South China Sea, Olympic darlings and national scandals: China’s most talked about news stories in 2016
The good, the bad and the bizarre in a year of mainland internet
As another year draws to a close, we look back at some of the biggest stories that captivated the world’s most populous nation and sparked the most heated discussions online.
Patriotic responses to the international ruling on the South China Sea
In July, a day before an international court was due to rule on China and the Philippines’ claims in the South China Sea, the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece People’s Daily posted a map on microblogging site Weibo with a phrase reading “This is China, we can’t lose even a single dot”.
The post was an instant hit online, receiving nearly 700,000 likes and 2 million shares.
The next day, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights and that Beijing had caused severe ecological damage to the coral reefs in the area by building artificial islands.
Chinese internet users responded to the ruling – which Beijing rejected – by calling for a boycott of
Philippine fruit, especially bananas. Slogans like “Starve the Filipinos to Death” and “If you want to eat mango, buy Thailand’s” were widely circulated.
Some dried mango vendors on Chinese e-commerce platform Taobao posted photos with captions calling for boycotts such as “These dried mangos are from the Philippines and will be disposed of and will not be sold anymore” or “The authentic dried mango from China’s Filipino province”.
There were reports of people, mostly in smaller cities, holding banners in front of US fast-food restaurants including KFC asking people not to eat there. The US is a traditional military ally of the Philippines.
A week later, Xinhua and People’s Daily, in an apparent bid to play down the furore, published articles criticising Chinese social media users’ “irrational patriotism”. Pictures of people protesting outside KFC were deleted by censors on the internet.
There were approximately 6.5 billion views and more than eight million posts under the hashtag #China: Not even a bit can be left behind”# on Weibo at the time of going to press. The topic also received more than 1 million votes and topped a poll of “Annual Events of 2016” initiated by Weibo.
Outcry over young man’s death leads to overhaul of China’s internet giant Baidu
The death of college student and cancer victim Wei Zexi stirred up wide public anger towards Chinese search engine giant Baidu and the murky online environment for health information.
Wei received treatment at a hospital in Beijing that he found through a sponsored link on Baidu, only later to find out later that “Stanford developed” technique he was offered was obsolete and had long been abandoned by US hospitals.
His family borrowed more than 200,000 yuan (HK$223,000) for a type of immunotherapy from the Second Hospital of the Beijing Armed Police.
Wei died on April 12 of synovial sarcoma, a rare soft tissue cancer that usually occurs near the joints of the arm, leg or neck.
His post on Zhihu, a Chinese question-and-answer website, in which he had detailed his experience of seeking treatment, attracted more than 50,000 likes and 9,000 answers, while posts related to this subject on Weibo attracted more than 4.2 billion reads and 168,000 comments.
The Cyberspace Administration of China, China’s internet watchdog, sent inspectors to Baidu on May 2 to look into the matter following the outcry after Wei’s death, causing company’s s shares to slump by nearly 8%.
It remains unclear whether the link Wei followed on Baidu was misleading.
The inspectors said the company needed “an immediate overhaul” after the inspection, adding that Baidu relied excessively on profits from paid listings in search results, and did not clearly label such listings as the result of commercial promotion, compromising the objectivity and impartiality of search results.
Baidu is the Chinese alternative to Google, who had to withdraw from the mainland in 2010 after rejecting demands to censor its search results, required by the government.
Celebrity couple’s bitter divorce highlights growing gap between China’s rural and urban residents
The divorce of Chinese movie star Wang Baoqiang and Ma Rong was the hottest news item on the mainland on October 18, with millions of online viewers watching live broadcasts about the case on major Chinese news portals.
The attention paid to Wang’s divorce declaration far exceeded the usual level of interest in celebrity break-ups in China, as it underlines the widening gap between rural and urban residents, who have two types of hukou, or household registration that is linked to person’s place of birth and stipulates what social welfare services the holder is entitled to, and where.
Primary school dropout Wang was born into a poor family in Xingtai, Hebei province, and his career path from migrant worker to award-winning film star who marries a beautiful city-born, college-educated star student has been seen as a perfect example of how one can still change his or her destiny in China today.
Major news outlets such as Tencent News broadcast the hearing from outside of the Beijing Chaoyang People’s Court on October 18. Although the reports contained mostly comments from onlookers and quick shots of Wang entering the court with his bodyguards, internet users were mesmerised by the story.
About 23.7 million people had followed the story on the Tencent news website alone, with viewers posting 275,377 comments. A further 11 million watched the live coverage on NetEase.com.
Elite college student’s mysterious death under custody sparks national uproar
Members of China’s 200-million-strong middle class, long regarded as politically passive and quiet on social issues, were stirred into action over the mysterious death in police custody of a Renmin University graduate student in May.
The case of Lei Yang, a 29-year-old graduate student at Renmin University, sparked a national uproar and prompted hundreds of alumni of the elite research school to sign several strongly worded petitions calling for authorities to conduct a thorough investigation.
Lei, a Hunan native studying a master’s degrees in environmental science, had left home on the night of May 7 to pick up visiting relatives at Beijing airport. Instead, he ended dead in a hospital after being rushed there by Changping police who had earlier arrested him in what they said was a sting on a brothel disguised as a foot massage parlour. What happened between Lei’s arrest and the time police took him to hospital remains in doubt. Police claims that Lei had suffered a heart attack were proven false when an autopsy showed that he had choked on his own vomit. Lei’s family said they saw bruises on his arms and head and suspected that a beating had led to his death.
Mounting concerns over individual security and rights from the public, many of them from China’s middle class, prompted authorities in June to launch an investigation into the five officers involved in the case. This month the district prosecutor’s office in Beijing said the five police would not stand trial despite the office admitting that officers had committed a chain of mistakes in Lei’s case.
One petition submitted by 1988 Renmin alumni says: “Renmin alumni dare not label themselves as the elite of the society despite the fact that they are found in various specialty areas, as was Lei Yang. Thirty years after reform and opening up, we painfully feel that our civil rights and personal safety still have not been protected. We want our most basic rights to personal safety, civil rights, and urban order. We demand an independent and impartial investigation into Lei’s death, for we will not tolerate this evil for too long.”
National women’s volleyball team wins Olympic gold – and the hearts and minds of the people
The players stole the hearts and minds of Chinese netizens after they pulled off a massive upset victory over favourites Brazil in the quarterfinals at this summer’s Rio Olympics, 12 years after China won its second gold medal in women’s volleyball in 2004.
Posts on Weibo related to the historic victory attracted more than 200 million reads within an hour of the news breaking on August 20, while more than 230,000 posts were posted under the hashtag “China’s Dream Volleyball Team” on the same day.
70 per cent of Chinese families watched the live broadcast of the final game, easily beating audience ratings for Lunar New Year Gala, according to Xinhua.
“This team has an average age of 24. You can beat them, but you can never break them,” said a TV presenter during the official news programme Xinwen Lianbo on the day of the victory.
Chinese celebrities also joined the chorus of praise online. “We are proud of you, China Women’s Volleyball team!” Fan Bingbing said in a post that got 600,000 likes. “The spirit of the team is not to be the champion but to make the best effort even at times when you know clearly you cannot win!”
Villager who killed official over demolished home becomes symbol of injustice
Jia Jinglong, a 29-year-old villager, became a symbol of injustice in China after he was executed for killing a party official who he said had masterminded the illegal demolition of his house on the eve of his wedding.
Jia killed the village chief with a nail gun in the northern city of Shijiazhuang, Hebei province in February 2015, two years after the house where he had planned to hold his wedding ceremony was knocked down to make way for a new development.
Jia believed the chief was behind the demolition and decided to take a revenge after his fiancee called off the wedding after their home was lost.
Jia’s case was widely debated in mainland media and among lawyers and legal scholars, as some argued that he represented the lives of ordinary Chinese and his unfortunate experience reflected the injustices that they have long endured.
Posts concering Jia were retweeted hundreds of times on Weibo and netizens campaigned for his death sentence to be commuted before the court in Shijiazhuang delivered its verdict. Even some newspapers controlled by the Communist Party argued for clemency.
Jia’s case was also widely circulated on messaging app Wechat, with hundreds of thousands of people retweeting the news and calling for a retrial.
Despite all their efforts, Jia was executed on November 15.
Vaccine scandal undermines public faith in health care system
The news in March that millions of compromised vaccines had been given to children across China was met with shock, prompting angry parents to accusing the government of keeping them in the dark about the risks.
At least 300 people in 24 provinces were involved in the case where improperly stored vaccines were sold illegally across China – suggesting that the scale of the problem may have been much larger than admitted.
Shandong province’s food and drug administration released detailed information of 300 suspects who allegedly either bought or sold some of the 570 million yuan (HK$680,000) worth of vaccines from a woman and her daughter at the centre of the case.
The vaccines, including those for flu, chicken pox, hepatitis A, meningitis and rabies, were probably ineffective and may have put patients’ lives at risk as a result of not adequately refrigerated at between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius.
Communist Party’s loyalty campaign sees newlyweds copy party charter by hand on their wedding night
A campaign to boost Communist Party members’ loyalty, which included the bride and groom copying the party constitution by hand, quickly took over the mainland internet in March.
The 100-day campaign was first seen on a social media account of People’s Daily, the party’s official newspaper.
Many of China’s 87 million party members – from grass-roots government employees to senior executives at state-owned enterprises – were seen diligently copying the 15,000-word document, as required by this campaign.
Photos of people copying the constitution circulated widely on Weibo, with those of newlyweds in Nanchang writing out paragraphs from the charter on the night of their wedding drawing the most attention.
The couple, both employees of the Nanchang Railway Bureau, decided to go through the exercise “to leave fond memories of their wedding night”, according to an article with accompanying photos published on the department’s social media account on Monday.
The article soon went viral online, with some internet users questioning if the pictures were staged. Others described the exercise as pretentious.
This move comes in a time when the party is tightening of controls on civil society and public debate.