Sister Milk Tea

Tom Nickel
6 min readNov 22, 2018

Nine years ago, forever in China-time, this picture of sixteen year old Zhang Zetian holding a paper cup went viral. I have read that it happened because she was considered to be very sweet and pretty. There was a purity about her. She became known as Sister Milk Tea.

She had other advantages in addition to her beauty. She comes from a wealthy family. She is smart and did well at the best high school in Nanjing and at Tsinshua, China’s top-ranked university.

She continued her studies at Columbia in New York, where she met another Chinese grad student.

He was almost twenty years older than her, but they dated, returned to China and were married in 2015.

She is very popular, seen as a real winner in life. Together, they are easily one of the top power couples in the country, now a loving family with a little girl.

She is also a billionaire, the youngest in China at age 24, and a major Influencer.

Her husband helped, but she has also helped her husband. I first learned about him when I read an in-depth article in the July 23, 2018 print edition of The New Yorker by Jiayang Fan titled, “Delivering Modernity.” It was a sympathetic portrayal of the rise of a Chinese business tycoon named Liu Qiangdong, focusing as much on his methods and his impact on China as his rags to riches personal story.

He did not have Sister Tea Milk’s advantages. So instead he was brash and blunt and driven, as you might expect an overachieving poor kid to be. But, perhaps surprisingly, he chose to build his company, known as Jingdong Mall in China, around principles not generally associated with Chinese products or services — Quality and Integrity.

As a loving critic and long-time China-Follower, I have no hesitation in saying that the marketplace there is full of fakes and scams. To a large extent, the Jingdong Mall e-commerce company has become one of the largest in the world and grabbed market share from the colossus Alibaba by taking the high road and actually operating according to the lofty principles Liu espouses.

People receive what they order, right in their home, from a proud and friendly delivery person wearing a red polo shirt uniform. The delivery people are proud because they are paid more than most of their counterparts in other companies, and because they tend to work and ‘deliver modernity’ to people in the actual regions where they themselves were born and raised.

In August, 2018, I was feeling pretty good about Mr. Liu, his company, and his family. He was in Minnesota at the time, although I didn’t know it. attending the Summer Residency of his Doctoral program in Business Administration at the Carlson School of Management, along with several of his billionaire colleagues.

It was easy to miss the August 31, 2018 arrest of a wealthy Chinese businessman in Minneapolis for criminal sexual conduct. Late August, plenty of other #MeToo cases in play; plus, he was immediately released, no bail, went home.

You’d have to be really paying attention to hit the next level of resolution a few days later when a Chinese tech company issued a statement of their guy’s innocence and readiness to sue anyone who reported falsely. Protesting a bit too much for my bullshit detector, but whatever, it was still just noise for me. It stayed that way a few weeks later, when I spent maybe three seconds noticing and processing the brief story about local police turning over their findings to the Hennepin County prosecutor.

I missed the connection between Liu Qiangdong and Jingdong Mall — and Richard Liu and JD.com. I’d been skimming, not paying close enough attention.

Later I listened to a TechBuzz China podcast about JD.com and its fast-growing Style and Fashion departments, thanks in part to the relentless promotional efforts of China’s youngest billionaire. Then I got it.

Oh. Sister Milk Tea!

That’s where my mind went immediately. That’s where everyone in China’s mind went. China is obsessed with how she is handling it. I am too.

I should be thinking about the victim and I did go back and read her detailed account. Sounds open and shut. She said no. A lot. He had clearly orchestrated a situation in which she was intoxicated and should have been easy to take advantage of.

It sounds both awful and familiar. You hate it when someone you respected is accused. It’s like a double-cross. And when the wife was beloved too, I think of Camille Cosby, there is an extra fascination in her response. Hillary, never beloved — but she probably hit her highest favorably ratings ever in the aftermath of her husband’s Impeachment, ultimately for sexual misconduct although Lying to Congress was the charge.

But so many had fallen in love with Sister Milk Tea and the improbable love affair, and the whole happy family story which followed. We suspended disbelief and went all-in on the love of a sweet and presumably virtuous young woman channeling the passions of the billionaire superstar into an honest business and a wholesome family. The narrative was promoted relentlessly in social media. It checked all the right boxes for China Today!

The man and his spokespeople say nothing illegal happened and it’s all done. But it isn’t. The Prosecutor hasn’t said nothing illegal happened and it’s all done. What a spot. On one hand, a young woman convincingly claims she was treated terribly and raped. On the other, there’s an entire nation and its feel-good story — not to mention the money and prestige for the local U to be running such a high profile program for high profile people.

JD.com stock is down, generally attributed to “Key Man Risk.”

Sister Milk Tea has not spoken much about it. In early September the couple was photographed together smiling. She posted the pic on her WeChat Moments page with the following caption,

As long as the whole family is together, life is complete. Hope that with perseverance the clouds will part to show the moon

The clouds will part, but it will never be the same. I’m pissed at him maybe even more than I’m pissed at all the entitled males who have been outed for their sexual behavior. This guy, Liu, didn’t just traumatize an individual person — he wrecked a great story, probably the best story coming out of China in a time of rising autocracy and economic warfare.

Maybe he didn’t wreck it. In some ways he made it more interesting and it’s not like people in China are any less obsessed with Zhang Zetian. We should be pissed at ourselves that we took the bait again, actually believed it was going to be sweet and pure 2009 Sister Milk Tea forever.

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Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos