Consumerism, Communism, and Cartoons: Chinese Youth Reject Jack Ma

News of the suspension of Ant Group’s initial public offering, shocking to business-world observers, received a warm welcome among some corners of Chinese youth. Many of the primary users of Ant Finance’s premier micro-lending products, neither “shit youth” nor “little pinks,” have turned against the company in response to debt incurred through the apps, employee self-immolations, labor leader arrests, an incessant propaganda and censorship diet, and founder Jack Ma’s glowing rhetoric about “996” work culture. At the LA Times, Alice Su profiled young users’ Marxism-inspired rejections of Ant’s micro-lending services:

When government regulators cracked down on Ma and his fintech empire last fall, Shen decided to cut back and reclaim her former frugal self. She bought only a few items during Ma’s annual online shopping extravaganza. She turned to binge-watching anti-capitalist videos and played the left-wing anthem “The Internationale” on repeat.

“Through baptism in the spirit of communism, I controlled my desire to consume,” Shen said. Last month, she removed Huabei from the “priority pay” setting on her phone app. She plans to soon pay off her last 1,000 renminbi of debt.

[…] A surprising audience agreed: China’s youth. Many of the “ants” born since the 1990s no longer worship figures like Ma. Coming of age in a slowing economy under constant pressure to consume, they are suspicious of capitalism and the inequality it spawns. They share reports of tech worker deaths and delivery drivers trapped by algorithms. They use Ma’s products, but are disdainful of his mantras.

[…] On the popular online Chinese discussion forum Douban, a support group called the “indebted people’s alliance” now has more than 39,000 members. One recent report calculated the average debt owed by people in the group based on their posts: more than $56,000. [Source]

In recent days, a disgruntled employee published a tirade against the company that went viral online:

The Economist also covered China’s “keyboard Maoists,” youth who loudly proclaim their anti-capitalist views on China’s largest tech platforms:

Lately netizens have also been attacking Pinduoduo, a discount-shopping app that rivals Mr Ma’s Alibaba, of which Ant Group is an affiliate. On January 4th it was revealed that one of Pinduoduo’s employees, a 23-year-old woman, had collapsed while walking home after an overtime shift. She died later in hospital. A national debate ensued, focused mainly on the culture of overwork in China. Some pointed to what they saw as a more basic problem. “In China’s speed-obsessed tech world, the labour law is treated like a tablecloth or toilet paper. It is never respected,” said the narrator of one video about “Capitalist Pinduoduo”. It has been watched more than half a million times. In another video a young man in a black hoodie calls on consumers to stop spending money on the company’s app: “The capitalists are just squeezing us. They don’t see us as people.”

[…] Many of the videos lack revolutionary punch. Renditions of the “Internationale”, a socialist anthem, garner many clicks but seem more like kitschy nostalgia or funny memes than calls to action. The young people drawn to them are nothing like the Red Guards of Mao’s day, who used horrific violence against those branded as “capitalist roaders”. Yet their resentment of the business elite appears genuine. A rough indicator is the torrent of comments overlaid on videos carried by Bilibili, another popular app. Videos showing Mr Ma once inspired both respect and humour, with some viewers praising his business acumen and others sarcastically asking for money. Recently the tone has darkened, with comments such as “down with Jack Ma” and “workers of the world, unite!” [Source]

A cartoon satirizing these young nationalists shows Winnie the Pooh, a character from the cartoon Year Hare Affair, and Jack Ma sitting down for a snack:

That Capitalist took away your cookies!”

Winnie the Pooh is a stand-in for Xi or the Party at large. The Year Hare Affair rabbit has come to represent China’s nationalist youth. Year Hare Affair is a “Red cartoon” that renders propagandistic stories of China’s recent past and current events. The show depicts “Chinese rabbits” facing off against foreign foes: Indian elephants, American eagles, greedy cockroaches intent on destroying Hong Kong. It is wildly popular, with its creator claiming that it has been streamed over 800 million times. One teenager told The Wall Street Journal that he knew the cartoon was “made with party support, but said most Chinese still considered them very accurate and more accessible than traditional news reports.” One of the soldiers killed in clashes with Indian troops used a Year Hare Affair rabbit as his WeChat profile picture, which inspired the creator of the show to tell Global Times: “[I hope my] audience, especially young people, can get strength and courage from the animation work, and are unafraid to ‘go the frontlines when our motherland is violated,’ like what Xiao and other heroes did.”

Of course, many youth still use Ant Group’s products. At Sixth Tone, Li Dan argued that China’s young poor used micro-lending products in innovative ways unforeseen by lenders, complicating simple stories of “exploitation”:

But the migrant workers I interviewed at the Shenzhen factory weren’t taking out loans to pay for a fancy dinner or book a business class ticket. Rather, they were remarkably savvy about their borrowing, and sharp enough to identify online lending services’ pitfalls. Zhongtian, a 22-year-old worker, was well aware that borrowing can become a problem if not managed carefully. “Once you start, you will create more and more desire till it is far beyond your control,” he said. Similarly, Jiwei expressed his concern that borrowing on Alipay would make him “a slave to money.” Instead of turning into profligate borrowers, these low-income workers primarily used the fintech apps on their phones to navigate their social relations and manipulate their financial standing in their communities, including by projecting an image of themselves as financially independent and generous.

Perhaps more eye-opening is how some migrant workers gamed the opaque algorithms to fool the credit scoring algorithms governing their lives. That’s in contrast with what scholars have found in the United States, where low-income American borrowers feel obliged to “play the game,” as the academic Mark Kear put it. Jiwei, for example, asserted that he had found the formula for improving a Sesame Credit score: “If you use it, it grows.” He said he would pay for his colleagues’ online shopping purchases with his own credit and occasionally help top up his parents’ cellphone balance. This both enhanced his reputation as a caring individual, and also helped him establish a better credit history. In an even bolder move, he used his personal credit account for workplace expenses, which helped him establish good enough credit to increase his borrowing limits.

[…] But we also shouldn’t overlook migrants’ agency. Already, blue-collar workers are punching well above their weight, as they engage with fintech along lines vastly different from what the tech giants envisioned by integrating it into their own offline worlds and communities. Ant is getting all the attention, but the ants matter too. [Source]


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