, the process of addressing these specific issues becomes nearly impossible. This simplistic portrayal of everything related to China or the Party as bad, evil, or unwanted hinders constructive dialogue and effective policy-making.

Meanwhile, Pieke found that while the Communist Party does indeed exert influence over Chinese organizations and media abroad, this influence is used sparingly in practice. In essence, there is relatively little direct interference; they have the potential for it but do not extensively employ it in Dutch society.

A significant finding from Pieke’s research is that Chinese individuals living in Holland either do not perceive this influence or hold limited opinions about it. What can be observed though, is that Chinese in the Netherlands adjust their behavior based on what they believe may be viewed as ‘desirable’ or ‘undesirable’ by both the Chinese government and other Chinese individuals in their overseas communities. Pieke labels this as a form of “soft power” or “soft threat,” distinct from self-censorship. The primary control of this ‘influence’ predominantly rests with overseas Chinese themselves.

 

What’s Noteworthy

Small news with big impact

No Consent Given | A man from Gongyi, Zhengzhou, Henan, recently became a trending topic on Chinese social media due to the denial of his marriage license application with his girlfriend, who is deaf and mute. According to Chinese media reports, both sets of parents had consented to the marriage, and the couple had already taken their wedding photos. However, the local Bureau of Civil Affairs rejected their application, citing the requirement for both parties to independently declare their intention to marry. The woman, who had never attended a school for the Deaf, lacked the ability to use sign language, write, or communicate effectively. The Bureau advised the couple to return once she had completed her education and could express her desire to marry.

As news of this incident circulated on Chinese social media, many people praised the “responsible decision” of the local Bureau of Civil Affairs. Last year, one human trafficking case gained national prominence after a TikTok vlogger exposed the horrific living conditions of a woman in Xuzhou who appeared to be unable to communicate. She was married with eight children and kept in a shed next to the house, tied to a chain. It later turned out that local officials made errors in properly checking and verifying when approving the marriage certificate. Read more about the Xuzhou woman case here.

 

The latest buzz in arts & pop culture

Secret Agent Missions | While espionage and foreign influence is a popular topic in Chinese media and foreign policy, they are also recurring themes in popular culture. Throughout the years, China has produced numerous TV series centered around espionage. The latest Chinese sensation in this genre is Spy Game (特工任务), which delves into the challenging work of Chinese national security in countering foreign spy activities and safeguarding the nation’s security.

One of the main characters in the series is Huang Zicheng (黄子诚), portrayed by Chinese actor Wei Daxun (魏大勋). Huang inadvertently becomes entangled in spy-related affairs and ultimately becomes an informant for the National Security Bureau. However, as he operates within a web of conspiracies and foreign influence, he struggles to see who he can trust or what is real.

With millions of viewers tuning in to this hit series since its premiere on September 20, the hashtag #Huang Zicheng Admits Involvement in Spy Activities” (#黄子诚涉及间谍行为提出自首#) went trending on Chinese social media this week, attracting a staggering 430 million views.

If you’d like to tune into this series, it’s available on iQiyi and also on YouTube with English subtitles. You can start with the first episode here. (They just released the fifth episode last night).

 

What’s Memorable

Best reads from the archive

Huawei’s Daughter | In this time of Apple-Huawei rivalry, it is clear that the ongoing tech giant competition in China is about much more than smartphones alone and has come to symbolize geopolitical rivalry, encompassing themes of nationalism, anti-Western sentiments, and a growing sense of pride in products made in China. In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that Huawei decided to let its launch ceremony coincide with the second anniversary of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou’s return to China from house arrest in Canada back in 2023 (September 25).

In this throwback from our archives, you can read more about Meng Wanzhou’s (孟晚舟) homecoming to China. It had been almost three years since the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of Huawei and the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei was initially detained in Canada during a layover at Vancouver airport at the request of U.S. officials. In 2019, we reported on how the Meng Wanzhou case sparked anti-American and pro-Huawei sentiments on Weibo (link). By linking its highly-anticipated launch ceremony to Meng’s return, Huawei is further emphasizing its role as a major player in the geopolitical rivalry landscape.

Read more
 

 

Weibo Word of the Week

The catchword to know

“Huaxi Coins” | Our Weibo Word of the Week is “花西币” (Huāxī bì), which translates to “Huaxi coins” or “Floracash.”

By now, you’re probably aware of all the controversy surrounding China’s most famous beauty influencer Li Jiaqi that followed a livestream he did to promote the Chinese make-up brand Florasis, which is known as Huāxīzǐ (花西子) in China.

After some viewers questioned whether a single eyebrow pencil costing 79 yuan ($11) was too expensive, Li lashed out and suggested viewers should instead ask themselves if they worked hard enough to deserve a raise.

The incident sparked a series of memes and discussions, and among them the question of what one can buy with 79 yuan in China today was a big one. While some suggested they could feed an entire family for one day with that money, others said that it would buy their office lunches for a week.

This humorous situation gave rise to the term ‘Huaxi Coins’ or ‘Floracash,’ with netizens playfully using the eyebrow pencil’s price as a new currency unit, where one Huaxi Coin equals 79 yuan. People have even started jokingly expressing their earnings in Huaxi Coins, and some proudly mention the cost of snacks or meals, saying things like ‘it only cost me a quarter in Floracash for three’ or ‘tonight’s dinner was just half a Huaxi Coin!'”

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.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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Featured

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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China Media

China’s Intensified Social Media Propaganda: “Taiwan Must Return to Motherland”

As ‘Taiwan’ is all over Chinese social media, the discourse is controlled and heavily influenced by Chinese official media accounts.

Manya Koetse

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PREMIUM CONTENT

Following the inauguration of Taiwanese president Lai Ching-te on Monday, Taiwan has been a trending topic on Chinese social media all week.

Chinese state media have launched an intensive social media propaganda campaign featuring strong language and clear visuals, reinforcing the message: Taiwan is not a country, Taiwan is part of China, and reunification with the motherland is inevitable.

On Friday, May 24, almost half of the trending topics on Chinese social media platform Weibo were related to Taiwan, its status, and China’s large-scale military drills around Taiwan that began on Thursday.

 

“Taiwan never was a country, and it will never become a country”

 

On Monday, Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, took office after winning the Taiwan elections in January of this year. He was handed over the leadership by Tsai Ing-wen, who served as Taiwan’s president for two four-year terms.

Before leaving office, Tsai spoke to the media and reiterated her stance that Taiwan is an independent, sovereign country. In his inaugural speech, Lai also echoed that sentiment, referring to Taiwan as a nation and urging its people not to “harbor any delusions” about China and cross-strait peace.

Although Chinese official sources did not say much about Lai’s inauguration on the day itself, Chinese state media outlet CCTV issued a strong statement on Wednesday that went viral on social media. They posted an online “propaganda poster” showing the word “unification” (统一) in red, accompanied by the sentence: “‘Taiwan Independence’ is a dead-end road, unification is unstoppable.

The hashtag posted with this image said, “Taiwan never was a country, and it will never become a country,” reiterating a statement by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi when Lai won the elections in early 2024.

The propaganda poster posted by CCTV on May 22 was all about “reunification.”

Within merely eight hours, that hashtag (“Taiwan never was a country, and it will never become a country” #台湾从来不是一个国家也永远不会成为一个国家#) received over 640 million views on Weibo, where it was top trending on Wednesday, accompanied by another hashtag saying “China will ultimately achieve complete reunification” (#中国终将实现完全统一#).

 

“With each provocation our countermeasures advance one step further, until the complete reunification of the motherland is achieved”

 

Starting on Thursday, China’s military exercises in the Taiwan Strait became a major topic on the Chinese internet.

“Joint Sword-2024A” (联合利剑—2024A) is the overarching name for the land, sea, and air military exercises conducted by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), designed to test the armed forces’ ability to “seize power” and control key areas of the island.

The political message behind these exercises, asserting China’s claim over Taiwan and showcasing its military power, is as visible online as it is offline.

On Weibo, People’s Daily live-blogged the latest details of the military exercises around Taiwan, including strong statements by the Ministry of Defense and experts asserting that the PLA has the capability to hit various crucial targets in Taiwan, including its southeastern air defense zone.

The Eastern Theater Command (东部战区) of the PLA also released a 3D animation to simulate the destruction of “Taiwan independence headquarters,” severing the “lifeline of Taiwan independence.”

CCTV Military (央视军事) posted that the ongoing PLA operation is aimed to break Taiwan’s “excessive arrogance.”

They quoted the spokesperson of the Ministry of Defense in saying: “With each provocation from [supporters of] ‘Taiwan independence,’ our countermeasures advance one step further until the complete reunification of the motherland is achieved.”

 

“The motherland must unify, and it will inevitably unify”

 

One relatively new slogan used in the online propaganda campaign regarding Taiwan this week is “Táiwān dāngguī” (#台湾当归#), which means “Taiwan must return [to the motherland].

However, the slogan is also a play on words, as the term dāngguī (当归) refers to Angelica Sinensis, the Chinese Angelica root (“female ginseng”), a medicinal herb commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine, native to China and cultivated in various East Asian countries.

In one poster disseminated by People’s Daily, Taiwan is depicted on the left – resembling a piece of the yellowish root – as a 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.

New poster by People’s Daily. ‘Taiwan’ on the left side resembles a piece of Chinese Angelica root (looks like ginseng).

These sentences include slogans like, “China can’t be one bit less” (“中国一点都不能少”) that has been used by state media to emphasize China’s one-China principle since the 2016 South China Sea dispute.

Accompanying the “Taiwan Must Return” hashtag, People’s Daily writes: “‘Taiwanese independence’ goes against history, it’s a dead end. The motherland must unify, and it will inevitably unify. #TaiwanMustReturn#.”

Within a single day, the hashtag received a staggering 2.4 billion views on Weibo.

Although ‘Taiwan’ is all over Chinese social media, the discourse is controlled and heavily influenced by Chinese official media accounts. The majority of comments from netizens echo official slogans on the issue, expressing sentiments such as “Taiwan will never be a country,” “I support the ‘One China’ principle,” and “Taiwan is part of China.”

A post by CCTV regarding reunification with Taiwan garnered over 100,000 comments, yet only a fraction of these discussions were visible at the time of writing.

Amidst all the slogans and official discourse, there are also some bloggers expressing a broader view on the issue.

One of them wrote: “In the current official media lineup regarding ‘Taiwan is a province of China’, there are no longer any “warnings” or “demands” to be found. The rhetoric has shifted towards reprimands, and towards an emphasis on the legal principles behind the reclamation of Taiwan. I am convinced that a reunification through military force is no longer a ‘Plan B’ – it is the definite direction we are moving towards.”

By Manya Koetse

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