2017-10-09 10:59:42

On messaging app WeChat, contests soliciting votes on everything from students’ artistic talents to workers’ job performance are fast shifting from fair-minded competitions to moneymaking opportunities, The Beijing News reported Monday.

In China, it’s not uncommon for schools, private companies, and even government departments to turn to democratic processes to recognize exceptional individuals. In recent years, however, the ballot boxes for these contests have migrated from the physical to the virtual world, finding increased engagement on social platforms like WeChat.

When a person becomes a contestant in one of these merit-acknowledging contests, the first thing they do is send their mobile contacts a link to their voting page, often imploring both friends and acquaintances to forward the link to their own contacts as well. But where the rules of fairness previously limited each user to a single vote per day, online platforms now give more voting power, in the form of virtual gifts, to individuals who are willing to shell out extra money.

The Beijing News reported that on the page for a children’s drawing competition, voters could buy their preferred contestants virtual lollipops for 3 yuan ($0.45) each, with each e-treat being worth 15 votes. The more expensive the gift, the more votes it gives: For the same contest, a cruise ship emoji that cost 100 yuan was converted into a whopping 300 votes.

For those who are especially invested in a candidate’s success, there is also the option to buy votes from online agencies, some of which even guarantee a specific final ranking. The Beijing News reported that this service can cost anywhere from 2,000 to 8,000 yuan.

Last year, Han Hong, a young mother in Beijing, entered her 3-year-old daughter into a “Kids Say the Darndest Things” contest at her nursey school. Han told Sixth Tone she watched as some contestants went from having very few votes to thousands in just a few days. “It all seemed too exaggerated to me,” she said.

Han added that she wasn’t especially interested in any of the prizes, which included an equestrian club membership, art classes, and a pool membership — she just hoped her daughter would gain more confidence from participating in the contest.

But looking back, Han doesn’t believe the competition was fighting fair. “I thought the contest was meaningless,” she said.

Yang Wenhan, a professor of maternal and child health at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, capital of southern China’s Guangdong province, told Sixth Tone that he disapproved of holding such online contests for children because of the possibility that they could distort children’s concepts of success and self-actualization. “The manipulated ballots change the meaning of the contest to something else,” Yang said. “Eventually, the child may think that success does not come from their own competence, but from a family’s economic power.”

In the past, these contests have also raised confidentiality concerns, as participants are often required to provide their personal information: a name, a photo, an age — and sometimes even a home address. Moreover, voters are generally required to grant the contest platform access to personal information on their social apps.

In December 2016, the Ministry of Education released a notice warning against “unnecessary” online contests. “Schools should resist the tendency to be vulgar, entertainment-oriented, and commercialized,” it read.

Han, for her part, said she would be more cautious with such online contests in the future. “We tried our best to appeal for votes on WeChat, but in the end we were just a sparring partner,” she said.

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: Yang Guang for Sixth Tone)