Rest of World analysed more than two dozen popular accounts based in Guinea, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, and Kenya as well as other countries in Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia and found that the vloggers, with follower counts that reach into the millions, together make up a multimillion-dollar e-commerce industry. Part of China’s live streaming e-commerce boom, experts say, was built on top of hours of racist and misogynistic content.
Although the vloggers often claim to be helping out in Africa, experts say their work essentially monetises racial inequality. “[Chinese] tend to think of themselves as targets of racism. They do not think about themselves as doers of racism, that they are also practising racism [against] other people. But they are,” said Sheng Zou, a researcher at the University of Michigan who specialises in Chinese digital media. “If you look at the representations in those videos, they are trying to establish the kind of contrast between them as modern subjects and Africans as somewhat inferior, somewhat premodern subjects that are backward.”
In June, a viral BBC investigation, Racism for Sale, exposed a Chinese video maker in Malawi named Lu Ke who was accused of physically abusing at least one black child. After the video prompted a global outcry, the Chinese government vowed to crack down on online racism. The country’s all-encompassing censorship apparatus often turns a blind eye to xenophobia, which the state does not view as an imminent threat to its rule, according to researchers. Soon after the BBC documentary was released, social media platforms, such as Kuaishou, Xiaohongshu, WeChat, and Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, blocked users from searching video accounts containing the term “Africa.” Almost all the top Chinese influencers in Africa stopped their daily live streams.
Only when racism from the Chinese internet triggers backlash in Africa, a key economic and diplomatic partner, does Beijing feel the need to act, said Emmanuel Matambo, research director at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies.
“[The Chinese government] only respond when there’s outrage,” Matambo told Rest of World. “The Chinese always want to show Africans that they are a different type of partner from what Africa had with the colonists.”
But in Zambia, Matambo said, some Chinese entrepreneurs’ patronising way of treating local people and lack of understanding of their culture has caused problems. Zambian workers have long complained about labour abuse at Chinese firms, such as being told not to join unions or allegations of being detained at factory sites during Covid-19 outbreaks.