Pop And Propaganda — How Taiwan's Teens Are Lured By Chinese Social Media
As more young people in Taiwan use Chinese social media, drawn to the fun and glitzy elements of life on mainland China, they need to learn to distinguish real life from propaganda.
TAIPEI — Su is a high school student from Northern Taiwan, who spends hours every day watching short videos from Douyin, the Chinese-exclusive version of TikTok.
A recent trend on the platform is short sketches based on similar scripts, and he said he is addicted to watching these videos. "I had to set up a mainland China Apple ID to download Douyin, the videos there are funnier and trendier (than TikTok)."
Su is hardly the only Douyin fan in Taiwan. According to the DIGITAL Taiwan survey released by digital platform analytics firm We are social and KEPIOS in early 2022, there are approximately 4.16 million active Douyin users in Taiwan, with an average growth rate of 3.5% per quarter. Of these, the proportion of young users is 38%.
Taiwan's READr 2021 survey of social media usage among high school students found that while Facebook and Instagram are still the most popular social media platforms, Chinese apps such as Douyin are quickly catching up.
For teens, the content recommendation mechanism of Douyin-TikTok provides a constant stream of fresh content. Su said the fact that different content pops up on the Douyin's homepage leaves him never bored, and he often shares videos with friends, following them or having them follow him on Douyin.
Taiwan government bans
The inextricable ties of Chinese social software, such as TikTok, to Chinese officials have always been questionable. Reuters, citing China's Enterprise Credit Information Publicity System, points out that the main investor in China's ByteDance, of which TikTok is a part, is co-owned by three state institutions, one of which is directly founded by China's Ministry of Finance.
Moreover, FBI Director Christopher Wray said in November 2022 at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on "worldwide threats" that TikTok was controlled by the Chinese government and that the app's algorithms determined what content users would see next.
While the international community still harbors doubts about Chinese social software, the global population using TikTok has exceeded one billion. In the face of this "China fever", the Taiwan Ministry of Digital Development, which was established in August 2022, announced that it would ban the downloading and use of Chinese social software on public sector devices, citing concerns about endangering national communication and information security.
The pull of Chinese celebrities
Yun, currently a third-year student at Taiwan University, is a heavy TikTok user, spending around 16 hours a week on it, saying is a way to absorb the latest trending news. What he sees on TikTok is not Chinese pop culture, but trends in Europe and the U.S.. He also watches knowledge-based content, such as legal content and Excel tutorials, and has recently discovered that the BBC is on TikTok, pushing out news and information.
Don't use things from China.
He said he was taught to reject Chinese culture because of his family's anti-China stance. As his mother would tell him "don't use things from China", he would not use TikTok in front of her.
Xiaohongshu, described as "China's answer to Instagram", was founded in 2013. It has a strong presence on teenagers' mobile phones for its clever user experience: as the user receives "personalized" short videos and posts, they could be learning the latest makeup trends, or see recommendations of restaurants and styles from influencers.
The content is mostly related to beauty and online celebrities. Taiwan's Xiaohongshu users are mostly female, with women accounting for 66% of overall users according to a survey of Taiwanese Android users conducted by Opview's Community Word of Mouth database.
The use of Xiaohongshu by Taiwanese teens is closely linked to the rise of Chinese film and pop culture. Singing competitions, group talent shows and TV dramas are all high-profile, high-cost productions that attract many Taiwanese singers to participate or act as mentors, as well as audiences of all ages. Seeing the influence of these programmes, Xiaohongshu has been a frequent title sponsor and has used this to gain more exposure.
Although many people initially downloaded Xiaohongshu to follow Chinese celebrities, popular culture, or for fashion and beauty tips, its content expands further. From amazing makeup tutorials, short videos featuring idol stars, comparisons of household appliances, to notes on study materials, Xiaohongshu offers a wide range of topics.
Cai, a high school sophomore in Taipei, started using Xiaohongshu in 2018. After watching a Chinese talent show that featured ads from Xiaohongshu, she downloaded the app as the contestants would also post on it. She was soon attracted to the homepage recommendations with different pages such as "food", "handmade", and "reading". The location-based browsing could also help to find nearby places to eat. Cai says she prefers Xiaohongshu because its categorization is intuitive and allows her to find the content she wants to see more efficiently.
Attracted to mainland China
The current popularity of Chinese social media among Taiwanese teenagers has not only worried some adults. Some students from the National Chengchi University have also written an article expressing their concern about the use of Chinese social media by their peers, arguing that this reflects the reduced political sensitivity of this generation, ignoring China's subtle influence on their lifestyle habits and identity.
The Initium interviewed several Taiwanese teenagers, and the influence from Chinese social media seemed evident in their lives. One girl said that when she reads about the university life of the protagonists in Chinese novels, she can't help but think: "Wouldn't it be cool if I could go to their university one day?"
Many are also attracted to the idea of going into the entertainment industry in China, while some TikTok videos on China's tourist sites also inspired many to want to travel to China.
Even so, these teenagers identified themselves as "Taiwanese" without hesitation, saying Taiwan was the only country they identified with, despite their interests in the popular culture from mainland China. Being born and raised in Taiwan seemed to be the crucial reason as to why they identified as Taiwanese.
But facing the skepticism against China's social platforms, these teenagers have their own ideas. First, they make a clear distinction between the virtual world and the real world. Even though he is addicted to Douyin videos that are "made in China and about China", Su says they are only a pastime for him, and they do not harm his Taiwanese identity. Meanwhile, Cai disagrees that using Chinese social media and mainland Chinese slang is equal to being Chinese. "We also use Line, Instagram and Twitter, and that does not mean we are Korean or American!"
Teenagers in a school bus in Taiwan
Aware of Chinese propaganda
Apart from Douyin, Taiwanese TV channels and foreign media are also sources of information for these teenagers. Some might not follow the news as much, but they are somewhat aware of current events from talking to their families at mealtimes. Even though there is inevitably a lot of pro-Beijing content on Chinese social media, it is clear from what the teenagers say that they are wary of what they are being exposed to.
As Su said, when videos of Chinese military drills and praise for "the great motherland" appear on his Douyin, he realizes that they might be China's propaganda campaigns.
They are aware that they might need to "show loyalty" to the official political position.
Even though it is through the internet that Taiwanese teenagers are able to get close to Chinese pop culture, it is also through the internet that their perception of the Chinese government's authoritarianism and lack of freedom is ingrained, and they can notice the huge gap between Chinese internet users and Taiwanese people's perceptions of current affairs at certain times.
For those who wish to go into the entertainment industry in China, they are also aware that they might need to "show loyalty" to the official political position as some Taiwanese artists now. When they notice censorship and a crackdown of information, they are angry and also confused: "Why aren't the Chinese angry about this?" One girl told The Initium she thought her Chinese peers online are "lacking their own thoughts and values, and would just stand by to see things they appreciate disappear (when they are censored)."
These teenagers, ranging in age from high school to university students, have one thing in common when it comes to China: "the government and the people do not mix". They may like Chinese food, attractions, stars, or novels and comics, but whether they learn about the Chinese government's actions through the news, or learn about the difference between Chinese and Taiwanese feelings about news events on social media, the teenagers are developing their own opinions about China and their world view from their lives both online and offline.
Taiwan's government is not worried
As for the government in Taipei, they are aware of the influence of Chinese media on Taiwanese youth, but not too worried. Professor Luo, an expert at communications and media, says that it is the real-life experience that makes a difference when Taiwanese teens face information and propaganda from China.
"They grow up breathing the air of freedom in Taiwan, and are becoming citizens with voting rights. As long as we have the values of freedom and human rights, TikTok videos won't drag them away."
But Luo also acknowledged the risks of privacy issues when using those apps.
"Taiwan must also have its own cultural products in order to compete (with China)." He explained that if Taiwan is facing a cultural unification war, the only way to stand a chance of winning is to face up to it, actively export its own culture, and cooperate with the regulation of information security.