Youth under Lockdown in Urban China: WeChat, Bilibili, and Gaming

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Author: Maria Nolan, PhD candidate, SOAS. You can contact Maria at 295660@soas.ac.uk.

Fieldsite: Urban China

Tian, a final-year university student, is currently residing in his family’s home in his native city in Guangdong province in the south of China. He has not spent this much time with his parents in years. Having lived on his university’s campus in Wuhan for the past three and a half years, he has grown used to seeing family only on holidays, several times a year. By the time Wuhan went into lockdown in January, Tian had already left the city in order to spend the Chinese New Year holiday at home in Guangdong.

His parent’s only child, Tian has appreciated being able to spend more time at home, chatting with his parents and eating the meals his mother prepares every day. “I did not eat [at home] 10 times last year”, he told me when we talked via WeChat. Usually, when he goes home for the holidays, his family and friends will want to eat out. “I will miss my mom’s food”.

His extended period at home, however, has been challenging, particularly in the earlier stages of the pandemic in China. During his first month at home, residents were not allowed to go out unless it was absolutely necessary. Outdoor exercise was forbidden. In Tian’s city, these particular restrictions were in place for one or two weeks. “After that, people could go out to do some exercise… but people were scared of others… [they would] avoid [going out]”.

During this time, Tian found it extremely upsetting to see the news as the situation worsened in China, particularly in Wuhan, a city he had come to know well. He talked with friends online daily. “Many of us were having a hard time”. He also described feeling “suffocated” when heavy restrictions were in place. Most residents in China’s cities live in high-rise apartment buildings, many situated in enclosed or semi-enclosed compounds where any outdoor space is communal, and thus, at the onset of the pandemic, potentially unsafe. “Most people live in a small space, [maybe] 100 square metres. Space is narrow… Mental pressure was very high at that time”.

WeChat video calls with close friends helped. “I used my phone so much during this time – maybe for 7 or 8 hours a day”. He spent more time on both WeChat and Weibo, another online communication platform, connecting with friends and others. It helped to share news with friends and to discuss it with them. “Sharing news and sharing our inner feelings. Also, we all got tired of talking with just our parents or family at home!”

Another online platform that has helped Tian in coping with the difficult circumstances is Bilibili. A video-sharing website sometimes referred to as the Chinese YouTube, Bilibili was originally themed around animation, comic, and game (ACG). It has in recent years expanded its realm to include videos of all kinds, from makeup tutorials to academic lectures, as well as a live streaming service, and has seen its popularity soar among young Chinese. Tian likes that it has resources for both study and entertainment that are available for free. He can watch videos that nurture his interests in art and politics. He also enjoys watching videos by some of the celebrities who have made a name for themselves on the Bilibili site. Some show stars eating food, playing with their pets, or playing games. Tian has enjoyed watching such videos during the lockdown as they “reflect[ed] the reality” of peoples’ everyday lives in confinement. “The videos are made by people who also experience a hard time. They can feel you”.

Fig. 1. Screenshot of the Bilibili home page

Yang, who lives with her parents in their native city, Beijing, is another fan of Bilibili. A young professional, Yang has spent much of her time under lockdown working online from home. In the evenings and at weekends, she has enjoyed watching Bilibili videos about travel, which have inspired her to put together a “wish list” of places to go once travel restrictions are lifted. She also likes watching videos about ancient Chinese costumes, and about Chinese history in general. One video lecture about a particular event in China’s history, uploaded by people at Beijing’s Renmin University, impressed her. It put the country’s situation in perspective. “We have thousands of years of history. And people have suffered [before this]”.

There are also many funny, interesting, and unique people to be found on Bilibili, according to Yang. One pair of live-streamers in particular – a guy and his wife making low-quality advertisements – made her laugh. Watching their videos, “I forgot all my pressures and the bad news”.

While Yang was unable to see her friends offline during the lockdown, she was able to see her boyfriend in person most weekends. The apartment compound in which she lives has, like many others, restricted entry to non-residents. At the entrance to Yang’s compound, one must show an entry card at the guarded checkpoint. “At the beginning, it was very difficult to get this card for [my boyfriend]”. At that time, she could only go to his compound. But – “his was so strict as well. I had to bring my ID card and entry card. And you have to have the QR code on your phone scanned to confirm you have not travelled out of Beijing for 14 days”.

Daily WeChat group chats with good friends helped Yang get through the long days spent at home. While Bilibili is her favourite platform for entertainment, she will also sometimes watch live streamers on popular video platforms Kuaishou or Douyin, if only because her friends are on it. “I use Douyin quite often. I actually don’t find [the content on it] that interesting or tasteful, but most of my friends use it”.

Kuaishou and Douyin can be useful for cooking. Yang’s boyfriend watches Douyin videos showing people preparing particular dishes in order to learn the procedures. Yang herself prefers recipe-focused apps, like Xiachufang (pictured below). Clicking on an image of a dish on Xiachufang brings up the ingredients and text or pictures showing the procedures, or both. There are also countless short videos inviting users to try their hand at everything from Sichuan-style hot pot to milk tea.

Fig. 2. Screenshot of Xiachufang home page

Throughout the lockdown, Yang has felt disconnected from the outside world as well as disoriented. “Sometimes I don’t even know what to wear, what the temperature is”. Her friends have felt similarly, she says. She has spent much time alone in her room and, owing to reduced face-to-face contact with others, she has spent less time talking and more time absorbing the words of others online. “I am a listener during this time”.

Some of Yang’s friends have spent long hours at a time playing multi-player online games while under lockdown. I communicated with players of one such game, Final Fantasy XIV, which is popular in China. Like other multi-player games of this type, FF XIV features a persistent world in which a player assumes the role of a character while embarking on quests. It has built-in communication tools to facilitate interaction among players.

Fig. 3. Screenshot of Final Fantasy XIV Online (Chinese version)

For at least some young Chinese under lockdown, playing FF XIV staved off some of the feelings of boredom and suffocation they experienced. Most with whom I connected were university students, playing the game with their friends and classmates after they had finished their online classes for the day. “Paying attention to things [other than news about the pandemic]” was essential, according to one player. “The most important thing is to have your own interesting hobby, so you won’t feel suffocated”, said another.

Gaming also helped youth to combat loneliness. Games such as FF XIV may be seen as tools for communication.  “Playing games is interaction”, as one player said. Most of the players mentioned in-game communication or connecting with those in their gaming circles as important in helping them deal with the challenges of confinement. There is enjoyment and relief in experiencing a shared virtual environment that promotes feelings of connectedness with others. Gamers, like other youth I connected with, reported greater use of their phones during the lockdown for WeChat or QQ chats, video calls, and entertainment. For at least one young person, however, it was the daily gaming session with classmates that did the most to alleviate feelings of isolation.