The memes distracting China in 2017 reflected deep anxieties about haves and have-nots

Little room for free speech.
Little room for free speech.
Image: Reuters/Aly Song
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In 2017, the world saw a China more eager to take its place as a global leader, with president Xi Jinping heralding the importance of a globalized world at Davos, just ahead of Donald Trump’s “America First” inauguration in January, and portraying China as being on the frontlines in fighting climate change.

But despite the pride felt by many at China’s stature in the world, at home, there was also uneasiness over the future. The list of things to worry about includes the ability of China’s economy to stay strong even as it piles up debt, increasing inequality, and the cost of life (in particular, children’s education). And while China gained more clarity with the conclusion of a once-in-five-year leadership congress that cemented Xi as the most powerful leader in decades, the meeting also ushered in more uncertainty for what happens after 2022, with no clear successor in sight.

The internet memes that circulated this year reflected many of the anxieties (and some of the pride) China has been feeling. Here are eight of our favorites.

Incredible, my country

In 2016, China’s internet users created the meme “Incredible, my brother” to express their admiration for someone amazing. A year later, China’s state media came up with the term “Incredible, my country” and made it popular all over the internet through a series of propaganda campaigns.

State broadcaster CCTV also launched a documentary called “Incredible My Country” in July.
State broadcaster CCTV also launched a documentary called “Incredible My Country” in July.
Image: CCTV via Sina

State broadcaster CCTV interviewed people from all walks of life for their first-person accounts of China’s development, and presented the clips in a primetime news bulletin (link in Chinese) titled “Incredible, my country” during the Lunar New Year in late January. Other state-owned news outlets followed suit, and headlines with the phrase were soon popping up everywhere.

Eventually, Chinese internet users began to use the propaganda term to express their sincere admiration for China’s progress on everything from technology to economic reforms to the military build-up in the contested South China Sea. On China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform (link in Chinese), posts with the hashtag “Incredible, my country” have attracted more than 300 million views altogether.

Don’t bow, GDP will fall

In March, China began airing the 55-part state-produced television series In the Name of People. Created by the film arm of China’s top graft-prosecuting agency, the show was set in the fictional Chinese city of Jingzhou, and portrayed the intricate power struggles among party officials and anti-corruption efforts—the sort of thing that China has been going through under president Xi. The series became a breakout hit.

“Secretary Dakang, don’t bow, GDP will fall.”
“Secretary Dakang, don’t bow, GDP will fall.”
Image: Weibo

One of the most loved characters in the show is Jingzhou party secretary Li Dakang. Li is depicted as an official with integrity who aims to wipe out corruption. But he is also obsessed with GDP growth numbers—like China’s government. His personality struck viewers as typical of a Chinese official they might encounter in real life. At one point, he gives orders to demolish a local factory to make way for a project that will boost the GDP figure, despite public protests.

Chinese internet users began sharing a screenshot of Li with his head in his hands, along with the phrase, “Don’t bow, GDP will fall,” as a way to ridicule Li’s obsession (and implicitly the government’s) with economic numbers over other considerations. 

The phrase was adapted from a line from actress Fan Bingbing, who wrote on Weibo in 2015 (link in Chinese): “Don’t bow, the crown will fall; don’t cry, bad guys will laugh.”


In August, a photo of Zhao Mingyi, a 50-year-old rock star from the iconic 1990s rock band Black Panther, holding a thermos went viral. The image sparked conversations about the dreaded midlife crisis and fears of the future.

Zhao Mingyi holding thermos in a recording room.
Zhao Mingyi holding his thermos in a recording room.
Image: Weibo/Zhao Mingyi

Those discussions emerged from the vivid contrast between the fierce and energetic performances Zhao gave in his heyday, and this Zhao, with his grey hair and potbelly. The thermos read to some (link in Chinese) as a sort of security blanket to help deal with the angst of middle age—when one becomes less energetic, yet still must contend with a life full of uncertainty, as well as fierce competition from younger peers.

Some joked that even youngsters were behaving middle-aged. “People born in the nineties are in their middle-age, they are even carrying the thermos to the nightclub,” read one post on Weibo. “The old aunty born in the nineties now makes a cup of goji berry tea to carry in her thermos every day,” said another (links in Chinese). (In China, drinking goji-berry tea for one’s health is seen as a preoccupation of the middle-aged.)

China’s state-run newspaper People’s Daily published a commentary (link in Chinese) in late August addressing widespread anxiety about losing one’s competitive edge, and tried to encourage people of all ages to maintain their enthusiasm in the face of life’s challenges.

Buddhist Youths

In late December, the term “Buddhist youths” became popular after a series of cartoons went viral on WeChat, a popular messaging app owned by tech giant Tencent. The term doesn’t mean young people are converting to Buddhism, but that they prefer peace over conflicts,  and tend to be happy with the status quo instead of over-pursuing materials.

The Buddhist Youths.
The Buddhist Youths.
Image: WeChat/Xin Shixiang

Xin Shixiang, the WeChat account, gave nine examples of the attitudes of people in their 20s. For example, when hailing a taxi through an app,  a 24-year-old girl said she would walk over to the driver, instead of insisting the driver come to where she is. In another case, a 27-year-old mother in Beijing said she wouldn’t force her two-year-old daughter to attend any extracurricular courses, because she didn’t want to pressure herself or her child. The WeChat post has garnered over 100,000 views (link in Chinese) since Dec. 11.

People’s Daily published a commentary to address the phenomenon on Dec. 13 (link in Chinese), describing the couldn’t-care-less attitude as a symptom of losing oneself in a high-pressure society, and urging people to be more passionate and curious about life.

Poverty has limited my imagination

In late September Fan Bingbing, China’s highest-paid actress got engaged and began wearing a gigantic diamond ring, which occupied nearly half of her ring finger. Fan wore the ring (link in Chinese) to attend the 2017 Golden Rooster Award, one of the most prestigious annual film awards in China.

Fan Bingbing (R), with the ring on her left hand.
Fan Bingbing (R), with the ring on her left hand.
Image: Weibo/Fan Bingbing

The massive ring immediately drew questions like whether it interfered with daily life, and if it allowed her to bend her finger. Later some pointed out that the ring could actually be dismantled into a smaller ring (link in Chinese). That surprised many, with some commenting “poverty has limited my imagination,” which became a reference to a life of such exquisite luxury it was unimaginable for a regular person.

In a time where wealth is highly concentrated—1% of the population owns around one-third of the country’s total wealth—Chinese internet users started using the phrase to mock things they think are ridiculously expensive.

In late November, a Weibo user with around 16 million fans (link in Chinese) posted a Tiffany paper clip bookmark priced 25,380 yen ($225) with the comment: “Poverty has again and again limited my imagination.” Under the post, another user commented, “I might use this as an earring. That’s me showing a poor man’s thinking.” Many responded with photos of boxes containing commonplace paper clips, joking they just realized what a large fortune they own.

Low-end population

The term first surfaced in China’s state media around 2010, and referred to those working in low-end service jobs, such as delivering food and parcels ordered online. Although they’re a fundamental part of China’s e-commerce boom, these workers are often treated as second-class citizens, and live on city fringes with limited access to social benefits.

In mid-November, a fire in Beijing’s southern suburbs killed 19 people and prompted local authorities to launch a 40-day citywide campaign to demolish illegal dwellings on short notice. Many believe this was an effort intended to drive members of the “low-end population” out of the city.

Although local government officials denied it, the term quickly garnered attention on the internet with many expressing anger towards the derogatory term, and describing their own difficult experiences working far away from home in a sprawling, strange city.

China’s censors were quick to respond. China’s most popular messaging app, WeChat, censored the word without informing either the recipient or the sender. On Weibo, a search for “low-end population” in mid-December was still blocked “in accordance with relevant laws and regulations.” Hoodies printed with 低端人口, the Chinese characters for “low-end population,” also vanished from Taobao, one of China’s largest shopping sites.

I probably … fake …

"I probably had a fake exam," cartoon on Weibo.
“I probably had a fake exam,” cartoon on Weibo.
Image: Weibo/Shi Huan

“I probably had fake alcohol,” a player of the video game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive told his team members after playing poorly. According to game-playing lore, alcohol is supposed to lead to better play. That was said to be the origin of the combination “I probably [verb] fake [noun],” which refers to the tendency of blaming other factors instead of reflecting on one’s own weaknesses when faced with an adverse situation.

“I probably have studied fake Chinese,” was one of the most popular ones when a Chinese test paper (link in Chinese) for a New York-based high school began circulating online, making some Chinese internet users question whether they could handle the test even though they are native Chinese speakers.

“I probably had a fake exam,” some say when their exam results are not ideal.  “I have probably had a fake weekend,” one said (link in Chinese) after working overtime.

Do you have freestyle?

Thanks to a viral reality show, hip-hop went from underground to mainstream for the first time in China this year. Produced by video hosting site iQiyi, The Rap of China, which began airing in June, attracted 2.7 billion views to the season’s dozen episodes, and has helped dozens of talented young Chinese rappers shoot to at least temporary fame.

“Do you have freestyle?”
“Do you have freestyle?”
Image: Zhihu

“Do you have freestyle?” is a line from Chinese singer-actor Kris Wu, who serves as one of the four celebrities who trains and judges the rappers. During the early course of the show, Wu always asked contestants this same question, rather than giving them productive feedback like the other judges did. It made internet users doubt his authenticity as a hip-hop artist.

“Do you have freestyle?” has since become a meme used to mock China’s “hip-hop celebrities” who turn out to be generic pop stars than rappers. There are also some variations used to ridicule fake hip-hop fans—for example, “I only make friends with those who freestyle.”

The meme also offers the reflection that The Rap of China’s success is built upon the consumerism of the younger generation who wants to express their identity in an authoritarian state. As the show’s creator put it, “Hip-hop has huge commercial potential. Music is just an excuse.”