China, COVID-19, Chinese Culture, and Social media apps WeChat and TikTok

Things have normalized inside China.

If you are not aware from my previous broadcasts, I am in China – about 200 miles from Wuhan actually, which is where the outbreak reportedly began.

I am staying with family. All of them are Chinese citizens, and they are all avid users of social media. They stay in touch with relatives and friends all over China; and, with all the social media apps available, word travels really fast and spreads out quickly.

As I scan through the various reports on my phones, I see two distinct sides to the story – the one being professionally reported, and the one being passed around through unofficial channels. The stories bare some similarities; and, then there are some differences – one of the biggest being the numbers.

Official reports are right inline with the WHO (World Health Organization). Family, friends, and friends of friends are reporting much higher numbers – like, ten times higher – for example, if 80,000 cases are reported, the real number is around 800,000. Usually the reporting agencies claim that since the real numbers are not known, then they cannot report them as fact. If a person has pneumonia, for example (even if the COVID-19 caused it), if they were not treated or it wasn’t diagnosed at the onset of the disease, then it’s only being reported as a case of pneumonia.

I not a conspiracy theorist. So let me get something right out in the open. I believe the Chinese government is doing all they can to stop the spread of the disease, as well as all they can to treat the infected. There are a lot of unknowns and a lot of variables involved, so blaming them for truncating or fabricating the numbers is hardly fair. There are few countries on this Earth that could effectively quarantine 60 million people, and build thousand+ bed hospitals in less than a week.

It is not helping anyone when conspiracy theorists and fake news outlets create story-lines about the Chinese government hiding the bodies, or faking the numbers. Arousing emotional distress with such nonsense is harmful. If the truth is not known – which it is not – then reports should only come out based on what is known and not what is plausible or believable.

I get to see the unedited version of everything – candid photos of medical professionals exhausted, with painful looking mask imprints on there skin from having worn their protective gear nonstop for 48 plus hours; videos of medical workers collapsing from exhaustion; videos of sick children wearing oxygen masks and in hospital beds; police chasing down suspects who try to avert checkpoints, or whose temperature is high enough to warrant further investigation; people bringing food to police and medical workers who haven’t left their posts for days; and, of course, videos of bodies covered in plastic.

All-in-all, the situation has not changed much on the mainland – globally, people are still reacting emotionally to the stories from the media, and the viral posts being passed around on social media.

In order to get a grip on the true situation, it’s important to understand China – the people, the culture, and the government.

China’s People and Culture is different than what is portrayed in the media.

What you find and experience in China depends on where you go, or where you stay. The people and the culture vary dramatically between urban areas and rural towns and villages.

The urban areas offer a modern flavor of the Chinese culture. Similar to many Western Cities, there’s technology (everyone has a smart phone), convenience (deliveries of almost anything you want within a few hours or a couple of days), social events and establishments, and money (good jobs for the educated and uneducated alike).

Living and thriving in an urban area in China is considered very prestigious and most families encourage younger generations to go into the larger cities so they can provide a good life for the family by means of the higher income potential – and, usually better opportunities in work and education.

This is actually a double edged sword. First, there is an immense amount of pressure on the younger generations – tons of stress and weight on their shoulders – this has led to suicide if they fail to meet the expectations of the family. Secondly, it often leads to a troublesome path for those being pressured by the family who’s depending on them to succeed.

A lot of the under-educated younger ladies that venture into the cities can’t compete in the high-paying job market so they resort to less savory employment – like escort services for visiting foreigners. Usually, they make good money – if they remain safe, as most escorts provide out-call services (which means they must travel alone to meet with clients) and many of the clients are dishonest and violent toward the girls. Additionally, it causes a strain on marriages and family life.

One of the biggest issues in the cities is education. Getting an education in China is extremely competitive. More than 45% of the people in Shanghai will never get a high school education, for example. As children go through the education system, each tier becomes very competitive, and parents place huge amounts of pressure of their children. This results in many suicides and half of an entire generation becoming depressed, often turning to drinking and escapism.

There are social pressures from others in the cities as well – not just pressures from family outside the urban areas. I can only offer the comparison to what high school was like in the United States – you are judged on the brand of clothes you wear, who you hang out with, and how much money you have. As a foreigner, I was given some leniency – I could get away with wearing jeans, a leather jacket, and running shoes. If you’re Chinese, others look down upon those not dressed in suit and tie (or, brand name lady’s wear). They call you “farmer”, and won’t associate with you. It took some getting used to for me to see so many people tending to their gardens in high heels and business suits; although, things are changing a bit slowly – it is more common now to see women in yoga pants; however, they still don the dress jacket and high heels.

Social gathers among friends and neighbors is expected. Regular cook outs or dinner gatherings are common.

Urban residents are also expected to give neighbors a certain amount of attention. If someone has a baby, or a birthday, you are expected to brings gifts and hóngbāos (red envelopes fill with money). And, if you haven’t seen your neighbor in awhile, it is expected for you to schedule a brief meeting and bring some kind of gift along with more red envelopes.

In the rural areas things are toned down a bit – more social gathers, but less expectations as far as clothing and mannerisms. People gamble a lot – mahjong and card games (this usually involves heavy smoking and drinking from the men, along with fireworks; while the women gamble away what little money they’ve made from a week’s worth of farming and odd jobs.)

I can’t emphasize enough the smoking and drinking customs among men in the rural areas. At every gathering men hand each other packs of cigarettes, and down plastic shot glasses filled with rice wine (56% alcohol, so more like a whisky in my opinion).

There is also no “common courtesy” in the rural areas. Most people speak to each other in a voice I can only describe as screaming (loud and rough, even during friendly conversations). They also don’t have the same respect for privacy as I grew up with – they walk into any house or room they want without so much as a knock on the door, or a courtesy call-out announcing their presence. And eating a meal is like a shark week feeding frenzy – no one waits for anyone else before starting to eat; no one is afraid of taking the last piece of food; and, slurping and belching fills the airwaves.

If you are not familiar with how a meal goes in China – especially rural China – then, let me explain. The meal is cooked and placed in dishes on a large circular table. Each person is given a bowl full of rice and some chopsticks. With that, the meal convenes with everyone digs into the various dishes with their chopsticks until everything is gone. It’s a free-for-all for sure.

Oh, and did I mention the fireworks. In rural China fireworks are used for every occasion and all the time 24/7 – if an invading army were approaching, the residents would have no clue – they would never be able to tell the difference from an invasion and someone celebrating something with fireworks – big, loud fireworks.

Overall, the people in rural China are more of my kind of people. I just wish they’d speak more quietly.

Some general observations about China.

They use social media like crazy – EVERYONE uses a smartphone in China. The most popular apps are WeChat and TikTok.

WeChat is more established and can be used for financial matters – you can connect your account to your bank and pay for anything using the app – online and in person purchases, although online/delivery options are the most popular since deliveries are very fast and cheap on almost anything you want to buy.

Some notes on WeChat. There is an international version which allows for free video and voice calling from anywhere to anywhere as long as both parties have WeChat. If you have the mainland version, you have to verify your identity with either a Chinese ID or a passport. The downside to WeChat is it uses a sophisticated AI and if when travel, you often get “unusual activity” (I am guessing it’s from the varying IP addresses you log into the app from) – this seems to be more likely with the mainland version – and the account is blocked. To unblock it, you need one of your contacts to unblock it for you – someone from the mainland with a bankcard attached to the account – and, to make matters frustrating, you can only unblock an account a few times in a six month period; so, if your contacts have assisted other users, you can have your account blocked or deleted before someone can vouch for you.

TikTok is a advertising platform – take YouTube and make it all about the ads and less about the content. The premise appears to be…get people to like your creative videos (15 sec to 60 secs max, at first) and advertisers will give you commissions for you to advertise their products and services to your followers. This takes time and PR.

You can go live, which is nice; however, the AI can suspend you for any reason and shutdown your account, and your live streams. The customer service sucks. I had an account suspended permanently from live streams and I did not violate the rules. You are allowed one appeal and the poor-English-speaking customer service reps won’t help you much. In my case, they sent me a message saying I used up my one appeal and I was permanently banned from live-streaming because I had no live streaming content (???). I had not live content because I was permanently banned before doing any live streaming. Total waste of time. I had built up a following and produced more than 50 videos. Live streaming is where the money is so, they are losing out – as am I.

You’ll find cameras everywhere in China – even inside gated communities. Rural areas are the only places outside camera coverage, but that is changing as more are being installed – especially in regions with growing populations.

If you like fast internet, then take a class in patience before staying in China for any length of time. The internet on the mainland is usually quick, but censored – you can’t get to your gmail or Facebook accounts without a VPN (Virtual Private Network).

At present, with the COVID-19 outbreak, the internet can be at a complete standstill – mainly due to the heavier traffic since most people cannot go to work outside their homes yet, and the heavy censorship from the government trying to prevent media stories and rumors from creating more alarm and chaos.

Overall, I find China a reasonable place to visit and stay. Some of the freedoms you expect from the living in the United States and other Western countries are absent. But if you stay away from politics you can usually find a happy medium – somewhere between adolescence, where your parents make you do your homework and go to bed at a certain time, and senior citizen age where you might find yourself confined to an assisted living facility and a curfew.

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