The memes that took over China’s internet in 2016 speak to the country’s power and fragility

She won the internet.
She won the internet.
Image: Reuters/Michael Dalder
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2016 showed a more ruthless and aggressive—but also more fragile—China.

It was a China that hardened its crackdown on allegedly corrupt officials, dissidents, activists, and ethnic groups to ensure the communist regime’s stability on the eve of a major leadership reshuffle.

It was a China that bullied its Asian neighbors in territorial disputes and other issues, and, in the wake of Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory, is taking on a more assertive global role with a growing focus on nationalism.

But China also had to clean up industrial overcapacity, stem capital outflows, and deflate market bubbles in a never-ending whack-a-mole of stocks, properties, commodities, and other asset classes, amid a slowing economy and widening social inequality.

China’s internet memes this year reflected some of these themes. Here’s seven of Quartz’s favourites.

Set a “small goal”

China’s richest man Wang Jianlin said he wanted to make sure that Disneyland doesn’t make any money in China in a two-part TV interview (video in Chinese) in August. But what struck Chinese internet users the most was the path to success that Wang recommended.

It started with a small sum of money.
It started with a small sum of money.
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu

The 62-year-old property and entertainment tycoon recalled that many of his apprentices would say “I want to be China’s richest man” at the early stage of their careers. Whenever that happens, Wang said, he would instruct them to “Set a small goal first, for example, earn 100 million yuan to start with!”

Wang drew the lesson from his own experience: he claimed in the interview to have earned 100 million yuan (around $14 million) within three years after he founded Dalian Wanda Group in 1988.

In a time of growing economic uncertainty and rapidly rising property prices, China’s young knew that the joke was on them. To achieve Wang’s ”small goal,” young people who own no property and earn mediocre salaries would “have to work 1,000 years without eating or drinking,” a 19-year-old wrote on Weibo (links in Chinese, registration required), China’s Twitter-esque microblogging site, after watching Wang’s interview.

Chinese internet users now use “Set a small goal” when they make similarly “small” resolutions, like losing 10 kilograms in weight, or praying for something unthinkable, like marrying a Chinese idol as popular as Justin Bieber.

The “Ge You slouch”

Ge You repose has hit Chinese Internet this summer and remained to be trending for people to show their attitude towards life.
Ge You
Image: Weibo

A screenshot of a skinny, balding, middle-aged man slouching on a couch went viral on the Chinese internet this year. Ge You, a guest star in the 1990s sitcom “I Love My Family,” played a scam artist who tried to sell himself as an inventor. After the family on the show invited him into their house, the freeloader pretty much glued himself to the couch 24/7, except when having meals.

Chinese netizens coined the phrase “The Ge You slouch” to describe a state of idleness which they called “living without hope.”

The meme was so popular that a Beijing-based travel website even used Ge’s screenshot for advertising purposes, before it got sued by the veteran actor in December for violation of copyright.

Mystic energy

Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui only won a bronze during the Rio Olympics—but she was the champion of many Chinese hearts. After breaking her personal record and qualifying for the final of the women’s 100-m backstroke on Aug. 7, the 20 year-old said in a poolside interview, with hyper-excited facial expressions, “I didn’t hold back… I’ve already used all of my mystic energy.”

China’s sweetheart
China’s sweetheart
Image: Weibo

Her phrase “mystic energy” has since become a meme. In addition, she openly mentioned her menstrual cycle in another post-swim interview, breaking a great cultural taboo, showing that she could win over China’s hearts just by being herself.

“During this winter, it takes courage to take showers, explosive power to get out of bed, and mystic energy to go to work,” one Weibo user recently joked.

Watermelon-eating spectators

When asked what happened at a traffic accident scene, a senior citizen told a Chinese reporter, “I know nothing, I was eating a watermelon.” This is said to be (link in Chinese) the origin of the meme “watermelon-eating spectators,” which refers to bystanders who know nothing about what is going on.

Chinese internet users often call themselves “watermelon-eating spectators” when they comment under news posts, suggesting that they just want to follow the news but hold no opinions. The phrase is sometimes associated with gloating or indifference.

“I was supposed to be a quiet watermelon-eating spectator during the US election, but now I have become a fan of Trump’s daughter [Ivanka]… what is going on?” One blogger asked herself on Weibo.

The current people are not okay

In March, an official from the Chinese Communist Party’s internal disciplinary watchdog wrote in an op-ed (link in Chinese) in top state mouthpiece the People’s Daily that every Chinese citizen is responsible for building a corruption-free society.

The author Xi Hua argued that the party’s anti-corruption drive has “achieved huge accomplishments” in recent years, but in order to keep this momentum going, the bigger challenge is to stop everyone from offering bribes in the first place. For example, patients should never give “red envelopes” of money to patients ahead of surgeries—a common practice in China—and drivers should never offer cigarettes to guards to get parking spaces.

“Not a single snowflake is innocent when an avalanche occurs,” he wrote.

The article soon garnered scathing responses on the internet, with many bloggers commenting with the line “The current people are not okay” to ridicule the author’s argument, which is now used to mock official misconduct or social problems. 

“The party is a good party, the country is a good country, but the current people are not okay, they are too weak,” one internet user wrote on Weibo in a complaint about Beijing’s recent hazardous-level smog.

This is very halal

It all started with a bad-mannered joke. In 2013, a Chinese blogger posted a picture of two cans of meat that almost looked identical—one marked “braised-pork can” and the other marked with a halal symbol.

The “halal” (above) and “braised pork” cans.
The “halal” (above) and “braised pork” cans.

Pork is, of course, not allowed according to Islam. Meining, the company that produced the canned meat, soon released a statement (link in Chinese) that the two cans are of different products. The one with the halal logo is a can of braised beef, it claimed, adding that the blogger intentionally put the beef can with the pork can together to confuse the public.

The incident was mysteriously revived this year. “This is very halal” became a meme making fun of something inauthentic or someone who says one thing but does another. It is also often used as an offence to Muslims in general. For example, cartoons depicting bearded Muslims as terrorists carrying weapons accompanied with text such as “Heard you are not halal?” are commonplace on China’s internet.

“Heard you are not halal?”
“Heard you are not halal?”
Image: Weibo

The meme will not help to ease growing tensions (paywall) between the majority ethnic Han Chinese in China and its minority Muslim groups, particularly in the far western region of Xinjiang. Beijing has justified its iron fist there with the need to defeat a rising threat of homegrown terrorism.

Don’t talk back to your father

“Father” is a word that automatically implies authority and superiority in Chinese culture. This year, according to internet users, China “fathered” two of its Asian neighbours, Taiwan and the Philippines.

Chinese trolls flooded Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen’s Facebook page with the message that Taiwan and China are part of the same country after her victory in January’s election. The self-governing island has held democratic elections for decades, but Beijing views it as a renegade province. Tsai’s party, the Democratic Progressive Party, has espoused pro-independence views, much to Beijing’s displeasure.

“For attacking Taiwanese independence only: ‘How dare you speak to your father like this!'”
“For attacking Taiwanese independence only: ‘How dare you speak to your father like this!'”
Image: Facebook user

Many cartoons depict China as a panda with a man’s face, accompanied with text like “Don’t talk back to your father” and “How dare how you speak to your father like this!”

The same meme was deployed when an international tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines in territorial disputes in the South China Sea in July. Chinese internet users livid at the decision took to Weibo to call the Philippines a “banana seller” who has a poor sense of filial piety to its “father,” China.