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Praise on demand: Why kids in China are paying for self-affirmation

Mar 28, 2019

Feeling blue? In China, you can pay someone to cheer you up.

Online chat groups called kuakua 夸夸, or praise, groups have been gaining popularity among university students and other young adults in the past month.

“The person I like doesn’t like me back. Need praise,” read one message on a kuakua group in WeChat, China’s biggest messaging app.

The request was shortly followed by messages from people who either related with the situation or simply wrote encouraging words in an attempt to comfort the poor soul.

In another kuakua group, a student lamented about a teacher scolding him for playing on his phone.

“The teacher scolded you, but you didn’t criticize him,” someone replied. “Your open-mindedness is admirable!”

“Your open-mindedness is admirable!”
“Your open-mindedness is admirable!”

Later in the same group, another member wrote, “Arrived in Beijing yesterday at 9 p.m. Need to board a train tomorrow at 6 a.m. and running out of steam. Need praise.”

A member reassured him with an adage—“the struggle always brings a good harvest”—and said he was lucky to be able to “see the first rays of Beijing and feel life on the train.”

Members of these groups can ask for encouragement on anything, from difficulties at school to mundane things like bad weather.

Certain corners of the Chinese internet have taken to calling kuakua groups “rainbow fart” because of the warm and fuzzy positivity oozing from these feeds. A viral video of university students debating the merits of kuakua groups shows one proponent arguing, “Even a rainbow fart can brighten your day.”

Advertisements for kuakua groups on Taobao. The bottom two are selling them as “rainbow fart.”
Advertisements for kuakua groups on Taobao. The bottom two are selling them as “rainbow fart.” / Photo: Taobao

People can buy membership into these groups on Taobao, China’s Amazon. The prices fluctuate widely, but most follow the same model: the more you pay, the more time and compliments you get.

One store gives customers five minutes in a 20-person group for 35 yuan ($5) and 10 minutes in a 100-person group for 75 yuan ($11). Their guide resembles a price chart one might find at a hair salon.

A price chart for a kuakua group. The figure on the left indicates the size of the group. The figures on the right show time and price.
A price chart for a kuakua group. The figure on the left indicates the size of the group. The figures on the right show time and price. / Photo: Taobao

The groups include “professional praisers” who are specifically hired to write compliments in the group. (One reporter tried doing it for two hours and found the job exhausting.)

‘A utopian dream’

While these groups get the most coverage, the majority of kuakua groups are actually free. Most are created by students who then invite their classmates and friends by sharing them on social media or through private messages.

With the proliferation of such groups—and the added novelty of paying for membership—it stands to reason that some might find the compliments fake or insincere.

“Not at all,” says Yu Xi, a master’s student at Beijing Foreign Languages University who is a member of three kuakua groups. “Both sides enjoy the compliments, and giving warm words is just as rewarding as receiving them.”

“They’re like a utopian dream that can’t exist in real life.”

Yu Xi

Yu says kuakua groups are popular because many young adults feel that support for each other is lacking in an environment where competition at school and for jobs is high. Students often deal with issues of low self-esteem, lack of confidence, and uncertainty about the future.

(Read more: Directionless millennials are flocking to fortune tellers in Hong Kong)

“They’re like a utopian dream that can’t exist in real life,” she says.

And since members are all expecting the same type of feedback, there’s no shame in asking for compliments, which can’t always be said about real-life relationships in China, where modesty is still held in high regard.

“Young people are looking for a space to satisfy their needs,” says Liu Huan, a counselor at Beijing Normal University. “Of course, they understand the compliments are fake, but it is a healthy way to relieve stress, calm down, and get a quick pick-me-up.

“It is, of course, not feasible in the long run.”

The kids are not alright

Kuakua groups follow a long line of Chinese internet memes that reflect youth disenchantment in a competitive modern society.

(Read more: The internet memes that changed Chinese society in 2018)

China’s longstanding one-child policy, which up until 2016 only allowed families to have one child, means a whole generation of kids is growing up with the entire weight of their family’s expectations on their shoulders.

“It is easy to fall into sadness and loneliness.”

Yu Xi

“It’s an expected phenomenon in our generation,” says Yu. “We are from one-child families, struggling to get into universities and land a good job. It is easy to fall into sadness and loneliness.”

The phenomenon of purpose-built WeChat groups for coping is also visible on the other end of the spectrum.

Less popular but still prevalent are mama 骂骂, or scolding, groups that allow members to lash out if they’re feeling angry or want others to criticize them for guilty pleasures like eating too much ice cream or skipping on homework.

The scolding, of course, is performed with a healthy dose of irony.

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