US-China friction turns into YouTube fame (and laughs) for online influencers

Ethan Paul, South China Morning Post

Posted at Oct 29 2020 12:37 PM

Lee and Oli Barrett, a father-son duo with a YouTube channel, inhaled two balloons' worth of helium on May 22 and laughingly thanked online viewers for pushing them past the 100,000 subscriber mark after only 11 months. The key to their rapid audience expansion? Defending China.

The Barretts, British citizens based in Shenzhen city neighbouring Hong Kong, are not alone in finding that defence of China - or conversely biting criticism of Beijing - can be a fast route to YouTube success.

As individuals have taken to YouTube and other non-traditional media platforms to become "influencers" on topics as diverse as fixing a golf swing or making goat cheese, an issue as contentious as the antagonistic ties between the world's two most powerful countries provides plenty of fodder.

One of the most well-known pro-China YouTubers is Nathan Rich from the US, who goes by the name "huoguo dawang", or Hotpot King.

In an interview, Rich took issue with his "pro-China" label, saying that he is no less pro-US or pro-Cambodia, but "it just happens that the Western media and mindset about Cambodia is more balanced and calm than it is about China".

Rich, 38, said he was born in Los Angeles and made a career in the technology industry after teaching himself computer programming. He first came to China in 2012 on a business trip, and settled down in the country in 2014.

He started making videos in 2018 and today boasts nearly half a million subscribers to his YouTube channel. He could be regarded as representative of much of his cohort: white, male Westerner in China who films English-language monologues that seem to mirror the Chinese government's line.

The issues Rich and others like him cover range from criticising Hong Kong protesters and Western media coverage of China, to defending Huawei Technologies from allegations it is a security threat and Beijing's policies in the western region of Xinjiang.

In an August video detailing his views on the forced detention of Uygurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, Rich said: "While I don't like the idea of citizens being detained on the grounds that they might condone or support terrorism, I don't know of a single idea better than what China is doing to solve its very tough terrorism problem."

Rich said China's government was "by far a net positive influence on the actual, real-world well-being of the Chinese people". That did not mean he agreed with everything they did, he said.

Cyrus Janssen, a former golf coach turned business consultant and now pro-China YouTuber, has a similar theme to Rich.

"The overwhelming majority of Chinese people support the Communist Party of China. The Chinese government is forward thinking, it is constantly changing, and it is improving the lives of Chinese people," said Janssen in an August clip on his YouTube site focused on US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

"Every time Mike Pompeo opens his mouth, the Chinese people love their country even more," Janssen said in the video, which state media outlet People's Daily later linked on its website.

An April poll of Chinese citizens by Cary Wu, a sociology professor at Canada's York University, found that 90 per cent were satisfied with how China's leaders had handled the Covid-19 disease outbreak. A study done by Harvard University covering 2003 to 2016 found similar levels of support for the government among China's citizens.

In 2016, the last year the Harvard survey was conducted, 95.5 per cent of respondents were either "relatively satisfied" or "highly satisfied" with Beijing. However, other academics have pointed out that such levels of support are typically found in countries with strong propaganda operations.

And YouTube has its share of unapologetic critics of China's authorities - most notable are Winston Sterzel, a 40-year-old South African who goes by the name SerpentZA, and Matthew Tye, or Laowhy86, a 33-year-old American.

After moving to China as English teachers in the 2000s, the duo began publishing videos on benign topics such as motorcycle maintenance tips and dating, and co-produced two documentaries as they travelled across northern and southern China.

But around the time that both left China in 2019, their channels took a sharp turn into outspoken criticism of the country's government, helping drive them to the nearly 1.5 million subscribers the two collectively have today.

They use the same hyperbolic headlines that have become common across the platform's hyper-competitive landscape: one of Sterzel's recent videos is titled "How China is slowly KILLING us all", which garnered nearly half a million views.

In a September 2019 video Tye explained how his outlook had changed, describing a country facing government oppression, rising crime, and alleging that the land used for his and Sterzel's motorcycle business was seized by the authorities.

"We are constantly labelled and attacked as 'anti-China', when in fact, a very large portion of our supporters and subscribers are not only Chinese people living abroad, but also mainland Chinese who thank us for criticising the policies of the Communist Party of China," Tye said in an emailed response to questions.

Many of the pro-China YouTubers are based in the country and Rich, for example, estimates that 60 per cent of his audience is Chinese.

The outbreak of protests in Hong Kong in the summer of 2019 seemed to be a launch point for several of the influencers.

Daniel Dumbrill, a Canadian who moved to China in 2008 and opened a popular brewery called Taps in Shenzhen in 2014, saw his channel quickly fly past the 100,000 subscriber mark as he criticised the protests in Hong Kong.

In late 2019, English-language state broadcaster CGTN interviewed Dumbrill about his views on the protest movement, which he said "isn't really about freedom and democracy".

The outlet has also interviewed Rich, the Hotpot King, on several occasions, describing him in July as one of the few foreigners "who have fearlessly come out to narrate the true picture" of the protests. State newspapers Global Times and China Daily also interviewed Rich.

In June, as Beijing was considering passage of a national security law for Hong Kong, the English-language China Daily published an article titled "Expats: US sanctions against Hong Kong a mistake" that relied largely on quotes provided by Janssen, the former golf coach.

The article closed with the line: "Brighter days lie ahead for Hong Kong after the new law is enacted, Janssen said."

Rich said apart from translation and Chinese subtitles in his videos he produced everything on his own, operating the channel at a loss in both time and money. He said he funded it out of his own pocket, supplemented by income from his job in a Chinese technology company. He said he did not receive assistance from China's government.

"I make in one month from my personal life more than all of my videos have made combined in two years," he said. "'Content creation', financially speaking, is a complete waste of time."

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