Hero or Zero? China’s Controversial Math Genius Jiang Ping (2024)

PREMIUM NEWSLETTER | ISSUE #32

This week’s newsletter:

◼︎ 1. Editor’s Note – Get up, stand up
◼︎ 2. What’s New and Noteworthy – A closer look at the featured stories
◼︎ 3. What’s Trending – Hot highlights
◼︎ 4. What’s Remarkable – Seeing little people
◼︎ 6. What’s PopularWild Child: missing in action
◼︎ 7. What’s Memorable – Bystander effect
◼︎ 8. Weibo Word of the Week – “City bu City”

Dear Reader,

Over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of discussion on Chinese social media about young people refusing to give up their seats for older people on the subway, sometimes leading to explosive situations.

On June 16, security was called when a young man on a Shenyang subway crumbled after an old man demanded that he’d give up his seat for him. In a video of the incident, which soon went viral, the young man can be heard screaming: “Are you giving me money? No? Then don’t bother me! I’m just happy to be sitting here. What’s wrong with me grabbing a seat?

Another subway incident went trending a week later. On June 24, a 65-year-old man started harassing a young woman on Beijing Subway Line 10 after she refused to give up his seat to him. The man became aggressive, started slapping the woman and put his cane in between her legs, trying to force her to stand up. The incident, which was filmed by other passengers, caused outrage on social media and the man was later detained by Beijing police.

A day later, in Wuhan, an elderly man and a young woman also got into an altercation that was caught on camera. After female passenger took the only available seat during morning rush hour on Line 2, the man reminded her that she should give up her seat out of respect for the elderly. “Why should I?” she asked: “I don’t owe you anything. I work overtime until 12:00 at night every day, and now you expect me to give up my seat during the morning rush hour?”

These incidents have sparked discussions about how people feel about these situations. In China, where respect for the elderly is deeply ingrained in the culture, should you give up your seat to the elderly on public transport because it is your duty, or is it just a personal choice? In an online poll held by Sina News, over 93% of respondents said they felt it was not their duty to give up their seat but a personal choice—a matter of courtesy.

“As long as you’re not sitting in a priority seat, you don’t have to give up your seat,” a top comment said. “It’s not easy being working class.” Many people echoed this sentiment, siding with the younger people who are facing their own tough struggles in China today. “I’d advise the elderly not to crowd public transport during the morning and evening rush hour,” another popular comment said, receiving thousands of likes.

These discussions signal a social shift: “When the topic comes up about young people not giving up their seats for the elderly, have you ever considered that these young people have been working all day? If you feel so strongly about it being your duty, how about you call a taxi for the elderly yourself?”

While many commenters expressed that people are not obliged to give up their seats to others, some, including pregnant women, complained about the overall reluctance of other passengers to give up their seats for them. “It feels like everybody is tired,” one Weibo user wrote.


Standing By

Another noteworthy discussion on Chinese social media recently was not about sitting down but about standing by. In a stabbing incident caught on camera by bystanders, a man locally known as “Bag-Clutching Brother” (夹包哥) was killed in the city of Songyuan in China’s Jilin province on June 30. His real name was Mr. Zhao, but he earned the nickname “Jiabaoge” (夹包哥, “Brother Clutch Bag”) for his eccentric square dancing while clutching a bag.

A video of the horrific incident shows Mr. Zhao happily dancing in a public square in Songyuan, with dozens of people present, when a man suddenly draws a knife and starts stabbing him. As the crowd watches on, the attack continues. Moments later, Mr. Zhao can be seen lying in a puddle of blood while still being attacked. Bystanders did not intervene. The attacker, a local drunk who did not even know “Brother Clutch Bag,” was detained by police. Zhao died of his injuries.

The incident caused a shock wave on social media. “They all stand in a circle and watch,” a typical comment said. “Not one of them stepped forward to help.” Some people called the onlookers “cold and detached” (“冷漠围观”).

While many suggest the onlookers are selfish and too preoccupied with filming to actually intervene, others suggested they were just scared to face the consequences of intervening.

There is a complex interplay of factors associated with the likelihood of people intervening when witnessing a crime or other emergency. Research points out that the higher the levels of fear among bystanders, the less likely they are to intervene. The more they perceive themselves as strong, the more likely they are to help. Additionally, the more people witnessing an emergency, the less personal responsibility is felt, reducing the chances of intervention.

As a victim, you might be more fortunate if just one person sees your predicament—and comes to your aid—than if a hundred people look on and do nothing.


Hu Youping

This issue perhaps also played a role in a third noteworthy topic that became a major trend recently, which I also wanted to mention here. It concerns the death and honoring of Ms Hu Youping (胡友平). Hu Youping, a 54-year-old school bus attendant, stepped in to help when a Japanese mother and child were attacked by a man with a knife at a school bus stop in Suzhou on June 24.

Hu was working that day when, around 4 pm, someone wielding a knife started attacking people at the bus stop near Xindi Center on Tayuan Road. As she rushed forward to stop the attacker, she was stabbed multiple times—one of the stabs hit her heart. On June 26, two days after the incident, Hu succumbed to her injuries.

The story of Hu Youping is remarkable on many levels. Not only was she brave, but she also intervened during a time when multiple stabbing incidents were making the news (also see: Jilin stabbings). Her courage became the focus of Chinese media reports about the Suzhou stabbing, diverting attention from the suspect’s motivations and discussions questioning China’s public safety. Adding to the story is that Hu protected a Japanese mother and child, which, in the context of Sino-Japanese tensions, reinforced her selflessness.

Hu’s face was suddenly everywhere. Netizens praised her kindness, and state media honored her bravery. As she officially received the title of “Model of Righteousness,” she was exemplified as embodying the kindness and courage of the Chinese people by local authorities. The Tianjin Radio and Television Tower even lit up in honor of Hu Youping, projecting her portrait on the side of the building.

Hero or Zero? China’s Controversial Math Genius Jiang Ping (1)

Hu Youping is seen as a selfless heroine. Her story is not just propagated by official channels, it also resonates with the people. “People like Ms. Hu Youping and other heroes are remarkable, not only for their willingness to sacrifice themselves but also for inspiring those around them,” one Weibo blogger wrote.

Perhaps Hu Youping is the role model people need at this time, when so many stories about a lack of altruism, conflicting values, and moral crises are trending on social media. She was not necessarily an extraordinary person; she was a normal, kind-hearted and hard-working woman who would not stand by while seeing people in trouble.

However, while Hu Youping’s bravery is inspiring, her courage also serves as a cautionary tale. In one thread about the passive crowds watching Mr. Zhao get killed, commenters wrote: “Look what happened to Ms. Hu Youping. She got killed while bravely intervening, so who would dare to step in here?”

Her courage and ensuing death have ignited a realistic debate on what helping others may look like when confronting an armed attacker directly is not an option: “If someone is attacking with a knife and you are unarmed, your only option is to run. If you can help others to run with you, you are already a hero.”

In the end, Hu Youping triggers discussions on kindness, fearlessness, and doing what’s right. At a time when the social moral compass seems adrift, people like Hu help recalibrate it. Whether it means standing up or sitting down, stepping in or getting out, it’s always best to follow that personal moral compass regardless of what others do. Sometimes, that might mean sitting down when you need to rest, knowing that taking care of yourself is just as important. At other times, it means standing up when nobody else does, and rising not because it’s your duty, but because you know it’s the right thing to do.

Miranda Barnes and Ruixin Zhang have helped compile some of the topics mentioned in this week’s newsletter. As always, please do not hesitate to reach out if you’d like to share something you’ve spotted or share your ideas with me.

Best,
Manya Koetse
(@manyapan)

What’s New

A closer look at featured stories

Hero or Zero? China’s Controversial Math Genius Jiang Ping (2)

Humble Prodigy or Deceptive Impostor? | It’s rare for a math competition to become the focus of nationwide attention in China. But since 17-year-old vocational school student Jiang Ping made it to the top 12 among contestants from prestigious universities worldwide, her humble background and outstanding achievement sparked debates and triggered rumors.

Read more

Hero or Zero? China’s Controversial Math Genius Jiang Ping (3)

“Scared to Intervene” | In a shocking incident caught on camera, a well-known Songyuan resident nicknamed “Brother Clutch Bag” was tragically stabbed to death. On Weibo, people have reacted with disbelief.

Read more

Hero or Zero? China’s Controversial Math Genius Jiang Ping (4)

Another One Bites the Dust | Li Shangfu allegedly “took advantage of his position to seek benefits for others” and received large sums of money.

Read more

What’s Trending

A recap of hot highlights


    JUNE 26

    🇺🇸 Biden vs Trump | Just like in the rest of the world, Biden and Trump’s presidential debate became a hot topic on Chinese social media. Chinese America watchers harshly criticized the debate, describing it as a race between a “madman and a senile patient.” Others perceived the overall energy and quality of the debate as indicative of troubled times for America and see the presidential campaign as a sign of Western democracy falling behind. Many commenters suggest that it does not really matter for China who becomes president, as both candidates are expected to adopt a tough stance on China. Nonetheless, there were various posts indicating a preference for Trump because he generates more memes and jokes on Chinese social media and is “more fun to watch.”


    JUNE 29

    🐼 From Sichuan to San Diego | They are the first set of pandas to make their way to the U.S. in 21 years: Yun Chuan (云川) and Xin Bao (鑫宝) safely arrived in San Diego on June 28 after a long flight from China. Their caretakers in Sichuan had to say goodbye to them for a loan period of at least ten years. On Chinese social media, many commenters expressed sadness about the pandas leaving China, wondering if their American adventure is really in their best interest.”


    JUNE 30

    🚀 Accidental Rocket | Was it a plane? Was it a meteor? Videos of an explosion in the hills near Gongyi City in Henan recently went viral (link). The huge impact was not caused by a meteor; it was a rocket. While performing a ground test, the Chinese rocket by space startup Space Pioneer (天兵科技) was accidentally launched and crashed near a residential area. There were no reports of casualties. A few days later, Space Pioneer sincerely apologized and promised that the company would compensate anyone who suffered property damage due to the test failure. The incident has sparked questions on why a private enterprise was able to test out rockets in Gongyi in the first place.


    JULY 1

    🏸 Zhang Zhijie Dies | On June 30, the young Chinese badminton player Zhang Zhijie (张志杰) collapsed and convulsed during a game in Indonesia. Videos of the incident (link) showed how it took about 40 seconds before medics arrived to attend to him. After being rushed to the hospital, the 17-year-old player from Jiaxing, Zhejiang, passed away. According to Indonesia’s badminton association, Zhang died due to sudden cardiac arrest. On Weibo, a hashtag about Zhang’s death garnered over 560 million views (#张志杰去世#) since late June. Zhang’s sister shared her grief and shock about her brother’s death on her Weibo account. Zhang’s mother was so overcome with grief that she had to be temporarily hospitalized earlier this week. Zhang’s family is now in Indonesia, seeking more clarity on his death and holding those responsible accountable.


    JULY 2

    🚗 Molly and Mr. Musk | “Hello Mr. Musk, I’m Molly from China. I have a question about your car. When I draw a picture, sometimes it will disappear like this. You see it? So can you fix it? Thank you.” Recently, a 7-year-old girl from Beijing named Molly recorded a video for Elon Musk, in which she complained in English about a bug in Tesla’s sketchpad: when adding a new stroke to her drawing, Molly found that previous strokes would sometimes disappear. In response, Musk replied to her on the X platform, “Sure.” The little exchange generated a lot of attention for Molly on Chinese social media, where the little girl was applauded for how she managed to address an issue with her drawing pad directly with Mr. Musk himself.

    Hero or Zero? China’s Controversial Math Genius Jiang Ping (5)


    JULY 6

    🌊 Dongting Floods | A dike of Dongting Lake in Yueyang, Hunan Province, burst on Friday afternoon, causing serious flooding in the area. What started as a 10-meter-wide breach eventually became a breach of approximately 225 meters (738 feet) wide. This flooding of China’s second-largest freshwater lake has already affected approximately 5,000 people, and around 3,000 people were relocated on Saturday. Efforts to seal the breach in the embankment in Huarong County are underway, with over 4700 people actively helping to control the flood.


    JULY 7

    📈 Peak in Death Rates | On Sunday, reports of China facing an imminent peak in death rates went trending on Weibo, where a related hashtag became one of the most-searched topics (#中国将迎来人口死亡高峰#). Chinese news outlet Jiemian News reported on a new study published in the latest issue of the Chinese magazine “Population Research” (人口研究), where researchers predict an unprecedented peak in death rates due to various factors, including China’s rapidly aging population, historical birth fluctuations, and increased longevity. As the aging population from the post-war mid-20th-century birth boom leads to a rapid rise in deaths, researchers emphasize the need to prepare for the societal impacts of this peak, including improved palliative care and better planning for funeral services. “Can we first fix the problem of post-graduate unemployment?” one top commenter wondered.

    What’s Noteworthy

    Small news with big impact

    Hero or Zero? China’s Controversial Math Genius Jiang Ping (6)

    Do you remember when US Treasury Secretary Yellen had some supposed ‘magic mushrooms’ in Beijing? The mushroom dish she had at a local restaurant is called “jiànshǒuqīng” (见手青) in Chinese; it’s the Lanmaoa asiatica mushroom species that grows in China’s Yunnan region and is considered hallucinogenic if not prepared properly, causing visions that locals call “xiǎorénrén” (小人人), literally meaning seeing “tiny people.” The Chinese is similar to the English term “Lilliputian hallucinations” that refers to visual hallucinations which could also include seeing tiny humans.

    The fact that Yellen had this dish actually made it more popular online in China, leading more people to order the mushrooms through online channels.

    This week, one Chinese girl named Xiaolin who had ordered 500 grams of the mushrooms became a top trending topic online. She used them for her mushroom soup and added them to her noodles. She consumed all of the mushrooms within one day. Later that night, Xiaolin started feeling unwell. She started seeing numerous “tiny people” running around her house, and when the little figures tried to whisper in her ear and get into her bed, the terrified girl rushed to her friend’s house, who decided to take her to the hospital due to her incoherent speech and strange behavior. The girl was eventually hospitalized due to wild mushroom poisoning.

    The story garnered 160 million views on Weibo (#女子吃1斤见手青后看见一屋人#), where many people are now more aware of the dangers of consuming wild mushrooms if not properly cooked. However, there are also many others who are only more curious now; they also want to see ‘little people’ walking around their house.

    Hero or Zero? China’s Controversial Math Genius Jiang Ping (7)

    Meme comparing Vision Pro to the ‘magic’ jianshouqing mushroom: which surreal experience is better?

    Some memes relating to this topic suggest that having “jiànshǒuqīng” is a cheaper and more interactive VR experience than getting the Apple Vision Pro. It surely isn’t something that authorities would like to see more people experiment with: a vlogger who tried out some raw mushrooms on her livestream was immediately shut down this week.

    What’s Popular

    The latest buzz in arts, marketing & pop culture

    Hero or Zero? China’s Controversial Math Genius Jiang Ping (8)

    The highly anticipated Chinese film Wild Child (野孩子) was scheduled for a nationwide premiere on July 10. Earlier this year, Wild Child won the Weibo award for the most-anticipated movie of the year. Starring the immensely popular former TFBoys leader Wang Junkai (also known as Karry Wang 王俊凯, 1999), the film had generated significant excitement among Chinese movie-goers. However, this week, the film distributor abruptly announced the cancellation of its release, citing alleged post-production delays. The cancellation, which quickly trended and sparked widespread discussion on Chinese social media, was particularly surprising as tickets were already being sold in the presale box office.

    Directed by Yin Ruoxin (殷若昕), Wild Child is based on a true story about two boys from a poor background who struggle to get by. The film addresses the theme of “children living in difficulty” (困境儿童), depicting the lives of children growing up in poverty. The two boys, one a thief and the other an orphan, are united by fate and bond as brothers as they face their challenges together.

    Why was the movie canceled so close to its premiere date? Was the withdrawal a purely commercial decision driven by poor presale figures, as suggested in a recent column by People’s Daily, or were there political motivations involved? Could its theme be misaligned with the upcoming Party’s third plenary session? Or is the portrayal of children facing social difficulties simply too sensitive? While the true reasons remain unclear, many fans are hopeful they will still have the opportunity to see the film.

    What’s Memorable

    Best reads from the archive

    Hero or Zero? China’s Controversial Math Genius Jiang Ping (9)

    For this pick from the archive, and in the context of recent discussions on bystanders not intervening, we revisit a 2015 article about a young Chinese student who helped an elderly lady who had fallen on the street, only to be held liable for her injuries. Stories like these are often cited to explain why people hesitate to help someone in need.

    Read more

    Weibo Word of the Week

    The catchword to know

    Hero or Zero? China’s Controversial Math Genius Jiang Ping (10)

    “City or not” | Our Weibo phrase of the week is City bu City a (City不City啊), translated as “City or not?”, a phrase that has recently taken the Chinese internet by storm.

    The phrase first became popular thanks to American influencer Paul Mike Ashton, nicknamed “Bao Bao Xiong” (保保熊, Baby Bear), who runs a Chinese-language account on Douyin. On his channel, Ashton shares humorous snippets about his life in China, where he works as an entertainer and tour guide.

    In one video from April this year, Ashton posted a clip in which he cycles through the city like a Shanghai ‘city girl’ who often mixes Chinese and English words, calling himself “very city” (“我是好city”). He says: “I’m so city, a city girl. It’s so cool, breezy. Life in the city is so good, I feel so free.”

    Ashton later began incorporating this phrase more frequently in his videos, often involving his sister, who also speaks Chinese in these humorous exchanges. Walking on the Shanghai Bund, the brother and sister describe Shanghai as “so city” (“好city啊”). While walking on the Great Wall, Bao Bao asks his sister if it’s “city or not” (it’s not).

    In other videos in which the two are traveling through China, Ashton repeatedly asks his younger sister if certain things are “city or not,” to which she usually responds humorously: “It’s very city.”

    In this context, “city” has evolved from a noun into a quirky adjective, describing something that embodies the essence of urban life; something that is ‘city’ is metropolitan, lively, and modern. It’s very tongue-in-cheek and also serves as a playful commentary on how young Chinese people often mix Chinese and English words to sound more sophisticated and trendy.

    This phenomenon sparked the ‘city or not’ meme, which even reached the Foreign Ministry this week when spokesperson Mao Ning was asked about it. She responded that she had heard about the new use of the phrase and that it is a positive sign of foreigners enjoying life in China.

    Chinese authorities and state media have also jumped on this trend to promote tourism. By now, the meme has been imitated and adapted by various local tourism departments. Ashton himself has encouraged foreigners to come and experience Chinese culture (and its very ‘city’ city life), further boosting its popularity.


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Hero or Zero? China’s Controversial Math Genius Jiang Ping (2024)
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