Three recent mistakes by the media have sparked public discussions on typically avoided topics, after inadvertently revealing them. These blunders have allowed Chinese social media users to openly talk about issues such as stagnant wages, government corruption and apathy, sensitive dates, and the complexities of online censorship and self-censorship.
A mistake was made by People’s Daily, a state media outlet, when they edited a video promoting the upcoming Asian Games in Hangzhou. The video, titled “A Literary Exploration of Hangzhou,” included two classical poems with sensitive political implications that the producers had not noticed. One of the poems referenced “June” and “four seasons,” which had been used by activists to circumvent censorship of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. As reported by Helen Davidson for the Guardian, the other poem that caused concern was a thinly-veiled critique of corrupt and uncaring government officials.
In the 12th century, this was seen as a disapproval of the Song Dynasty leaders, who were believed to be corrupt and escaping from troubled regions to Hangzhou. They were also accused of disregarding the hardships and crises faced by ordinary citizens while indulging in their own pleasures.
The poem is well-known and not subject to censorship, however, viewers pointed out that its use implied that the creators of the video were unaware of the political satire in the descriptions of people partying in Hangzhou.
The video featuring two poems was swiftly removed, but not before it had been watched by at least 130,000 people on the People’s Daily and another state media platform, as reported by Free Weibo, a censorship tracking website. Multiple other accounts also shared the video. A hashtag associated with it now yields no outcomes. [Source]
The video and its subsequent removal sparked amusement among users on social media. Some joked that it was a failed attempt at nationalist propaganda, with its message of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” and being a “low-level red, high-level black” production. While the poems themselves are not censored and are even included in school textbooks, their political undertones reminded some of the Li Jiaqi paradox. This paradox refers to the phenomenon where people inadvertently come across forbidden topics due to previous government censorship. The paradox is named after e-commerce host Li Jiaqi, who was banned from live-streaming for four months after promoting a tank-shaped ice-cream cake on June 3, 2022. This choice was seen as insensitive, given the upcoming anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown.
During a livestream on the agricultural sales platform Eastern Selection, e-commerce host Zhong Can (中灿) made a gaffe by declaring September 18 as “a good day.” However, horrified viewers pointed out that this date is the anniversary of the 1931 Mukden Incident that led to Japan’s invasion of Manchuria. Zhong Can and the platform both issued apologies and clarified that he was referring to the anniversary of his first e-commerce livestream on the platform. They also stated that they would use this incident as a lesson to improve their internal ideological education. Comments from Weibo and Twitter about the incident have been archived by CDT Chinese editors and a selection of them has been translated below.
Carrot sighed: Do you not understand the significance of September 18 for the Chinese people? The audience may suspect the host of being a potential foreign spy, also known as a “walking 500K” with a cash reward of 500,000 yuan.
The mistake made here is much more severe compared to Li Jiaqi’s.
Do wild horses see the grassland? Is this causing distress to the Chinese population? Is this the reason for the revision of the Public Security Administration Punishments Law?
The water flows smoothly: Is June 18th a celebrated National Shopping Festival? On this day, we remember the sacrifice of revolutionary hero Qu Qiubai. Those responsible for creating the June 18 shopping festival should be held accountable for their actions.
xiaoemo06746629: If you want to avoid political taboos, you must understand every political taboo. There is no solution to this paradox. [Chinese]
During a livestream on September 10, Li Jiaqi, a popular and wealthy e-commerce celebrity known for the “Li Jiaqi paradox,” made a notable mistake. He is nicknamed the “Lipstick King” for his ability to sell large amounts of cosmetics and has gained a dedicated following for his honest and helpful reviews of beauty products. However, during this livestream, some viewers expressed dissatisfaction with the price of a 79 yuan ($10.80) eyebrow pencil that Li was selling. In response, Li became defensive and passionately defended the brand, Florasis, stating that the price had not changed for many years. At one point, Li even scolded his audience, causing his co-host to give him a concerned look. He questioned why they found the price expensive and insinuated that if they had not received a raise, it was due to their lack of hard work.
As a result of being blamed by viewers, Li received a large number of critical comments and negative media coverage. Despite apologizing tearfully the next day, Li’s online following decreased by about one and a half million, although he still has 29 million followers on Weibo and 76 million on Taobao’s live-streaming platform. Posts on social media and articles from state media accused Li of being “privileged, insensitive, and arrogant,” and of losing touch with his loyal viewers and humble beginnings. Li, who started his career as a L’Oréal shop assistant in Nanchang, was named the highest-earning e-commerce livestreamer in China in 2021, earning over 1.85 billion yuan (equivalent to over $250 million US dollars). Some comments on Li’s Weibo apology mentioned the economic downturn and stagnant wages for regular workers. One comment stated, “Actually, most people are working hard. It’s not their fault that their wages are low. It’s the overall environment.” A Weibo user from Zhejiang province warned, “Water can support a boat but it can also sink it,” a clear reminder that the fans who propelled Li to online fame could also contribute to his downfall if they become alienated.
Some internet writers and critics saw Li’s outburst as a sign that he has become disconnected from the experiences of everyday people, while others argued that it is not Li who has changed, but rather China’s socioeconomic realities and expectations. In an article, commentator Ye Kefei shares two of the most popular comments on the Li Jiaqi controversy: “Did your parents not work hard enough when they couldn’t afford to pay your school tuition?” and “A group of poor people helped a poor man become rich, and now he looks down on them.” The article concludes by noting that while many successful individuals distance themselves from their humble origins, Li Jiaqi simply slipped up and voiced his true thoughts.
Instead of stating that Li Jiaqi has lost touch with his roots, it may be more accurate to say that society as a whole looks down upon those in the lowest social class. After Li Jiaqi and others in his position have climbed the ladder of success with the help of those in the lower class, they not only reject their own humble beginnings, but also look down on their humble audience. Completely separating oneself from their past also means separating from their lower-class origins. While some people may never admit it, Li Jiaqi happened to reveal this truth.
In a WeChat article, blogger Hao Daxing discusses the persistent belief in meritocracy. He points out that while successful individuals often credit their achievements to hard work, it is important to acknowledge that most people around the world are also working diligently. Another blogger, Song Qingren, highlights the disconnect between hard work and financial rewards in today’s economy. However, instead of addressing the complex economic issues in China, some government officials, state media, and online influencers choose to blame the country’s economic struggles on ordinary working-class citizens.
I believe that Li Jiaqi has become detached from the struggles of the lower classes and is unconcerned about the state of the economy. With workers already facing difficulties in keeping their jobs and avoiding pay cuts, it is unrealistic to expect them to ask for raises. Blaming those at the bottom by accusing them of not working hard enough is similar to blaming young people for unemployment by saying they are not willing to let go of their aspirations for high-paying jobs aligned with their academic qualifications.
It is natural for those with lower economic status to have doubts about the cost of a 79-yuan eyebrow pencil. This is an undeniable fact and does not need any further clarification.
The unemployment rate among young people in urban areas is extremely high, reaching over 20% in certain cities. This has led the Chinese government to stop releasing data on the matter. Recent data from Zhaopin, an online recruitment company, reveals that salaries for new hires in Shanghai and Beijing have decreased by 9% and 6% respectively in the second quarter of this year, marking the largest decline since at least 2015. Additionally, many companies have been cutting back on benefits such as travel and meal allowances, even for employees with higher salaries. In a WeChat article by current-events commentator Wei Chunliang titled “Li Jiaqi Raised a Very Good Question,” it is noted that the popular e-commerce leader simply brought up a question that has been on everyone’s minds.
The main concern should be: Despite our tireless efforts, why have wages not increased? Where does the issue originate? What is the root cause of our challenging circumstances?
According to blogger @陈生大王 (Chén Shēng Dàwáng), “Li Jiaqi recognized the issue, but he incorrectly assigned its origin.”
Li Jiaqi is undoubtedly a hard worker, but those who are fortunate often believe that their success is solely due to their own effort.
It is not my belief that Li Jiaqi is a monstrously wicked individual; it is likely that he simply lacks self-awareness. However, the disdainful expression he wore when questioning, “Are you putting in enough effort?” is reminiscent of the same look Bai Yansong gave when scolding young people for being “lazy” and the attitude displayed by People’s Daily when criticizing unemployed youth for not conforming to traditional expectations.
This is a countenance associated with authority and superiority. [Chinese]
Two additional WeChat articles mention that Li Jiaqi’s success occurred at the same time as a period of rapid economic expansion, increasing incomes, and conspicuous consumption. However, the financial challenges brought on by the COVID pandemic and a slowdown in economic growth have understandably caused many Chinese households to be more frugal, cut back on extravagant purchases like cosmetics, and search for deals. WeChat blogger @Sir电影 (Sir Diànyǐng, “Sir Film”) notes that the public’s financial expectations have shifted while Li Jiaying’s expectations remain the same. This mismatch may have led to Li’s apparent frustration during the livestream and his outburst towards viewers’ changing spending habits. Sir Film concludes his essay by stating, “But what Li Jiaqi failed to realize is that he is an example of the past. The times, sir, have changed.”
According to a post on the WeChat public account @张所长 (Zhāng Suǒzhǎng, “Director Zhang”), Li Jiaqi’s concern about stagnant wages is especially relevant during the current economic decline.
Li Jiaqi may be unaware of it, but the remarks that sparked this backlash would not have caused such a negative response in the past, when the economy was thriving.
However, the current situation has changed. (Author removed 413 words at this point to potentially prevent censorship.)
Is the reason you cannot purchase a 79 yuan eyebrow pencil due to lack of effort?
The current economic pattern is unpreventable. People are being caught up in the chaos, unable to resist. Blaming individuals’ lack of purchasing ability on their lack of effort is comparable to accusing flood victims of not running quickly enough to avoid the flood.
A doctor from Shanghai answered Li Jiaqi’s inquiry about low wages by mentioning that despite being one of China’s leading thoracic surgeons, he only makes an average of 500 yuan (approximately $70 U.S. dollars) per surgery. The video of the doctor’s response was shared by Twitter user 李老师不是你老师 (Li Laoshi bushi ni laoshi, @whyyoutouzhele).