Monday, December 10, 2012

Not just a Piece of Cake: how the Chinese Government Deal with “Qiegao” Crisis on Weibo

On Dec. 3, 2012, the police department in Yueyang, a small city of Hunan province in the south-central China, posted a microblog on Weibo, China’s Twitter, about a case where Uighur snack vendors had a quarrel and fight with Mr. Ling, a (probable) Han customer. Two people got minor injuries but the vendor’s Qiegao (a dense, sweet cake made with corn flour, dried fruits and nuts) worth RMB 160,000 (about $25,000) was damaged. Mr. Ling was arrested and 16 Uighurs involved in the incident received compensation and were sent back to Xinjiang, an autonomous region in northwestern China that recently has suffered “mass incidents” caused by ethnic conflicts between the Uighurs, the ethnic minority native to the region, and the Han, who constitute around 92% of the Chinese population.

 Picture1 Qiegao

The microblog quickly got attention on Weibo because of the unbelievable pricey cake. In a short time, many jokes and photoshopped pictures emerged and spread among Weibo users. The account of “Gudabaihua”, an expert in American culture, quipped that “President Obama announced that the U.S. will repay its billions of dollars of national debt to China in the form of 100 kilos of Qiegao.” Companies also took advantage of the opportunity to promote their products. Anjuke, a real estate enterprise, created a “Qiegao Calculator”, using Qiegao as a benchmark currency to present the price of different houses.

Picture2 On Dec. 4, 2012, Anjuke, a real estate company, posted the "Qiegao Calculator" on its Weibo and measured the price of houses in the unit of Qiegao.

Many webusers also shared their bad experiences with Uyghur Qiegao vendors. The story of a Weibo user named “gspbc Zhifangzhihuang” was typical. “I was a sophomore in college. I asked the vendor how much per half kilo of cake, the Uighur said RMB 24 ($4). Then he gave me a quarter kilo and told me it’s RMB 24 per 10 grams. I said I didn’t want it anymore. He took out a very shiny knife and waved it five centimeters from my face and told me what was cut could not be put back again… So I gave in.” (Rachel. Not a Piece of Cake: Uighur-Han Relationship in Focus on China’s Internet. Dec.4, 2012. TeaLeafNation. Retrieved from:

Others discussed about Han people’s stereotypes against Uighurs due to these bad experiences with Uighur snack vendors in cities outside of Xinjiang. The public also criticized the reverse discrimination against the Han from the police because of Chinese ethnic policies in favor of ethnic minorities.

Unprepared for such controversy, the Yueyang police account deleted the microblog in 12 hours after publication and has stopped updating its Weibo account since then.

In the afternoon of Dec.5, the official account of the Press Office of the People's Government of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region posted a microblog with pictures to respond to the Qiegao incident. It said that the conflict was caused by miscommunication and customs differences between ethnic groups. On Dec.6, People’s daily online, one of the key state-run news websites in China, criticized the inaccuracy of the Yueyang’s microblog and praised the quick response from the Xinjiang government. However, the comments from the local and the central governments did not be reflected in the discussions of Weibo users and jokes and sarcastic comments about Qiegao still spread intensely on the social media platform.

Picture3 On Dec. 5, the official Weibo account of the Press Office of the People's Government of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region responded to the Qiegao incident and posted pictures of heroes and heroines in Xinjiang. 

What I have learned from the Qiegao case are as followed. First, open information from the government may result in problems. The agencies should have preparation before joining in social media.

Second, “Qiegao” has not become a sensitive word online in this case, which can be seen as the improvement of the government’s social media strategy. From the recent increase in “mass incidents” organized by or emerged on social media, the Chinese government has gradually realized that it is impossible to stop online discussions by simply forbidding people from mentioning a few words. By not turning “Qiegao” into a sensitive word, it indicates the government’s more openness to online discussions on social media.

However, more openness does not necessarily mean more effectiveness. The main strategy of the government's online presence should not be crisis management, but problem settlement. In the Qiegao case, there are more that the government should and could do after the topic caught attention and  became popular online. The primary and the most important work of the local and the central governments is to really solve the case fairly to satisfy the outraged public.

Responding to the public criticizes of their injustice in this case, the Yueyang police should re-examine the case between Mr. Ling and the vendors and update with a reasonable result on their Weibo account. The central government should have a close look at the ethnic policies and ethnic conflicts in and outside Xinjiang.

In conclusion, the government’s joining in social media is to try to understand their people and their concerns, and then provide better services. But right now, the Chinese government takes “joining in social media” itself as their goal and regards the crises on social media as the mistakes/ problems of their work. They don’t really understand what their role is on social media. The heated online discussion in the Qiegao case apparently shows Chinese people’s concerns on issues such as the ethnic conflicts, stereotypes between ethnic groups, the unfair treatments due to ethnic laws and even high price inflation; however, the government has not addressed any of these issues successfully after the case.

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