As 2012 Ends, China Tweets Doomsday

On the morning of Dec. 1, “Mayans” entered the trending-keyword list on Sina Weibo, China’s leading Twitter-like microblog. This was not exactly surprising: For years, China’s netizens have been obsessed with Mayan prophecies supposedly suggesting the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012. (Or, perhaps, Dec. 22 in China, if time zones are accounted for.)

By the morning of Dec. 3, “the end of the world” had become the No. 2 topic of conversation on Sina Weibo, with an endless stream of Mayan-related tweets that, at their peak, were coming several per second.

It’s difficult to judge how many Chinese netizens believe the Mayan prophecies and how many see them merely as a platform for weak humor. There are strong cases for both perspectives, with humor taking the lead. “If the Mayans are right, I won’t pay my credit card bill,” is a popular quip, as is “I won’t study for final exams.”

Nonetheless, it’s not hard to find evidence that the Mayan prophecy enjoys some credibility in China. Over the last century, the Chinese have known their share of tragedy, catastrophe and natural disaster, and an understandable thread of pessimism runs through the national character.

Thus, it’s perhaps no accident that a Sina Weibo account registered to “Secret Mayan Prophecy” currently has 1.2 million followers (who are perhaps attracted to the animated exploding Earth featured atop the account page) of its occasional tweets of supporting evidence for the prophecy.

Flood Preparation

Likewise, highly unscientific online polls consistently register widespread belief in the prophecy. In the early evening of Dec. 3, a poll at Sina Weibo had 3,404 voting that they felt the Mayans were right, and 1,646 voting that the Mayans got it all wrong. Nobody can say for sure whether Chinese netizens are lying on these polls. But out in western China, a retired construction contractor is spending his life savings building an ark to help him survive what he believes are prophesied floods.

Those floods aren’t Mayan prophecies, but rather the means by which the Earth is destroyed in “2012,” a big-budget American disaster epic from 2009. In the film, the Mayan prophecy, and scientific measurements, inspire world leaders to commission arks designed to save a very select group of humans, wildlife and cultural relics from Dec. 21’s plagues.

To accomplish this daunting construction contract in time, the world’s powers -- and director Roland Emmerich -- make a choice that flatters Chinese sensibilities: They build the arks in Tibet, utilizing Chinese laborers. When the floods come, those Chinese-built arks save humanity. No surprise, “2012” was a box-office hit in China, and, ever since, the Mayan disaster prophecy and 2012 jokes have been fixtures on China’s microblogs. On Nov. 20, the film was re-released to Chinese theaters in a 3D version, and its success, as well as the arrival of December, appears to be the best explanation for why the Mayans are suddenly atop trending-keyword lists.

Of course, not everyone in China views the end times as a disaster or a joke. China being China, some tweeters see the impending apocalypse as nothing more than an opportunity for a sale. “There are around 10 days left until the world ends!” tweeted a small-town Honda dealership in Guangdong province on Dec. 2. “Which car do you want to take with you?”

Wang Tao, a popular entrepreneur and angel investor, took this as an opportunity to speculate on the stock market: “There are only 20 days left in the final countdown of Mayan prediction of the end of world! What’s your opinion on how far the Chinese stock market will drop? Will the Shanghai Index drop to 1,500 points?”

Political Points

The impending end has also been used to make political points. Many netizens -- and, apparently, many state-owned news organizations -- thought that three major infrastructure and building “collapses” that took place in China on Nov. 29 had an uncanny resemblance to comic book visions of the

City Express, a popular, state-owned evening newspaper in Zhejiang province, tweeted photos of the collapses with this commentary:

“Today three major collapses happened nationwide.

The intent of this tweet is a matter of some controversy. Some netizens see it as an attempt to shake off blame for poor infrastructure. “This is a man-made disaster,” wrote one user in the comment thread beneath the City Express tweet. A second expressed outrage that the Mayans would even be invoked under such circumstances: “Taking this kind of thing as an excuse for shoddy engineering?”

More likely, though, the comments are over-interpreting what is actually intended as a pointed critique of the local governments and contractors thought to be responsible for China’s shoddy buildings. As a state-run newspaper, City Express wouldn’t really dare to criticize so directly (or generally), so it has used the most convenient platform available: Mayan prophecy.

In the hours and days following its tweet, several other news organizations posted their own versions of the same tweet to their Sina Weibo accounts, including the Shanghai Evening Post, a paper owned by Shanghai’s Communist Party Committee. That’s a powerful, if subtle endorsement of a sentiment that couldn’t otherwise be written and tweeted so directly.

Still, most of the Mayan prophecy tweets driving this topic to the top of China’s trending-topic lists are neither political nor particularly subtle. Instead, they announce what believers and nonbelievers alike will do before the end. Here and there, a different perspective emerges.

Microblogging Monk

On Nov. 27, a Chinese expatriate in Germany logged into his Sina Weibo account, troubled. His timing was good: Master Yancan, a popular microblogging Buddhist monk (he has 4.3 million followers on Sina Weibo) was just then taking 20 minutes worth of tweeted questions from anyone who cared to ask. The expat posted this curious query: “Master, this year is the end of the world. But if it’s not, what should we do?”

Master Yancan, who also serves as vice president of Hebei province’s government-chartered and run Buddhist Patriotic Association, needed only one minute to come up with an answer. It likely stands as the first instance of a Chinese official at any level expressing public confidence (even if perhaps joking, which is a genuine possibility for the puckish monk) in the truth of the Mayan prophecy: “Post more weibos to celebrate the end of the world. Let’s live tweet it together with joy. Isn’t it a new festival?”

Master Yancan might yet turn out to be wrong about the end of the world, but on one matter he’s certain to be right: The countdown to doomsday is guaranteed to be tweeted -- in Chinese.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.