World of Weibo

Tea gone cold

Why JD.com CEO’s rumoured break-up is making waves on the web

Last week the science-themed reality series Super Brain returned to Chinese television. Broadcast on Jiangsu Satellite TV, it features contestants with remarkable abilities in mental arithmetic, photographic recall and memory (see WiC224 for a first mention). The premiere in early January generated strong ratings and 20 million views on Youku Tudou, which has the exclusive broadcasting rights online.

In the first season, Zhang Ziyi was a guest judge, although this year Fan Bingbing has provided some of the judging glamour. In one episode a student of Chinese medicine claims to be able to tell if a lady has gone under the knife by feeling her bone structure. Fan, who has long fought accusations of having plastic surgery herself, challenged the contestant to feel her face. His conclusion? Her looks are 100% genuine.

But it was the appearance of Zhang Zetian, known online as Milk Tea Girl, that earned most of the headlines. Zhang, a student of Tsinghua University, became famous after a photo showing her holding a cup of tea went viral on social media. Despite working as a guest judge on the show, she’s most in the public eye because of her rumoured break-up with Liu Qiangdong, the tycoon behind e-commerce giant JD.com. The two are believed to have begun dating last May. At the time, Liu wrote on his weibo that Zhang was “the most innocent and kind girl I have ever met” and that he wished that the two of them would “share a normal life together”. Alas, it appears that their relationship has fizzled out. Last week, Liu, 40, deleted all of his declarations of love for Zhang, who is less than half his age. She retaliated by erasing all of her own weibo posts.

“So he deleted your presence from his world; you deleted the world because of his presence,” one netizen mocked, referencing the erasing of her entire account.

Rumours about the break-up spread online and into the wider press. The Paper reckons that the couple split over a disagreement about whether Zhang should begin a career in showbiz. But there were also allegations reported by Global Times that Liu decided to act because her father had been drawn into an investigation into a high-ranking official in Nanjing. Reports then surfaced that Liu had paid Zhang about Rmb30 million ($4.84 million) in “break-up fees,” says CBN (Liu’s company JD.com has denied the claim).

Most netizens weren’t too surprised by the split: “Men seek youth and women want money. It’s simple as that. She (Zhang) merely worships him (Liu) for his money. If he was a poor student, do you think she would have fallen in love with him?” one cynic wrote.

“Women are all the same. They don’t like poor young guys and they throw themselves after big boss big spenders. Doesn’t their break-up tell you that it doesn’t work?” another netizen opined.

Others were more sympathetic: “I was optimistic about their relationship and wished they would live happily together. Who could have seen they would end up like this? It’s not easy to find a pure and simple relationship nowadays.”

China Business Times preferred to question the public’s obsession with Liu’s personal affairs: “The love life of an entrepreneur is a private affair so why does the public have such a big reaction? Is it because the media is too bored so they have to manufacture mindless gossip? What does his love affair have to do with the operations of the company? And why does it have anything to do with the public?”

The danger of being linked to someone under investigation for corruption has become a very real risk for businesspeople in China. For instance, sportswear retailer Anta saw its shares in Hong Kong plunge 16% in December after rumours circulated that its chairman Ding Shizhong was a close associate of a government official in a corruption case.

Still, Wuhan Evening News says Liu’s relationship with Zhang looked like a publicity stunt from the very beginning (they started dating right before JD.com’s IPO took place on Nasdaq in May). So perhaps the break-up was deliberately timed too, as a way of drumming up interest for Zhang’s appearance on Super Brain?

Keeping track: Zhang Zetian aka ‘Milk Tea Girl’ was in the public eye again this week, with China Daily reporting she’d invested Rmb100 million in chic tea house chain NenluTea. In WiC266 we’d reported that Chinese media was rife with rumours of the 22 year-old’s break-up with JD.com tycoon Liu Qiangdong. It turns out it was a brief separation, if one at all: they got married earlier this month.


© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Exclusively sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.