Six months after Zheng Linghua shared a photo on Chinese social media celebrating her admission to graduate school with her bedridden grandfather, Zheng Linghua died.

The 23-year-old shared the picture on the Xiaohongshu platform – with pink hair and visibly excited, she announced to the world that she had earned a place to study music at East China Normal University.

“Grandpa has been my pillar of support since I was little…One of my motivations for applying to grad school was that my grandfather could see me get in and was proud of me,” she wrote.

But their joy was short-lived.

Within days, she had become the target of online bullying. Her photo was shared with false and often offensive captions. She then became the target of relentless taunts, with some calling her a “nightclub girl” and an “evil spirit.”

It’s unclear how Zheng died, but last month a friend of hers broke the news on Xiaohongshu: “Due to bullying online and at school, Zheng Linghua’s life ended on January 23, 2023.”

So-called cyberbullying is everywhere, but China’s collectivist culture and the lack of pressure on social media companies to root out abuse give the phenomenon a special dynamic. A survey of more than 2,000 social media users in China found that about four in 10 respondents have experienced some form of online abuse. It was also found that 16% of victims had suicidal thoughts. Almost half suffered from anxiety, 42% from insomnia and 32% from depression.

Zheng originally had plans to take legal action against her online abusers — one of her Weibo posts last September was about “How to sue people who attack you madly behind screens?” But she was later diagnosed with depression and she was treated, which she revealed on her social media, sharing details of how she had battled sleeping and eating disorders. In November, she shared pictures of herself in a hospital ward with the caption, “act against depression.”

Her death is the latest in a string of deaths linked to online bullying in China.

In January 2022, Liu Xuezhou from Xingtai City killed himself after a reunion with his birth parents went awry. When their argument played out online, some people accused him of being selfish. The 17-year-old, who was orphaned at the age of four, left a note describing his past experiences of bullying and depression.

History teacher Liu Hanbo from central Henan province died in November of the same year after trolls repeatedly destroyed her online classes. They hurled insults, played loud music and spammed the group conversation. Authorities ruled out foul play in Liu’s death but said they were investigating whether she had been bullied online.

Last month, online influencer Sun Fanbao killed himself – his wife said the 38-year-old was repeatedly insulted by one of his followers and became depressed in the months leading up to his death. Sun rose to fame in 2021 after documenting his 4,000-kilometer journey from Shandong to Tibet on a tractor.

Collectivism meets irresponsibility

In collectivist cultures like China, those perceived as breaking the norm tend to be severely punished, experts say. What makes it worse, they add, is a pervasive culture of shame.

“A strong sense of collectivism in China may mean that when cyberbullying is committed as a symbolic act of violence or aggression toward others in public, it can lead to drastic measures, such as suicide, to escape this sense of humiliation,” says K Cohen Tan, Vice Provost at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China.

Passengers look at their smartphones in a subway station in China

Chinese social media companies aren’t doing enough to protect users from abuse, experts say

Reading through the posts and comments, it’s hard to tell what drew the trolls to Zheng. It could also have been her unconventional pink hair that seems to have bothered some of her online attackers. Others even suggested she was romantically involved with an older man, a possible reference to her grandfather.

dr Tan says that online bullies typically “stigmatize people for their personal actions or decisions,” and that’s “reinforced later by herd instincts.” The combined effect, he says, “makes victims feel helpless.”

While online stinginess isn’t always politically charged, “the Chinese government tolerates a certain type of cyberbullying” by right-wing nationalists, says Fang Kecheng, a journalism professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The targets of such attacks were mostly people, who tarnished China’s image in the eyes of the world.

Michael Berry, who translated the Wuhan Diary – a diary published by writer Fang Fang during her time under Covid lockdown in Wuhan – was a target of such trolling.

“Some threatened to kill me and my family if we ever came back to China,” said Dr. Berry in an interview with WhyNot, a US-based magazine. “Many of these messages contained serious threats and spoke of deep hatred. Some users sent me such threats daily.”

Fang Fang also faced a backlash online, with some accusing her of giving foreigners “a giant sword” to attack China.

New Yorker magazine contributor Fan Jiayang and her mother were also targeted online by Chinese nationalists and labeled traitors after she publicized her mother’s battle with ALS, a motor neuron disease, amid the pandemic.

Many believe that social media platforms should be given more consideration in China as there are platforms elsewhere in the world.

“It was very difficult for the victims to seek legal protection and redress,” says assistant professor Fang. “There have been very few instances where the perpetrators and the platforms have been punished.”

This is partly because online bullying is not prioritized as a problem by social media companies or Beijing, which instead operates an extensive censorship machinery to stifle dissent or any form of political conversation.

Social media platforms in China are reportedly adhering to a growing list of censored search terms – including more recently words like “Urumqi” and “Shanghai,” cities where anti-Covid protests have taken place.

“China has robust technological tools for monitoring online content. More of these resources should be redirected to curbing cyberbullying. [The government] should not condone the culture of promoting online hate campaigns,” says Jonathan Sullivan, China specialist and political scientist at the University of Nottingham.

Some are also calling for more public education about online safety.

Schools should implement emotional and social learning programs that teach students how to resolve disagreements and make responsible decisions, said Janis Whitlock, who directs the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery at Cornell University.

Basically, mental health care in China should be strengthened, says Dr. Sullivan.

Experts say nearly three years of strict and abrupt Covid lockdowns may also have increased time spent online, leading to more cases of bullying.

“What else are you going to do when you’re locked up for months? This, in turn, has also led to an exponential increase in online violence and cyberbullying. Part of that is because people were unemployed and frustrated and angry,” says Dr. Berry.

“People felt like they needed an outlet to vent. And in many cases they turn to ‘keyboard justice’, unleashing attacks on celebrities and other public figures,” he adds.

In one of her most recent Weibo posts in October, Zheng reflected on so-called “black swan events” she experienced last year. Among other things, she listed online abuse, internet violence, depression, and graduate school applications.

“Yes, my dramatic life is fast-moving and fluctuating a lot. But these things have helped me gather the courage to go through life’s ups and downs and not get lost… Next year will definitely be better,” she wrote.

By then, she had dyed her pink hair black.

Zheng fell silent on social media soon after, but up until last month, friends and followers left comments on her Weibo account, many expressing regret and shock at her death.

“I can’t believe it at all. You were such a wonderful person,” wrote one of them.

Another said: “My sadness is unspeakable. I am so disappointed in this world.”

If you are affected by the issues addressed in this article, For help and support see this BBC Action Line.

In the UK you can always call free to hear recorded information on 0800 066 066. In China, get help here.


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