Streisand Effects With Chinese Characteristics: “Rollover Scenes” of 2023

At the close of 2023, CDT Chinese has compiled a series of year-end articles on various special topics, from sensitive words and censored articles to a human rights report and a “person of the year.” This post introduces the “rollover scenes” of the year. “Rollover scenes” (翻车现场 fānchē xiànchǎng) are “train wreck” incidents when official policies, messaging, or censorship backfire and trigger a swell of critical reactions online. For more on these themes, and on the term “rollover scene” itself, see CDT’s newly launched ebook, “China Digital Times Lexicon: 20th Anniversary Edition.” Here are CDT’s top ten rollover scenes of 2023:

1. The Second Coming of Yuan Shikai

On March 10, 2023, the 14th National People’s Congress selected Xi Jinping for a third term as China’s state president. On that same day 111 years ago, Yuan Shikai took office as president of the Republic of China, before declaring himself emperor and sinking the country into despotism. Many netizens drew a connection between the two leaders by describing Xi’s election as “the second coming of Yuan Shikai” under the official media announcement of the event. Yuan Shikai and related terms have since become sensitive terms online. WeChat deleted a popular “this-day-in-history” article on Yuan Shikai’s election, and Xiaohongshu prohibited users from uploading photos of him.

2. CCTV criticizes Kong Yiji literature

Kong Yiji literature refers to Lu Xun-inspired jokes about the plight of China’s overeducated, underemployed youth. The meme received an unintended boost on March 17, 2023, when state broadcaster CCTV published an article on Weibo criticizing self-described Kong Yijis as “shackled to their robes… [and] unwilling to change [their] situation through labor.” The pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps tone rubbed many the wrong way, leading to a flurry of critical comments. As a result, CCTV restricted the comment section to a select number of positive posts and deleted a large number of those that were critical. Censors later deleted a musical anthem of Kong Yiji literature from Bilibili. 

3. ChatXJP 

In April 2023, the Cyberspace Administration of China released a set of draft regulations to govern the provision of generative AI services in China, stating that such services must “adhere to core values of socialism.” To enforce the regulations, authorities later censored various Chinese AI chatbots, which netizens labeled “ChatXJP.” One netizen quipped: “To enter China, AI must first join the Chinese Communist Party and study Xi Jinping Thought.”

4. “Weather” interferes with the lottery

On April 12, 2023, as the Fujian Sports Lottery lottery was drawn, one of the winning balls did not roll down the track like all of the others, and the next winning ball appeared suspended in the air for several seconds, both defying the laws of nature. While netizens questioned the integrity of the lottery, managing staff assured that everything was fine and that the incident was merely due to “weather reasons.” Netizens piled on more complaints about this strange excuse and corruption of the lottery system.

5. Calling a rat a duck

In June 2023, a student at a Jiangxi university found a fried rat’s head in their cafeteria meal, and posted a video of the incident online. Local officials denied that it was a rat’s head and insisted that it was instead a duck’s neck. This led to a massive online furor that spurred the Jiangxi government to dispatch an inter-agency investigative team that eventually concluded that the student was indeed served a rat’s head. The entire incident led to a new idiom, “calling a rat a duck,” and inspired broad debate about how official mendacity causes the public to lose faith in government.

6. Vice Minister of Education Fails Out of Shanhe University

In June 2023, a viral meme arose about an imaginary higher-education institution called “Shanhe University,” ostensibly accepting underserved students from the heavily populated provinces of Shandong, Shanxi, Henan, and Hebei. The campus was said to be located at the spot where the four provinces meet. (They do not.) Netizens brought the joke to life by creating fake websites, brochures, logos, badges, faculty, etc. for the university, and propelled the meme to fame before it was banned on Weibo. At a press conference, Vice Minister of Education Wu Yan dodged questions about how to view the university and whether to support its establishment, to the dissatisfaction of netizens who complained that he “talked a lot of shit” but “didn’t actually respond to anything.”

7. Youth unemployment: no data, no problem

At a press conference on August 15, 2023, a spokesperson of the National Bureau of Statistics announced that the government will henceforth suspend the release of youth unemployment statistics, explaining that the surveys used for data collection “need to be further improved and optimized.” In June, the official youth unemployment rate had reached 21.6 percent. Following the announcement, the related topic #青年人城镇调查失业率将暂停发布 (#Publication of Unemployment Rate From Urban Youth Survey to be Suspended) was read 160 million times on Weibo, where users derided the decision to withhold the data as farcical. One user joked: “At present, this is their only effective policy for dealing with high youth unemployment.” Elsewhere on Weibo and WeChat, articles about unemployment stats were also censored

8. Big flood follows Xi’s flood plans

In July 2023, the Ministry of Water Resources published a book titled “In-depth Study and Implementation of Xi Jinping’s Important Discussions on Water Control.” Netizens on Douyin mocked Xi as a “contemporary Yu the Great,” referencing a legendary leader of ancient China who was the first to successfully implement state flood control efforts. One month later, intense rainstorms caused flooding in Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei, affecting hundreds of thousands of people. Netizens were angry that Xi did not visit the disaster areas until three months later in November. 

9. Democracy remains virtual

On November 2, 2023, Hangzhou’s Center for the Practice of Whole-Process People’s Democracy officially opened. It included a virtual-reality exhibit designed to allow visitors to “experience” being a delegate to the Zhejiang People’s Congress, and one video of the experience uploaded to Douyin showed attendees picking out virtual avatars, walking up to the congressional building, and dutifully sitting in the auditorium with their eyes trained on the leaders on stage. Netizens immediately saw the dark humor of the VR democracy experience and joked in the comment section of the video: “virtual democracy is virtually democracy.” 

10. No more egg fried rice

November 25 of each year is jokingly called Chinese Thanksgiving or the “Egg Fried Rice Festival,” referring to the death of Mao Zedong’s son Mao Anying, who was rumored to have been killed in the Korean War by a U.S. airstrike after betraying his unit’s position by lighting a fire to cook egg fried rice. On November 27, 2023, as in previous years, renowned food blogger Wang Gang released an egg fried rice recipe on Chinese social media sites and was immediately attacked by little pinks for “insulting heroes and martyrs.” Wang deleted the video and released an apology promising to never make the dish again. This triggered heated discussion among netizens outraged by Wang’s harsh treatment. 


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