Monetising cruelty: China's crass 'Syrian war' cafe trend
Upon searching the words “Syrian Style” on Chinese social media app Xiaohongshu (similar to Instagram) one is confronted with a seemingly endless feed of mostly young women posing, coffee in hand, atop piles of rubble or beside gaping holes in bare concrete walls.
The unblemished influencers in these images contrast a jarringly devastated looking backdrop in one of China’s newest online trends. The captions are littered with Syrian flags and tagged “Syrian Style” in what has become a darkly insensitive trend on Chinese social media.
"While those using the tag on their photos might harbour no ill will towards Syrians, the trend comes at a time when xenophobia and intolerance is not only rife but is, in many cases, encouraged in China"
Influencer marketing in China is massive, with social commerce turnover in the country exceeding $240 billion, dwarfing that of the United States. This lucrative social media market has spawned a new generation of young Chinese influencers sharing the content of themselves sporting luxury clothes against trendy backdrops and enjoying vogue food and drink.
China’s social media platforms are entirely homegrown, widely used platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are banned under China’s strict censorship laws and Chinese netizens live behind the infamous “Great Firewall”; isolated from the rest of the online world.
Still, almost 60 percent of the nation’s population are active internet users, with domestic platforms like Tencent Weibo, Xiaohongshu and others serving much the same role as their Western counterparts.
The ubiquity of social media in China means that it is in the interest of business owners to attract influencers, with businesses competing to present novel and fashionable interiors for a standout photograph. Herein lies the reasoning beyond the “Syrian Style” – the theme of the cafes is obviously to appear as if they’ve been bombed. Doorways are simply gaping breaches as if the wall has collapsed, counters fitted inside jagged holes as if caused by heavy shelling and the walls are scarred and pockmarked concrete, revealing brick and rebar in places.
There are dozens of examples of such cafes across China, with influencers flocking to get a photo in the exotic backdrop. According to one customer they are "not talking about the background of the Syrian country” but rather, the phrase “Syrian style” is popular with young people to describe the interior design which looks “like the houses that were damaged during the war in Syria”.
The degree to which business owners lean into actual warzone look varies. Some simply have bare concrete walls, while others have household items, oil drums, CCTV cameras and crates painted to resemble boxes of ammunition.
That said, one cafe, named ‘Kebab Shop’ carries obvious middle eastern connotations, another called ‘Ming Cha’ features toy tanks littered among decorative piles of rubble. Another Cafe in Guangzhou disturbingly features pieces of lego littered along the sill of a blown-out window, flanked on all sides by CCTV cameras.
The trend, as previously mentioned, is largely driven by China’s influencer culture. One Xiaohongshu user stated, “It's the new style of cafe” intended to “attract many beautiful and handsome people to check-in and take pictures.” When asked what they thought of “Syrian style'' as a label, the customer said, “It's a bit rude... but this description will attract a lot of exposure.”
The cafes have not gone without controversy in China, however, with thousands of users describing them as vicious or cruel. While many users insist “Syrian Style” is not intended to be offensive, Chinese social media is no stranger to bigotry.
During the pandemic, a wave of online hatred was directed against the nation’s African minority. Panic spread online, with the help of state media, that foreigners were spreading Covid-19 in China. In Guangzhou, Africans found themselves being evicted, banned from entering into shops and restaurants as well as being forcefully quarantined.
The African community in China are far from the only marginalised group. China’s Muslim minority is also currently withstanding a torrent of bigotry from the State itself. China’s Uyghur Muslims are being subjected to mass human rights violations and repression, while other Muslim communities are having their identity stripped away by the state policy of harmonisation.
While the repression of Muslims in China is for the most part state-sanctioned, social media has opened the door for a torrent of hate to be directed at the Muslim community. Islam is referred to as the “Green Religion” by Chinese social media users, with Muslims being derogatorily labelled as “Greens”.
Whatever the intention of “Syrian Style” as an interior design trend, it seems especially distasteful in a nation where actual Middle Eastern-style buildings are being demolished or renovated to look more Chinese.
While those using the tag on their photos might harbour no ill will towards Syrians, the trend comes at a time when xenophobia and intolerance are not only rife but is, in many cases, encouraged in China.
Adam Doyle is an artist and researcher based in the Republic of Ireland specialising in Irish politics.
Follow him on Instagram: @spicebag.exe