BRI Notebook: “Racism for Sale”

Editor’s Note: We are creating the BRI Notebook section to offer more quick-takes on developments that may be of interest to our readers. In this first issue of the BRI Notebook, we will feature the newsletter we sent out yesterday, where we took a deep dive into the BBC’s “Racism for Sale” investigation. With economic ties ever growing between China and Africa, new business opportunities are emerging. The pressing question is: what kind of ethical guardrails do you put around such new businesses?

The BBC’s latest exposé of a Chinese online industry has set off a storm in the China-Africa space, prompting politicians, diplomats and the general public on both sides to register their concern and anger.

The investigative report “Racism for Sale” tracked down the creation of a shocking video on Chinese social media in 2020, in which African children were instructed to chant in Chinese, in front of a camera, “I am a black monster and my IQ is low.”

The report triggered outrage in Africa and across the world. Runako Celina, one of the BBC Africa Eye journalists who spearheaded the investigation, was in tears when viewing the video. The team used the limited information available in the video to pinpoint it to a village in Malawi, where a Chinese man named Lu Ke was known to be making “well wishing” videos for Chinese clients using local children as props. Most of the clips he made (and sold) were relatively innocuous in terms of their messaging, such as birthday wishes (though still problematic as the children reportedly had to skip school to participate, were paid next to nothing and pinched or beaten, giving Lu Ke’s business some of the hallmarks of child labor). But somehow deeply offensive messages came through too. After tracking him down, the journalists confronted Lu in person. Ultimately, they recognize that he is but one person in a seemingly vast online industry in China with the same business model that is described by Celina as making money from “poverty porn.”

The BBC’s latest exposé of a Chinese online industry has set off a storm in the China-Africa space

For a Chinese audience that is not hopelessly unreasonable (there are people who genuinely believe this whole thing is a BBC fabrication), the video in question clearly crossed the line. There was widespread condemnation of the video on Weibo. Even some nationalist accounts conceded that the matter should be “taken seriously.” One of the major concerns expressed in such posts was how incidents like this undermine the foundation of Third-World solidarity that differentiates the China-Africa relationship from the West’s approach to the continent.

The Chinese diplomatic community responded swiftly. The Embassy in Malawi “noted with great concern” the BBC video just one day after its airing and “condemned racism in any form.” More noteworthy is action taken by Wu Peng, the Director General of the Africa Division at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Formerly China’s Ambassador to Kenya and Sierra Leone. Wu was visiting South Africa from June 8-13, and was already in Malawi meeting with Foreign Minister Nancy Tembo on the 14th. Wu later sent out a tweet saying that the two countries had reached an agreement on zero tolerance for racism. China “will continue to crack down on such racial discrimination videos in the future.”

While the particular video exposed by BBC is clear-cut in its racism and offensiveness, the industry that spawns it in China is much muddier, which may pose challenges to a full crackdown.

As early as 2017, Chinese media was already taking note of the booming business of tailor-made “well wishing” videos on e-commerce platforms such as Alibaba-owned Taobao. A few reports traced the origin of this “genre” to a photo that became popular on the Chinese internet in 2015, after the devastating explosion at a chemicals storage facility in Tianjin killed more than a hundred people. In the photo, an African kid held a piece of paper in front of the camera that said, in Chinese characters: “I am in Africa and I root for Tianjin!” The photo, taken by a Chinese worker in Africa, was meant to be a one-off meme responding to a particular occasion. But the person who shared it in online forums, nicknamed “Brother Wei”, sensed the business opportunity from its enthusiastic reception by netizens. He began to commercialize such photos as a product.

An African kid held a piece of paper in front of the camera that said, “I am in Africa and I root for Tianjin!”

As soon as Brother Wei’s business took off, questions around the ethics of the model began to emerge. While the explicit exoticism of using African people in such videos did raise quite a few eyebrows, the simple well-wishing messages in the earlier products helped them dodge the racism question. More serious media inquiries focused on the exploitative nature of the business model. An investigation by Beijing Youth Daily in 2017 revealed the typical split of revenues in the making of such videos: “The African kids get a payment worth a few RMB or just some candies, the producer of the video gets 90 RMB and the sellers on Taobao charges around 200 RMB per video.” A BBC Chinese report in the same year also put the spotlight on the exploitation side, highlighting the use of child labor as potentially the biggest problem for the business.

A few weeks before the “Racism for Sale” exposé, the videos were in headlines again in the Chinese media, this time for their popularity in relation to Covid lockdowns. Online orders for “cheer-up” videos skyrocketed in April and May when Shanghai and other parts of China went into severe lockdown mode. The media noted with curiosity the variety of foreigners featured in such clips, while Africans (children, men and women) were still the mainstream, “Ukrainian beauties” or even Western celebrities began to appear. And it has apparently attracted orders from overseas markets such as Japan. The business model is now compared to that of Cameo, a site that sells personalized videos featuring celebrities, each with a price tag.

Cameo sells personalized videos featuring celebrities

Yet as the 2017 Beijing Youth Daily report has already pointed out, a key feature (and problem) of the “well-wishing” videos is the fact that none of the African participants, be they children or adults, appear to be aware of the meaning of the messages that they were instructed to read out, let alone consent to them. Some of the languages, often seen in clips in videos commissioned for commercial promotion purposes, were in violation of Chinese advertisement law. While more conscientious producers may choose to screen out the messages that are clearly offensive, someone like Lu Ke apparently does not. And the whole business becomes a fertile ground for abuse.

On Jun 21, the video maker Lu Ke was reportedly arrested on accounts of racism and child exploitation. A search for the keyword combination “African + well-wishing” in Chinese renders zero results on Taobao. If Wu Peng’s commitment to his Malawian counterparts holds water, then it shows some action is being taken.

Search results for “well wishing” on Taobao, accessed on Jun 20, 2022

The “well wishing” video industry, nevertheless, has not disappeared. There is still a proliferation of Taobao sellers who offer tailor-made videos that now feature, among others, gangster-like Chinese men. The question is whether the removal of all African-themed videos is temporary fire-fighting or whether China will seek to more comprehensively tackle and regulate racial content on its internet. It also remains to be seen whether the makers of such videos will respond simply by becoming more discreet and moving the industry underground.

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