China’s social media influencers play safe with healthy content

Vuong Canh’s hand plunged into a mound of earth, pulling out a bunch of swollen oyster mushrooms. “They look so pretty,” the influencer turned mushroom farmer told her fans on Douyin, the Chinese version of short-video platform TikTok, as she stroked the floppy hats of fellow mushroom growers. mushroom.

Wang is one of many internet stars whose healthy and educational content is taking up more space on Chinese social media, after censors removed lifestyle-promoting content deemed inappropriate. socialist values ​​of the Communist Party of China.

The country’s internet watchdog, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), this year downed 20,000 influencers or wanghong account “spreading false content and polluting the internet environment”.

After President Xi Jinping became leader of the Communist Party in 2012, crackdowns on online political speech restricted what netizens could post. However, Beijing’s efforts to regulate tighter control of online culture have increased since Mr. Xi repeated a “commonwealth” effort in August to close the wealth gap. great poverty of the country.

Since then, censors have cast a wider net to catch unwanted accounts, and content that could have easily bypassed censorship a year ago is quietly being taken down. In the past few months, fan pages for Korean boy band was suspended, social media posts promoting high fashion products were removed, and financial professionals were prohibited from making investment recommendations via live video.

Cara Wallis, a professor at Texas A&M University whose work focuses on Chinese digital media, said Internet celebrities “are using it safely, nobody wants it.” censored – but their content becomes a bit bland as a result.”

The accounts of many Chinese celebrities are filled with tributes to the government and evidence of their philanthropic efforts. Zhang Yixing, a Chinese rapper with the stage name Lay, even held an online quiz for fans about the history of the CCP.

“The government wants to have more active voices on Chinese social media, which tell a good story about the country,” said a Chinese scholar from Guangdong who studies wanghong culture. Among the approved content producers is Wang Jing, whose videos bring more than 2 million fans from across China to her small farm in rural Guizhou, one of the poorest provinces in the country. . The leading state-run media broadcaster, CCTV, featured Wang in a news segment about wanghong reviving rural economies.

The academic, who does not want to make their names public, thinks the videos have a favorable view of the country, in the form of patriotic lectures from online celebrities or romantic depictions of the countryside. , became popular demand: “A lot of people want to see positive videos about China,” they said.

Zhang Tongxue, a Douyin hometown star from the northeastern province of Liaoning, has grown in popularity, attracting more than 17 million fans since opening an account in October. He uploads videos of the routine. his daily routine with the same song to tropical house rhythms, with scenes of him digging vegetables, gathering firewood and going on adventures with his friends.

Capitalizing on his nascent popularity, Zhang released a musical single called “A Common Person” last week, which revolves around the beauty of a “simple” life in the countryside.

Stuart Cunningham, a researcher on Chinese internet culture at the Queensland University of Technology, said the sub-genre of videos depicting rural life was “extremely popular”. “People living in crowded and busy cities in China appreciate the digital connection to the countryside, with its serene landscapes and slower pace of life,” he said.

Zhang Tongxue has 17 million followers. Douyin watches him dig vegetables and collect firewood in Liaoning province

Zhang Tongxue has 17 million followers Douyin watches vegetable cherries and picks firewood in Liaoning province © Douyin

But Cunningham also said the genre’s growth was orchestrated by government propaganda efforts. The local government organized the wanghong festival and sponsored crash courses for budding rural influencers to gain online fame, in order to boost the rural economy. stagnated after years of migration to big cities and poor investment in health and education.

The video tutorial genre has become popular on Douyin. In the 12 months to October 2021, the number of streams of educational films increased by 74%, largely due to the popularity of how-to videos – everything from cooking Chinese delicacies Quoc comes to take care of house plants.

Promotion of educational content is also a focus of Bilibili, a video-sharing site that first became popular with anime and game fans.

On that website, Nie Huihua, an economics professor at China’s Renmin University, has amassed a relatively modest 155,000 online fans for tutorials analyzing the Chinese economy. “It’s a great channel to spread ideas, especially for students in rural areas who don’t have access to the best teachers,” says Nie. But despite Bilibili’s efforts to promote itself as an educational brand, recruiting top university professors for its platform, Nie said its algorithms are not tuned to identify content with intellectual value.

“Teachers speak calmly and competently, but algorithms promote videos with shocking and controversial titles,” says Nie. The professor said he was “not a good fit for Bilibili’s recommendation algorithm” but that he will continue to make videos for students to help unravel complex economic theories.

These platforms struggle to get noticed by promoting clickbait content while still complying with online censorship authorities, Wallis said. The Chinese scholar argues that social media channels are still focused on capturing market share in the streams of content that generate more advertising revenue, especially games and fashion – and there are still many people with influence “diverse” – but they invested politically correct content to curry favor with 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 about half a million mushroom growing kits to online fans looking to recreate their own mushroom palace.

Wang says her videos match the desire for educational content about organic products: “People like my videos because they teach people how to use things they would normally throw away — corn stalks, tassels. corn and rice water – to grow mushrooms.”

Wang says that despite her unexpected level of enthusiasm for oyster mushrooms, her reach online is limited. “People are interested in rural issues,” she said. “But at the end of the day, light entertainment is still more popular.”

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