China’s Weepy Headline Problem
This summer has not been kind to southwest China. Sichuan province and the neighboring Chongqing municipality spent weeks in the grips of the worst heat wave on record, marked by prolonged high temperatures and drought. The abnormal temperatures and lack of rain caused severe power shortages across Sichuan, which is heavily dependent on hydropower, and contributed to forest fires in the hills around Chongqing.
Compounding residents’ misery, no sooner had the heat finally receded than local authorities began implementing a new round of strict COVID-19 countermeasures, culminating in the announcement last Thursday that Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu, would lock down its 21 million residents to stop an outbreak.
Online, the region’s residents complained that this summer has been like playing a video game in “hell mode.” The officially sanctioned hashtag on microblogging platform Weibo framed southwest China’s summer from hell somewhat differently: “Sichuan and Chongqing Residents Are Gonna Cry” started trending on Chinese social media on Aug. 22; the phrase eventually appeared in posts from 36 media outlets, including the influential Caijing magazine and the local state media site Hongxing.
For locals, the hashtag offered another chance to share their experiences. Its replies were full of stories about the Jialing River in downtown Chongqing running dry, subway systems operating in the dark to save electricity, and residents flocking to malls for the air conditioning. Commentors from elsewhere responded with the usual pablum, leaving joking comments like “Sichuan and Chongqing are inside a heat forcefield,” or “Stay strong, Spicy Hot Pot!”
Such infantile expressions have become an increasingly common sight on Chinese social media in recent years. Commonly viewed as an outgrowth of fan clubs and “cute culture,” user responses to major disasters are often indistinguishable from the utterings of emotionally unstable children. When they see something interesting, they’ll post “dying laughing”; read a sad news story and they’re “moved to tears”; and their response to personal difficulties or problems is “I’m really gonna cry” — or possibly just the onomatopoeic crying sound “Wuwuwu.”
On its own, there’s nothing particularly notable or unique about this. More concerning is the way these cutesy expressions are being fueled and reinforced by official and mainstream media outlets.
This shift became increasingly noticeable in the early days of the pandemic in 2020. Just 48 hours after the central city of Wuhan announced it would lock down due to the coronavirus, the local authorities set about constructing two makeshift hospitals to house patients in need of care. On Jan. 28, the new media platform Yangshipin launched a special livestream of the construction sites, allowing ordinary Chinese to watch their progress.
The streams were a surprise hit, attracting more than 10 million viewers across China. With little better to do, the audience soon began nicknaming the construction equipment. For example, tall cranes became “Emperor Gaozongs,” cement mixer trucks were “Cement Paste Spitters,” and small diggers were “Little Yellows.” Collectively, these vehicles became known as the “Excavator Star Group,” each with its own fan club and followers.
Seeking to capitalize on the unexpected success of its streams, Yangshipin’s primary backer, state broadcaster CCTV, quickly compiled a list of all the nicknames and asked people to vote for their favorite, turning a hospital construction site into an idol competition.
Even at the time, some observers voiced their discomfort with fan culture being deployed in this way. Jiang Sida, one of the stars of the popular debate show “U Can U Bibi,” argued on microblogging site Weibo that the use of entertainment-style expressions in the context of the emerging pandemic was “extremely inappropriate.” But users rejected the charge, responding that there was nothing wrong with people seeking some light relief during difficult times, and pointed out that if more viewers followed along with the hospitals’ construction as a result, then it was a positive thing that could bring the country together. The “debate” ended with Jiang Sida crying during a livestream about the targeted abuse he was receiving online.
Another example occurred during the height of Wuhan’s lockdown, when the phrase “Hot Dry Noodles, stay strong!” went viral on social media. A well-known dish from the city, the hot dry noodles meme caught on like wildfire, once again with the backing of state media. The People’s Daily quickly published an image on its social media accounts showing a bowl of Beijing fried sauce noodles, a Shaanxi roujiamo sandwich, and Changsha stinky tofu sending their support to a teary-eyed bowl of Wuhan hot dry noodles in the hospital.
In the years since, the use of local dishes to refer to cities and regions has become routine even in major state-backed outlets, including the recent use of “Spicy Hot Pot” in reference to Sichuan and Chongqing.
To an extent, this all can be seen as simply another example of legacy media organizations worrying that they’re out of touch and overcorrecting by trying to mimic youth culture. When major outlets started using “kiddy speak,” many younger people at first felt flattered and surprised at seeing their language reflected in mainstream media, which only encouraged media outlets to double down. The result was a race to the bottom, as media outlets and audiences alike described the world in ever cuter and less realistic terms.
There are signs that this is beginning to change. Not long after “Sichuan and Chongqing Residents Are Gonna Cry” started trending on Weibo, users in Sichuan and Chongqing complained that the harshness of life over the past few months was ill-suited to frivolous expressions like “gonna cry,” and expressed frustration at how their problems were being exploited for clicks.
Others quickly chimed in. “Writing properly online like an adult has become an increasingly rare quality nowadays,” wrote the popular science author He Senbao. He also offered the following suggestion to his readers: “When you see someone in trouble, put away the childlike desire to perform and act like an adult. Listen seriously and sincerely, show your concern, and, when necessary, help. These actions are much more appropriate than posting emoticons to spin something positive from a tragedy.”
There are signs that even mainstream media outlets are beginning to rethink their cutesy depictions of disaster. Both China Youth Daily and the Workers’ Daily published commentaries on the “Gonna Cry” hashtag, with the former declaring that “treating the severe heatwave in Sichuan and Chongqing in a jokey and superficial manner not only shows a lack of humanity, but also affects people’s ability to trace the causes of disasters and work together to boost social resilience.”
Notably, the hashtag that trended on Weibo immediately after Sichuan was struck by a 6.8 magnitude earthquake Monday — “Sichuanese Have It Too Hard” — had disappeared from the platform by Tuesday.
It’s hard to say what’s driving this shift. It may simply be that social media users are increasingly tired of cute language, or perhaps state media wants to restore a sense of professionalism to its reporting. Or maybe it’s because it’s become increasingly hard to see the bright side of things. No corner of China has gone untouched by the challenges of the past three years. It’s one thing to use tone-deaf language to try to cheer up others, but the inadequacy of that response is hard to ignore when you yourself become the target of meaningless calls to “stay strong.” Regardless, it would be nice to see serious participation in social issues make a comeback.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Visual elements from Nobi Prizue and Apoev/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)