This article also appeared in The Atlantic, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.
What a year it has been on the Chinese Internet. In Chinese politics, 2012 brought a long-anticipated leadership transition at the highest levels, but incoming president Xi Jinping hasn’t dominated the headlines all by himself. A post on Weibo, China’s Twitter, by well-known economist Han Zhiguo listed nine stories, cultural phenomena, and memes that got the most buzz in China over the past year. Without further ado:
1) The most famous voice: The Voice of China
The Voice of China, a singing competition based on the popular European show The Voice of Holland, routinely topped charts and dominated chatter on social media, often edging out discussion of political and economic matters. Controversy over the show’s voting system was also a hot topic and became, for some, a proxy for discussion of democracy and transparency in China.
Pick your uncle. “Watch Uncle,” “House Uncle,” and “Second Uncle” are Fujian Province Transportation Chief Li Dejin, Guangzhou City Panyu District Urban Management Bureau Chief Cai Bin, and Chongqing city Beibei district Communist Party Chief Lei Zhengfu, respectively. These three officials gained notoriety in 2012 for ill-gotten gains that included watches, houses, and in the case of Mr. Lei, a mistress. Unfortunately for Lei, after discovering that spoils from previous embezzlement had made Lei so rich he was un-bribable, angry real estate developers instead covertly filmed a 12-second sex tape to blackmail him, which a journalist later leaked onto the Chinese Web.
3) Most accurate self-identification: “Diaosi”
Housing prices continued to climb, economic worries dampened high hopes, and the gap between the rich and poor became ever more obvious (see #2 above). As the wealthy and the (sometimes) talented held the spotlight, regular folks took to self-deprecation and appropriated the term “diaosi,” roughly meaning “nobody,” to own their ordinariness.
4) Cruelest question: “Are you Happy?”
Against the backdrop of resignation and wry disillusionment among ordinary Chinese, China Central Television and other official media outlets began to ask a bunch of “nobodies” on the street the question: “Are you happy?” Some speculated that the move was an attempt to shift discourse about Chinese quality of life away from quantifiable data—the government has refused to release the country’s Gini coefficient for 11 years–toward more qualitative assessments in order to make themselves look better.
5) Most nonsense report: “Voluntary grave relocation”
Not all economic progress was a welcome development. Officials in Henan province began to tear down millions of graves to make space for farming. One local government in the province claimed that villagers’ participation in the relocation of their relatives’ remains was strictly voluntary, but many doubted this was the case given that Chinese culture places a taboo on exhuming the dead.
6) Most popular descriptors: “Tall-rich-handsome” and “fair-rich-beautiful”
In contrast to those ordinary citizens who refer to themselves as diaosi, the rich, influential, and genetically lucky became known as either gao-fu-shuai–”tall, rich, and handsome”–or bai-fu-mei–”fair-skinned, rich, and beautiful,” two recently coined abbreviations describing men and women’s ideal partners. Young Chinese have been known to shoot just a bit out of their league, sometimes to hilarious (and frustrating) effect.
The term “bai-fu-mei” also describes the somewhat older, richer, and more educated urban Chinese who comprise a surprisingly small part of China’s rather bifurcated Internet users.
7) Most popular to question: Yuan Fang; 8) Most genuine question: “Yuan Fang, what do you think?”
With so many questions, it’s no surprise that those in doubt looked to someone—anyone—to provide answers. In 2012, that person was Yuan Fang, a character from a popular television show who played the role of advisor and sage. Netizens rhetorically asked Yuan Fang’s views on any numbers of matters, and the phrase “Yuan Fang, what do you think?” went viral. While the question itself is rhetorical, the author of an entry about the phrase on Baidu Baike, China’s Wikipedia, argues (in Chinese) that it “shows the desire of most netizens to express their demands and seek out support on issues of public interest.”
9) Most mysterious place: Foreign consulates.
In February, Chongqing Police Chief Wang Lijun set off the Bo Xilai saga by fleeing to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, Sichuan, where he (unsuccessfully) sought political asylum. In April, Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng made a daring escape from illegal house arrest and travelled hundreds of miles before seeking refugee in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. An online magazine even released an infographic instructing readers as to how they might break into an embassy.