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Hugh Grigg and Xiao Wu

How Chinese Social Media Is Changing Lives, One Story At a Time

At Tea Leaf Nation, we know that Chinese social media is good for more than celebrity gossip and pictures of cats. Not only is it a prime source for breaking news and candid debate; it can also effect significant change in the lives of real people. Need examples? Just read these four incredible stories. 

1KG Project 

For a long time, philanthropy in China has been held back by a focus on the family over the community at large, and the traditional view that social change was something to be handled by intellectual elites. 

Andrew Yu (余志海) did his bit to change all that in 2004, when he kicked off the 1KG Project. As an avid traveler, Andrew saw first-hand the dire situation in China’s poorer rural areas. Inspired to improve the status quo, he started with a simple idea. People traveling to China’s poorer rural areas are encouraged to pack a kilo of small gifts for the children there, with an emphasis on educational materials like books and stationery.

This fun, casual approach to charity has seen its popularity soar, with over ten thousand people participating in the first few years after launch. Its success lies in its use of social media to spread the word and document its achievements. Participants first head to the project’s homepage, where they can follow other people’s progress, upload photos and information on target locations and plan their contributions. With its Internet-based interface and its social emphasis, the 1KG Project has taken the bureaucracy out of charitable work and put it into the communty’s hands. Eight hundred local schools are already registered and more are being added all the time. 

Mike Sui

Mike Sui (@Mike隋) is a bilingual Chinese-American actor who lives in Beijing. Despite his good looks and fluency in two languages, he struggled to draw attention to his performance talents. After his girlfriend helpfully observed that the only thing he was good at was talking, he produced a short video of himself speaking English and Chinese in a variety of outrageous accents. It was snappy, offensive, and nicely made, and the results were mind-blowing.

A still from the video that made Mike Sui famous. Via Youku

Within three days of being uploaded to Youku, the video had received a staggering three million views and one hundred thousand comments. (It’s now up to over 6 million views.) Despite being half-Chinese, Mike was viewed as being very much in the “foreigner” camp, allowing him to impress Chinese viewers with his fluent Mandarin. Debate centered on the quality of Mike’s various accents, with his Taiwanese and Beijing characters receiving the most praise and his Russian impersonation the least. But the promotion did its job, and Mike ended up with tens of thousands of Weibo followers.

Curing Disease

If you were to see Yunxing, a 4-year-old girl from Shanxi province, today, you would find her no different than other kindergarten children. It’s hard to imagine now that she suffered from an unknown disease that caused her to have an abnormally distended belly six months after she was born.

When the problem arose, Yunxing’s anxious family took her to see many doctors, all to no avail. In November 2010, her family, already in debt, turned to social media. They posted her picture on Weibo, seeking help. Within two days, that one post was reposted 27,000 times, attracting over 4,000 followers and gaining attention from ordinary netizens, as well as celebrities and the media. Children’s foundations quickly got involved and organized donations. A hospital in Beijing soon offered free treatment. After she was diagnosed with Budd–Chiari syndrome, she had a successful operation and rehabilitation. Yunxing was cured in March 2011, less than half a year since her family posted her picture online

From Street Musician to Stardom  

It’s not just about Weibo. Youku and Tudou, China’s versions of Youtube, have together also become a platform for creative talent. It turned Ren Yueli, a 23-year-old street singer, into a star after netizens posted videos of her performing with an acoustic guitar in a Beijing subway station.

In the video that made her famous, "Xidan Girl" explained her family's troubles as she headed off to her day's work. Via Youku

For four years, Ren made a living by singing in the Xidan subway station in China’s capital city. She also had to take care of her disabled parents in Hebei province by sending them money every month. Everything changed when an amateur videographer posted her performance of a cover song, “Angel’s Wings” (天使的翅膀) on Youku in 2009. In just a few months, the video garnered over 3 million views; when it was first posted, the video was getting 10,000 hits per minute. 

Ren became an instant sensation known as “Xidan girl” because of her pure and touching voice. She was invited to perform at China Central Television’s 2011 Spring Festival Gala, which is China’s most-watched television event. In the same year, she released her first album and is now a professional entertainer. 

These four stories only offer a glimpse into the power of social media in China. It will be fascinating to see how social media bring more changes to China in the years to come; Tea Leaf Nation will be watching.

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Hugh Grigg and Xiao Wu