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August 22, 2023

Chinese vloggers’ representations of sub-SaharanAfrica on Douyin: An exploratory study

By independent researchers, Isak Wang and Ann Wang. First Published in The African Governance Papers, Volume 1 | Issue 3 | June 2023 by Good Governance Africa

Abstract

User-generated media production can be influential in shaping racial images. In the past decades, sub-Saharan Africa’s relations with China have intensified. As transnational exchanges enter the age of short-video platforms, apps like Douyin have become the leading sites for Chinese people to produce and circulate images of sub-Saharan Africa. Though videos produced and shared online by Chinese vloggers featuring black performers have caused controversy and been under scrutiny in recent years, research on Africa-themed Chinese short videos is still lacking. In this paper, we present basic field research, map the main themes in popular videos related to Africa, and analyse representations of sub-Saharan Africa in these videos. Seeing how Black representations were skewed for Chinese audiences, we suggest that more Africa-centred perspectives are needed.

Introduction

Over the past two decades, China has rapidly become a global power, and exchanges between China and African countries have also developed intensively (China Africa Research Initiative, 2022). According to various statistical sources, the Chinese immigrant population in Africa reached between one and two million in the 2010s (Li, 2019; Bodomo, 2020). At the same time, China’s internet economy is burgeoning, and social media platforms are now an inseparable part of daily life in China. Chinese netizens have created many texts, pictures and videos related to Africa on Chinese platforms such as Douyin (抖音), Wechat (微信) and Bilibili (哔哩哔哩).

The popularity of internet video platforms has risen globally in the past 15 years, and Chinese companies have created many tailor-made platforms for Chinese netizens. According to the 50th Statistical Report on the Development of the Internet in China, the growth of short-video applications is the fastest among all internet applications. As of June 2022, China’s short-video users have reached 962 million, accounting for 91.5% of internet users. (The numbers are from Table 4 in the report, which shows all the different media forms and how many users they each had in December 2021 and June 2022). The most prominent among them is Douyin. According to Questmobile’s report in June 2022, Douyin’s daily active users exceeded 600 million (Questmobile, 2022). In comparison, the number of online news audiences is only 788 million (CNNIC, 2022).

The videos on Douyin are mostly user-generated, and Chinese visitors to sub-Saharan African countries have created a vast amount of content during and after their visits. This content can be crucial in shaping Chinese audiences’ racial perceptions and influencing international relations; their creators may not always be aware of these consequences. Many vloggers produce sub-Saharan Africa-themed videos to attract audiences to buy products from their online vendors or send them gift points that can later be converted into money. One form of video content is causing considerable controversy: so-called “blessing video” (祝福视频) services bought by Chinese customers, which feature black performers repeating Chinese sentences they may not understand.

Though the importance of online social media content is gradually surpassing that of traditional media forms, e.g. television and paper-based media, most research on Africa-related Chinese content still focuses on traditional media. China-Africa researchers must understand sub-Saharan African content on short-video platforms like Douyin, since they might shape Chinese audiences’ understanding of sub-Saharan Africa in ways that traditional media cannot.

Our findings clearly show that the content related to sub-Saharan Africa on Douyin comprises more than just “blessing videos”. Moreover, Chinese representations of Africa are often China-centred and lack African voices. Both researchers and policymakers must understand these videos because their influence is vast, and their characteristics reflect the larger structure of the transnational power imbalance.

Contextualisation

Representation of Africa on Chinese official media and social media

In recent years, increased media coverage and official propaganda surrounding the sub Saharan Africa-China relationship have brought the question of Chinese representations of Africa to the forefront. Discussions about sub-Saharan African countries in mass and social media often need a more nuanced understanding of the local context. Also, African nations appear far less in the Chinese news media than the US and European countries. Most Chinese have little interest in gaining in-depth knowledge or insights about Africa and often have only anecdotal knowledge about the continent. Li (2016) argues that reporting on Africa in China relates more to China-Africa relations than to African stories. News agencies such as Xinhua (新华社) commonly feature stories about infrastructure projects or aid projects in Africa. Research of about 300 articles about Africa published in the Global Times (环球时报) in 2015 showed that much of the reporting concerned
terrorism, crime, politics, democracy, nature, culture and customs (Wu, 2016).

The media landscape of reporting on Africa is gradually being changed by social media, with Chinese communities becoming major content creators. According to Li (2016), social media can offer perspectives and stories on Africa that are not reflected in mainstream or official media messages. Recent research has looked into content about Africa on the Chinese video platform Bilibili. It found that the vloggers from Bilibili both copied and added new perspectives to the mainstream media’s narrative of Africa (Li, 2022). On the one hand, Bilibili vloggers have absorbed the mainstream media’s penchant for cultural voyeurism and romanticising perspectives (Li, 2022). On the other hand, much of the content on Bilibili is based on grassroots personal experiences and may be more “authentic” and “demystify” Africa (Li, 2022).

Short-video platform Douyin has a user base in third, fourth, and fifth-tier cities and the countryside in China and has brought content about Africa to a larger audience. About 167,175 users of the hashtag “Africa” have generated approximately 25.5 billion views. By contrast, the topic hashtag “European” has only 7.5 billion views, and the topic hashtag “Latin America” has less than 1 billion views.

In her 2019 research, Bai analysed Africa-related content on Douyin and argued that “gazing into poverty” (观看贫穷) is a common theme of the short videos about Africa. However, except for a few pieces of research, how short video platforms in China represent Africa has been understudied. For this reason, we have conducted data research to examine the most popular China-sub-Saharan Africa-related channels on the Chinese short-video platform Douyin.

Closed Chinese social media platform

The necessary background for understanding Chinese Africa-themed videos is that audiences in China and abroad use different short-video platforms. ByteDance (字节跳动), a technology company that publishes several content platforms, released Douyin in 2016 and TikTok in 2017, respectively, for the Chinese and non-Chinese markets. The Douyin app is unavailable on overseas app stores such as Google Play, and the TikTok app does not exist on domestic Chinese app stores.

Douyin users are concentrated in China, and it is also the most used short-video platform in China. Chinese users who do not use VPN tools to bypass China’s firewall system cannot use TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and other foreign short-video platforms. Similarly, very few non-Chinese use Douyin.

Most of the content on Douyin is in Chinese, making it accessible only to Chinese speakers. This means that most videos on this social media platform face little scrutiny from foreign users. And while some content, e.g. blessing videos, were already considered controversial or racist in the past, most criticisms were from Chinese rather than foreign audiences until international media reported on them. Moreover, the number of Chinese audiences who voice their objection may not always be enough to challenge their production. Chinese audiences’ contact with Africa is burdened by geographical distance, national boundaries, cultural differences, and the firewall system. Chinese vloggers traversing these distances, crossing these boundaries and exploring these cultural differences exploit general Chinese ignorance of the issues involved to their advantage.

Implications of spreading racial prejudice

In the era of social media, online platforms are helping to spread unexamined ideas and beliefs about race. As Jessie Daniels observes, social media platforms are spaces “where race and racism play out in interesting, sometimes disturbing, ways” (Daniels 2013, as cited in Matamoros-Fernández et al. 2021). Many platforms may provide “vast anonymity for harassers” and are “permissive with racist content disguised in humour because it triggers engagement” (Farkas et al., 2018; Roberts, 2019; Shepherd et al., 2015, as cited in Matamoros-Fernández et al., 2021).

Social media platforms in China are no exception, but the influence of social media on racial prejudice there has been under-researched in China itself. This is partly because, as a “quasi-mono-ethnic country, race is rarely in the foreground of politics, and racism is often framed as a “Western problem” by officials in China. In addition, terms like “Africans” (非洲人) and “black people” (黑人) are sometimes used interchangeably due to a relative lack of knowledge about Africa and unawareness of the concepts of race in China, making it harder to study racial issues as they affect Africa on social media.

However, racist perceptions of black students are not unfamiliar in Chinese social media. As racist discourses become visible on social media, earlier ideas of Third World solidarity still exist (Zhao, 2015). These different ideas of race coexist in the Chinese discursive fields, and the work of Chinese vloggers in sub-Saharan Africa offers insights into their diverse attitudes and beliefs about race.

In June of 2022, the BBC’s documentary Racism for Sale exposed racist behaviour by a Chinese vlogger, Lu Ke(卢克). He had made Malawian children chant selfhumiliating, racist slogans in his videos and abused them. After this incident, Malawi police arrested Lu Ke, and the Chinese government denounced his behaviour. Later, short-video platforms in China began to censor Africa-related content.

In July 2022, after the Lu Ke incident, Chinese short-video platforms, including Douyin, Xigua (西瓜), and Kuaishou (快手), set “Africa” as a censored word.

On these platforms, whenever users searched for the word Africa for Africa related channels, the result only showed one semi-governmental channel, the China-Africa Economic and Trade Promotion Council (CAETP). This resulted in the exclusion of vloggers whose offerings included the word Africa from search results. As a result, many vloggers substituted the word “overseas”(海外) for the word “Africa” in their account names. Searching Chinese vlog channels for the keyword “Africa” returns no results. Recently, many Chinese vloggers in Africa have claimed they can no longer do live-streaming. These vloggers usually sell products through live-streaming. Since live-streaming is their primary source of income, some vloggers have chosen to leave Africa. Vloggers can still post videos on their channels, but some claim that the platform throttles the traffic of their videos. This kind of censorship makes discussing and researching racial related issues more difficult.

While Lu Ke’s production is at the end of a spectrum of attitudes to race, it is clear that Chinese vloggers’ Africa-themed videos involve common elements that are disturbing in that they could potentially reproduce racial prejudice about sub-Saharan Africans among Chinese audiences.

Methodology

Research scope

This study focuses on Chinese vloggers who visit sub-Saharan Africa and make videos there. Though Africa as a geographical term includes both North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, it is often used to denote just sub-Saharan Africa in Chinese media, and Chinese netizens mostly use “African” to refer to black people from sub-Saharan Africa. Most videos on Douyin focusing on sub-Saharan Africa portray black people. These videos are our study focus.

Chinese short-video platforms also host the work of vloggers from sub-Saharan Africa. However, these vloggers often shoot their videos in China. The genre usually involves comical situations with the vlogger speaking in Chinese, and they attract various audiences. This research does not consider the work of these vloggers. More specifically, this study analyses African-related topics in the videos of Chinese vloggers whose work is hosted on Douyin.

Hashtag view analysis

“Topics” (话题) on Douyin are like hashtags on Twitter. Anyone can start a topic by adding # to the beginning of a word or phrase. The Douyin platform captures the view counts of each topic. The view count shows up when a user searches for a topic through keyword searches. The search result will contain topics relevant to the keyword. The researcher used the keywords below to search for Africa-related topics on Douyin.

  • 非洲 (“Africa”)
  • Dou见中非 (“Seeing Africa in Douyin”)
  • The names of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, such as Nigeria, Senegal, etc.

Topics relevant to these keywords are recorded. Note that this data was obtained in November 2022 after the ban on the search for Africa-related topics was lifted. The researcher then filtered out the relevant results related to Africa and recorded the number of views for each topic. Individual country names are also filtered out because we focus on what content about Africa Chinese viewers are interested in.

Analysis of influential channels in sub-Saharan Africa

Short-video channels of focus

There are several types of content about Africa that users can access on short-video
platforms:

  1. Vlogs set up by Chinese people in sub-Saharan Africa or sub-Saharan Africans
    in China featuring their daily life.
  2. Current affairs videos: various mainstream news media and smaller social
    media accounts focused on world affairs.
  3. Trivia and channels featuring tabloid-like content about Africa


Even though Chinese audiences may be exposed to content related to sub-Saharan Africa through different sources above, our analysis of influential vloggers about Africa will focus on the first type of video, which is characterised by:

  1. Vlog channels operated by people with direct experience with sub-Saharan
    Africa and who directly involve residents in the short videos. The setting of
    their content is their life in sub-Saharan Africa over a long period.
  2. Their content generally does not involve news events or current affairs
    commentary but tends to be entertainment-orientated.
  3. These vlog channels are generally personal, showing the emotions and
    experiences of the vloggers, though some might involve scripts.


In other words, our focus is the channels mainly operated by Chinese people in
sub-Saharan Africa who explore the daily life of entertainment topics from a
personal perspective.

Data collection and cleaning

Collecting channels of Chinese vloggers in Africa

Data were collected at the beginning of September 2022 for this analysis. Due to censorship of the keyword Africa on the Douyin platform, the researcher used the following keywords for searches of Chinese vloggers based in sub-Saharan Africa:

  1. 非洲 (Africa)
  2. The names of countries in sub-Saharan Africa
  3. “Chinese people in” (中国人在) + the names of countries in sub-Saharan
    Africa, for example, “Chinese people in Rwanda” (中国人在卢旺达)

The platform also has a functionality that allows users to filter channels by the
number of fans. We collected all channels related to sub-Saharan Africa, with
more than 100,000 fans using the filter.
We further filtered channels according to the below criteria:

  1. Exclude any channels that have not published videos in the past three months
  2. Select only accounts operated by Chinese in sub-Saharan Africa
  3. Some vloggers open several accounts and produce similar content on these
    different channels. We group channels run by the same vlogger together as
    one channel.


We collected the details of 80 vloggers that satisfied these criteria.

Data scraping of essential information and videos of selected channels

We used the Douyin commercial API to obtain the vlogger’s basic information and
all the videos from selected channels. The vlogger information includes the user’s
region/IP location, gender, self-introduction of the user and the number of fans of the channel. The video information consists of the video creation time, number of likes for the video and video description. We were able to collect data from 29,753 videos with this approach.

Data analysis

Top influencer analysis

The first analysis aims at revealing the top influencers on sub-Saharan Africa-related content on Douyin. The total likes of videos of each channel over the most recent year (August 31, 2021, to August 31, 2022) are aggregated, and the channels that receive the most likes are considered the top influencers. The researchers then watched the videos from these channels and summarised their content.

We also conducted a timeline analysis of how many likes each vlogger received over time to identify trends in sub-Saharan Africa-related content on Douyin.
Viral videos analysis
Viral video selection

For the viral video analysis, we were interested in the kind of videos about sub-Saharan Africa that are popular on Douyin. Both quantitative and qualitative methods were adopted for this analysis. Through watching hundreds of videos, the two researchers came up with common elements in the short videos related to sub-Saharan Africa. These elements are then used to label the most popular videos from the 80 selected channels. With the 29,753 videos collected, we filtered out the viral videos according to
the below standards:

  • The video must feature sub-Saharan Africa
  • The video has over 10,000 likes
  • The video must be among the top 10 liked videos of each channel.

There were 576 videos in total that satisfied these criteria. We adopt this filtering method because it focuses attention on the videos’ traffic and the channels’ diversity. The videos of top influencers tend to have more traffic. Using the number of likes as the only indicator of whether a video is popular would yield samples consisting of videos by top influencers. Collecting top videos from all the different channels while limiting the selection to 10 videos from each channel allowed us to consider videos from diverse vloggers rather than just videos from the most popular vloggers.

The general ratio of likes and views is less than 1/10 for short videos on Douyin.
Hence, most of these 576 videos would have had at least 100,000 views.

Element classification and labelling

From the above steps, we have collected video descriptions from 25,792 out of 29,753 scraped videos12. By reading these video descriptions, watching hundreds of collected videos and noting down their essential elements, the researchers note 13 emergent themes as recurring elements in such videos:

  • “African children”: featuring sub-Saharan African children predominantly.
    We also included videos shooting children seeing Chinese people and then
    running away because of their skin colour
  • “African Employee”: featuring local African employees
  • Poverty: Depicting poverty or hardship in sub-Saharan Africa
  • Humour: humorous or joking performance
  • Sponsorship: showing Chinese people helping local people, such as paying
    wages, handing out money or food
  • Chinese culture: showing Africans learning or demonstrating Chinese culture
    through activities such as cooking and eating Chinese food, learning how to
    use chopsticks, singing Chinese songs, dancing Chinese dances or performing
    Chinese operas
  • “Black Beauty”: featuring black female beauties predominantly
  • “Exotic custom”: depicting “strange” customs or ways of living, demonstrating
    some degree of cultural voyeurism and eroticisation, such as local women
    being whipped, the lip-plate tribe (唇盘族, referring to Mursi people in
    Ethiopia), or locals eating stones
  • “Shopping experience”: comparing the prices of certain goods, such as lobsters,
    in sub-Saharan Africa and China
  • “Close friendship”: showing the bond and kinship-like friendship (Ebaugh,
    2000, p. 189) between Chinese people and local people
  • “My African girlfriend/bride”: This category includes young black women
    playing the role of girlfriends or wives; videos that give the impression that black women like Chinese men; videos suggesting single Chinese men can come to sub-Saharan Africa to find wives
  • Skin colour: focusing on skin colour, using black skin colour as a joke, filming
    local people using a white foundation, or using “darkest beauty” to describe
    local women.
  • “Virtuous African”: showing a positive image of sub-Saharan Africans by
    portraying qualities such as gratitude, diligence, honesty, etc.
  • “Bad African”: portraying sub-Saharan Africans in a negative light, such as
    greedy, lazy, etc.

We labelled the 576 videos with the elements we extracted from the step above.

Limitations

This research uses many short videos from the Douyin platform to explore the public image of sub-Saharan Africans presented in them. It is a preliminary study that is subject to several limitations. The sheer number of videos and the constantly changing content of the platform makes it impossible to scrutinise all relevant videos. Moreover, Douyin’s recent restrictions on searches related to Africa make it difficult to find all African-related vloggers. The sensitive nature of the topic and the censorship of related content on short video platforms have put China-Africa-related vloggers in the eye of a storm. When vloggers were asked by fans why they could not live-stream, many only mentioned “a certain Chinese who did bad things”, avoiding mentioning the Lu Ke incident. This made interviewing these vloggers extremely difficult, and several vloggers directly rejected the idea of an interview when we suggested it. However, through many short videos and hacking search engines inside Douyin, we have collected and analysed the video content of popular bloggers related to Africa.

Results

Hashtags related to sub-Saharan Africa

The most popular topics related to sub-Saharan Africa were “Africa” (非洲 with 25.5 billion views, “Entering Africa” (走进非洲), with 22.5 billion views, and “Life in Africa” (非洲生活)with 12 billion views. Excluding African country names from the topics, the most common topics are as follows:


“African drums”(非洲鼓) is the most popular tag in the videos. This is mainly because many internet vendors use the Douyin platform to sell African drums and offer African drum lessons.

The “African products sharing”(非洲好物分享)topic was launched by the Douyin official account against the background of the China-Africa Economic and Trade Expo. With 1.1 billion views, it was one of the most popular topics on the site.

Topics such as “African primitive tribes” show cultural voyeurism and eroticisation. Among them, videos of the “Red Clay Tribe” (红泥族), likely referring to the Himba people in Namibia and the Hamar people in Ethiopia, have about half a billion views. Other tags, such as those related to African cuisine, mixed-race Chinese-Africans, Chinese-African couples, African primitive tribe, African children, African animals (including ostriches and hedgehogs), Somali pirates, and attractive African women, also had 350 million to 1 billion views.

Examining vlogger channels related to sub-Saharan Africa

Basic information about selected vloggers

We collected 80 Chinese vloggers who focus on producing content about Africa. Among them, less than 15% were female. This may be because more Chinese men than women live in sub-Saharan Africa.

A total of 66 accounts indicate their age in the account information. Most users
(52) were between 25 and 40-years-old. Twelve of these channels have more than
1 million fans. Douyin started showing IP territories of videos and vloggers at the end of April

According to the IP location of the broadcaster, basic information, and the country demonstrated in the video; the researchers marked the country where each vlogger was based. The data shows that vloggers mainly live in Southeast African countries, especially East Africa. Among the 80 vloggers, at least 21% operate in either Zambia or Tanzania. An anonymous interviewee told us “Xiaopang” (小胖) was the first person to succeed in Zambia’s short-video industry. Later, many people consulted him to learn how to make short videos. Some even came from China to Zambia specifically to make short videos. According to the interviewee, Xiaopang (小胖) had tens of thousands student followers, several of whom are among today’s top influencers. By mapping the relationship of vloggers from their videos, we can conclude that at least 16 of the 20 vloggers in Zambia and Tanzania know each other. They show up on each other’s channels and help each other or travel together. Some are co-workers, and some are running “blessing” video businesses. After the Lu Ke incident, Douyin restricted live-streaming in Africa, and 10 of the 16 left Africa. Some went to Nepal or Thailand to continue the livestreaming, while others returned to China.

Top influencers

This section will analyse data from 80 Chinese vlogger channels with Africa-related
content.

Most of the 80 selected vloggers filmed their daily lives in Africa, including their farming operations, the rural areas surrounding the infrastructure construction site where they work, the everyday details of running a restaurant, and the dances of their African employees. Unedited records of daily life constitute the majority of China-Africa-related videos. However, only a few of these vloggers go viral and become top influencers.

For the top influencers analysis, we focused on videos produced during the past year (from August 31, 2021, to August 31, 2022). Some 12,579 videos were made during this period. These videos received about 146 million likes. The top six vloggers among 80 received nearly 94 million likes, accounting for about 65% of the total likes.

This shows that although many vloggers actively produce Africa-related content, the top six vloggers trigger the most engagement and possibly influence audiences regarding their understanding of sub-Saharan Africa. These six vloggers are concentrated in East African countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Zambia. Their content is summarised as follows:

These six vloggers often operate professionally. Their short videos are made in a style particular to them, with stable local protagonists who sometimes have a whole series of short videos based on them. However, rather than being reality TV, some of these videos might be based on scripts; for example, many fans questioned the plot of “Xiaowei” (小魏)’s videos which centre on “Coffee” (咖妃), a Rwandan single mother, and her love life and relationship with her sons. Viewers thought they were “too dramatic” and suspected that he had arranged the plots and used Coffee’s love life to attract viewers and traffic.

Wang Yao (王垚), the account owner of “Ten Years in Africa” (非洲十年), entered the short video industry in late 2020. By 2021 he was far ahead of other Chinese vloggers in the African vlogsphere, receiving an average of over 150,000 likes per video. This means each of Wang’s videos has more than 1.5 million views. He said in one interview that he usually makes four to five videos a week, and each video’s shooting and post-production cost him about 15 hours (Xinhua News Agency, 2021).

In October 2022, Wang took his team back to China and shot videos that promoted local tourism. South African researcher Paul Tembe has suggested that as a freelancer not affiliated with official or unofficial organisations, Wang Yao is an essential player in digital public diplomacy (Tembe, 2022).

The landscape of the short-video industry changes rapidly, and channels such as “Overseas Entrepreneur Xiaopangzi” (闯非洲小胖子, “Xiaopangzi” means “Little Fatty”), which was popular from the beginning of 2020 until September 2021, could not compete with top vloggers in 2022 in terms of traffic. Xiaopangzi’s signature video features him giving money to an employee and them dancing with joy and expressing gratitude. His channel has over five million fans on Douyin, only second to “Ten Years in Africa”. However, his popularity has decreased significantly over the past year, possibly because of censorship.

We can see from the monthly average likes trend that some vloggers have stable traffic and fan groups, receiving more than 10,000 likes per video. Some other top influencers usually only receive a few hundred likes. However, one of their videos sometimes goes viral, achieving half a million likes. A typical example is the No. 7 top influencer, “Xiaoyujiangjiangjiang” (小鱼酱酱酱, “Xiaoyu” means “Little Fish”). All her videos that have gone viral are of Ugandans singing Chinese songs.

Top videos element analysis


By tagging and analysing 576 popular videos of vloggers, we found that approximately 21% of the selected videos (123) feature local employees of Chinese employers.

Approximately 97 videos (17%) include representations of Chinese culture, such as Chinese songs, dances or food, making this the most common element. Even
though several videos introduce the West African food sima, a type of staple, no videos involve African people singing local songs. Videos that showcase Chinese culture have increased in the past two years. Some Chinese vloggers copy other vloggers’ successful plots. For example, at least five vloggers have shot local people singing Chinese songs in rural settings in Rwanda. Having locals try Chinese food they have never seen before, such as “mini crayfish” (小龙虾) and having Africans cook Chinese food in large pots are standard plots.

A video of Rachel cooking Chinese food in a large pot

Ninety videos (about 16%) of 576 are centred on African children. There is a variety of content under this theme. Some videos portray African children as cute, while others describe them as poor, hungry and unclean. Some vloggers shoot videos of themselves giving food or clothes to children. Some showcase curious children surrounding the Chinese vlogger or children running away when they see Chinese people. Some vloggers adopt a local boy as their “son”. Some vloggers have mixed-race children with a local woman. These children then become the main characters of the vloggers’ videos. They then shoot daily life episodes, such as funny things the children say when they speak Chinese. It is also standard to echo a Chinese cultural element, such as plots where these children eat Chinese food, cook Chinese food or speak Chinese.

The majority of these videos do not contain any blatantly discriminatory content. However, we did come across one extremely disturbing channel. The channel’s main character is “Yakenni” (牙肯尼), and he is from Rwanda. One video from this channel reached over 10,000 likes from the data we scraped in the past year. However, the content about “Yakenni” was viral in the past. The Yakenni on Douyin has over half a billion views. In comparison, the topic for the most popular vlogger, “Ten Years in Africa”, has less than 100 million view counts. The child is often called “Influencer Yakenni” (网红牙肯尼) on Douyin.

The vlogger has been filming Yakenni since he was born in around 2018. He is constantly falling, getting hurt, or asking for food, among other things. The videos depict Yakenni as dirty and greedy. Many fans leave comments that insult or express prejudice against him. There are also many comments from fans who enjoy seeing him get hurt. It is worth noting that the most popular videos section under the topic “Yakenni” is empty. This likely indicates there is already some censorship on this channel. However, the channel updates its content daily, and its videos keep circulating online.

‘Yakenni’ (top) vs ‘Heidan’ (bottom). ‘Heidan’(黑蛋), adopted by vlogger Zhanghao (张浩), is called a ‘rich second generation’ (富二代).


High-traffic videos of African children have been decreasing since mid-2021, which may be owing to platform censorship. After the Lu Ke incident, “Mr Hello” (哈啰先生) filmed a video that included giving children snacks and telling them to hurry up and get out of the camera frame to prevent the video from being censored.

Approximately 9% of high-traffic videos (54 videos) represent Africa negatively, focusing on local people’s poverty and difficult living conditions. A typical scene is vloggers entering local villagers’ homes and shooting their living conditions. Some videos show the daily lives of local people engaged in manual labour but state they earn a meagre income. Such videos often attract comments like, “I’m so lucky to be born in China” or “This is like China in the 70s and 80s.”

There are 40 videos among 576 where Chinese people help or give money to local people. Another 54 videos (about 9%) aim at creating a humorous effect. The effect is often achieved by a black actor playing a specific role and speaking Chinese, sometimes broken Chinese. Vloggers often gain user attention or likes through their good deeds. However, these videos also reflect the power imbalance between China and Africa.

We found 36 videos that exoticised or voyeuristically displayed aspects of African culture. However, most aim at attracting attention, and only some vloggers explore the culture behind the phenomena. For example, videos of the “feet-burning dance” (烫脚舞, referring to the Zaouli dance in Côte d’Ivoire) are of this nature. Another example is the videos of the “red-mud tribe”. These videos focus on their particular hairstyle or a brutal ritual where women are whipped.

We found 27 videos that showed locals as generous, grateful and honest, among other positive images. In comparison, only 15 videos showed locals as lazy, deceitful and fond of begging, among different negative impressions. Twenty-four videos feature black beauty predominantly. Most of these videos’ descriptions include “beauty” or “beautiful”. Some videos are shot by Wang Yao (Ten Years in Africa) and feature him taking his beautiful assistants to buy clothes or braid hair.

Twenty-four videos focus on skin colour. Terms such as “black rose” (黑玫瑰) and “black pearl” (黑珍珠) are often used to describe African women. These videos emphasise the contrast in skin tone between locals and Chinese. Another type of video features Chinese vloggers together with local women— the Chinese in the video claim that the woman is their African wife. Sometimes the local woman holds an African baby and claims he is the child of the Chinese vlogger. Some vloggers encourage Chinese bachelors to look for a wife in Africa.

There are 18 such videos, but only one was shot after the second half of 2021. Some videos have the “My African girlfriend/bride” and skin colour elements together. For example, one video description reads, “She is just a bit dark; please take her if you like her.”

Discussion

Socio-economic conditions in sub-Saharan Africa-China-related Douyin production

Chinese vlogs focused on sub-Saharan Africa reflect the burgeoning relationship between Chinese and local people. An inexperienced audience might assume that, because these vloggers specialise in this topic, they can provide more reliable information about sub-Saharan Africa than channels that do not and that they might also promote mutual understanding. However, much of the short-video content reflects a one-sided perception of sub-Saharan Africa from the perspective of the Chinese vlogger or shows locals’ affection for Chinese culture. Not many videos show locals exhibiting their cultural frameworks and concerns or having Chinese people as fans of local culture.

The channels by Chinese in sub-Saharan Africa commonly describe their own experiences and observations rather than imparting professional knowledge about Africa. These Chinese people came to Africa mainly to make a living, and they initially needed to become more familiar with sub-Saharan Africa. Africans who appear on the screen are often hired performers or employees or are passively caught on camera. In the latter case, local Africans do not express their opinions as independent individuals but are projected as entertainers. Only a few channels are exempt from this.

In many cases, the vloggers feel they can impart first-hand experiences of Africa to the Chinese audience or that their mission is to “show Africa to the audiences”. They typically visit local villages or markets accompanied by local employee companions, communicating with locals despite language barriers. However, many do not avoid a perceptual framework structured by social and economic conditions. For example, vloggers often worry that the locals will rob them or that they are poor and greedy. This perception reflects the racialising judgement of the Chinese rather than how local Africans perceive their lives. Even the more positive images presented in some videos, such as locals being diligent, hardworking, and grateful, are often based on Chinese values and the fact that the Chinese person is their boss.

Being structured in such transnational positionalities, the perspective and framework of these short videos often reflect a one-sided Chinese gaze and are permeated by racial prejudice. Although the Chinese who make the videos are usually happy to show their friendly attitudes to locals and present charitable images, in many videos, even in the most familiar scenes, it is still not difficult to identify various stereotyped racial portrayals, whether in the video contents or the audience’s comments.

As China has rapidly developed its economic power, it is intensifying exchanges with sub-Saharan Africa. This is reflected in short videos that show Sino-African or Afro-Chinese couples sharing their stories, Chinese vloggers offering help to locals, or locals learning Chinese culture. They show the close alliance established by the two sides. However, at the same time, the fact that China has more resources and power is implicitly reflected in all these videos. As the most popular form of mass entertainment in rapidly developing Chinese society, short videos often show how intimacy and power disparity coexist in tension. As a result, Africans tend to be gazed at rather than gazing. This unequal relationship can easily fuel racial prejudices.

Strategies of ethnic othering and belonging

Different cultures have diverse cultural code systems, and China-Africa-related Douyin vloggers live between cultures. Sub-Saharan Africans increasingly show that they have learnt and successfully mastered Chinese languages and culture on Douyin. By contrast, the degree of Chinese integration into African culture could be more profound or more sincere. Lin argues that Chinese vloggers in Africa act as a cultural intermediary. However, she also suggests that there are fragmentation problems, lack of depth and cultural voyeurism in the short videos they produce (Lin, 2020).

Most China-Africa-related videos centre on Chinese cultural elements, and Chinese fans often perceive the videos they watch in racial terms. Strategies of ethnic othering and the assertion of belonging are often expressed through specific markers, such as:

  1. Mastering Chinese languages, songs and operas: The most common way to show integration into Chinese culture is to speak Chinese. A study also shows that foreign vloggers on Douyin have a high level of Chinese (Liu, 2021). Sub-Saharan Africans who appear in short videos can often speak some Chinese. Singing Chinese songs is another common way of identifying with Chinese culture; these include C-Pop songs and Chinese patriotic songs. There are also some Africans who do not speak Chinese and perform Chinese songs in lip-synch. Some videos show Africans singing Chinese opera. Many Chinese fans appreciate their Chinese language capacity, singing and acting skills.
  2. Cooking or eating Chinese food: Culinary activity is one of the most popular short-video themes on the Douyin platform, and this is no exception for those related to China and sub-Saharan Africa. Food videos may provide an easy way to appropriate different cultures. A primary type of food video shows sub-Saharan Africans cooking Chinese food, in which they are perceived as being comical.
  3. Skin colour and other physical characteristics: Some Chinese vloggers emphasise differences in skin colour in their videos; they may post pictures of black African beauties with descriptions such as “so dark, can you accept it?” or “the darkest beauty”. Some vloggers differentiate between “black” and “coffee” skin tones, asserting, for example, that “Chinese people generally do not like pure black, but brown”. Some Chinese in Africa film their local employees wearing makeup and white foundation, producing the comical effect of a white Peking Opera mask. Skin colour always appears relevant in sub-Saharan African representation and is constantly highlighted in videos and comments. The effect of this is to foreground skin colour as a critical marker of the sub-Saharan African other.
Text: ‘Is this too dark?’
Rachel wearing foundation Text: ‘Is this too dark?’

4. Chinese integration into the sub-Saharan African cultural environment: cultural elements such as African languages, music, dance, clothing, food, etc., are rarely explored by Chinese vloggers. African drum vlogs are a specific type of channel on short-video platforms, but they usually focus on teaching and do not necessarily mention sub-Saharan African cultural knowledge. They also often use African drums to perform Chinese music.

A particular case of Chinese entering sub-Saharan African cultural life is a Chinese singer who performs local songs for Ghanaian audiences15. However, she has received little attention in China. Since her fans number less than 100,000, she is not included in the list of vloggers we studied. Another case is an employee of a Chinese company who was awarded the title of an honorary chieftain in Nigeria. He often posts videos of himself attending local events as a chief wearing local traditional clothing. Some would consider him integrating into local cultural life. Generally, the proportion of Chinese bloggers who integrate into African culture is far lower than that of sub-Saharan Africans who integrate into Chinese culture.

Interracial sponsorship, charity and morality

In videos shot by Chinese vloggers in sub-Saharan Africa, a mixture of goodwill and power disparity is often displayed in disturbing ways. This is most evident in videos showing Chinese people handing out money or gifts to locals. In some cases, this appears to occur in purely interpersonal contexts; for example, some videos show local employees experiencing family difficulties and Chinese vloggers helping out of sympathy. However, in more exploitative videos, locals perform exaggeratedly grateful dances in front of Chinese audiences when accepting money, and the gift-giving procedure looks like a display of graciousness on the giver’s part. In the most abusive cases, the vlogger may tantalise children with sweets.

These videos exemplify resource disparity, morality and psychological tensionsin the China-Africa relationship. Chinese vloggers and their fans generally think they are helpful to the local people and assume that their behaviour will be perceived as moral. Many fans believe they should be concerned about Africans abusing the goodwill of Chinese people. Many comments revolve around praising Africans who know how to be grateful and work hard and rebuking those who are not thankful, which can lead to racist rhetoric. Some fans join in giving, buying clothes for the Africans in the video, and donating money, among other things.

Simultaneously, many videos show that Chinese people often support locals in their personal lives and build affectionate relationships similar to fictive kinship (Ebaugh, 2000), despite the disparity in transnational power. Netizens are often profoundly moved by this “stronger than love” feeling between the vlogger and the local person. For example, videos of the popular “Mr Hello” often portray his daily life with his staff member, known only as Rachel, featuring her cooking Chinese food. With a low-income family background, “Mr Hello” found his fortune in Africa, making himself and his staff rich. After Douyin banned live-streaming, “Mr Hello” was forced to leave Africa and part with Rachel. This series of videos
brought tears to many fans’ eyes and received the highest number of likes among all Mr Hello’s videos.

This aligns with what the official media often reflects about Africa, namely, that receiving aid is a typically African reality. China’s contribution to Africa and how China has improved the lives of local people through infrastructure and other projects are often the focus of media coverage. The mainstream, official
China-Africa discourse sometimes compares the China-Africa relationships to a form of kinship or brotherhood.

Conclusion

The short videos related to China and sub-Saharan Africa analysed for this article present the latter’s images mainly regarding Chinese perceptual frameworks, which is explicable as a function of social and economic structural influences. The relationship between China and sub-Saharan Africa involves an uneasy mix of intimacy and power disparities. It can easily fuel elements of racial prejudice, despite sincere attempts at cultural exchange.

Short-video production is entertainment-oriented and motivated by the logic of profitability, and it is more likely that eye-catching content based on Chinese cultural context will attract audiences. Many of the audiences would need more cross-cultural competence to understand these videos. These videos typically show the Chinese gaze at sub-Saharan Africa or Africans. Sub-Saharan African culture needs to be represented more in-depth in short videos on Douyin. There is also a need for African voices in Chinese filming of sub-Saharan Africa.

We also observed many videos with racial stereotypes. The question of how social media should regulate this content is complex. The current approach of Chinese officials is to require platforms to limit traffic to such content and to limit overseas live-streaming to certain qualified users. A one-size-fits-all approach has temporarily suppressed some video production, but this may be more prohibitive than productive.

A few channels that mainly introduce sub-Saharan African local culture have also gained many fans’ attention. Although their content is imperfect, supporting such channels may help to promote better people-to-people exchanges between China and sub-Saharan Africa, which might be more effective than censorship alone. In addition, diversifying the content on official media related to sub-Saharan Africa-China relations, and shifting the focus from Chinese aid to more Africa centred voices, may reduce stereotypical representations about sub-Saharan Africa and enhance deeper understandings between China and sub-Saharan Africa.

(please see original paper for footnotes and full references)


Biographical Details

Isak Wang is an independent researcher based in Yunnan, China. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, he started doing research on racism, xenophobia, global far right movements, hate speech in social media, and how they find expression in the China-related context. By adopting a transnational perspective, he closely observes how racial discourses spread across continents, and how racial tensions are formed in Africa China relations. As a supporter of Black Lives Matter and Stop AAPI Hate movements, he collaborates with a diverse group of activists and scholars to combat racial animosity. His other interests include gender studies and global history.


Ann Wang is a researcher and data storyteller from China with a strong focus on Africa. She pursued a master’s degree in sociology, where her fascination with utilising data to study social issues began to flourish. During her time in Africa, she gained invaluable data skills through hands-on projects guided by experienced journalists and data storytellers from the continent. These experiences allowed her to enhance her storytelling abilities by employing data scraping, visualisation and analysis techniques to uncover hidden patterns and insights. Passionate about China-Africa relations, Ann seeks to bridge the information barrier caused by among others the geographical gap. With a unique blend of sociological expertise, self-taught technical skills, and a genuine passion for storytelling, she strives to empower marginalised voices and challenge prevalent narratives about Africa.

More research supported by the Africa-China Reporting Project, published in the TAGP research journal:

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