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Weibo From A to Z: A Look Back at the Biggest Trending Topics of 2016

Manya Koetse

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What were the most discussed topics on Weibo of 2016? What’s on Weibo gives an overview of top stories on Chinese social media from A to Z: a look back at Weibo’s biggest trends of 2016.

As we are getting ready for a new year, What’s on Weibo reflects on the most popular trending stories on Chinese social media in 2016. It was a year where many things happened, from political controversies to online scandals and social hypes.

Sometimes the most trivial things got big, while the biggest things remained trivial. Time to list the China trending stories and digital trends of 2016 from A to Z.

———

#A is for Alipay,..the app for raunchy transactions

alipay

The A is for Alipay in this alphabet of 2016; not just because this Chinese ‘equivalent to Paypal’ is still the world’s leading third party payment platform, but also because the app made headlines in November when it launched a new group chat feature that soon turned into a ‘soft porn’ place.

The new social feature ‘Circles’ (生活圈) made it possible for users of a certain sex (female) to post, while only allowing other (male) users above a certain credit score to comment/interact. It triggered hundreds of women to post sexy pictures to tempt men or other users with a high credit score to spend some of their digital money. The groups were soon closed and Alipay CEO Peng Lei apologized, calling the incident “the most difficult” period of her Alipay career.

#B is for Baidu,..promoting false medical information

baidu

Another 2016 online scandal was exposed in May when the death of a 21-year-old cancer patient triggered heated discussions about Baidu’s paid search results. Through an online search on China’s biggest search engine Baidu, a young man named Wei Zexi found a promising treatment for with he spent 200,000 RMB (31,000US$). It later turned out to be a highly contested one, and the man soon died. Thousands of netizens criticized Baidu for offering a platform to shady health care providers.

The death of Wei Zexi did not only expose the spread of false medical information by Baidu, it also revealed a huge profit-driven healthcare market, in which Baidu and the fraudulent Putian Medical Group were running the show. Although the uproar led to a temporary shutdown of these ads, the same advertisements reappeared on the search engine in November.

#C is for Castro,..the “old friend of China”

Shortly after news of his death came out, Cuban leader Fidel Castro became the number one trending topic on Weibo in November. Many Weibo users called Castro an “old friend of China”, expressing their condolences through thousands of digital candles. Under the leadership of Castro, China-Cuba relations became like those between “good comrades, good friends, and brothers”, as former president Hu Jintao described them. The Weibo topic on #卡斯特罗去世# was viewed over 99 million times.

#D is for Disneyland,..the grand opening in Shanghai

disney

It was the most anticipated opening of the year. Disneyland Shanghai opened its doors on June 6 of 2016 to let the masses of people in who had been able to get their hands on the most wanted tickets of the year. Although Chinese netizens had been raving about the opening of the ‘happiest place on earth’ for months, the enthusiasm soon made place for complaints after the opening.

Many said the Disney trains in Shanghai were ugly and not nearly as beautiful as those in Hong Kong, the prices of snacks and drinks were deemed way too high, and many were troubled by the uncivilized behaviour of some visitors to the park.

#E is for Eleme,..China’s successful home-delivery app

elemewhatsonweibo

The E in this alphabet perhaps not just stands for Eleme (饿了么) but the overall success of E-commerce in China in 2016. Home-grown delivery apps like Eleme, Baidu Takeout and Meituan were ubiquitous all over the first-tier cities of China this year. Delivery apps Eleme and Meituan became the focus of scrutiny when Chinese media revealed they were involved in illegal business by selling food from unlicensed restaurants.

With a heightened crackdown on street food, many unlicensed vendors chose to sell their food door-to-door via apps like Eleme, making them relatively ‘invisible’ to authorities. It has led to authorities keeping a closer eye on these delivery platforms.

#F is for Forbes Billionaires List,..China’s billionaires

Chinas economic growth is widening the gaps between the rich and the poor

The release of the Forbes Billionaires List got Weibo talking about money and the world’s youngest billionaires this year. Although the very youngest multi-millionaire is not Chinese – but a 19-year-old Norwegian – the Forbes list revealed that China also has its fair share of young billionaires, with entrepreneur Wang Han becoming one of the world’s youngest billionaires at the age of 28. Check out our list on China’s youngest billionaires.

#G is for Gaga,..for meeting with the Dalai Lama

aboutladygaga

In the summer of 2016, Lady Gaga lost a lot of her Chinese fans after she met up with the Dalai Lama during a US conference in Indiana. After learning of Gaga’s support for the Dalai Lama, many netizens said that “Lady Gaga has officially left the Chinese market.”

gobifeat

Honourable mention: The #G for Gobi, the desert dog. The stray dog captured everyone’s heart after joining runner Dion Leonard on a 155-mile marathon across China. Netizens all rooted for Gobi after the dog got lost while in quarantine before joining Leonard to his home in Scotland, but after an amazing nine-day search, the little dog was found in Urumqi, and she is now on her way for a new life with her self-chosen owner Leonard in Scotland.

#H is for Hangzhou,..the heart of the G20

hangzhoucrowded

The whole world was looking at Hangzhou in September of this year as world leaders convened in the ancient Chinese city for the annual G20 summit. It marked China’s first time as host of the international forum – an important moment for China to once again emphasize its important role in the international community today.

But the G20 was also an opportunity for the city of Hangzhou to promote itself as a tourist destination. These efforts paid off so well that in the days following the G20 summit, the city was so packed that people could barely move. It also led to trash being left behind all over the city by visitors, with street cleaners removing as much as 14 tons of garbage within one day.

#I is for iPhone6 Legs,..another skinny trend

whatsonweiboa4iphone6

This was the year of different challenges taking over social media. There was the One Finger Selfie, the A4 waist challenge, and the much-discussed iPhone6 challenge.

Thousands of female netizens posted pictures on social media showing off how their smartphones could cover their skinny legs. Although many people later ridiculed the trend, there were also worries that these kinds of hypes promote unhealthy beauty standards. The majority of Weibo users, however, seemed to accept that an iPhone could never cover both their legs. Perhaps an iPad could.

#J is for Johan Cruyff,..the Dutch soccer hero

cruyff

As What’s on Weibo is a blog that is both run from Amsterdam and Beijing, this topic especially touched our hearts this year. Dutch soccer hero Johan Cruyff passed away at the young age of 68 due to cancer, and became Weibo’s number one trending topic.

Within hours after news of the soccer legend’s death came out, thousands of Weibo users responded by posting candles and crying emoticons for what some called the “emperor of soccer” and “the world’s most legendary number 14.” Cruyff’s Chinese fans expressed their grief and their respect for his career: “The soccer world has lost its godfather, but your philosophy remains. Don’t forget to wear your soccer shoes in heaven. I salute you,” one fan said.

#K is for Kang Kang,..the missing CCTV mascotte

whereiskangkang

For the Year of the Monkey, CCTV launched its new official mascot of the Spring Festival Gala: Kang Kang the monkey. But when controversy arose over web users deeming the mascotte ‘ugly’ and ‘stupid’, Kang Kang suddenly was nowhere to be seen anymore.

It led to the burning question on Weibo: whatever happened Kang Kang the Monkey? Weibo netizens discussed the various reasons why Kang Kang did not come on the show, with some wondering if he left when he saw the show’s rehearsal and others suggesting they should file a missing’s person report. There were multiple netizens who thought Kang Kang might have carried ‘dangerous goods’ and did not pass the CCTV’s strict security checks. Kang Kang, unfortunately, was not be seen again.

#L is for Lei Yang,..who died due to police brutality

The death of Beijing resident Lei Yang (雷洋) was already called one of the biggest controversies of the year in May of 2016. When the 29-year-old environmentalist Lei Yang died shortly after his arrest at an alleged brothel, his story sparked national outrage over police brutality. “We could all be the next Lei Yang” was one of the phrases that soon made its rounds on Chinese social media. When Lei’s wife stepped forward demanding answers from Beijing authorities on the circumstances surrounding her husband’s death, she received massive support from China’s Weibo users.

According to further investigation by the Beijing prosecutor’s office, Lei Yang was found to have died due to choking. VOA recently reported that five officers involved in the case are expected to be charged with dereliction of duty in this case.

#M is for My Little Princess,..the hit TV drama

mylittleprincess

My Little Princess, a Chinese TV drama revolving around the trials and tribulations of Chinese rich kids attending college, is just one of the many Chinese TV dramas that became big trending topics on Weibo this year.

Other hit dramas were shows like The Interpreters, The Imperial Doctress, and countless others. The sucess of telenovelas like My Little Princess shows that Chinese audiencies just cannot get enough of TV drama – enjoying them together with a far broader audience outside of the People’s Republic.

#N is for the Noodle Gang,..Shanghai’s noodle maffia

A Shanghainese ‘Noodle War’ attracted the attention of Chinese netizens this year, as one noodle restaurant named Alilan openly shared its battle with a local Chinese Hui muslim community, that alleged the owner violated their code that there should be no other beef noodles restaurant within 400 meters of a Hui muslim restaurant.

As the ‘noodle community’ attempted to boycott the restaurant by standing in front of Alilan and blocking visitors from entering, Weibo netizens stepped up and showed their support by coming to dine at Alilan and resisting the boycott in great numbers. Weibo saved the restaurant, which is still running a successful business today. They thanked their fans for their help on their Weibo page earlier this month.

#O is for the Olympics,..that made Fu Yuanhui famous

swimmers2

The topics related to the Olympics might just have been the biggest topics of the year on Chinese social media. Whether it was about the helmets designed for the cycling team, the insulting comments about Chinese athletes made by a Canadian TV commentator, or the success of made-in-China products in Rio, the Olympics were the trending topic of the summer of 2016.

But only one Chinese athlete was the absolute winner of all Olympic-related topics. Swimmer Fu Yuanhui stole everyone’s hearts with her down-to-earth attitude and almost childlike facial expressions and talks about how she won at the Olympics with her ‘mystical powers.’ She also broke a sporting taboo by openly speaking about her period. With now over 8 million followers on her account, Fu Yuanhui has become a popular Weibo celebrity.

#P is for Papi Jiang,..the online celebrity of 2016

Papi Jiang rose to fame in 2016 and went from a lonely vlogger to one of China’s most beloved online celebrities – seemingly overnight. The Weibo superstar was the ‘new kid on the block’ in March of 2016 with her witty online videos in which she commented on anything from family interactions to dating etiquette.

In April 2016, the power of Weibo’s celebrity economy became clear when an ad auction showed that companies were willing to pay up to 22 million RMB (3,4 million US$) to get Papi Jiang connected to their brand. It showed that 2016 was THE year of Weibo’s celebrity economy. Papi now has over 20 million followers on her Weibo account, and still frequently posts funny videos.

#Q is for Qiaobi,..the ‘most racist’ commercial of the year

Qiaobi

A Chinese washing powder commercial went viral outside of China this year for being “jaw-droppingly racist.” The commercial shows how a black man is turned down by a Chinese woman, who puts him in a washing machine – after which he comes out as a Chinese man.

Within China, the ad initially stirred no controversy – it seemed that no one had even heard about the ad – until international media controversy also blew over to Weibo. Different websites soon exposed that the Chinese commercial was copied from a 2006 Italian ad where a white man turns into a black man after being ‘washed’. On May 30, Chinese media reported that Qiaobi had taken the commercial down and had apologized in response to the outrage it caused.

#R is for Red Alert,..the smog ‘airpocalypse’

anyang

Since Beijing’s first red alert for smog was issued in December of 2015, the ‘smog alert’ has become a recurring topic on Chinese social media. The red alert for smog of December 2016 especially triggered many comments on Weibo this year when 400 students in Henan, Anyang, had to take their exams outdoors in heavy smog while their school was officially closed due to the smog. The principal has since been suspended.

#S is for SK-II,..the brand that opened up the ‘Leftover Women’ discussion

leftover

A short film about China’s leftover women by skincare brand SK-II became a hot topic on Chinese & international social media in April of 2016. Many netizens were touched by the video’s message about choosing personal happiness over society’s expectations.

Although the ‘Change Destiny’ ad campaign also received some criticism, most people seemed to agree that the video send out the right message: that women, despite the pressure to get married, should pluck up the courage to speak out and get their voices heard.

#T is for Trump..from hero to zero on Weibo

Trump undeniably is the biggest name of 2016. On Chinese social media, many people initially showed their support for Trump for his humor, pragmatism, war against political correctness, but also because many thought he was a better option than Hillary Clinton.

But soon after Trump was elected, the enthusiasm subdued when the newly elected US president spoke with Taipei president Tsai Ing-wen and suggested in a Fox News that he could drop the “One China” policy. Trump’s recent moves have caused confusion on Chinese social media, although there are also Chinese netizens who say that China will win, no matter what Trump’s future plans may be.

#U is for Uber,..merging with Didi Chuxing

American ride-hailing app Uber had a bumpy ride in China, where was losing over $1 billion a year since it started its PRC adventure in 2013. Uber China was facing the fierce competition from homegrown Uber-equivalent Didi Kuaidi (later: ‘Didi Chuxing’) which was doing a staggering 10 million rides a day in China while Uber was doing only 2 million rides a day worldwide.

In August 2016, Uber China finally gave up its Chinese e-hailing war with Didi, and merged with its rival. It led to many complains on Weibo, with higher prices and bothered passengers. The original Uber app has closed down and was replaced by an app specially made for the Chinese market.

#V is for the Big V-s,..making Weibo big

whatsonweibosinaweibo

Although China’s biggest social media platform Sina Weibo was previously practically pronounced dead by international media, this year was the year of Weibo’s revival.

One of the main reasons for Weibo’s success is the popularity of so-called ‘Big V’s’ – popular microbloggers who have a ‘v’ behind their name as their accounts have been verified by Weibo. These social media celebrities vary from comedians to fashion bloggers or make-up stylists who offer great marketing potential for brands because they have a huge following, much influence, and often the right target audiences. While Weibo helps online celebrities grow big, these online celebrities also helped Weibo revive by boosting the number of active monthly users who come to see what their idols are up to.

#W is for Wang Baoqiang,..the divorce of the year

wangrelation

The probable winner in this list of Weibo’s trending topics of 2016 is the divorce of Wang Baoqiang. The popular migrant worker-turned-actor publicly announced on Weibo that he was divorcing his wife Ma Rong for cheating on him with his manager. It led to an unprecedented stream of comments, with the majority of Weibo netizens supporting Wang and hating on Ma Rong.

While an audience of millions seeing the love drama unfold, Ma Rong took revenge by blaming her estranged husband for abandoning his friends and family, and sueing him for defamation of character.

#X is for Xiaomi,..China’s winning smartphone

After Single’s Day, China’s biggest online shopping festival of the year, it became clear that ‘made-in-China’ smartphones and tablets were the big winners this year.

Although iPhone7 still made considerable sales, made-in-China smartphones were the undeniable winner of the Single’s Day smartphone sales. Overall, netizens bought more Chinese smartphone brands than international ones. According to the sales numbers of JD.com, no less than 8 of the top 10 best-selling smartphones were domestically produced mobile phones. China’s Xiaomi brand did especially well. With the Mi 6 coming out in 2017, the brand can expect to gain more Xiaomi lovers in the coming year.

#Y is for Yulin,..China’s most controversial local festival

Yulin

Year on year, the annual Yulin dog meat festival has been receiving more attention internationally, with more celebrities and politicians condemning the event. The tradition has previously mainly sparked outrage outside of China, but is also getting more criticism within the PRC; 62% Chinese surveyees now think the dog meat festival harms China’s international reputation. This year, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying clarified that the Yulin government has never supported or organized the festival, and that it is a local initiative – a controversial one.

#Z is for Zhang Guoli,..who was quoted before he spoke

zhangguoliwhatsonweibo

An awkward moment on Chinese state media got people talking during the Plenary Sessions in March when CCTV reported that actor and director Zhang Guoli advocated for stronger monitoring of web dramas at China’s plenary sessions, and when the actor posted on Weibo that he had not spoken at all yet.

Although Zhang Guoli’s comment was soon deleted or removed by Weibo’s censors, it had already caught the widespread attention of Weibo’s netizens. “The media is always like this,” one netizen responds: “they report about a speech before someone has actually spoken!”

———

What’s on Weibo wants to thank you for following us over the past year, in which we have grown into much cited and much visited independent news blog on China. Please keep connected in the year to come for all of China’s social trends.

New year’s greetings from What’s on Weibo’s 2016 writer’s team.

– By Manya Koetse
Follow on Twitter or Like on Facebook

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

 

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    TESME

    January 26, 2017 at 3:27 am

    Fab article – loved Gobi getting a mention!

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Backgrounder

Coronavirus on Chinese Social Media: The 8 Major Trends in Times of the 2019-nCoV Crisis

The 8 main trends defining the online responses to the Wuhan coronavirus on Chinese social media.

Manya Koetse

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Since the outbreak of the new coronavirus becoming big news in China and around the world, there have been few other topics going trending on Chinese social media than those related to 2019-nCoV. What’s on Weibo gives an overview of the most noteworthy online media trends in China regarding the corona-crisis.

 
By Manya Koetse, further research and news-gathering by Miranda Barnes
 

From panic to patriotism, the outbreak of the coronavirus has led to a wide range of different responses from Chinese netizens and online media outlets over the past few weeks.

Although the first reports on the emergence of a pneumonia-like illness in the city of Wuhan came out in late December, it wasn’t until mid-January that the new virus, belonging to the coronavirus family, started dominating the top trending lists on social media in China and beyond.

The hashtag “Nationally Confirmed Cases of New Pneumonia” (#全国确诊新型肺炎病例#) became one of the biggest news-related topics we have ever seen on Weibo, receiving eight billion views by January 25, and reaching a staggering 13,5 billion views by February 2.

As of February 6th, approximately 28,200 cases of the new virus were confirmed, with over 170 cases reported in countries outside of China. The death toll also became much higher than days before, rising to 564. With these numbers, the coronavirus has exceeded the scale of the 2003 SARS outbreak in terms of infected patients.

Along with the quick spread of the new coronavirus across the country, the general mood and direction of the discussions and trends in the Chinese online media environment have also been in constant flux.

At What’s on Weibo, we have been glued to our social media screens, but because editor-in-chief Manya Koetse has been flooded with daily media requests we have not been able to update the site with regular updates (meanwhile, @manyapan did post regular updates on Twitter).

Here, we will highlight some of the main social media trends we spotted during the outbreak of the new Chinese coronavirus, now and over the past weeks.

 

TREND #1:

Online Backlash against the Eating of Wild Game

As an online media panic broke out around January 20, when a third person had died of the new Wuhan virus, one of the main trends to come up on Chinese social media was an online backlash against the eating of wild game (as reported here by Jessica Colwell).

The backlash flooded Weibo after the downtown Wuhan Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market (武汉华南海鲜批发市场), selling a wide range of dead and alive wild animals – anything from snakes and crocodiles to rats, hedgehogs or bats, – was identified as the suspected source of the deadly coronavirus outbreak.

Image posted by Sina Parenting on February 1st.

Since Chinese researchers linked the novel coronavirus (nCoV-2019) to bats, videos and images of bat dishes and people eating bat soon made their rounds on social media.

Many of these videos were actually unrelated to Wuhan, but were used in condemning the practice of eating (illegal/unsafe) wild game in general.

Around January 23, hashtags such as “Support the Banning of Wild Game Markets” (#支持禁绝野味市场#), “Refusing Eating of Wild Game Starts with You” (#拒吃野味从我做起#), “Control Your Mouth, Refuse Wild Game” (#管住嘴拒绝吃野味#) went viral on Weibo.

As images or videos of people eating bats or other exotic animals soon also spread to Twitter and other non-Chinese social media, some English-language media labeled them as “xenophobic” or “racist” – ignoring the fact that the anti-wild game storm actually started in the Chinese online media environment.

Online information leaflet spread by People’s Daily, “Resisting the Consumption of Wild Game Starts with Ourselves”

State media outlets such as People’s Daily, for example, played a role in the online dissemination of information against the eating of wild game and actually hosted some of these hashtag pages on Weibo.

The main argument behind the backlash is that those eating (unsafe, illegal) exotic and/or wild animals could risk their own health and that of their community and that what you eat is also your responsibility in keeping others safe.

A news story of a man hunting wild animals for consumption made its rounds on Weibo this week.

The backlash against the eating of wild game and online anger against people hunting or illegally buying wild animals for consumption is still ongoing, with some directing their anger against Wuhan people in specific.

This has also triggered discussions on Weibo about discrimination – not against Chinese people in general, but against Chinese netizens discriminating against Wuhan people or even against people from the Hubei province.

 

TREND #2:

Fake News and Censorship

Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo are tightly controlled online environments. When certain sensitive topics pop up, such as the anniversary of the Tiananmen protests, the Hong Kong demonstrations in their early phases, or big political events, virtually all related posts and news sharing will sometimes be removed by online censors.

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, this was not necessarily the case. From the start, there was a lot of reporting, sharing, and discussion of the virus online.

However, there certainly has been ongoing censorship of the topic. This was mainly done in the case of netizens reposting videos of chaotic situations in streets or at hospitals, but also in the case of ‘fake news’ posts (mostly called “starting rumors”).

Posts that could potentially trigger unrest or panic also were censored. One hashtag that made its rounds around January 22 was “Escaping Wuhan” (#逃离武汉#), with people trying to leave Wuhan before the city would go on lockdown. That hashtag page was soon completely removed from Weibo.

The comments sections of some posts reporting on controversial or sensitive news were also completely turned off (such as this report addressing local authorities in Wuhan allegedly taking donated face masks).

One Weibo user (@魔女小稀), an alleged nurse, posted a video of people in a hospital hallway on January 24th, claiming that “three [dead] bodies” had been lying in a Wuhan hospital for the entire afternoon covered in white sheets without being removed.

The post and the Weibo user were completely removed from the platform on January 25. By that time, however, the video and allegations were already picked up and reposted internationally.

According to Sina News, the post had been completely false; there were no bodies lying around this Wuhan hospital. If there were people covered in white sheets, it was merely people sleeping in the hallway after waiting for a long time.

This is but one of many examples of ‘fake news’ floating around Chinese social media over the past two weeks, with images and videos being placed in a misleading context, people claiming that patient or deceased numbers were much higher than those reported by the official media, and some even bringing up conspiracy theories about the source of the coronavirus (e.g. that the Americans started it, that it leaked from a biolab in Wuhan, etc).

The problem in this issue is, of course, when do we call it ‘fake news’ and when do we call it ‘censorship’? Amid the chaos and uncertainty of the coronavirus outbreak, it is not always easy to separate the two.

This is also a contributing factor in the general distrust in official media reports that clearly surfaced on Weibo over the past weeks. “I don’t believe it,” is a sentence popping up everywhere on social media.

Spreading online “rumors” is a crime under China’s Criminal Law and is punishable by up to seven years in prison. Although some foreign media outlets, such as this one, make it seem as though it is illegal to share fake news about the coronavirus in particular, it is actually illegal in China to share fake news in general.

 

TREND #3:

Virus Vigilantism

Another trend we noticed on social media during the wake of the coronavirus outbreak is not just a distrust in official media and authorities, but also distrust in fellow citizens.

One clear example that blew up on Weibo is that of a young woman from Wuhan who posted about her traveling to France – and enjoying nice food – despite suffering from a fever and cough. Because she took fever reducers, she claimed to have passed airport temperature monitors without issue.

The post sparked great anger among Chinese netizens and triggered the so-called ‘human flesh search engine,’ with people digging into her personal details.

The incident even led to the Chinese embassy in France investigating the matter. The woman turned out not to have been infected with the virus.

But there are many examples of people exposing and doxing those who allegedly are hindering the collective goal of minimizing the risk of a further spreading of the virus, for example by not self-isolating after visiting Wuhan.

There’s also been widespread online condemnation of people stealing tissue paper from public elevators. Many apartment buildings around China now provide a box of tissue paper for hygienic reasons so that people do not need to touch the elevator buttons.

Surveillance videos of people stealing these boxes have been making their rounds on Weibo and WeChat, such as this lady in an elevator in Chongqing, with thousands of netizens expressing their anger over their behavior – and sometimes naming and shaming them.

 

TREND #4:

Social Media as a Practical Communication Tool

Soon after the scale of the coronavirus outbreak started to become clear, social media platforms such as Weibo were started to be used as practical communication tools for authorities, (medical) organizations, and individuals to spread information or to ask for help.

Social media is now widely used as a practical communication tool for very general matters in the coronavirus crisis (e.g. providing information on how to avoid getting the virus), but also for more specific issues.

Various hospitals in Wuhan, for example, spread digital leaflets online summing up their specific shortages in supplies (face masks, surgical gloves, etc), and how people and organizations can contribute.

Another example is how authorities at various times use social media to search for people who were on board of certain trains or where passengers were later diagnosed with the virus.

But we have also seen individuals reaching out through social media. One woman, for example, reached out to netizens online after she and her husband fell ill and needed someone to look after their children.

Through the help of social media, there are now also local volunteers who help taking care of people’s pets while they are unable to return home to feed them.

One of the hashtags increasingly receiving attention online since early February is “Rescuing the Pets Left Behind in Wuhan Homes” (#武汉滞留家中宠物救援#).

Since January 26, Tencent’s WeChat has also opened a special “epidemic supervision” channel within its app where WeChat users can go to get the latest local information about the virus in their area or ask for medical help.

 

TREND #5:

Propaganda, Pride and Patriotism in Times of Crisis

The outbreak of the coronavirus coincided with the most important holiday of the year in China: the Spring Festival. On Friday, January 24, the CCTV broadcasted its annual Spring Festival Gala (Chunwan), a 4-hour long show that has been airing since 1983. The show is the biggest live TV event in the world, with a viewership of one billion.

The show is usually meticulously planned up to every second – with rehearsals starting months before -, but this year, for the first time ever, it included a segment on the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak. It showed scenes from inside a Wuhan hospital, and the show’s main presenters paid their respects to all the medical workers working day and night.

The event became trending on Weibo under the hashtag “For the First Time in History, ‘Chunwan’ Includes a Non-Rehearsed Segment” (#春晚历史上首次没有彩排的片段#)

It was during this time, with twenty million people under travel lockdown, that the sentence “Jiayou Wuhan, Jiayou Zhongguo” (“Come on Wuhan, Come on China”) was propagated by state media and became widely used on Chinese social media.

By now, the hashtag “Go Wuhan!” (#武汉加油#, hosted by Party newspaper People’s Daily) has over 12 billion views on Weibo.

“1.4 billion Chinese salute you”

Starting from the Spring Festival weekend, Chinese state media began to propagate more positive, patriotic, and nationalistic messages online during the corona crisis, focusing on the unity of China and the dedication and resilience of common Chinese people, with a specific emphasis on medical and army staff.

It is not uncommon, or actually rather common, for Chinese authorities and state media to propagate nationalism in times of hardship (also see our article on online propaganda during the Hong Kong protests).

 

TREND #6:

Quarantine Boredom: From Panic to Humor

From late January, the first humorous memes and videos starting flooding Chinese social media in light of the coronavirus.

Around January 25, there were over forty confirmed deaths due to the new coronavirus and over 1380 known infected patients. Along with the travel lockdown, most of the major tourist attractions across China had shut down, and driving bans were implemented in the city of Wuhan to restrict people’s movements in efforts to contain the outbreak.

What was supposed to be a time of joy and reunion and entertainment (the Chinese New Year) turned into a time of fear and self-isolation for many families in Wuhan and beyond.

Practically locked up in their homes, some people used humor as a ‘defense mechanism’ in times of coronacrisis.

The videos embedded in the thread below are some examples of people making the most of their times in lockdown.

But besides the creative solutions of people avoiding boredom inside the home, there were also many memes going around WeChat and Weibo making fun of the extreme measures taken by people and authorities, such as this photo below that was allegedly taken at a station in Yiwu, Zhejiang, saying: “Some people got off the train in Yiwu but thought they’d ended up in Saudi Arabia.”

There was also this viral image below of an office canteen where people were self-isolating for safety reasons, saying: “Eating at the cantine of my unit now feels more like taking an exam.”

Videos and images of people using sanitary pads, bras, plastic bags, or even fruit to protect their faces due to a scarcity of face masks also continue to make their rounds on social media, with people sometimes mocking neighbors, their friends or family, or even themselves in the extreme and sometimes silly measures they are taking to avoid getting the coronavirus.

 

TREND #7:

Anger against Local Authorities and Illegal Lock-Ins

As panic over the spreading coronavirus has become bigger over the past few weeks, the voices criticizing local authorities and organizations for mishandling the situation have also grown louder.

While loud criticism of the central government is usually censored before triggering bigger discussions, there has been ample criticism of provincial, city, and county authorities and organizations – and not without consequence.

In Hubei, local authorities have been criticized for, among others, initially censoring reports of an emerging new illness in December of 2019.

The mayor of Wuhan, Zhou Xianwang, became a major target of netizens’ anger. In late January, Zhou admitted that he had failed in disclosing information in a timely manner and also “did not use effective information” to improve the local government’s work.

The Hubei branch of the Red Cross Society of China (RCSC, 中国红十字会) also received massive criticism online in early February when it turned out that, while the public donated medical supplies and money, most of it remained in the Red Cross warehouse.

On February 4, Chinese state media reported that the Hubei Red Cross deputy director had been removed from office and dismissed from the leading Party members group of the RCSC branch.

On village and prefecture-level, there has also been public condemnation of how authorities are handling the corona crisis.

Some videos going around social media showed how people, seemingly against their will, were locked up inside their own homes by local authorities after returning from Wuhan (“武汉返乡人员”).

China Youth Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Youth League of China, also condemned these practices as “illegal” and “inhumane” in an article that has since been deleted.

Through a new WeChat function mentioned earlier in this post, Chinese netizens can now also report any mishandlings of the coronavirus situation.

At the time of writing, there seems to have been some increased censorship, but nevertheless, criticism on local authorities keeps flooding Weibo.

“While people are busy helping themselves and each other, what are the leaders of Hubei and Wuhan doing?”, some people wonder: “Supplies in the hospitals are still scarce, there are still people who are unable to receive help!”

 

TREND #8:

Corona Panic Buying

It was around January 21st when the coronavirus panic reached a peak in China; a third infected patient had died of the virus the day before, the first cases were confirmed outside of China, and several big travel platforms had started to offer refunds or change flights via Wuhan.

Similar to the SARS outbreak in 2003, news of the coronavirus led to waves of “scare shopping” – a trend that also became very visible on social media.

Medical face masks soon sold out in Chinese pharmacies and on e-commerce platforms: around 80 million face masks were sold on Alibaba’s Taobao platform alone on January 20 and January 21st. Those (online) shops still offering face masks exploited the shortage of face masks, and would only sell them at exorbitant prices.

Twenty dollars for a face mask?

Although Alibaba soon announced it would remove sales of face masks from shops that were selling them at unstable prices, the sales and availability of (disposable) N95 masks is still an issue across China, with netizens complaining about it on Weibo every single day.

Another example of consumer panic followed the Jan 31st reports by two medical research institutions on the TCM oral medicine Shuanghuanglian, which would allegedly be effective in combating the new coronavirus.

Shortly after the reports came out, the herbal remedy sold out in stores across the country.

Chinese state media now warn people against “irrational purchases,” saying that the effectivity of herbal remedies such as Shuanghuanglian is still unsure.

Panic buying is a trend that is not just visible on Chinese social media, it is a trend that also seems to be triggered through social media, with rumors and reports of existing shortages of certain products leading to panic.

A clear example is the February 5 run on toilet paper in Hong Kong after rumors spread that the coronavirus outbreak would lead to insufficient supplies.

 

As there are still many new developments and news reports coming out concerning the coronavirus, we will keep on publishing more on What’s on Weibo about what’s trending on Chinese social media. (Also read: Distrust and despair on WeChat and Weibo after the death of Wuhan whistleblower Li Wenliang).

If it’s quiet here, please also follow us on Twitter here and here.

By Manya Koetse, additional research and news-gathering by Miranda Barnes
Follow @whatsonweibo

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Backgrounder

‘Good Doctor’, Digital Hospitals: How Mobile Apps Are Alleviating China’s Healthcare Problems

With the rapid digitalization of China’s healthcare, Chinese patients now have more ways than one to receive medical assistance.

Manya Koetse

Published

on

China’s healthcare industry is facing some serious challenges. As Chinese society is rapidly digitalizing, mobile apps now provide innovative solutions to alleviate pressing problems in the country’s health services sector.

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, originally published in German by Goethe Institut China on Goethe.de: “Good-Doctor Apps und Digitale Krankenhäuser.” 
 

Social Credit System, artificial intelligence, surveillance cameras; these are some of the hottest topics making headlines in mainstream Western media when discussing China-related developments recently.

With the rapid digitalization of Chinese society, these topics certainly have come to play a more important role in social media discussions within the People’s Republic of China (PRC). But if there is one issue that seems to concern Chinese social media users the most, it is not facial recognition nor their ‘Sesame score’: it is the topic of healthcare.

In December of 2017, a photo showing a crying mother kneeling down beside a toddler on the sidewalk in front of a Shanghai hospital went viral overnight. The moment was captured on camera by a reporter who was visiting Shanghai’s Children’s Hospital.

The photo of Guo Yinzhen and her son that went viral in China (image via NetEase, source: https://3g.163.com).

The mother, Guo Yinzhen, is a single parent who had traveled from a remote village to seek medical help for her 3-old-son, who was suffering from congenital hydrocephalus or ‘water on the brain.’ Already having traveled to the city multiple times and spending all her money on medical bills, Guo could not afford the additional 100.000 yuan (€ 12.600) for medical procedures needed to save her son’s life.

Guo’s story struck a chord with Chinese netizens, who continue to share the heartbreaking photo on social media to this day. It has become emblematic of China’s healthcare problems.

 

Crowded Hospitals and ‘Healthcare Disturbance’

 

The key to an adequate healthcare system, no matter where in the world, is that there is a right balancing in the “iron triangle” of efficiency/cost containment, high quality care, and patient access.[1] China, however, struggles with all three sides of this triangle.

Guo’s case is an extreme example, but many people in China dealing with less serious health issues and needing basic medical services also struggle to afford and access the healthcare they need.

Over 95% of people in China have health insurance, but people from different regions do not enjoy the same benefits and their out-of-pocket expenses can vary greatly. Uncovered medical costs can sometimes be catastrophic and simply unaffordable for patients and their families.

As more money flows are going to healthcare facilities in China’s cities, there is also the issue of varying levels of providers’ medical education and the overall healthcare quality, with the substantial majority of modern hospitals still existing in urban areas.

Easy access to the right kind of healthcare can be especially problematic for China’s rural population, as people often need to travel long distances and have to go through the lengthy process of registering and waiting for their doctor’s appointment, which sometimes requires them to stay in the city overnight.

For all of these reasons, China’s bigger public hospitals can get super crowded, sometimes resembling shopping malls on an end-of-season sales day. On social media, both patients and medical workers often complain about the stress brought about by the huge crowds and the shortage of doctors in hospitals across the country.

Perhaps it is no wonder that China even has a word to describe outbursts of violence between patients and doctors: ‘Yī nào’ (医闹, literally: “healthcare disturbance”).

Weibo user ‘Sunscreen’ complains about the crowds at Huashan Hospital.

One major problem within China’s healthcare conundrum is the lack of local family or primary-care doctors, which often makes bigger hospitals the first stop to any kind of medical treatment for Chinese patients.

The reasons for this issue are manifold. There is a general lack of trust in private and smaller local healthcare clinics, for example, and patients often choose to go directly to a bigger hospital to avoid making extra costs.

This makes it extra difficult for many community health care centers – that are already struggling – to make enough money and to retain qualified staff. In a society that is rapidly aging, the challenges facing China’s healthcare industry are only becoming more pressing.

 

A Doctor Today, Just an App Away

 

As China’s online environment is thriving, new innovative online apps are popping up on a daily basis. Some of these apps, that have found their ways into China’s most popular app rankings, are offering solutions to some of the country’s most pressing healthcare problems.

One of these apps is Ping’an Good Doctor (平安好医生), which was developed by health insurance provider Ping’an in 2015 and calls itself China’s “one-stop healthcare ecosystem.”

“Ping’an Good Doctor” promotional image by Ping’an.

Employing some 1000 medical staff in its in-house team, contracting over 5,200 external doctors, and collaborating with 3000 hospitals and thousands of pharmacy outlets across the country, the app is somewhat of an “online hospital.”

Through the app, users can look through an online database of medical professionals, order medicine at nearby pharmacies, get 24/7 online medical consultancy, search for information about both Western and Chinese Traditional Medicine, etc., but they can also use Ping’an Good Doctor as a fitness app to track their own health.

Screenshot of Ping’an app screen, by author.

When looking for a specific doctor for a one-on-one consult, the app first lets users select an area of expertise (e.g. dermatology or gynecology), and then offers a list of different specialists in various price categories.

Doctors from well-known hospitals, for example, or those with excellent ratings, have a one-time consultation fee of 100 yuan (€ 12,60). Other doctors can be consulted starting from 30 yuan (€3,70). All costs can be paid efficiently via online payment apps.

Doctors to pick from within the app’s various price categories.

Ping’an Good Doctor uses an AI-driven system to ask patients various questions about their symptoms and to automatically create a user’s medical record to save time. Based on the AI-generated record and the conversation with the patients – files such as photos can also be uploaded to the app -, the doctors can prescribe medicine or refer the patient to a hospital for an offline appointment if needed.

Ping’an recently announced that its number of registered users exceeded 300 million users, with 62 million monthly active users. Because the app keeps building on its AI-driven system, Ping’an Good Doctor can be expected to only become a ‘smarter’ smart health app the more popular it gets.

Although Ping’an is now leading within China’s medical app category, there are many other apps providing similar services, such as Chunyu Yisheng (春雨医生), Haodafu Online (好大夫在线), or DingXiang Doctor (丁香医生).

The emergence of these apps is just one of the many ways in which China’s digital developments, online media, and tech giants are impacting the healthcare industry, profoundly changing how patients receive healthcare information and access medical services now and in the future.

List of recommended medical apps in the Tencent app store.

In a way, China’s medical consultation apps fill the void in offline primary care. Patients who would otherwise turn to hospital care as their first stop can now  access medical consultations any time, any day, at a relatively low cost. Those who suffer from relatively harmless conditions could be diagnosed by a medical specialist via the app and get the medicine they need within a matter of minutes. With the growing popularity of these kinds of apps, many patients no longer need to visit a hospital at all.

Are smart health apps such as Ping’an Good Doctor the solution to China’s healthcare problems? No, they’re not. Struggling mums like Guo Yinzhen will not find the help they need there. But they do contribute to a more efficient healthcare environment where crowd flows in hospitals can be reduced, and patients do not need to spend a lot of time and money to stand in hour-long queues to get five minutes of their doctor’s time.

Although smart health apps could not help Guo Yinzhen and her son, social media apps could. As soon as their story went viral in late 2017, Shanghai Children’s Welfare Foundation Xiaoxingxin offered to cover medical treatments for the little boy, with a notable pediatric neurosurgeon operating the child. According to the latest updates, the boy’s situation was “looking good.”

Hopefully, the same holds true for the challenging sides of China’s healthcare industry.

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

[1] Burns & Liu, 2017: 3-4.

References/Linked Sources

Burns, Lawton Robert, and Gordon G. Liu. 2017. “Introduction.” In China’s Healthcare Industry: A System Perspective, Lawton Robert Burns and Gordon G. Liu (eds), pp-1-116. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Economist, 2017. “China needs many more primary-care doctors.” The Economist, May 11 https://www.economist.com/china/2017/05/11/china-needs-many-more-primary-care-doctors [20.10.19].

Zhou, Viola. 2018. “Does China Have Universal Healthcare? A Long (And Better) Answer.” Inkstone, Oct 10 https://www.inkstonenews.com/health/china-translated-does-china-have-universal-health-care/article/2167579

This text was first published by Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

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