EXCLUSIVE: How China is Influencing YouTubers into Posting State Propaganda
A combination of cash and intimidation is keeping online creators in China compliant, quiet, or kicked out of the country.
Franco isn’t a typical Chinese name. Which made the email that J.J. McCullough, a Canadian YouTuber and conservative columnist, opened last May all the more peculiar. “Hi McCullough, Just watched your videos, and we thought it would be a great to place our content, we wonder if you want to help us upload this video to your youtube channel? And for that, we will support your youtube channel for $500” [sic] read the email. Attached was a video which can charitably be described as pro-Chinese government content; a less generous description might be clumsy propaganda.
J.J. was confused. He’d never made any pro-Chinese videos and, in columns for the Washington Post, had previously written unfavorably about the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). J.J. refused the offer. The event was bizarre enough that he posted a follow up video on YouTube about it. After which his mysterious solicitor amended the request and provided a better, less-comically low-budget and obviously propagandistic video for consideration. His curiosity piqued, J.J. decided to string Franco along and agreed; but only if he could add an anti-CCP disclaimer to the beginning of each propaganda video. “It’s not like I’m open-minded about China. I’m not,” J.J. said in a Skype interview, “but I wanted to see how far he was willing to go.” He also asked for more money and eventually got offered $1350 by Franco, who adamantly refused the disclaimer and J.J., his curiosity satisfied, let their email correspondence wither away.
THE 50 CENT ARMY
Franco may have worked for the Chinese government — there have been reports that China pays people to be active online — or he may have been a wumao. Though there is disagreement as to the exact translation and origins of the phrase, wumao are often called the 50 Cent Army (or Party), a reference to the $0.50 that the Chinese government allegedly pays people to defensively post online on stories about the People’s Republic of China. Despite what many people online think however, the wumao are probably not paid provocateurs but Chinese nationalists, a Volunteer Army so to speak; regular Chinese people who freely engage and comment on western websites and social media in support of the CCP and in defense of Chinese government policies. To put it simply: the wumao are hyper-nationalist Chinese Internet trolls.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Chinese are a very patriotic people; with good reason, China has done more to lift people out of poverty in the last forty years than any nation in history — and they credit the CCP. Many Chinese people do not have to be paid to go online and ‘defend’ their country, they’re eager to. This is not to say that the CCP doesn’t engage in sponsored, coordinated external propaganda. J.J.’s experience with Franco is an example of how elements within China, almost certainly connected to and directed by the CCP, try to exploit western journalists, bloggers, influencers, and YouTubers for misinformation purposes. And not necessarily aimed at western audiences.
China has a robust surveillance and censorship network within the country. The Great Firewall blocks hundreds of non-Chinese websites and publishing companies from operating within Chinese borders, strictly controlling their national narratives. YouTube is blocked in China. Twitter is blocked in China. But over one hundred million Chinese have installed VPNs on their computers and phones, allowing them to skirt the censors and access prohibited western companies and content.
Like they have for decades, the Chinese government routinely uses and pays foreign media to tell its story. According to Matt Brazil, fellow at The Jamestown Foundation and co-author of Chinese Espionage: An Intelligence Primer, “Chinese intelligence organs continue to approach Americans and other foreigners.” He points to the approach used by the Shanghai State Security Bureau to journalist Nate Thayer, known for his reporting on the Khmer Rouge and the death of Pol Pot. “Thayer was asked to become an occasional contributor to that Bureau and write about how southeast Asian nations were reacting to increased Chinese presence in the region. Though they regularly pestered Mr. Thayer for a time, he turned them down.”
Today, Chinese state media outlets all have accounts and regularly sponsored content on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube — all of which are banned in China. This past summer saw the closure of tens of thousands of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube accounts for posting pro-Beijing narratives about the Hong Kong protests in a “coordinated influence operation,” evidence of the CCP’s successful encouragement of nationalist netizens. China’s online patriotism was perhaps best demonstrated by their creative use of alternative platforms, like the world’s largest porn site, to further spread disinformation after they were purged from Twitter, et al.
China’s use of foreign media, Franco’s amateurish and heavy-handed attempts notwithstanding, are becoming increasingly sophisticated and the CCP is recruiting foreign faces for those platforms as well, especially on YouTube. Even in China, where YouTube is illegal, China’s government is using westerners to push the party line and suppress contradicting information. Westerners on those platforms outside of China, like J.J., and even inside China itself, have reported attempts by individuals to sponsor their platforms and secure them massive audiences on Chinese platforms in exchange for editorial control over a new, pro-CCP message.
Nathan Rich is an American living in China with an amazing story. He escaped the Church of Scientology, recounting some truly awful, abusive episodes living on a Church ranch as a child, going to prison, and dealing with addiction. He now lives in China and for the last year has been posting videos on YouTube and Chinese social media. His vlogging career is inexplicably successful. He has 385,000 subscribers on his channel, a huge amount for someone with so little time and so few videos on the platform.
Nathan’s videos are all defensive of China and the CCP, bearing titles like “New York Times Hong Kong Propaganda” and “American IMPERIALIST Hong Kong Bill.” His first video of 2020 is labeled “Epic China: Foreign Devils.” His very presence in China strikes other western YouTubers in China as deeply suspicious. “He has a felony record. How was he even able to move to China?” said one China YouTuber on condition of anonymity. China has strict work visa requirements and felony convictions are easy disqualifications from being allowed to move to the People’s Republic. Another YouTuber denied that Nathan even qualifies as a vlogger, “He’s not a YouTuber, telling us about his life and the places he goes. He’s a commentator. A pundit.”
Nathan is a divisive figure in China’s YouTube community. The majority of his vlogging compatriots interviewed for this story are skeptical of his sincerity and don’t appreciate his aggressive tactics. That all of Nathans’s videos have Chinese subtitles is also a big red flag for many YouTubers. “Putting proper Chinese subtitles on a video is difficult. More difficult than making and editing the video.” Says SerpentZA, one of YouTube’s most popular channels about China and another divisive figure in the community. He is a frequent target of Nathan’s, who has repeatedly called SerpentZA a racist who hates the Chinese people. In fact, Nathan posted a video specifically about SerpentZA, referring to him as a fraud and anti-Chinese provocateur. To many of his fellow YouTubers in China, Nathan’s rise is actually easy to explain: he is being paid by the CCP, or agents on behalf of, to post propaganda and counter the “anti-China” message spread by people like SerpentZA. Nathan has yet to respond to multiple attempts at contacting him through multiple channels.
Nathan isn’t the only western YouTuber in China with a distinctly “pro-China” stance. Barrett, a channel run by an English father/son duo, not only posts videos with titles like “Western media lies about China” and “Camera surveillance is great in China” but also have been sponsoring paid advertisements against SerpentZA. They opened their channel in June of 2019 and already have over 16,000 subscribers. Their videos cover everything from the reported concentration camps in Xinjiang to Huawei and the Trade War to China’s facial recognition technology. They are viewed with even more suspicion by China YouTubers than Nathan is. As Alex Absolute, a British YouTuber who has lived in China for seven years, vlogging for the last two, asked about the Barretts in an interview over WeChat, “How can someone who lived here for less than a year and doesn’t speak Mandarin have so many opinions on Chinese politics?” The Barretts didn’t reply to repeated interview requests.
Gweilo60 is the YouTube channel of a retired Canadian living in Nanning, China. He has been vlogging out of China for two years. He is a soft-spoken pensioner with a Chinese-wife and he vlogs regularly about his life in China, walking through picturesque parks, and frequently playing the White Knight in defense of China. Videos like “The World Outside is so UNKIND…TO CHINESE” and “POLITICALLY CORRECT to be ANTI-CHINESE” portray Gweilo60 as the outsider who tells the unvarnished truth to the Chinese and protecting them from an aggressive world. “The west hates China,” he tells his viewers. Gweilo60 refused all interview requests but, as a true vlogger, later made a video explaining why.
SerpentZA is a South African named Winston Sterzel. He and his partner Laowhy86, an American named Matthew Tye, have two of YouTube’s most popular China channels and made some of the Internet’s most-watched China content. Laowhy86 and SerpentZA immersed themselves heavily into the Chinese culture — they both have Chinese wives, children, and extended families — and together have made hundreds of extremely popular videos motorcycling all around China. SerpentZA has repeatedly, in several videos over the years, claimed to have been subject to multiple attempts by organizations in China to take over his channel, guaranteeing him huge Chinese audiences, lots of money, and even logistical services. Laowhy86 elaborated in an email, “We were offered compensation to play down some of the western media claims that Tibet and Xinjiang CCP governments are oppressive towards their citizens, and even offered to fly us out to shoot some positive videos promoting tourism in the region.”
Over the last few years, the content and tone of SerpentZA and Laowhy86 videos shifted away from neutral travel vlogs and expat experiences, becoming more explicitly critical in their explanations of certain Chinese social practices and of the ruling CCP. Wumao trolls frequent their material and they have become lightning rods among the Chinese YouTube community. The SerpentZA channel has been the target of at least two separate paid advertising campaigns on YouTube aiming to discredit him; the ongoing one by the Barretts and another in late 2019 that he thinks was probably by a wumao but that the CCP may have been behind. Videos criticizing their commentary and accusing them of racism or being paid shills for the West, often specifically the CIA, are common, especially by other westerners living in China, like Nathan and Gweilo60 and the Barretts.
Laowhy86 lived in China for over ten years, SerpentZA for almost fifteen. They both left China in early 2019. The harassment each faced escalated to the point where they felt that they and their families were in danger — and not just from the wumao. Describing the intensifying pressure, Laowhy86 said, “Monthly visits from police to my apartment, just to root around my apartment and check my documents meant I wasn’t welcome, and my content [on YouTube] was relatively positive about China at that time.”
As a consequence of his success as a China YouTuber SerpentZA and his family faced a deluge of official and wumao harassment. In 2018, China launched a website for citizens to report foreign spies. SerpentZA and his wife have been reported to this website countless times. Instructions on how to report them were repeatedly posted on Chinese social media (the link is in Chinese). His wife, a doctor, was doxxed. Her colleagues were doxxed. False reports filed against her with the Chinese medical board so she had to fight to keep her license. A man walked in her clinic with her picture printed out from a social media post and was removed by security. SerpentZA’s South African family were harassed, their neighbors swarmed with emails and phone calls explaining how they lived next to racists, putting their lives in danger. The wumao went after people in South Africa who shared his name but weren’t even related to him.
Georges is a French YouTuber who spent thirteen years in China, vlogging for most of that time. He used to run a channel called China Non-Stop but has since moved back to France and changed his YouTube name to Georges Non-Stop. Georges is also married to a Chinese woman but will not make videos about China anymore. The wumao made the last year of his life in China awful but the Chinese authorities did all they could to make it hell. Georges was upset after a mass wumao attack on his YouTube channel almost led to the cancelation of his channel and the deletion of all his content. He was angry and indignant when the wumao repeatedly spammed his Chinese employers, leading to his termination. But it was absolutely chilling when the Chinese police confiscated his passport, telling him it’ll be returned to him when he’s “nicer to China.” So he made more ‘positive content’ (demonstrating that sarcasm can be lost on people), got back his passport and fled China as soon as possible. In a phone interview, Georges said that he has since been contacted by at least ten other foreigners who were all forced to leave China under similar circumstances.
Their stories are well-known in the YouTube community in China. Stories like this are not uncommon in China for foreigners at large, not just those on YouTube. Chinese authorities have no compunctions about controlling the conversation through any means necessary. American Richard Vaughn spent five years in Shanghai, YouTubing under Triad Travelogues. He said that Chinese moles would sneak into their private social media group chats on the popular Chinese app WeChat. “They would grab screenshots of private conversations, taken out of context, and post them on nationalist forums. Leading to more harassment.” The posts become reasons for the authorities to threaten their visa status or just ignore the harassment.
Content creators in China — foreign or not, online or not — know that they operate on a thin line of censorship. “It’s always in the back of my mind,” says a vlogger who has been YouTubing in China for four years, “I stay away from political or contentious topics but it’s always there.” In a country where Winnie the Pooh becomes subject of political censorship overnight, caution and self-censorship only go so far. “I know they’re watching,” says another YouTuber, active in China for the last six years, “once you get a certain level of popularity, your content is regularly monitored.”
Rush Doshi, a fellow at Brookings and the author of a forthcoming report on China’s efforts to shape what he calls the global “information supply chain,” says that China’s leadership has explicitly signaled a shift into focusing on influencers and content creators.
“Chinese propaganda texts make clear there’s an enormous focus on platforms and social media, and great concern that without influence there, they will lose the information space.” — Rush Doshi
Chinese authorities encouraging citizens and local officials to control the narrative on social platforms in and out of China is in keeping with their new concentration on content creators. “And,” says Doshi, “that’s precisely why YouTube and its various stars might be a focus of foreign propaganda efforts.”
China invests so much into white people propagandizing inside and outside of China to legitimize their message to their own people. While it is technically illegal to use a VPN to access outside content, large numbers of Chinese netizens do so and the government knows their citizens are on Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, and Quora. Inside of China, the Great Firewall prevents entire topics of conversation from the public sphere — the only information the average Chinese gets is what the CCP allows. Outside of China, the wumao and western vloggers propagandize about banned subjects like Tiananmen Square or Xinjiang — if Chinese are going to look up these prohibited matters then at least the official government line will be present. Once enough Chinese eyes and ears are exposed to certain content, on whatever platform, the censors kick in.
This may explain why J.J. was targeted. He lives in Vancouver, a city teeming with so much Asian — especially Chinese — influence and immigration and money that it’s been nicknamed Hongcouver. He made a video heavily critical of Falun Gong, a religious sect that is banned in, whose members are subject to persecution by China, and who have a large presence in a city with a huge Chinese population. The fact that “Franco” not only offered to pay J.J. but also provided him with two separate propaganda videos starring two different actors suggests that Franco had more than an agenda; he had a budget. And where there’s a budget, there’s a boss. It’s unlikely Franco was just a wumao. Given what China has reportedly been doing to YouTubers in China, that J.J. was indeed approached by some arm of the Chinese government is less conjecture and more reasonable hypothesis.
This is not to discount the danger of the wumao. Trolls are ubiquitous online, they’re now a part of the Internet experience. Something that must occasionally be dealt with. The wumao are no different in this respect than any over-zealous MAGA or BLM activists that seek to harass, dox, or annoy opposing views on Twitter or Facebook. That there are indications of coordinated attacks, directed by the Chinese government, towards people that speak critically of China, like what happened to so many YouTubers in China (and as recently happened to Daryl Morey after his infamous pro-Hong Kong tweet), should be of concern however. This is a stark and meaningful difference. Chinese patriots and nationalists are fundamentally doing the same thing as obnoxious 4chan trolls but with far greater focus, dedication, backing, and coordination.
China is seeking influence. Online, in the world, with the West, with it’s own people. From luring YouTube’s biggest stars to sing Chinese nationalist songs on Chinese social media to demanding that US airlines not refer to Taiwan as its own country to threatening the visa status of a guest in their country for posting videos online, China is expanding its influence.
The Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., was contacted for comment on this story but did not respond to several email inquiries.
[A great thanks to everyone contacted for this article; thanks for sharing your stories. EDIT: You can find some more of their story here.]
Thomas Brown is a history teacher and freelance journalist. He writes for The Swamp and has also been featured in Quillette, Spiked, The Bipartisan Press, Human Events, Times of Israel, Alaska Native News.