MANYA KOETSE is a China social trend watcher and the editor-in-chief of What’s on Weibo, a website providing social, cultural & historical insights into an ever-changing China.
She is a writer, public speaker, and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends & behavior in China, with a focus on social media and digital trends, Sino-Japanese relations and gender issues. Besides these activities, she provides services as a consultant, researcher, and public speaker on (consumer) behavior, social trends, digital developments & new media in China.
Interview by Dominique Musorrafiti
This is a selected interview from
Planet China Vol. 04 issue
China-underground: Where does your interest for China come from?
Manya Koetse: So actually I had no connection to China in my early childhood. Also, my parents were not connected to China, but I always felt very interested in the quick rapid developments of Chinese culture and the changes in modern history. I think it’s because actually in the 1990s in the Netherlands there was this China boom. There was a boom especially in literature when the book Wild Swans by Jung Chang came out.
That was the period, after the Cultural Revolution and after the opening up that more Chinese authors were published in English so I think I was, maybe, 12 years old when I started reading Wild Swans and I was very interested and in the end, I read this book in English and in Dutch. I think I read it three or four times. I was so interested. So I think the start of my interest in China was Wild Swans and when I saw the images of Hong Kong being returned to the mainland in 1997 and also this made a huge impression on me. So much later when I was 16, I started studying Japanese.
Actually, I did an exchange project to Japan and after that, I discovered that although I found Japan very interesting, so much in Japanese culture was borrow or lend from China and I found the origins in China that in the end. I studied both Japanese and Chinese, and I found for me to study Chinese was more exciting so but in the end, I did both. So I am a Japanologist and a Sinologist.
“I lived in Beijing from 2008 during Olympics, for 2 years and then I returned home. Since then I always return to Beijing at least once every 5 to 6
months and every single time it’s very different: the city, everything
changes so fast.”
What are the main difficulties you have faced in studying Chinese language and characters? Did you find any difficulties at the beginning or it was easy?
Well, I think it was easier for me because I came from Japan studies. It was easy for me to do the characters, but the pronunciation was very difficult. I remember when I started studying it was at Leiden University, my teacher told me that I was actually speaking Chinese with a Japanese accent. But now I think my Chinese has probably become better than my Japanese now. But always I think I will never really master the tones in Chinese because it’s just so complicated for foreigners to really grasp the tones, I think.
Which event has most influenced your way of seeing China, during your first visit? There is something else that motivates you to get more into the culture and in the language or it was about your passion for reading about Chinese culture and literature?
There were few things. Actually, the very first time, when I was really young, I was just 16 and I was on a trip together with my parents traveling from Hong Kong to Shanghai and Shenzhen. I was very impressed because what I didn’t understand is that you can see these rapid developments from Shanghai and all these modern things but at the same time you can see these ancient gardens walk, people wearing pajamas in the street and people playing games on the street. So, on the one hand, it looked like the 1950s and on the other hand into the future. For this reason, I really wanted to understand.
At the time because I read the books about China and I knew about Mao Zedong, I also saw a statue from Mao Zedong and there were a lot of people taking photos with it and I was so shocked. I wanted to understand what people’s attitudes were towards history, so I think it was all already been and it was only years later that I started studying, but that was actually the start of my interest in China yet.
I think Internet has a huge influence on the daily life in China, much more than in other countries, because for example, e-commerce plays a much bigger role, but also because a lot of practical everyday matters have become digitalized in China more than in Europe. There are certain shops, like mini stores, where you cannot even pay with cash or with the other card only with WeChat or with Ali pay.
So in that sense it’s just in a practical matter it influences everyday life, but I think also internet influences how the government deals with the people and how the people deal with the government. You see a lot of new types of activism. I think because you cannot demonstrate in China and there are of course so many hindrances on freedom of speech. But on social media, I find that there is quite some freedom of speech to move, it’s all a little bit difficult of course the censorship is also big but there’s also a lot of rooms, for people to give their opinions. So this is really changing China and in a big way, I think.
What about “What’s on Weibo”? How the idea come from?
I started it, I think that I already had the name. I thought the name already in 2013 maybe before even because I came back after living in Beijing and actually I was crying the first weeks when I was back in the Netherlands because I felt homesick for China. I wanted to see my friends and I wanted to know what everyone’s talking about because I always like to keep up with the daily trends and the news at what people are talking about in the streets.
So then I went on social media, I thought ok this is also a way for me to keep up with the latest trends and to see what people are worried about what people are discussing, the funny jokes. Then I came up with this idea like, oh, if I’m curious about this, that maybe a lot of people will be curious. So started like that with a small blog and then by late 2014 I discovered that I had a lot of viewers and then I said okay: “Within a few months” I think at the time I already had like 15,000 viewers per month, “if I get 30,000 within a few months then I’ll make it my full-time job” and then within a few months I had a hundred thousand years and now it’s even gone up to three hundred thousand almost per month. So yeah now it’s become a full-time job.
My website is hosted in the Netherlands so I’m independent. Generally, nobody has any influence in that way because I’m independent, but what I do notice is that there was one time, I think, two years ago, I wrote a piece about Ai Wei Wei and within a few days, my website was no longer accessible in China. It was really sad because I know that there were a lot of readers within China so that was sad. Later I think it was in 2016, the website was again opened, so, for now, it’s not censored in China. Actually, I have a lot of contact with the Chinese state media as well. Sometimes they take over some of my stories or I’ve been interviewed. So I feel that it’s okay there’s no big problem because although I do cover censorship mostly, I cover the things that are already trending on Chinese social media. I sometimes write about sensitive topics but I’d like to keep a balance.
What do you think about the CCTV surveillance cameras and face recognition?
I think it is going quite far and actually, I often speak to different media about this topic. I think it’s one of the topics that the Western countries are most interested in when it comes to China. They want to know about what you say: the CCTV surveillance cameras. But on it, you have a lot of different topics, of course, you have the social credit system, the credit score of people, there’s voice recognition, there’s face recognition.
There are even tests going on right now with people working in China who their brainwaves are being monitored so that their bosses can know when they’re tired or when they’re angry. Really like what George Orwell was writing in 1984 in this book. But at the same time I do feel that there is a little bit of hypocrisy, when we, and I mean in English-language media, we’re writing about it, because if we look at Facebook or YouTube, it’s not only social media but many of the things also our banks and the way that we have surveillance cameras here. If we look at privacy and recording of data and collecting, I think that China is doing what people in America we’re doing also in EU.
I think that a lot of people in China feel that they want to be able to trust their neighbors and their companies and their environment where they are living. So for a lot of people, it’s a good development, because it means that there will be a society that is more controlled, but also safer. Because it’s not only about individuals being monitored more it’s also for example companies being monitored more and I think what biggest things people are worried about food safety and the safety of their products for their children and their babies. So in a way to have a more controlled environment is also a positive thing for many people.
But at the same time, of course, I always feel it’s difficult not to be too negative but also not to be too positive, because of course, it’s true that for the people who really want to give political opinions it will be very different. Often in English-language media what you see is that there’s almost a hundred percent focus on them, although maybe there are only 1% of society. A lot of people don’t care about politics they care about improving their lives and the land their families and for them there it’s not about central politics it’s about their own lives and their own local town.
That’s why I think looking at social media is important looking at the trends, because over the past few years I’ve seen what the main issues are for people and it’s not high politics what it is it’s smaller things. It’s insecure employment market, the rapid urbanization and all the problems that you get with the migrant workers and urbanization like food safety, traffic safety, housing prices. The price of the houses is very important. A medical care. Then you have of course the problem with gender, that there are so many men who cannot find out a woman. You have the women especially in the more rural areas who are asking a bride price and the men cannot pay the bride price because it’s too high. It’s often things like this relating to safety love marriage children health, I think that is the main: the basic necessities.
Photo courtesy of Manya Koetse