Chinese social media influencers play it safe with healthy content

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Wang Jing’s hand plunges into a mound of earth and pulls out a bulging bundle of oyster mushrooms. “Look how pretty they are,” the mushroom producer-turned-influencer tells fans on Douyin, the Chinese version of the TikTok short video platform, as she strokes the mushroom’s floppy hats.

Wang is one of many internet stars whose healthy, educational content takes more space on Chinese social media, after censors removed content promoting lifestyles deemed inconsistent with the Party’s socialist values. Chinese communist.

The country’s internet watchdog, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), this year eliminated 20,000 influencers or wanghong is responsible for “dissemination of misguided content and pollution of the Internet environment”.

After President Xi Jinping became leader of the Communist Party in 2012, the crackdown on online political speech limited what internet users could post. But Beijing’s efforts to orchestrate tighter control of online culture have intensified since Xi reiterated the “common prosperity” campaign in August, in an effort to narrow the country’s large wealth gap.

Since then, censors have cast a wider net to catch spam, and content that would have easily passed censors a year ago has been quietly removed. In recent months, Korean boy band fan pages have been suspended, social media posts promoting luxury fashion products have been removed, and finance gurus have been banned from making recommendations. investment via live video broadcast.

Cara Wallis, a professor at Texas A&M University whose work focuses on Chinese digital media, said internet celebrities “play it safe, no one wants to be censored – but as a result their content has gotten a little bland. “.

The accounts of many Chinese celebrities are filled with odes to the government and evidence of their charitable efforts. Zhang Yixing, a Chinese rapper known by the stage name Lay, even ran an online quiz for his fans about the history of the CCP.

“The government wants more positive voices on Chinese social networks, which tell a good story about the country,” said a Chinese academic from Guangdong, who studies Wanghong culture. Among the approved content creators is Wang Jing, whose videos bring more than 2 million fans from all over China to his small farm in rural Guizhou, one of the country’s poorest provinces. Leading state media broadcaster CCTV featured Wang in a news segment on revitalizing wanghong rural economies.

The scholar, who was unwilling to share his name publicly, argued that videos featuring a favorable view of the country, in the form of patriotic celebrity talks online or romantic representations of the campaign, are fueling popular demand: ” A lot of people want to see positive videos about China, ”they said.

Zhang Tongxue, a star of the Douyin campaign from northeast Liaoning Province, has exploded in popularity, gaining more than 17 million fans since opening his account in October. He uploads videos of his daily routine with the same tropical house song, with photos of him digging vegetables, collecting firewood and going on adventures with his friends.

Capitalizing on her newfound popularity, Zhang released a musical single titled “A Common Person” last week, humming about the beauty of a “simple” country life.

Stuart Cunningham, an academic who studies Chinese internet culture at the Queensland University of Technology, said the rural life subgenre of videos is “extremely popular.” “People living in crowded and bustling cities in China appreciate the digital connection to rurality, with its serene landscapes and slower pace of life,” he said.

Zhang Tongxue has 17 million followers of Douyin who watch him dig vegetables and collect firewood in Liaoning Province © Douyin

But Cunningham also said growth like this has been orchestrated by the government’s propaganda efforts. Local authorities have organized wanghong festivals and funded crash courses for budding rural influencers to achieve online fame, with the aim of boosting stagnant rural economies after years of emigration to big cities and underinvestment in health and education.

The genre of how-to videos has exploded in popularity on Douyin. In the 12 months leading up to October 2021, educational film screenings increased by 74%, largely thanks to the popularity of videos demonstrating how to do practical things – from cooking to Chinese delicacies to caring for plants. interior.

Promoting educational content was also at the heart of Bilibili, a video-sharing website that first became popular with anime and game fans.

On this site, Nie Huihua, professor of economics at Renmin University of China, garnered a relatively modest 155,000 fans online for his tutorials analyzing the Chinese economy. “It’s a great way to spread ideas, especially to students in rural areas who don’t have access to the best teachers,” Nie said. But despite Bilibili’s efforts to promote itself as an educational brand, by recruiting the best university professors on its platform, Nie said its algorithms were not suited to identifying content of intellectual value.

“Teachers speak in a calm and even manner, but algorithms promote videos with shocking and controversial titles,” Nie said. The professor said he was not “suited to Bilibili’s recommendation algorithm” but would continue to make videos for students to help them debunk complex economic theories.

These platforms have to fight for attention by promoting clickbait content while staying in line with online censors, Wallis said. The Chinese scholar argued that social media channels have always been focused on capturing market share in content streams that generate more ad revenue, especially games and fashion – and that there is still a range. “diverse” of influencers – but that they were investing in politically correct content to gain the good graces of officials.

For Wang, the motivation to open a Douyin account was economic. She wanted to find a channel to reach new buyers for her agricultural products. Over the past year, she has sold around half a million mushroom grow kits to fans online who want to replicate their own mushroom palate.

Wang said his videos matched a desire for educational content on organic products: “People love my videos because they teach people how to use things they usually throw away – corn stalks, corn acorns. and rice water – for growing mushrooms. ”

Wang said that despite finding unexpected levels of enthusiasm for his oyster mushrooms, there was still a limit within his reach online. “People are interested in rural issues,” she said. “But at the end of the day, lighter entertainment is always more popular.”

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