Cyberbullying in China: triggered by a school car accident in Wuhan


With the innovation and development of information and communication technology (ICT), the Internet is ubiquitous in people’s lives (Zhong, Zheng, & Huang, 2021), and social interactions have broken through the limitations of time and space (Al-Garadi et al., 2019), meaning that people are able to communicate and interact via the Internet anytime, anywhere. However, while facilitating people’s lives, social media platforms also provide a vehicle for new forms of aggression and violence (Giumetti & Kowalski, 2022; Li & Peng, 2023). Cyber harassment of internet users is a very common phenomenon (Flew, 2021), with over sixty percent of people having been cyber bullied in 2022 (Li & Peng, 2023, p. 7), a percentage that is likely to continue to rise. Moreover, these cyber harassment, bullying and the hate speech that may be involved bring about a range of serious social problems globally (López-Vizcaíno, Nóvoa, Carneiro, & Cacheda, 2021; Junke, 2020; Sultan et al., 2023) that urgently need to be taken into account and moderated. This article will analyse a serious incident of cyberbullying in China, reviewing the process of the incident and discussing the breeding process of cyberbullying in the context of China’s actual social situation, as well as the difficulties in controlling cyberbullying and possible directions for improvement.

Case Review: Wuhan primary school campus car accident

On 23 May 2023, a traffic accident occurred in Hongqiao Primary School, Hanyang District, Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. A Grade 1 primary school boy was injured by a teacher who hit him with a car on school grounds and was taken to hospital where he died. The boy’s mother, Ms Yang, rushed to the hospital as soon as she learnt of the news, and was later in front of the school to ask for a statement and to be interviewed by journalists. 

This incident quickly festered on the Internet, with netizens discussing the matter on various social media platforms such as Weibo and Douyin. Apart from the accident itself, Ms Yang’s dress, make-up, manner of expression and motives were hotly discussed and questioned, and became a flashpoint of the incident over the next few days. 

On 2 June, Ms Yang, the mother of the boy who died, was reported to have fallen to her death in a residential area, and a source with knowledge of the case sent out a screenshot of Ms Yang’s WeChat signature before her death, which she had changed to “Son, are you lonely? Mum wants to go and keep you company”.

In the wake of the fall, Chinese police found and detained a user with the screen name “Maomi”, who had repeatedly spread rumours and attacked Ms. Yang in the comments section of Douyin. Officials on the Weibo platform also banned a number of accounts with millions of followers for posting malicious comments during the incident.

What is cyberbullying?

Based on my reading of academic literature, cyberbullying has been defined as repetitive and inescapable acts of deliberate aggression over a period of time against the victim of an imbalance of power by an individual or a group of perpetrators through the use of electronic information technology, including, but not limited to, writing offensive postings, harassment, name-calling, humiliating, threatening, and the publication of hate speech (Al-Garadi et al., 2019; López-Vizcaíno et al., 2021; Yao, Chelmis, & Zois, 2019; Junke, 2020; Li & Peng, 2023; Sultan et al., 2023). 

It is worth noting that the “hate speech” here does not directly incite public violence in itself (Flew, 2021, p. 61), but it is empowered by the normalisation of oppressive truths in societies riddled with structural inequalities (Sinpeng, Martin,  Gelber, & Shields, 2021). For example, in this case in Wuhan, where Chinese society has many moral and dress codes for women, Ms Yang’s delicate make-up and the black stockings she wore were pointed out by netizens who associated her with sex workers and accused her of being morally flawed. In this misogynistic social climate, the abuser uses Ms. Yang’s appearance to “logically” humiliate her and stigmatise her as a socially unacceptable group of people in an attempt to convince bystanders that she is not an ordinary person worthy of sympathy. 

Simultaneously, as well as being about looks, the cyberbullying of Ms Yang also manifested itself in accusations that her language was logical and not sad enough, and suspicions that she was trying to hype up her child’s death to get more compensation and discussion on the topic. The cyber abuser commented in the comments section of Douyin and Weibo “Is this the mother of the child? Why is she talking so calmly?” , “Don’t you just want more compensation because you think it’s too little?” “This mother dresses with care” and “She posted videos on Douyin before, is she planning to be an internet celebrity after this?” . These comments speculate and attack a woman who has just lost a child in a very dark and spiteful tone, undoubtedly a form of group bullying. Furthermore, from this we can also see that another linguistic feature of cyberbullying is that it can be subtle without overtly offensive words (Sinpeng et al., 2021; Li & Peng, 2023), but subtle enough to turn everyday words into offensive ones. For example, the words “dresses with care” and “internet celebrity” in the comment were originally non-offensive words in everyday language, but in this context, they were given a pejorative connotation suggesting that the mother didn’t care enough about the death of her own child, and gave the interview in order to make herself famous.

 Who are the participants in cyberbullying?

First of all, this behaviour will definitely include the target group, who are the victims. Correspondingly, there will also be people who actively commit the act of cyberbullying, the abusers. So what is the relationship between the abuser and the victim? Before we know that we need to realise that the relationship between them may not be peer-to-peer (Whittaker & Kowalski, 2015), meaning that they may be strangers who do not know each other at all nor have a relationship. In a questionnaire on cyberbullying, Whittaker & Kowalski (p. 16) found that in most cases the perpetrator was someone known to the victim, but close to one-third of perpetrators were strangers on the Internet. For example, most of the abusers in the cyberbullying triggered by the Wuhan school car accident mentioned earlier were in fact strangers who did not know Ms Yang at all.

However, in addition to the direct perpetrators and victims, there are third parties to the cyberbullying process, those who participate indirectly by liking, retweeting, or even simply remaining silent while watching. These people may not seem to be actively initiating attacks on the victims, but likes, retweets and views all heighten the exposure and impact of the incident (Sinpeng et al., 2021), exposing the victims to a large online public space (Junke, 2020). Even their mere presence already puts the victims under immense mental stress, and victims can feel isolated (Wu, 2023; Li & Peng, 2023). In interviews with victims of cyberbullying about reactions to third parties during the process, a quarter of victims they felt that bystanders did nothing to stop the bullying, which was the highest proportion of perceptions in the interviews (Whittaker & Kowalski, 2015, p. 16).

Furthermore, there has not yet been a significant characterisation of the gender of cyberbullying perpetrators (Zhong et al., 2021), but in academic research it has been found that women seem to be more vulnerable to cyberbullying (Li & Peng, 2023, p. 9), especially in China, as well as they are also more inclined to retaliate in reverse. Additionally, in exploring the reasons behind this phenomenon, it was found that, unlike the situation faced by male victims, abusers were more likely to use words related to sexuality and gender when women were targeted. Influenced by traditional Confucianism, women in Chinese society are expected to abide by various social rules and norms, and therefore attacking women with words related to sex and ethics is strongly insulting and offensive (Li & Peng, 2023). In other words, a quick review of common swear words in Chinese shows that they are often associated with our female elders and the sexual action that offends them, implying that this default pattern of swearing is a normalised form of structural oppression. Including Ms Yang in this case, who was attacked through accusations of not being a good mother and being a potentially promiscuous woman.

Stop Bullying: Word Cloud (ChowFanGirl12, 2014)

What are the difficulties in controlling cyberbullying?

Before we can manage and control cyberbullying, we need to know how it came about. The first reason may be that surfing the Internet is a very easy thing for people nowadays, and the quality, moral and legal awareness of Internet users vary (Zhong et al., 2021). Another very important reason could be anonymisation (Giumetti & Kowalski, 2022; Whittaker & Kowalski, 2015; Al-Garadi et al., 2019; Wu, 2023), as most social media accounts are not linked to the real identity of the user, so people can use anonymity as a shield without the burden of making offensive statements on the internet. Moreover, herd mentality is also a major reason; when cyberbullying occurs in a group, the perpetrators may believe that making an attack on the target is a behaviour that meets the group’s standards (Li & Peng, 2023, p. 11), and at the same time the sense of responsibility in their hearts is weakened by the sheer size of the group (Zhong et al., 2021). Especially in the Wuhan incident, when influential bloggers with millions of followers on Weibo acted as leaders, more and more people were influenced by their opinions and joined in the bullying of Ms Yang. 

In addition, an important player in the process of controlling cyberbullying is the social media platform, but because cyberbullying in China often does not occur on a single platform, the following discussion does not use a single specific platform as an example. Social media platforms often use a combination of algorithmic detection and human intervention to prevent and deal with cyberbullying, however, this operational mechanism faces threats to identification accuracy, human bias and timeliness. As mentioned before, many cyberbullying languages do not contain offensive words that can be directly recognised, but rather consist of a wide variety of forms, such as pinyin, phonetics, abbreviations, harmonic words, homophones and neologisms in Chinese, which are difficult to recognise by machines (Li & Peng, 2023). Meanwhile, it is difficult for algorithms and processes designed by human beings to remain unaffected by the designer’s own biases (Al-Garadi et al., 2019), and this can potentially lead to language that is perceived by others as bullying not being vetted out. The technology used for detection relies heavily on offline detection (Yao et al., 2019), and when faced with such a large volume of social media postings, it can be difficult to get a timely response to cyberbullying comments and reports from netizens, which in turn can lead to further degradation of the online environment. 

Meanwhile, at the governmental level, China currently lacks systematic laws and public policies against cyberbullying, and has not yet found a suitable balance between citizens’ freedom of expression and privacy and the control of cyberbullying (Junke, 2020; Wu, 2023). The serious cyberbullying incidents faced at this stage are controlled through the criminal law offences of defamation, insult and infringement of citizens’ personal information, as well as the general cyber torts in the civil law (Junke, 2020), however, more detailed and targeted legal regulations have not yet been proposed. The government has also made some efforts, such as the ip display feature that went live on many social media platforms in 2022, designed to suggest to internet users that their identities are not completely unknown.

Cyberbullying in China calls for everyone’s efforts

While cyberbullying control may seem like it’s a matter for platforms and governments, it actually requires a concerted effort from multiple parties, including the media, individuals, and schools. There are some aspects that can be taken into account when facing the control of cyberbullying afterwards:

  1. The platform can keep updating the corpus of language that may be used as cyberbullying terms on a regular basis, as well as collecting users’ opinions, and warning and discouraging users when suspected bullying language is detected. 
  2. The government should introduce targeted laws and policies against cyberbullying while protecting the rights of individual citizens as much as possible. 
  3. The media should abide by professional ethics, verify the truth of the matter before publishing statements and guide the public correctly. 
  4. Internet users should restrain themselves from malicious and offensive behaviour while online and come forward to report and stop cyberbullying when they see it, rather than remaining silent.
  5. Schools should conduct regular cybersecurity science programmes and digital citizenship education.


Overall, cyberbullying is a seriously socially damaging phenomenon that needs to be controlled in a timely manner. By introducing and analysing the incident of cyberbullying triggered by a school car accident in Wuhan, this blog aims to provide readers with a more concrete understanding and concern about the forms and dangers of cyberbullying. It takes each of us to control cyberbullying.


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