PEOPLE often talk about China’s “50 Cent Army” (wu mao dang) — a group of official Internet commentators — as a formidable force in cyberspace. But this past week has shown that the real power lies in the common man, after two massive online revolts showed the world that Chinese Internet users are a force to be reckoned with.
The first example was a huge online backlash against a London magazine that posted a video online aimed at teaching foodies how to eat a popular Shanghai delicacy, xiaolongbao. Huge mistake.
For those of you who don’t live in Shanghai or visit regularly, xiaolongbao are small dumplings filled with meat and hot soup. Sounds complicated, right? It’s true that most people need to be taught how to best appreciate these little delicacies, but TimeOut London went about it in exactly the wrong way.
The UK magazine posted a video online comparing the little morsels to popping pimples, suggesting that the best way to eat them is to first squeeze them until they explode, and then eat the remaining dumpling.
As you can imagine, this was akin to blasphemy, and the story exploded around the world when hundreds of thousands of Chinese people vented their anger at the magazine, forcing the editor into a hasty retreat.
The BBC, Huffington Post, Washington Post and others all covered the scandal. One online commentator compared it to spreading homemade jam all over your plate and table, and then eating dry toast.
The soup inside is definitely the best part, and squirting it out into the ether is wrong on so many levels.
The magazine’s editors quickly issued an apology, attempting to quell some of the heated backlash.
“We’d like to invite the knowledgeable food-lovers of China and Asia to tell us what traditional delicacies we Londoners should try — and how to eat them properly.” But that, too, was panned.
“I’m scared to recommend other Chinese/Asian food to you guys,” Chinese-Singaporean Michele posted in response. “What if you do the same sh*te again and (unwittingly) offend another ethnic group of peeps? Just stick to your fish & chips (and) bangers & mash.” Ouch.
Force to be reckoned with
The second online show of force came through the now infamous United Airlines story, where a Vietnamese-American man was forcibly removed from an oversold airplane — seemingly unconscious and covered in blood — after he “refused to volunteer.”
This sent China’s online brigade into a tailspin, becoming one of the hottest topics on Weibo for much of the week. That is, of course, bad news for United, which flies direct from America to Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Chengdu, Hangzhou and Xi’an.
China’s online reaction to the incident in itself sparked coverage all around the world from the likes of CNN, CNBC, New York Times, and even Vanity Fair. “United Airlines Just Made an Enemy of the World’s Biggest Country,” said one headline.
It was at least in part because of this Chinese backlash that United’s stock plummeted this week, by some accounts as much as US$1.4 billion, although some recovery has been made since then.
China is the country with the most Internet users, hitting around 721 million by the end of 2016, which is about 52 percent of the overall population. The percentage of Chinese with internet access continues to grow at around 2 percent each year as development in outlying areas speeds ahead.
Many foreigners without much knowledge of China assume — since popular Western social media applications like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are blocked here — that Chinese have limited online presence and, therefore, no sway when it comes to online opinion.
They are sorely mistaken.
Weibo, which many liken to Twitter, has a massive 313 million active users, 132 million of whom use the application on a daily basis.
WeChat has even higher numbers, with a reported 818 million monthly active users, and 570 million daily active users.
In case the world didn’t realize before this week that Chinese online public opinion is a force to be reckoned with, they should certainly realize that now.
If anything good is to come from the “xiaolongbao incident” and the United Airlines fiasco, it is that international brands and organizations may begin to place more stock in the opinion of what Chinese people have to say online. That is definitely in the brands’ best interests, and a win for China, too.