April 15, 2024

The terrible experience of a couple captivated on the Internet in China

  • By Fan Wang
  • BBC News, Singapore

Image source, Social media

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Zhang Yiliang and Dong Lijun’s challenges have resonated with young Chinese

A young Chinese couple whose struggles to own a flat shed light on the country’s economic crisis and have captivated the nation.

Zhang Yiliang and his wife Dong Lijun, both in their 30s, have documented the last two years of their lives, starting with the moment they bought the apartment. Her account “Liangliang Lijun Couple” has earned more than 400,000 followers on Douyin.

What started as a celebration ended up having problems, including disputes with the real estate developer who they said owed them money. In recent weeks, they alleged they were assaulted and their videos censored, earning them sympathy from millions online.

Their experience as small-town residents dreaming of a big city seems to have resonated with many ordinary Chinese, reflecting their challenges and dashed hopes amid a housing crisis in a sluggish economy.

“What you are posting is real life,” wrote one Douyin user. “In fact, life is hard for most young people. There is no party every night.” Another comment, which received hundreds of likes, read: “Their story resonates because they are just like us.”

Some said their aspirations represented the so-called Chinese dream, a concept popularized by President Xi Jinping, who advocates the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

“Liangliang and Lijun painted a visible blueprint for the ‘Chinese dream,'” a former journalist said in a video on his social media channel. “This is to say to everyone, especially young people: the most diligent, law-abiding and optimistic citizens do not deserve the Chinese dream, let alone the rest. Thank you to the couple for helping us see the cruel side of reality from China”.

But the video has since been deleted and he has been banned from posting on his Weibo account.

At the center of the couple’s emotional rollercoaster is their apartment, which they bought in 2021. They first posted about their purchase on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok in November of that year.

“Now, among all the lights, there will be one lit just for me,” the happy couple wrote alongside the video they shared on their account, Liangliang and Lijun.

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A recent job fair in China, where youth unemployment has reached a record level

They constantly posted about the progress of their apartment construction and visited the site almost every month.

A month later, Ms Dong came home with bad news: she was forced to take a pay cut, reducing it to just 2,000 yuan (around $282; £222) a month. In a video she is seen crying while she breaks the news to her husband: “Our salary is already the lowest… What should I do?”

The video likely echoed similar stories across China as unemployment rose. “I can’t be the only one who cries while watching your videos,” one comment read.

But for the young couple, the worst was yet to come.

In May 2022, the promoter, Sunac China Holdings Limited, admitted to having financial problems after missing the interest payment deadline on a bond.

It was a time when other real estate developers, like Evergrande, were struggling to pay off debts and deliver homes. But Mr. Zhang and Ms. Dong remained optimistic. Days after the announcement, Zhang said in a post: “We chose Sunac, so we must trust them. We believe they will act responsibly as a company should and deliver the project.”

But two months later construction stopped. They spent the next few months asking the company to resume construction, which occurred in early 2023. During that time, they had a daughter.

It seemed like life had returned to normal, but they said the company still owed them a refund of 20,000 yuan, which they had been asking for for months.

Then, on November 15, the couple attended an event organized by Sunac and livestreamed their meeting. His Douyin account has no posts after that day until December 1st.

Shortly after the Sunac event, social media was filled with posts and comments, saying that the couple had been beaten during the live broadcast, the video of which is no longer available. Screenshots shared by users also show a series of posts in which Mr. Zhang appears to have visited a hospital. In another video posted on Ms. Dong’s personal account on November 18, he said: “There are many rules in this society that we must follow. It is not unusual for our videos to be restricted or disappear.”

The couple said they called the police immediately. Local police told the Southern Metropolis Daily that they had “punished” the attackers and would follow up on the matter. Sunac China did not respond to questions from the BBC. The BBC also contacted Zhang and Dong for comment.

Image source, Social media

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In a now-deleted video, Ms. Dong puts duct tape over Mr. Zhang’s mouth, possibly a sign that they are under pressure to remain silent.

The incident attracted enormous attention online and in the Chinese media. It topped the list of topics on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of X, with tens of thousands of comments and posts. While some questioned their version of events, many sympathized with them.

“People are beaten and not allowed to speak. Are they still allowed to live?” read a comment that I like the most. “Can we help them and help our society?” another Weibo user asked.

“They went to the developer again and again, because they are very poor and really need that money. They recorded the process of being beaten, they were wronged but they had nowhere to go,” Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief. from the state-run Global Times newspaper, he wrote on Weibo.

“It is very important for us to ensure that the hard work of ordinary people bears fruit and that their passion and hope for the future remains alive,” he added.

Mr. Zhang and Ms. Dong say they have not yet received the refund. Last week they sparked a new argument, filled with anger and disappointment, when they said they were leaving Zhengzhou and returning to Mr. Zhang’s hometown.

“Ordinary people like them are the majority, so the way things ended for them is especially painful for us,” reads a Weibo comment that has been read thousands of times.

But the couple have since said they are undecided: suspicion was joined by sympathy when some users wondered whether Mr. Zhang and Ms. Dong were benefiting from all the online attention.

Others asked if they were bowing to pressure from local authorities, who wanted to avoid bad publicity for Zhengzhou.

A comment under her latest video, on Ms. Dong’s personal Douyin account, reads: “It’s too hard. It’s too hard to be yourself.”

How did 6 million people in China buy houses that don’t exist? Listen here to learn more about the social pressures young people face to own homes.

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