Chinese Websites and Apps Turned Black and White. Here’s Why.

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Alibaba’s shopping and streaming apps have turned black and white on Monday. 

Chinese people have woken up to find the most popular shopping, food delivery, news and movie streaming sites turned black and white on Monday.

It’s not because the websites are malfunctioning. Instead, government organs and private companies are joining a nationwide commemoration on the anniversary of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, when invading Japanese troops carried out mass killings in the eastern Chinese city. Beijing says 300,000 people died. 

It’s an important day on the Communist Party’s political calendar for it to remind people of the country’s past sufferings, promote nationalism, and mobilize support for the leadership.

Some of the biggest tech companies, including Alibaba, Huawei, and Xiaomi, have turned the home pages of their websites and apps black and white, although consumers could still see colors when they browse individual products.

It’s unclear whether the color change came from an official order. Wu Qiang, an independent political commentator in Beijing, said the propaganda apparatus might have issued informal instructions to internet companies.

Alibaba also applied the gray tones to the home pages of its food delivery service Ele.me and streaming service Youku. The e-commerce giant has lost some $500 billion in market value after Beijing cracked down on the country’s once-freewheeling internet industry. 

While some users applauded the patriotic gesture, others were left confused. 

“I opened Taobao and thought Jack Ma died,” a user wrote on the microblogging site Weibo on Monday. 

“If Taobao looks like this every day, I will probably save quite a lot of money,” another person wrote.

Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, said while the Nanjing Massacre was downplayed by the leadership under Mao Zedong, given that the city was controlled by rival Kuomintang party at the time, commemorations were organized in recent decades to stoke nationalism and gather support for the Communist leadership. 

“The ‘recent’ efforts to commemorate the likes of the Nanjing Massacre were part of the re-writing of history to support the narrative that China and the Chinese people would still be suffering from the brutality of imperialists if not for the CCP and, more recently, Xi Jinping’s leadership,” Tsang said. 

The memorial day is also a time for local cadres, businesses, and individuals to pledge their political loyalty, at a time when the government is tightening ideology control over the society and imposing a slew of new regulations to curb what it deems harmful business practices and cultural trends. 

Most pop stars shared commemorative messages on Monday, while their fandoms have made Dec. 13 a “no entertainment day.” Fans pledged to only post Nanjing Massacre-related content, such as candle emojis and state media posters, in the forums that are usually filled with glamorous celebrity photos.

Similar mass commemorations are also held on the anniversaries of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, the traditional Qingming Festival dedicated to the deceased, and other key dates of the Japanese invasion of China during World War II. 

Chinese fan clubs mostly toe the official party ideology on social media, due to rising nationalism in the young generation and also to protect the careers of their idols. The government this year launched a crackdown on what it called chaotic fan culture, while several pop stars have been erased from the internet due to accusations of rape, tax evasion, or politically incorrect views. 

Some Chinese fans of Taylor Swift have decided to postpone celebrating the American singer’s 32nd birthday on Dec. 13.

“Due to time difference, it’s not Ms. Taylor Swift’s birthday yet,” says a top-voted comment on Swift’s official Weibo page. “Plus today is the National Memorial Day. It’s not appropriate to celebrate in our country.” 

“I am Mei’s fan, but more importantly, a Chinese national,” another fan wrote, adding a candle emoji. Mei Mei, which means “unlucky” or “moldy,” is Swift’s nickname in China. 

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