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“Without Limits, There is No Freedom” – Controversial French Burkini Ban Goes Trending on Weibo

France’s ‘burkini’ bans recently sparked outrage on Twitter, where many netizens called them “racist” and “oppressive”. On Chinese social media, however, many netizens seem to support the French ban on Islamic swimwear, while other Weibo users just don’t understand what all the “fuss” is about

Manya Koetse

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France’s ‘burkini’ bans recently sparked outrage on Twitter, where many netizens called them “racist” and “oppressive”. On Chinese social media, however, many netizens seem to support the French ban on Islamic swimwear, while other Weibo users just don’t understand what all the “fuss” is about.

On Weibo, various Chinese media recently reported about mayors in different French cities banning the ‘burkini’, a type of Islamic swimwear for women. The news of the ban, and photographs of police allegedly asking a woman to remove her conservative beachwear, were shared amongst Chinese netizens and attracted many comments.

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On Twitter, the ban has led to a stream of angry reactions, with many calling it “oppressive”, “racist” and “absurd”, while defending wearing the right to wear a burkini as “the right to cover up”.

The French burkini bans are based on ideas that the body wear item is “not just a casual choice”, but “part of an attempt by political Islamism to win recruits and test the resilience of the French republic” (Economist 2016). The bans come after a series of deadly terrorist attacks over the past 1,5 years.

Religious neutrality is a value that has been strongly upheld in France, where the government adheres to a strict form of secularism known as laïcité – designed to keep religion out of public life (Economist 2014). Since 2004, wearing conspicuous religious symbols in public schools became illegal. According to Brookings, that law was widely condemned in the United States, where high schools allow students to wear head scarfs, Jewish caps, large Christian crosses, or other conspicuous religious signs.

But French supporters argued that in the existing social, political and cultural context of France, they could not tolerate these religious symbols. In 2010, wearing a full face veil was also prohibited by law.

 

“Don’t you get it? This is all for the safety of the country.”

 

On August 24, Chinese news site The Observer (观察者网) posted on Weibo: “Where are the human rights? French police force women to take off her muslim swimwear. Recently, at a beach in the French city of Nice, French police requested a woman to take off her muslim swimwear, which triggered much controversy. At the time, the woman was wearing a so-called ‘burkini’ (布基尼) while sunbathing. Four tall men went to her while holding their police stick and pepper-spray.”

The post, just one out of many micro-blogs posted on this topic on Sina Weibo, attracted near 6000 comments. The most popular comment (i.e. receiving the most ‘likes’ from other netizens) said: “The rule of France banning clear religious symbols in public does not just apply to muslims. This rule is the same for all religions.”1

1_c885d82e-cd40-436d-8151-ef3dfac32a08_1024x1024A burkini sold on a swimwear website.

The number two most popular comment read: “Don’t blame the police for this! France is afraid to get bombed! They are afraid of people hiding bombs in their clothing in crowded places.”2

“Don’t you get it? This is all for the safety of the country,” the following commenter wrote.3

 

“Freedom is not unlimited, freedom is relative, freedom is limited – without limits, there is no freedom.”

 

Many Chinese netizens see the burkini ban as a direct consequence of the strings of islamist terrorist attack occurring in France over the past 18 months. “This is how it should be, China is the same, there can be no exemptions,”4 one netizen says.

In China, a ban on wearing burqa’s, or ‘face masking veils’ (蒙面罩袍), was legally approved in January of 2015. The prohibition on burqa’s applies specifically to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, home to the majority of China’s muslims.

A year earlier, Chinese authorities also implemented several measures in Xinjiang to keep religious expressions to a minimum after a string of attacks allegedly committed by Chinese muslim extremists. The measures, amongst others, did not allow fasting for Ramadan, no niqabs, hijabs or large beards in buses.

[rp4wp]

Underneath a Weibo post on the burkini ban by China’s Lifeweek (@三联生活周刊), the number one popular comment says: “To all the people here saying that what you wear is a personal freedom: it was also enforced that women could no longer have bound feet [in China], with the police parading the foot binding cloths out in the streets. Some women felt so humiliated that they committed suicide. Do you also feel that their right needed to be defended? (..) Freedom is not unlimited, freedom is relative, freedom is limited – without limits, there is no freedom.”5

 

” What is all the fuss about?”

 

But not all netizens agree with these views. One micro-blogger, who goes by the name of ‘Demons and Monsters‘, said: “Although I am opposed to the burqa, I am also against the enforcement of wearing less clothing. What if you caught a cold? You are an endangerment to others if you fully cover yourself in a public place, but it is your freedom not to expose too much.”

“What about the West and its human rights? Its freedom of religion?” another Weibo user remarks.6

Noteworthy about the burkini ban issue on Weibo, is that although (state) media seem to denounce it in their reporting (“Where are the human rights?”), the majority of netizens seem to support it. When Chinese news site Jiemian posted the news on Weibo saying: “A setback for freedom? Three cities in France prohibit muslim swimsuits”, it got the response from netizens: “A setback? This is progression!”7, and others saying: “People keep mentioning human rights, and freedom. Take a look at Europe’s terrorist attacks – what does it [still] mean?”8

“When you come to a place, you follow their guidelines and customs. This is normal. It is also a way of showing respect to the local [culture]. What is all the fuss about? Should muslims be an exception to the rule?”, one 45-year-old Weibo user from Shandong writes.

 

“I thought we were talking about facekini’s here.”

 

Another person compares the burkini to the Japanese kimono: “I think a lot of people here do not understand the feeling of French people. For example, what if you would walk down the street and see that in China people are wearing kimono’s? When in Rome, do as the Romans do, or just go back to your own country. Don’t use religion as an excuse.”9

Although the majority of the netizen’s reactions on Weibo are different than those on Twitter, a recurring issue on both social media networks is the focus on ‘freedom’, with some Chinese netizens emphasizing the fact that what you wear is your own freedom. But the most-liked comments on Weibo are those stressing that freedom is relative: “Many people say that a woman can wear what she likes, that it’s her freedom. But did you ever think about whether these women have the freedom not to wear it? They clearly don’t.”10

There are also those who confuse the ‘burkini’ (布基尼) with China’s ‘facekini‘ (脸基尼) (“I thought we were talking about facekini’s for a moment!“), although for now, it is highly likely that neither are welcome on the beaches of Nice.

8f77a4b8jw1f70p7j6qctj20dw07d3z7China’s infamous ‘facekini’

– By Manya Koetse

1 “但其实法国禁止民众在公共场合显露出明显的宗教标志的规定,不只是针对穆斯林。 这个法规对各大宗教是平等的,比如在公共场所佩戴十字架,佩戴佛珠,严格的说,都是不符合法规的。”
2 “别喷警察了!法国是被炸怕了 就怕人群密集的地方 衣服里那么厚有藏炸弹”
3 “那是为了国家安全,你懂个屁[doge]”
4“必须这样,中国的也一样,不能搞特殊化”
5 “评论里谈到穿什么是个人自由,当年女性不能再裹脚也是强制性的,警察们挑着裹脚布招摇过市,无数女性感觉被羞辱自杀,你是否认为她们的自由也应该被捍卫?就是现在很多女性也自愿回家自愿生多胎自愿流产自愿被打死,她们的自由呢?自由不是无限的,自由是相对的,自由是受限的,没有限制就没有自由。”
6 西方的人权呢?宗教自由呢?
7“这是倒退?这是进步!”
8“还有人提人权,自由。不看看欧洲被恐袭搞成什么了么?”
9 “我看很多人不了解法国人是怎样一种感受,打个比方,就跟你走在街上看到中国有人穿和服的时候[微笑]所谓入乡要随俗,不然真的请回自己国家。别拿宗教当借口这里不适合这样的宗教,你为何还来呢?”
10“很多人都说那些女性喜欢穿什么就穿什么,是她们的自由。但是洗地的那些人有没有想过,她们有不穿这个的自由吗,很明显没有”

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

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

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China Media

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

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

Manya Koetse

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PREMIUM CONTENT

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

In one poster disseminated by People’s Daily, Taiwan is depicted on the left – resembling a piece of the yellowish root – as a part of the character “归” (guī, to return, go back to). The remainder of the character consists of various slogans commonly used by Chinese official media to emphasize that Taiwan is part of China.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Manya Koetse

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©2024 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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About the “AI Chatbot Based on Xi Jinping” Story

Key takeaways about the ‘Xi Jinping chatbot’, jokingly referred to as ‘Chat Xi PT’ by foreign media outlets.

Manya Koetse

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This week, various English-language newspapers reported that China is launching its very own Xi Jinping AI chatbot. China’s top internet regulator is reportedly planning to unveil a new chatbot trained on the political philosophy of Xi Jinping. This Large Language Model (LLM) is humorously referred to as ‘Chat Xi PT’ by the Financial Times and in other foreign media reports.

The Times of India website headlined that “China builds AI chatbot trained on Xi Jinping’s thoughts.” News site Asia Financial reported that “China has unveiled a chatbot trained to think like President Xi Jinping.” Various outlets even called it a “ChatGPT chatbot based on Xi Jinping.”

The Financial Times calls the application “China’s latest answer to OpenAI” and notes that “Beijing’s latest attempt to control how artificial intelligence informs Chinese internet users has been rolled out as a chatbot trained on the thoughts of President Xi Jinping.”

Besides the Financial Times article by Ryan McMorrow, media reports were largely based on a piece in the South China Morning Post authored by Sylvie Zhuang, titled “China rolls out large language model AI based on Xi Jinping Thought.”

Zhuang detailed how Xi Jinping’s political philosophy, along with other themes aligned with the official government narrative, form the core content of the chatbot, which is launched at a time when China “tries to use artificial intelligence to drive economic growth while maintaining strict regulatory control over cybersecurity.”

News about the supposed “Xi Jinping chatbot” is based on a post published on the WeChat account of the Cyberspace Administration magazine.

The magazine in question is China Cyberspace (中国网信), overseen by the Cyberspace Administration of China (国家互联网信息办公室) and published by the China Cyberspace Research Institute (中国网络空间研究院).

 

“Cyberspace Information Research Large Model Application”


 

On May 20, China Cyberspace (中国网信杂志) posted the following text on WeChat, which was viewed less than 6000 times within two days (translation by What’s on Weibo):

 

“Recently, the Cyberspace Information Research Large [Language] Model Application developed by the China Cyberspace Research Institute has been officially launched and is being tried out internally.” [1]

“As an authoritative and high-end think tank in the Cybersecurity and Informatization field, the China Cyberspace Research Institute relied on the data of the “Internet Information Research Database” and organized a special tech team to independently develop the Cyberspace Information Research Large Model Application, to take the lead in demonstrating the innovative development and application of generative AI technology in the field of Cybersecurity and Informatization.”

“The corpus of this Large Model [LLM] is sourced from seven major speciality knowledge bases within the “Internet Information Research Database,” including the “Comprehensive Database of Cyber Information Knowledge”, the “Knowledge Base of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” “Dynamic Cyber Knowledge Base,” “Internet Information Journal Knowledge Base,” “Internet Information Report Knowledge Base,” and more. Users can independently select different categories of knowledge bases for smart question-and-answering. The specialization and authority of the corpus ensures the professionalism of the content that’s generated.”

“Do you want to quickly make a summarized report on the current status of AI development? Are you curious about the differences between ‘new quality productive forces’ and ‘traditional productivity’? This Large Model application can quickly produce it for you!”

“The Cyberspace Information Research Large Model Application is based on domestically registered open-source and commercially available pre-trained language models. By combining Information Retrieval technology with specialized Cyberspace Information knowledge, it can do smart question-and-answering [Q&A chatbot], it can generate articles, give summaries, do Chinese-English translations, and many other kinds of tasks in the field of Cybersecurity and Informatization to meet the various demands of users.”

“The system used for the Cyberspace Information Research Large Model Application is deployed on a dedicated local server of the China Cyberspace Research Institute. Data is processed from this local server, ensuring high security. This application will become one of the embedded functions of the “Internet Information Research Database” and authorized users invited for targeted testing can access and use it.”

“The Cyberspace Information Research Large Model Application will also support users to customize and build new knowledge bases. Users uploading public data and personal documents can analyze and infer, further expanding the scope of personalised use by users.”

 

Although some Chinese media sources reported on the launch of the application, it barely received traction on Chinese social media.

At the time of writing, the only official accounts posting about the application on Chinese social media are those related to research institutions or the Cyberspace Administration of China.

 

Key Takeaways on the “Chat Xi PT” Application:


 

So what are the key takeaways about the so-called, supposed ‘Chat Xi PT’ application that various foreign media have been writing about?

■ Focus on Cyberspace Administration and Digital Governance:
Contrary to some English-language media reports, the application is not primarily centered around Xi Jinping Thought but rather emphasizes Cyberspace Administration and digital governance. Its official name, the “Cyberspace Information Research Large Model Application” (网信研究大模型应用), does not even mention Xi Jinping.

■ Not a Rival to OpenAI’s ChatGPT:
Unlike what has been suggested in the media reports, this particular application should not be seen in the light of China “creating rivals to the likes of Open AI’s ChatGPT” (FT). Instead, it caters to a specific group of users engaged in specialized research or operating within certain knowledge fields. There are many others (commercial) chatbots in China that could be seen as Chinese alternatives to OpenAI’s ChatGPT. This is not one of them.

■ Modernization of Cyberspace Authorities:
Rather than solely meeting user demand, the application underscores China’s Cyberspace authorities’ modernization efforts by integrating generative AI technology into their own platforms.

■ Clarifying “Xi Jinping Thought”:
Various English-language media reports conflate “Xi Jinping Thought” with “thoughts of Xi Jinping.” “Xi Jinping Thought” specifically refers to “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” the theories, body of ideas that were incorporated into the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party in 2017.

■ Nothing “New” about the Application:
The ‘Cyberspace Information Research Large Model Application’ is based on existing LLMs and functions as a tool for navigating databases and information in the AI era, rather than representing a groundbreaking innovation or an actual ‘Xi Jinping chatbot.’ While it may have been written as a tongue-in-cheek headline, let’s be clear: there is no such thing as a ‘Chat Xi PT.’

 
By Manya Koetse

[1]About the translation of the term “网信” (wǎngxìn): in this text, I’ve used different translations for the term “网信” (wǎngxìn) depending on the context of its use. The term can be translated into English as “cyberspace” or “internet information,” but since it is mostly used in relation to China’s Cyberspace Administration and digital governance, it is sometimes more appropriate to refer to it as Cyberspace Security and Information,like the term “国家网信部门” which translates to “national cybersecurity and informatization department” (Also see translations by DigiChina).

 

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Full Text by China Cyberspace:

“近日,由中国网络空间研究院开发的网信研究大模型应用已正式上线并内部试用。

垂直专业:聚焦网信领域

作为网信领域权威高端智库,中国网络空间研究院依托“网信研究数据库”数据,组织专门技术团队,自主开发了网信研究大模型应用,率先示范生成式人工智能技术在网信研究领域的创新发展和落地应用。

该大模型语料库来源于“网信研究数据库”的七大网信专业知识库,包括“网信知识总库”“习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想知识库”“网信动态知识库”“网信期刊知识库”“网信报告知识库”等。用户可自主选择不同类别的知识库进行智能问答。语料库的专业性、权威性保证了生成内容的专业性。

便捷高效:实现多种功能

想快速列出关于人工智能发展现状的报告提纲?想知道新质生产力和传统生产力的不同之处?网信研究大模型应用能够迅速生成!

网信研究大模型应用基于已备案的国内开源可商用预训练语言模型,通过将检索增强生成技术和网信专业知识相结合,实现了网信领域的智能问答、文稿生成、概括总结、中英互译等多种功能,可满足用户的多种需求。

安全可靠:数据本地处理

网信研究大模型应用系统部署在中国网络空间研究院的专属本地服务器,数据由本地服务器进行处理,具有较高的安全性。该大模型应用将成为“网信研究数据库”的嵌入功能之一,获得授权的定点测试用户可以应邀使用该应用。

网信研究大模型应用还将支持用户自定义新建知识库,可通过加载用户自己上传的公开数据、个人文档进行分析推理,进一步拓展用户的个性化使用范围。”

Featured image by What’s on Weibo, image of Xi Jinping under Wikimedia Commons.

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©2024 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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