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
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
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
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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’
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at email@example.com.
A Baby for Sale, a Mother Chained Up – How Chinese Netizens Are Pushing Specific Social Issues to the Forefront
The stories of Liu Xuezhou and the Xuzhou mother both developed in real-time while netizens pushed them to the front page, making them too big for state media to ignore.
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yi Magazin: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
It was December 6th of 2021 when a teenage boy posted a short video on Chinese social media. With a straight back, clear voice, and serious face, he looked directly into the camera and said:
“Hello everyone, I am Liu Xuezhou and I am looking for my biological parents. I was born in between 2004 and 2006 and around the age of three months old, I was bought by my parents, my adoptive parents, in Datong in Shanxi. I am healthy. I don’t have any congenital physical defects or diseases; I don’t have any obvious birthmarks or scars. At the age of four, my adoptive parents passed away due to an accident. I am now living in Nangong, Xingtai, in Hebei Province. I study in Shijiazhuang. I wish I’d found my biological parents sooner, to make up for what I missed. I hope you can help me spread my message so that those who suspect they might be my parents can see it.“
This video would be the start of a story followed by millions of Chinese netizens. It is the story of Liu Xuezhou (刘学州). The search for his parents and his death became one of the biggest topics on China’s social media of the past months.
Why did the tragic story of one teenage boy capture the entire nation? There are multiple reasons. By posting his call for help in finding his biological parents, Liu involved Chinese netizens in his journey from the start, allowing them to follow his story in real-time through his social media and news reports. Another aspect of Liu’s story is the resilience he showed despite his tough life, something that many admired about him.
But more importantly, Liu’s story is part of a recent broader interest in the stories behind the widespread problem of trafficking in women and children in China, with more people raising awareness on the tragedies caused by these practices and demanding justice for the victims.
Besides Liu’s story, the story of a Xuzhou mother-of-eight being tied up and living in abominable conditions in a shed also dominated online discussions for weeks on end.
Liu’s Story: Sold, Orphaned, Abandoned
After Liu Xuezhou posted the aforementioned video on Douyin, the Chinese version of the popular TikTok short video platform, it soon went viral and various Chinese news sites started reporting on Liu’s search for his biological family.
Liu’s resilience was impressive. In interviews, he said that his story did not define him and that he was determined to make something of his life. Since 2018, the young Liu was working to earn money while also going to school. His plan was to be admitted to university.
After his adoptive parents died in a firework explosion, Liu was raised by his grandparents and was sent to boarding school. Liu’s childhood was not a happy one. Being so young without parents, he was a target of school bullies and had to change schools at least four times until, by grade six, he had finally found a school where he could thrive.
Many people supported Liu and wanted to help the teenage boy, who was thought to have been kidnapped as a baby and then bought by his adoptive parents through an intermediary at a Datong hotel for 30,000 yuan ($4735).
Although Liu’s birth certificate said he was born in September of 2005, nobody was sure how old Liu actually was, and his grandparents did not remember the details surrounding his adoption. By late 2021, as a 16-something-year-old, Liu felt it was time to get some answers and find his biological parents. How did he end up being adopted? Was he abducted? Were his parents still out there searching for him?
Through his own efforts – sped up by finding his vaccination records – and with some help of the police, Liu was able to trace down his biological parents. On the evening of December 15, Liu sent a message to a journalist reporting on the case: “I found my mum and dad.”
His parents’ story, however, was not what Liu had expected at all. After DNA tests confirmed that they were in fact his biological parents, Liu was ready to meet them. But what was supposed to be a happy reunion turned out to be a bitter disappointment.
Liu’s biological parents, who were living in Datong, were not together anymore. Liu soon learned that he had not been abducted as a child, but that he had been sold on purpose by his father. His parents were unmarried when they had him, and Liu’s father turned out to have used the money they earned by selling their baby to marry Liu’s birth mother. They married and had another son, but then ended up divorcing. Both remarried again, and Liu’s father even got divorced two more times after that.
Although some of the unhappy circumstances surrounding Liu’s reunion with his parents came out through his posts on social media throughout January of this year, most of the details surrounding his situation only became clear when Liu posted a farewell letter on his Weibo account on January 24th, just a few minutes past midnight.
Titled “Born with little, return with nothing,” Liu posted a lengthy letter explaining his situation.
In this letter, Liu said that besides being sold as a child and becoming an orphan at the age of four, he was also severely bullied by classmates and molested by a teacher at school. His aunt, whom he loved as a mother, also left him behind after she moved away due to a broken marriage.
As he spiraled into depression, Liu felt a spark of hope when he saw the news about Sun Zhuo (孙卓), whose story became one of the major trending news stories of 2021. In 2007, when Sun was only four, he was stolen off the street by a human trafficker. His biological parents never gave up hope they would find their son again and sacrificed everything to be able to fund their search efforts. The Chinese film Dearest (亲爱的) was partly based on their story.
After a years-long search, Sun was found in 2021 due to the help of authorities and face recognition technology that helped trace the person suspected of abducting him. In an unexpected twist, Sun stated that he would prefer to stay with his adoptive parents, who had raised him for a decade. The story triggered many online discussions and raised more awareness on the issue of the trafficking of children in China in times of the country’s one-child policy. Sun’s biological father spoke to the media saying: “For 2022, my biggest wish is that all the abducted children can finally be found.”
It was Sun Zhuo’s story that inspired Liu to search for his own parents, and it was also Sun Zhuo’s story that brought more attention for Liu’s initial video, which struck a chord with many who hoped that he could also be reunited with his parents and actually stay with them.
Liu described how his biological father did not seem happy when Liu first contacted him, and seemed reluctant to meet. His biological father eventually did come to see him, but their communication afterward was not smooth. When his father told Liu that he was sold as a baby so that he could pay for the bride price to marry Liu’s mother, Liu was heartbroken and could not sleep for several days: he was not kidnapped, and his parents never searched for him.
His mother also was not elated that her biological son had found his way back to her. Liu felt unwanted, again, and was also searching for a home to live and was not sure who to turn to anymore. After he asked his biological father for help in buying or renting a place to live, he was blocked on WeChat. Liu then decided to take his parents to court.
Sharing screenshots on social media of the developments between him and his parents, Liu was condemned and bullied by netizens, who accused him of only wanting to find his biological parents for financial gains.
It was all too much for the teenage boy. In his farewell letter, he expressed the hope that the traffickers and biological parents would be punished for their deeds. Liu was later found to have committed suicide at a beach in the city of Sanya, and could no longer be rescued. Liu passed away within a month after meeting his biological parents at the age of just 15 years old.
By now, Liu’s farewell letter has been shared approximately 174,000 times on Weibo, it was ‘liked’ over 2,4 million times and has received thousands of comments.
The topic of Liu’s death exploded on social media and led to national outrage. Many people sympathized with the boy and were angry at all who failed him: “Poor child, abandoned and sold off by his parents, bullied and humiliated by his schoolmates, molested and discriminated by his teacher, cyberbullied by keyboard warriors. Now he’s dead!”
The injustice of Liu’s situation – starting with how he was sold as a child – is what angered people most. China Digital Times recently described how on the Weibo page of Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the doctors who raised the alarm about the coronavirus outbreak, many people also mention Liu Xuezhou. Dr. Li Wenliang was one of the eight so-called ‘whistleblowers’ who tried to warn his colleagues about the Wuhan virus outbreak in late 2019, but was censored and reprimanded by local police for making “false comments.” He later became infected with the virus himself while working at the Wuhan Central Hospital and passed away on February 7th of 2020, sparking a wave of anger and sadness on social media.
Over the past two years, Dr. Li’s Weibo page has become a digital Wailing Wall where people send little messages to remember Dr. Li, tell about their own anxieties and worries, but also address social injustices. As recorded by China Digital Times, one among thousands of comments said:
“Two years ago today, I had a sleepless night because of you, and my Weibo account once got shut down because I posted something about you. Over the past two years, I’ve often wondered: will this world become a better place? But between the Liu Xuezhou incident and the woman in Xuzhou with eight kids, I’ve been disappointed time and time again. If you happen to see Liu Xuezhou, please be good to him.“
Looking at Dr. Li’s Weibo account today, it is not just Liu Xuezhou who is brought up by commenters; ‘the woman in Xuzhou’ is also mentioned by dozens of people as someone experiencing injustice. But who is she?
The Chained-Up Mother in Xuzhou
In late January of 2022, right around the same time when Liu Xuezhou was one of the biggest topics on Chinese social media, a TikTok video showing a woman chained up in a shed went viral online and triggered massive outrage with thousands of people demanding answers about the woman’s circumstances.
The video, filmed by a local vlogger in the village of Huankou in Xuzhou, showed how the woman was kept in a dirty hut without a door in the freezing cold. She did not even wear a coat, and she seemed confused and unable to express herself.
To give the full story, here is the original video that caused the social media storm, which is still ongoing today (tw distressing content, not sure why the lock is blurred, as if that is the most shocking thing about this video..) pic.twitter.com/UOA5zrfeQ4
— Manya Koetse (@manyapan) January 30, 2022
Other TikTok videos that came out around the same time showed how the woman’s husband, a man by the name of Dong Zhimin (董志民), was playing and talking with their eight children in the family home right next to the hut where the mother was confined.
The video caused a storm on social media. Many netizens worried about the woman’s circumstances. Why was she chained up? Was she a victim of human trafficking? Was she being abused? How could she have had eight babies? Was she forced to have so many children? While netizens were speculating about the case and venting their anger, Weibo shut down some of the hashtags dedicated to this topic, but the topic soon popped up everywhere, and people started making artworks and writing essays in light of the case.
Following public demands, local authorities started looking into the case. An initial statement by Feng County, where the village of Huankou is located, was issued on January 28 and it said that the woman, named Yang (杨), married her husband in 1998 and that there was no indication that she was a victim of human trafficking.
The woman was dealing with mental problems and would display sudden violent outbursts, beating children and older people. The family allegedly thought it was best to separate her from the family home during these episodes, letting her stay chained up in a small hut next to the house.
The first statement raised more questions than it answered and more people, including influential Weibo bloggers and media insiders, started investigating the case. Meanwhile, it became clear that husband Dong Zhimin was giving interviews to other vloggers flocking to Huankou. Besides talking about his eight children (seven sons, one daughter) as future providers for the family, he also used his newly-acquired ‘fame’ to make money through social media. This only led to more online anger about Dong exploiting his wife and children.
As the social media storm intensified, more official statements ensued. On January 30, Feng County local officials responded to the controversy in a second statement, in which the Xuzhou mother was identified as Yang *Xia (杨某侠) who allegedly once was “a beggar on the streets” in the summer of 1998 when she was taken in by Dong family and ended up marrying their 30-something son Dong Zhimin.
Local officials did not properly check and verify Yang’s identity information when registering the marriage certificate and the local family planning department also made errors in implementing birth control measures and following up with the family. The statement said that Yang had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was now receiving treatment.
A third, fourth, and even fifth statement issued by authorities on February 7th, 10th, and 23rd confirmed what many on Weibo had suspected all along, namely that Yang had indeed been a victim of human trafficking. Xuzhou authorities said their investigation had brought them to the village of Yagu in Yunnan, a place that was mentioned on Yang’s marriage certificate.
Yang was identified as Xiaohuamei (小花梅), born and raised in Yagu. Yang’s DNA had been compared to that of the family of Xiaohuamei, and the DNA match confirmed that Yang was indeed Xiaohuamei. According to the statements, Xiaohuamei married and moved to another city in 1994, but she divorced and returned to her village two years later, which is when she allegedly also showed signs of mental illness.
Her parents, now deceased, then allegedly ordered a female fellow villager to take their daughter to Jiangsu to get married there. According to the woman, she took Xiaohuamei with her on a train from Yunnan to Jiangsu’s Donghai, but she allegedly ‘went missing’ shortly after arrival. The woman never reported her as missing to the police and she never notified the family.
That woman, along with another man and Dong Zhimin, are now held criminally responsible for illegal detainment and human trafficking. Xiaohuamei was reportedly sold to a man in Donghai for 5,000 yuan ($790) in 1998. Though Xiaohuamei managed to escape, she was sold twice again, eventually ending up with the Dong family.
While details surrounding the case of the ‘chained Xuzhou mother of eight’ are still being discussed on Chinese social media, it has become clear that by now, ‘Yang’ has come to represent many more women like her. Over the past few weeks, the stories of other women who also might be a victim of human trafficking have surfaced, and the public outcry demanding justice for trafficked women is ongoing.
One Social Media Spark Starting a Wildfire
Both in the case of Liu Xuezhou and the Xuzhou mother, it should be noted that their stories initially did not catch the public’s attention because official news media reported them, but because of first-hand videos being posted on TikTok (Douyin) and then being picked up and shared by bigger accounts.
Both Liu’s video and the short video featuring the mother of eight were posted on accounts that were not necessarily very popular: starting as a small spark in an online environment with over 900 million social media users, they were shared, commented on, and then spread like wildfire.
Both stories developed in real-time while netizens were following the case, both stories eventually became too big for Chinese state media to ignore, and both Liu and Yang highlighted bigger social issues in contemporary China, mainly those relating to human trafficking.
Since these cases went viral, there has been a heightened focus on the problem of human trafficking, which mostly occurs in China’s poorer areas with weak governance. The trafficking of especially women and children has various purposes, including forced marriage and illegal adoption in areas where there is a shortage of women (along with a preference for baby boys).
China Daily recently reported that lawmakers and advisers are now pushing for heavier punishment for human trafficking crimes, suggesting that the current penalties imposed on the buyers of women and children are too weak; the maximum prison sentence for those who purchase abducted women and children is three years.
In the case of the Xuzhou mother, there has been online censorship but the ongoing intense public outrage eventually did lead to higher-level research into the case. The mother was rescued from her terrible situation, the human traffickers involved are being held responsible, and so are 17 officials, who will be punished by authorities for their wrongdoings in the case.
As for Liu Xuezhou, his adoptive family members have recently filed a request at the Sanya Public Security Bureau to launch another investigation into his case. Their request was accepted on February 23rd, with multiple people being suspected of criminal offenses, eventually leading to his death. On Weibo, many people are now demanding punishment for Liu’s biological parents.
In late January of this year, following the tragic ending to Liu’s story, Chinese state media1 emphasized how the widespread attention for these kinds of stories in the social media era is also changing how government agencies should interact with the public.
According to Dr. Liu Leming, associate professor at East China University’s Political Science faculty, government agencies need to follow up and respond more quickly to social incidents like these in the internet era: “When public issues emerge, people who are involved in social problems or incidents want to know, more than anything, whether their requests have been seen and who will handle their concerns.”
In light of these recent stories, the public is happy that actions have been taken, but they are not satisfied with how these cases were handled. Many argue that authorities have failed in being transparent, that local governments have not done enough to prevent these cases from happening, and that China should do more to put an end to human trafficking.
And so, they are still posting the stories of children like Liu and women like Xiaohuamei to keep raising awareness and to keep pressuring local authorities and lawmakers to take more action to eradicate these practices.
As Liu is no longer alive and Xiaohuamei, still hospitalized, cannot defend herself, Chinese netizens keep raising their voices for them. In doing so, they have not just impacted how authorities dealt with these specific cases, but they are also changing how cases such as these will be handled in the future.
One Weibo user discussing Liu and the Xuzhou mother wrote: “We need to get to the bottom of these kinds of stories: who is to blame, who made mistakes, and where do we go from here?”
In the meantime, online posts, videos, and artworks honor both Liu and Xiaohuamei, so that their stories will not be forgotten. “Dear little one, springtime has come,” one among thousands of messages still flooding Liu Xuezhou’s Weibo page says: “You have endured too many things that you should have never experienced. It should have been us, the adults, taking care of these things for you. You please go and rest now, we will finish the rest for you.”
For information and support on mental health and suicide, international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.
1 Cao Yin and Li Yang. 2022. “Policymakers, Lawmakers Respond to Opinion Voiced Online.” China Daily Hong Kong, January 28, Page 1-2.
Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.
This text was written for 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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Full Translation of Peng Shuai’s Weibo Post and Timeline of Events
On the night of November 2nd of 2021, a Weibo post by the 35-year-old Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai (彭帅) sent shockwaves across social media. In her lengthy post, the three-time Olympian describes details surrounding an alleged affair she had with the 75-year-old Zhang Gaoli (张高丽), who served as China’s senior Vice-Premier (2013-2018) and was also a member of China’s highest ruling council, the Politburo Standing Committee (2012-2017).
Here, we will give you a short timeline of the things that unfolded from the moment Peng Shuai’s story was published on Weibo, as well as providing the full text of her post and a translation.
Timeline of Events
November 2nd, 2021
On the night of November 2nd of 2021, 35-year-old tennis player Peng Shuai posts her story on her Weibo account, where she has over 590,000 followers. The post comes online at 22:07 and is sent through a mobile phone.
Although Peng’s post was only online for about twenty minutes before it was deleted, its impact was irreversible. Peng Shuai’s Weibo account remained online, but the name ‘Peng Shuai’ started to be censored on Weibo and other Chinese social media platforms, where online discussions about the tennis player and Zhang Gaoli were soon silenced. Peng Shuai’s post and the ensuing silence triggered a wave of global concern about her wellbeing and whereabouts.
November 3, 2021
Peng Shuai’s story makes headlines in the international media, with many Western media outlets describing the issue as a “#MeToo allegation.” within the context of the global #MeToo movement, suggesting Peng’s post was a “MeToo post.” The tennis star did not mention ‘#Metoo’ in her own writings.
November 16, 2021
Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka attracts more international attention for Peng’s whereabouts when she posts the #WhereisPengShuai hashtag on Twitter. Two days later, tennis star Serena Williams also writes on Twitter: “I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai. I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent.”
November 17, 2021
While the issue is still completely silenced in Chinese (social) media, the English-language state media outlet CGTN addresses the commotion on Twitter on November 17, when they share a screenshot of an email allegedly sent by Peng to WTA Chairman Steve Simon, saying she was not actually missing and not unsafe.
November 19, 2021
While many people still raised their concerns on Twitter – and a White House spokesperson even said the Biden administration was ‘deeply concerned’ about the reports alleging that Peng Shuai had gone missing – photos of Peng Shuai in her home showed up on November 19th, posted on Twitter by Chinese journalist Shen Shiwei (沈诗伟) claiming the tennis star posted them on her WeChat moments herself.
November 20, 2021
One day later, a video was also shared on Twitter by the same Shen, showing Peng enjoying dinner with friends and having conversations in which it was clearly indicated that the date was November 20, 2021.
November 21, 2021
During that very same weekend of November 20-21, Peng also reappeared in public when she attended the Junior Tennis Finals in Beijing. This was also the very first time in 19 days that she ‘reappeared’ in mainland China’s online media spheres, where photos of her attendance at the games were also shared online.
On that same day, it was announced by the Olympics governing body that International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach held a 30-minute long video phone call with Peng Shuai. Chinese sports official Li Lingwei and the Chair of the Athletes’ Commission, Emma Terho, reportedly were also on the call, during which Peng explained that she was safe and well at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected.
November 22, 2021
A Weibo post published by the French embassy in Beijing marks the first time for Peng Shuai’s case to be addressed on Chinese social media.
In their post, the French embassy expresses concerns about the lack of information surrounding Peng Shuai, and reiterates its belief in promoting freedom of expression, equality between men and women, and combating sexual and gender-based violence. The post receives many replies, but its comment section is heavily censored.
December 1st, 2021
The WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) announces the suspension of all tournaments in China amid concerns about the safety of Peng Shuai.
In a statement by Steve Simon, WTA Chairman & CEO, the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, was said to also be related to concerns about risks that all players and staff could face if the WTA were to hold events in China in 2022.
Due to the Covid19 situation, there were no WTA events scheduled for China in the near future.
December 7, 2021
The US announces a “diplomatic boycott” of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China. American athletes will still compete at the Winter Games. Although this boycott was not necessarily directed linked to Peng Shuai, many media outlets did connect it to concerns over the tennis player.
December 19, 2021
In an interview with Singapore-based media outlet Lianhe Zaobao (联合早报), Peng Shuai claims she did not accuse Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her.
A video issued by Lianhe Zaobao shows a reporter asking Peng questions during a skiing competition event in Shanghai, where Peng could be seen talking to Chinese basketball player Yao Ming. When the reporter asks Peng if she is free, she answers that she has always been free and is not being monitored.
When the reporter addresses the allegations of sexual assault, Peng says:
“First and foremost, I must emphasize. I have never said or written about anyone sexually assaulting me. That’s a very important point. On the Weibo post, that’s my personal issue.”
Peng also confirms that the English email that was screenshotted and published by CGTN on November 17 was written by her in the Chinese version, but that it was translated into English for her since her English language skills aren’t good enough to write such an email herself.
Full Text Translation of Peng Shuai’s Weibo Post
In a previous post, What’s on Weibo gave a partial translation of Peng’s Weibo post. Here, we will provide a full translation. Please note that this is a translation provided by What’s on Weibo and not an official translation issued by any other party.
“I know I can’t say it clearly and that it’s useless to say. But I want to say it anyway. I’m such a hypocrite. I’ll admit I’m not a good girl, I’m a bad bad girl. About three years ago, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you had retired and asked Dr. Liu from the Tianjin Tennis Center to contact me again to play tennis at the Kang Ming Hotel in Beijing. After we finished playing in the afternoon, you and your wife Kang Jie took me with you to your home. You then took me to your room, and like what happened in Tianjin over ten years ago, you wanted to have sex with me.”
“I was very scared that afternoon, I had not expected things to go this way, someone was guarding outside,1 because nobody would believe that a wife would allow this. Seven years earlier we had sexual relations once, and then you – promoted as a member of the Standing Committee – went to Beijing and never contacted me again. I had buried it all inside me, and since you were not planning on taking responsibility at all, why did you come and look for me again, take me to your house, and force me [逼 = force, press for] into sex? I have no proof, and it would be impossible for me to keep any evidence. You denied everything afterward, but it is true that you liked me first, or otherwise, I wouldn’t have had a way to come into contact with you.”
“That afternoon I originally did not agree and cried the whole time, and I still had dinner with you and auntie Kang Jie together. You said the universe is so big, that the earth is just a grain of sand in the universe, and that we as mankind are not even a grain of sand, and you said a lot more to alleviate the load on my mind. After dinner I still did not want to, and you said you hated me! You also said that in these seven years, you never forgot me and that you would be good for me etc etc. I was afraid and panicked and carrying the emotions of seven year ago, I agreed…yes, we had sex.”
“The feelings between two people can be very complicated, I can’t clearly explain, [but] after that day I again began to open up to your love. In the days I interacted with you afterward, purely from how we got along, you were a very good person and also treated me well. We would talk about anything from modern history to ancient times, you spoke to me about so much knowledge and talked about economic philosophy, [we had] endless talks about topics. We played chess together, sang songs, played ping pong, billiards, and, including tennis, we could always have a good time. Our personalities got along well together, it looked like we were a great match.”
“Since I left home early in my childhood, I felt a lack of love in my heart. Facing everything that was happening, I never thought I was a good girl. I really hated myself, hated why I had to come into this world and experience this disaster. You told me that you loved me, very very much, and that in the next life you hoped to meet me when you are 20 and I am 18 years old. You said you were very lonely, that you felt miserable, we had days of endless chats, endless talks, you said there was no way for you to divorce in your position, that if we’d met while you were in Shandong, you could have still divorced, but that there was no way now. I thought about staying with you like this without attracting public attention, which was okay in the beginning, but the days slowly started to change, and there was too much injustice and insult. Every time you let me go, your wife would say many offensive insulting words to me behind your back, [giving me] all kinds of sneers. When I said I like to eat duck tongue, auntie Kang Jie would go and say ~ ugh, how disgusting. During Beijing’s winter smog, I said sometimes the air is not very good, and auntie Kang Jie would tell me ‘that’s just your suburbs, we do not notice a thing here.’ And so on, there were many of such talks, but she would never do it when you were there. It was similar to when we were together – when it was just the two of us you’d be this way, when there were others there you’d act that way. I told you that these kinds of words were really painful to hear.”
“From the first day I met you up to today, I’ve never used a penny of yours, and I’ve never used you for any personal benefits, but a person’s status is very important. I deserved all of this, I courted disaster. From beginning to end, you have always asked me to keep my relationship with you secret, let alone tell my mother that we were in a relationship. Every time she brought me to the Xishiku cathedral, I would have to change to your car to be able to enter the courtyard. She always thought I was going to your place to play mahjong and cards. We were transparent individuals in each other’s lives. Your wife seemed like the Empress in Empresses of the Palace (甄嬛传), and I can’t describe how bad I felt, and how many times I wondered if I was still an actual person myself. I felt like a zombie, I was pretending so much every day that I didn’t know who the real me was anymore. I shouldn’t have come into this world, but I didn’t have the courage to die. I wanted to live a simpler life, but things turned out contrary to what I wanted.”
“There was a big dispute on the night of the 30th [October], and you told me to come to your place on the afternoon of the 2nd [November] so we could talk things over. Today a phone call came that something had come up and you’d contact me again. Evading everything, with the excuse that we would get in touch another day ……, this is the same “disappearing act” as seven years ago, getting rid of me after you’re done playing with me. You said there were no transactions between us, that’s true, with all the feelings and money between us, it had nothing to do with power and wealth. But I have nowhere to leave my feelings of the past three years, it’s very hard to face. You were always afraid that I would bring some kind of recorder and leave evidence or something. Apart from myself, there is indeed no evidence left, no recordings, no videos, only my distorted real experiences. I know that for someone of your status, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ve said that you’re not afraid. But even it’s like striking a stone with an egg, and courting self-destruction like a moth to the flame, I will tell the truth about you. With your intelligence, I’m certain you will deny it or you can blame it on me, or disregard it. You always said you hoped your mother in heaven could bless and protect you. I am a bad woman who doesn’t deserve to be a mother, but you are a father with both a son and a daughter. I have asked you this before: if it was your adopted daughter, would you have forced her to do this? Do you still have the courage to face your mother after everything you’ve done in your lifetime? We sure all like to pose as people with high morals…”
By Manya Koetse
1 There’s been some discussions on the correct translation of this part of the sentence (“一个人在外帮守着”). One of our readers suggested translating it as “an outsider fending for herself,” although others dispute that translation. “A person guarding outside” is another way to translate this sentence: “I was very scared that afternoon, I had not expected things to go this way, a person on guard outside, because nobody would believe that a wife would allow this.”
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