Business, Racism And Censorship: The Saga Of Chinese Influencers In Africa
A ban last June from Beijing of live-streaming from Africa followed a BBC report on a TikToker producing racist videos. Though explicit racism is the exception, a deeper look at Chinese influencers in Africa finds the content shows a general lack of interest in the continent and its people. Some of the TikTokers are leaving, either for Southeast Asia or back to China.
BEIJING — Last June, BBC News' Africa Eye aired a documentary called Racism for Sale that included a Chinese TikToker nicknamed "Luke" who filmed children in Malawi chanting racist slogans about African people. Luke was subsequently arrested by local police in Malawi.
Though Chinese influencers have been making short videos in Africa for years, the incident brought unprecedented attention in China to the world of online content about Africa. Statements were released by the Director General of the African Department of the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Malawian Embassy stating that there would be zero tolerance for racist content, with Beijing officials placing new restrictions on the kind of content platforms can publish, in order to avoid similar offensive and embarrassing incidents.
The explicit racism in the Luke video, it turns out, is largely the exception in the crowded space of Chinese internet content coming out of Africa. The life presented on TikTok is instead largely about the Chinese people who live in Africa, including businessmen who run hotels, mines, factories and farms, as well as employees of state-owned Chinese enterprises working on local infrastructure projects in Africa. The content of the videos typically chronicles their daily lives, and has become widely popular, and in the past was quite lucrative.
"When times were good, I had no problem making hundreds of thousands of dollars a month," says one Africa-based Chinese content producer. The income has dropped notably, report most TikTokers, but the videos coming from Africa remain popular in China. A survey of the content shows that there are hardly any overtly racist videos. Instead, there is a clearly shallow understanding of — and general lack of interest in — African culture.
The content is culturally native to China and implicitly discriminatory, featuring locals who have been encouraged to sing Chinese songs, cook Chinese food and learn the Chinese language.
There are also videos featuring Chinese helping Africans in difficult economic situations, with some channels presenting a strong bond between the helper and the helped as a way of attracting followers. But such footage that highlights poverty in Africa also feeds into the Chinese mentality that they are there for "charity" purposes, which also reinforces the wrong ideas among Chinese audiences.
Other clips that have gone viral by playing off of twisted stereotypes. For example, a popular theme is to film locals wearing thick foundations of bright makeup until they look like they have painted their faces like clowns. It is also common for Chinese male influencers to appear in videos with local women and children whom they claim are their wives, girlfriends or children.
Following the Luke controversy, new rules have been implemented that video makers say is costing them serious income losses. There are reports of Chinese influencers in Africa moving to Southeast Asia or back to China.
The keyword "Africa" is now censored
The Initium contacted Tiktok's customer service about changes to rules in live-streaming abroad, and has received the following statement: "At present, overseas outdoor live-streaming is exclusive for the platform's special targeted livestreamers, i.e. if you have in-depth cooperation with Chinese embassies overseas, or the media you work for is among the top 30 overseas Chinese patriotic media, or have been officially invited to participate in patriotic activities will have the opportunity to enter the invitation list."
It is also now reported that featuring African children is not allowed. A well known live-streamer "Hello sir" once filmed himself distributing snacks to his local employees, but he asked the children to stay away from the camera: "otherwise we would be blocked."
Despite that live-streaming is no longer available, these broadcasters can still upload short videos, but they have found that the traffic is dropping severely.
An "African makeup" tutorial on Douyin, TikTok's version of its platform designed for the Chinese market
Coming and going
Like the Chinese community in Africa itself, Africa-based content producers thrive through a closely-tied local network. Broadcasters operating in Zambia and Tanzania accounted for at least 21% of all Chinese broadcasters. From similar videos, at least 16 of the 20 broadcasters in Zambia and Tanzania know each other.
There is apparently no effort to confront the racism that it exposes.
In comparison with the rising popularity of content from Africa, Southeast Asia has a more established Tiktok e-commerce channel, and the streaming model there is to get good-looking assistants and translators to attract viewers and sell various local specialties such as scarves, thangkas, latex pillows, etc. In contrast, the only African specialities sold by the influencers seem to be local herbal products, some of which, according to the interviewer, are still produced domestically in China and blended with African varieties.
Hang, the founder of the channel "Hang's Extraordinary Life" has featured strong African men on TikTok. Although Hang still features black men in his crew, the appearance of African actors has tended to be to borrow or ask for money, which sparked resentment among his fans.
A technical fix
Compared to previous restrictions on Chinese internet content, the ban from 2022 on live-streaming from Africa has a direct geopolitical and geo-economic component as it is linked to Beijing's strategy to invest in Africa and mobilize Chinese workers to go to Africa. The racist incident captured by the BBC threatened that objective.
It is also notable that AI and mass algorithms were applied in this ban. This type of censorship regulates the circulation rather than the production side, meaning that it usually limits the visibility or proliferation of content by regulating traffic channels, exposure channels, search channels, etc., but does not concern itself with producing content that is more conducive to cross-cultural understanding. And there is apparently no effort to confront the racism that it exposes.
It may be most convenient for social media censors to simply reduce the issue to a technical setting in the system rather than to confront those posting racist content. Truth be told, this is the typical formula today for social media content censorship in China.
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