Douyin -or TikTok, as it is known in the West- is a Chinese social network that was launched initially in 2016 as musical.ly, and it is owned, as of 2017, by the Chinese media company ByteDance.
As most of us probably already know, this app allows users to post short videos with music clips or dubbing, and it has been an extremely prolific ground for the creation of content such as viral dances, challenges, and memes, with influencers rising to fame (like TikTok queen Charli D’Amelio) or rushing to it from other social media platforms.
Tiktok currently counts about 700 million active users (as of March 2021), whereas its Chinese counterpart relies on over 500 million active users each month.
Both divisions of the app have expanded immensely and at an extremely fast pace, but they differ greatly in content. While the format of viral songs, cute and “approachable” influencers, and very quick and palatable information remains the same, Douyin seems to employ it for a much darker aim: propaganda.
Douyin and the authorities
This link between Douyin and political authorities shouldn’t surprise us, given the fact that ByteDance even has its own internal party committee dedicated to following and employing the teachings of the CCP in their effort towards technological innovation.
This practice is far from uncommon, as all Chinese companies (both private and public) are accountable not only to their investors but also to the Chinese Communist Party, and they are in fact obliged by law to operate under CCP regulations.
An example of this was when, in 2018, ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming had to issue a public apology for the presence of “vulgar” content on his other social media platform Toutiao, professing a newfound dedication to the four consciousnesses (a buzzword invented by Xi Jinping referring to political, general, integrity, and “core” or leadership consciousness), and to a pursuit of technology led by “core socialist values”.
The role of the audience and of mainstream media
So what exactly are the dynamics of Douyin propaganda?
First and foremost, it should be noted that this kind of social media is uniquely able to create a sense of closeness and community, which are strongly appreciated in current Chinese society, where patriotism (ehem, nationalism) is valued very highly.
So we must not make the mistake of regarding this as a merely top-down phenomenon: regular citizens are actively engaging with and posting this kind of content as well, as it allows them to feel truly involved on this platform which has become a true arena of political life.
Due to the very nature of social media, we’re seeing an unprecedented example of propaganda where it’s not determined strictly from above, but whose form and language are dictated by the public, the type of content they prefer to interact with, the trends that the algorithm seems to favor.
As a consequence, more official mainstream creators had a lot to catch up to. Surprisingly enough, many state media outlets such as People’s Daily and China Daily were extremely quick to jump on the opportunity that Douyin offered as a platform and had to adapt to its short-video sharing format, often by recruiting undergraduate and graduate students to add to their media departments.
China Daily, in particular, has a specialized group devoted to scouting Douyin to discover and predict popular trends in music and culture. As a result, state media outlets don’t limit themselves to reposting content about politics but include videos of traditional food, cute pandas, and beautiful landscapes, often employing young people to achieve a more appealing and approachable look.
This proved to be an effective approach as content focusing on positive propaganda about the Chinese national image and the military resulted to be amongst the most liked posts by institutional media outlets on Douyin.
This phenomenon also created the opportunity for local authorities and state agencies to directly involve citizens in their day to day activities.
Amidst the state-issued buzz, independent creators and influencers are able to promote themselves by also embracing these patriotic claims, and actively contributing to the propaganda. For example, on the 70th annual Chinese National Day, video game streamers found ways to make the number 70 in their games, and a video went viral of a man herding 2000 chickens to form the number 70, to celebrate the event. Among these independent creators, it’s relevant to take a look at two main categories: Douyin “Goddesses”, and White Monkeys.
Independent creators: Li Ziqi
In a time where beautiful strangers on the internet are often idolized, it makes total sense for the Chinese propaganda machine to embrace and employ this kind of creators too, both to generate a cult following locally, and to exert soft power internationally. Such is the case of Chinese social media star Li Ziqi.
In 2016 Li started independently posting videos depicting her traditional, rustic-chic way of life: from picking fruit and foraging mushrooms in the breathtaking Sichuan countryside, to crafting her own furniture out of bamboo, all set to tranquil flute music and aided by a delightfully aesthetic production.
It didn’t take long for the Chinese government to notice her and the traction she had gained on social media, and in 2018 she was awarded the title of “good young netizen” by the CCP. She was even chosen by the Communist Youth League as an ambassador for a program for the empowerment of rural youth.
A true success story, but also a narrative that carefully neglects to mention that the very reason why she started making these videos was because she failed to make a living working in the city, which would not be as flattering. Furthermore, her content has not been free from criticism, as her idyllic representation has been seen as inaccurate and out of touch by those who deal daily with the harsh reality of agricultural labor.
Nonetheless, Li’s popularity is a testament to the feeling of xiangchou (鄉愁), meaning the longing for traditional/rural life, that’s very important in the Chinese nationalistic narrative, and that also finds its expression through trends like “fugu” and “hanfu”, which, according to Qufu Normal University professor Yang Chunmei, embody the “romanticized, pastoral” desires of youth “disillusioned by today’s ever-changing, industrial, consumerist society”. The perfect patriotic escapist palliative.
The appeal of Westerness: “White Capital”
By observing a lot of the content on Douyin, one will notice that a great number of these propaganda videos are actually in English. This is due to a new propaganda push that is more focused on appealing to the youth (who are more interested in international pop culture and thus may be more responsive to foreign-inspired media) and to improving China’s international reputation.
According to art historian Caterina Bellinetti “in the past propaganda was mainly inward-directed, now, thanks to the internet, any person in the world can be subjected to it or at least experience it”. The use of the English language is also linked to an interesting role that the performance of whiteness and westerness currently has gained in China.
“Foreignness” has become a sort of status symbol, with young Chinese entrepreneurs gathering at places like Starbucks in order to be recognized, established businessmen hiring white foreigners to show off at dinners and events, and white actors and performers being widely used for promotional events.
An exemplar case is that of the “DeRucci guy”, the face of Dongguan based mattress company, DeRucci. The brand, in their effort to capture the Chinese market with an air of luxury and exclusivity, decided to rebrand in 2004, and picked this wise-looking European man (who was supposedly just an English teacher in a nearby school) to be the now ubiquitous symbol of what was to become the biggest mattress company in China.
The role of westerness as a status symbol may be due to the increasing wave of migration from the West to China in recent times, which has been instrumentalized both by businesses and the government itself, to further the patriotic narrative of China being so great and desirable that even foreigners are endorsing it.
This has resulted in a thriving market for what are known as “White Monkey” jobs based on the concept of “White Capital”: the idea that caucasian foreigners are a valuable marketing tool, and can be used as an asset in business (this phenomenon is currently undergoing a study by ChinaWhite, a 5-year research project funded by the European Research Council).
These jobs vary from modelling to performing and playing music, even to simply attending events, but they are not limited to mere entertainment and social signalling: they have also branched out to straightforward propaganda.
There is a widespread migration of Western entertainers and social media stars moving their work completely to platforms like Douyin, after being scouted by Chinese agencies. One of the most infamous cases of this phenomenon is that of YouTuber Bart Baker.
Bart Baker: from youtube star, to five-star-flag enthusiast
Bart Baker first rose to fame on YouTube in 2011, by making parody videos of popular songs. For the longest time he truly seemed to thrive, he was able to work at an extremely fast pace and his high-quality productions and edgy comedy allowed him to accumulate over 3 billion overall views, and 10 million subscribers on his channel.
That is, until YouTube implemented its infamous demonetization policy.
In order to attract more mainstream advertisers, YouTube decided to favor more family-friendly content by demonetizing videos with vulgar language or themes deemed “too edgy”, taking away these creators’ possibility to make any AdSense money off their views and effectively putting their livelihoods at risk.
Not only that, but non-family-friendly or edgy content was no longer being promoted or suggested to users, and creators like Bart Baker were ultimately shadowbanned. As Bart himself claims in his interview with Vice, he was “miserable” and had resolved to going to therapy for the anxiety and depression caused to him by YouTube’s new policies.
After struggling to break even on his last few efforts, he received an offer: a Chinese media company called DCDC reached out to him, with the promise of making him a big celebrity in China.
He started posting on Douyin, and after some trial and error, he found a format that could make Chinese audiences love him.
His content consists of short videos of him singing poorly translated nationalistic Chinese songs, which he then adapts to a rhyming scheme without really knowing what they mean, as he himself admits in his VICE interview.
He has, although, tried his hand at speaking Chinese, in more recent videos. The songs are “emotional” and overly autotuned, and his delivery is “passionate”, purposefully overacting so as to make it more striking, in tune with the narrative of devotion to the nation. He’s also often seen donning red clothing or traditional attire, as a visual testament of his pro-China message. The people love it.
With China’s taste for white foreign spokespeople, Bart Baker’s bleached blond hair and light coloured eye contacts work perfectly in his favor. Both from his interview and his odd demeanour in his Douyin videos, it’s easy for us to assume that Bart is probably not as passionate about China and “core socialist values” as his content makes him out to be.
His creative freedom is extremely limited, and his content is not only scrutinized by fans, but also by the authorities that he desperately needs to please, in order to keep his job. Most of the revenue DCDC makes off of Bart’s content comes from brand deals and sponsorships, and he can’t afford to lose his CCP-friendly facade at the risk of jeopardizing his own livelihood.
His work has also become more and more problematic during the COVID-19 crisis, as his original vague and nationalistic message has evolved into a much more straightforward stance, directly blaming the US and European Countries for the mishandling of the virus outbreak, and of being weak, bad, and “unprepared”. He goes on to defend Chinese government, claiming that “China is the safest place to be right now” and accusing the New York Times’ coverage of the COVID-19 crisis in China of being “shameful” and disingenuous, ultimately contributing to the same narrative that most influencers on Douyin were rushing to push at that time for damage control.
It’s fascinating how much propaganda can change parallel to customs and technology, and how it’s evolving to become more pervasive than ever.
Looking back at examples of propaganda from the 20th century, we’re quick to dismiss them as obviously disingenuous, and “how could anyone fall for this?”.
But it’s clear that when a piece of propaganda fully understands and exploits the nature of its media and the Zeitgeist of its audience, it’s much harder to detect it: when propaganda takes the form of viral videos on our harmless social media platforms, populated by pretty girls, popular songs, and familiar faces, can we really tell?