I’ve written about the sheer weirdness and 1984-esque nature of exploring China’s Internet before. And even though I do occasionally interact with the Chinese Internet in my daily work life, I still think of China’s Internet as something “over there” – it’s own little Brave New World.
Even with TikTok and Huawei – it’s hard to imagine China’s grand digital & cultural ambitions would ever actually come into my world…
…until I decided to do a bit of research after my family & I became super-fans of an amazing but curious YouTube channel.
So my family & I are huge fans of really well-done YouTube channels that show people showing their skills & experience peacefully with no calls to action or weird amateurish camera work. Channels like Primitive Technology, Rune Malte Bertram-Nielsen, and My Own Frontier are our favorites.
And then we’ve recently found Liziqi’s channel. She’s a woman living in Sichuan province with her grandmother. She does mind-blowing videos of rural life showing incredible traditional skills with professional camera work.
Here’s her video on weaving a wool cloak –
And one on making various jams –
Ok – these could not be any more perfect for YouTube. The cuts are quick. The camera work is dead on. She is super-smart and super-adept. She has a freaking baby sheep watching her.
You should go watch all her videos tonight. You’ll feel more relaxed & calm than you’ve ever felt before. I promise.
Now – I don’t want to undermine her channel at all with this. But.
I just want to point out one very weird thing. She built the channel from scratch, in China. She is that big of a celebrity, in China. Everything about her is set in China. She does commentary & interacts with fans only on Weibo, in China.
The one very weird thing is that I wondered how she could be on YouTube. And why is she on YouTube anyway?
Because YouTube is banned / censored in China.
So I started looking, and it didn’t take long to find this news piece from Xinhua Times. I’ll post a screenshot below in case the article gets taken down.
It looks suspiciously like she was able to start posting on YouTube only after being vetted by the Cyberspace Administration of China and the Communist Youth League of China.
But why does the Chinese Communist Party care about a rural food blogger? The International Affairs jargon is that soft power enables hard power – and China is going for both.
The real life example is that when your government representative says that “China is ruled by a dangerous and totalitarian government – and we need to push back” – China wants you to think about these comments –
And not these comments…
And sometimes that means letting an incredible Chinese food blogger from rural Sichuan province post on YouTube…because that’s where the world is (the world is not on Weibo).
The Chinese Communist Party found an awesome filmmaker. They felt like her content was not only safe for the world, but presented a *really* amazing picture of China.
China is letting Liziqi post on YouTube because China wants her awesomeness to reflect back on China…and help gloss over all the awful things that you normally see about China.
Liziqi is really cheap, high leverage public relations for the Chinese Communist Party, which is why she’s on YouTube in the first place.
So…what does all this mean? That even awesome YouTube is awful?
No – Liziqi’s channel is still awesome. She’s undeniably skilled and the part of the world she lives in looks incredible. I’m glad that she’s documenting & sharing these skills even if it is being co-opted for Communist propaganda (rather than, say something cool and harmless like selling period accurate costumes).
But as a viewer, as a consumer, as a citizen, and as a human – it’s that much more important to be mindful to distinguish between a people and their government and to understand the incentives & value being exchanged.
Also – the Internet is increasingly weird & awful. It has been for a while, and will continue to be that much more weird & awful. I’ve seen a lot of weird and awful on the Internet – and this made me sit down and write for an hour.
But it’s still amazing. Even when there’s a weird & awful medium (China, Facebook, Internet Research Agency, bot-makers, etc) involved, there are still, ultimately, just people on the other side of the screen. Hopefully we can still push back on the weird & awful and empower the fun & awesome.
…but also the Internet is just weird. And that’s how I found out about that my family’s favorite YouTube channel is Communist.