Tea Leaf Nation
Coming to Chinese Headlines in 2014
From the rise of WeChat to the rural e-commerce boom, six major stories that flew under the radar in 2013, but won't next year.
Chinese people have spent another year breathing dirty air, fretting about food safety, poking fun at corrupt officials, and complaining about tightening censorship — but as a discerning consumer of international news, you probably knew that already.
So what else is new in China? What are some of the trends in 2013, big and small, that could continue to transform the country’s social and economic landscape in the year to come?
Here are six you may have missed.
Political discussions are retreating back into private spheres.
Sina Weibo, the microblogging platform often called China’s Twitter, has lost its position as China’s most exciting social media outlet. Launched in 2009 by Internet portal Sina, Weibo introduced a whole new way to connect in China, giving ordinary citizens a microphone to speak to millions of fellow users. The platform, which has accumulated approximately 600 million registered users since its inception — Sina claims that about 10 percent are active daily — transformed China’s media landscape by allowing users a degree of freedom of expression not possible in the pre-Weibo age. Buoyed by the strength of their numbers, millions felt relatively safe discussing sensitive political topics on Weibo, saying in public what they’d once only dared to say among trusted friends or family. But the platform’s dazzling success soon attracted government scrutiny, resulting in close monitoring and censorship to curb what was beginning to look something like freedom of speech. In 2013, the Chinese government stepped up its efforts to silence or publicly shame prominent opinion leaders on Weibo, and harass and arrest ordinary users.
The most painful blow to Weibo may come not from the Chinese government, but from a private competitor: WeChat, the mobile messaging app developed by Chinese tech giant Tencent. WeChat only allows discussions between individuals or among small groups, whereas discussions on Weibo took place before millions of potential virtual onlookers. In 2013, Chinese users increasingly abandoned Weibo for WeChat, likely because of censorship and privacy concerns; the messaging service now has more than 272 million monthly active users worldwide, with the majority in mainland China. That’s just fine with Chinese authorities, who are probably happy to see political discussion leave the virtual public square and return to more intimate forums less likely to inflame the masses. Of course, censorship and surveillance continue; to prevent unsavory information from spreading too widely on WeChat, Chinese authorities are closely watching that new space as well.
Mainland Chinese shows and products have become more popular in Taiwan.
In the annals of cultural exchange between mainland China and Taiwan, the latter has been a net exporter of hit television shows, catchy tunes, and pouting starlets. In China, Taiwanese celebrities like Jay Chou, LeeHom Wang, and Dee Hsu command huge fan bases and endorsement deals. To be sure, even in 2013 the 24 million Taiwanese are still winning the Cross-Strait charm wars: the island’s comparatively relaxed and open culture, coupled with the right to vote, holds deep appeal for mainlanders. But China’s growing soft power empire has struck back at Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province. Chinese e-commerce giant Taobao has racked up more than $300 million in sales in Taiwan, according to estimates by Taiwanese magazine CommonWealth, becoming the second-largest Internet retailer in Taiwan. Xiaomi, the Chinese maker of popular smartphones that imitate Apple’s slick design and viral marketing, claims to have sold 10,000 units in an online flash sale that lasted less than 10 minutes on Dec. 9.
I Am a Singer, an American Idol-style reality show produced by popular provincial outlet Hunan TV in China, became so popular in Taiwan that in April 2013, local channels risked breaking Taiwan’s broadcasting regulations restricting the airtime of entertainment programs on news channels in order to carry the finale. Empress in the Palace, a 76-episode mini-series set in the harem of a Qing-dynasty emperor, has also riveted viewers in Taiwan, inspiring several books and instigating soul-searching in Taiwan’s creative industry.
As many as 400 million Chinese people, more than the population of the United States, are learning English, according to an estimate by China’s state-owned media. That staggering figure may be about to shrink, however, which may affect the ability of ordinary Chinese people to communicate with the outside world.
First, if China’s Ministry of Education has its way, English will be sacrificed in the name of happier childhoods. The government is gearing up to give a serious jolt to an exam-centric education system infamous for heavy course loads and rote learning. The proposed solution is to put English on the cutting board. On Oct. 21, the Minist
ry of Education announced plans to reduce the weight given to English-language college entrance exams. In addition, in the future English classes will only start in third grade, not first grade as it is the case now.
The decline of English is a puzzling reversal. After all, only three years ago, the government reportedly planned to teach English to all kindergarteners. A good dose of nationalism has since entered the discussion — some education experts have called for abolition of English education to young children altogether — but more complicated social factors are also at play. Working for foreign companies, where English skills are advantageous, has become a less desirable path for young graduates. College graduates used to clamor for foreign company jobs in the 1990s and early 2000s, but discovered that private-sector pay could not keep up with China’s skyrocketing real estate prices. Now they crave stability, housing and retirement perks, and the social respect that are part and parcel of a civil servant position, which does not usually require English skills.
China’s massive urbanization project is shifting its focus.
It’s easy to forget that China’s migration from farm to city is the biggest flow of human beings in world history — and there are still an estimated 300 million who will eventually make that shift.
While new migrants continue to flock to China’s largest cities, which have long enjoyed some of the country’s best schools, hospitals, public transportation, and — crucially — job opportunities, complaints about the resulting overcrowding, pollution, and sky-high real-estate prices reached a fever pitch in 2013. A bitter joke about the Beijing subway at rush hour is that a rider goes in as a person and comes out as a photograph — because he has been squeezed paper-thin. Reforms to China’s household registration system, known as hukou, that would allow migrants to major cities easier access to public services like schooling are likely to meet staunch resistance from natives.
Those complaints won’t stop the massive influx of newly minted urbanites, at least not for now. The Chinese government has identified continued urbanization as one of the most important engines of growth, because it creates more demand for consumer goods among China’s saving-conscious citizens, but the government has determined that something must change. In November 2013, Beijing announced plans to scrap the hukou system for small cities and gradually make it easier to settle in medium-sized cities, while strictly controlling the population of metropolises like Shenzhen and Shanghai. For that to work, though, the Chinese government will have to institute extensive policy changes to make what it calls “townization” appeal enough to rural migrants that they ignore the siren call of high-paying jobs in the big city.
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It’s an underdog story that almost seems ripped from a Hollywood script. To protect domestic films (and keep out subversive Western values), Beijing imposed an import quota on American blockbusters for much of the last two decades: 10 per year starting in 1994, and upped to 20 per year in 2002. But quotas didn’t stem the appetite. Chinese moviegoers mostly turned up their noses at staid and heavily censored Chinese films, and instead turned to bootlegged DVDs to get their Hollywood fix, proceeds of which went to street vendors and pirates, not Hollywood studios.
After losing a legal battle to the United States before the World Trade Organization in 2009, China increased its quota to 34 films in February 2012, with a significant number of IMAX or 3-D action flicks added to mix. The only people happier than China’s movie watchers were Hollywood executives, who salivated at the prospect of a billion new eyeballs. For many in China’s film industry, it was as if they woke up to find a Los Angeles-sized spaceship hovering above, firing up its high-tech beams to annihilate their little workshops.
But Chinese filmmakers didn’t cower; instead, they dug in their heels and got creative. The stunning result: Over the past year, China’s domestic films took in more than half of all box office receipts there, even when faced with Hollywood-made blockbusters such as Iron Man 3 and Pacific Rim. The biggest domestic film of the year: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, an adaptation of a classic novel that blends fantasy, action, and a good dose of dark comedy.
The theater-going habits of the viewing public certainly helped Chinese filmmakers’ bottom line; as of early December, total box office receipts in China for the year had reached $3.3 billion, compared to less than half that only three years ago. But the real surprise of the year was that Chinese audiences are now willing to pay to see domestic movies with little or no dazzling computer-generated special effects, providing they come with enough social media buzz. Among the top 10 films in China over the past year: the comedy drama American Dreams in China, which profiled three entrepreneurs, the lowbrow sleeper hit Lost in Thailand, whose bumbling anti-heroes duel it out in a familiar travel destination, and the syrupy campus romance So Young, which appealed to Chinese Internet users nostalgic for puppy love.
Ever heard of Qingliu County in Fujian Province (pop. 145,000)? Don’t worr
y; neither have most Beijingers. That’s just fine with Qingliu’s avid online shoppers, who despite having a much lower per capita income, spent an average of more than $3,000 shopping online in 2012, compared to about $750 by Internet shoppers living in China’s first and second-tier metropolises. (2013 data is not yet available but will probably show further separation.)
In China’s massive e-commerce market of $26 billion, small-town residents, often looked down upon by their urban counterparts, are starting to demand attention from retailers and e-commerce companies. According to a survey released in July 2013 by Taobao, small-town web shoppers spent an average of over $900 online in 2012, roughly $160 more than their big city counterparts. The report says that about 30 million online shoppers live in small cities — a small number by Chinese standards, but one estimated to grow faster than e-commerce in urban areas. Cutthroat competition among online retailers and logistics companies has driven improvement in delivery networks and better outreach to new customers in small towns, allowing them to enjoy the same delivery of Clinique lotion, Uniqlo sweaters, and Vans sneakers once easily accessible only to city slickers’ doorsteps.