A Patriotic Voice: The Rise of TikTok’s Counterpart in China

ROGER GUO examines how Chinese government bodies use Douyin to generate patriotism, and how patriotism in turn drives Douyin’s popularity.

Jonathan Bartlett illustration for Foreign Policy
Jonathan Bartlett | Foreign Policy

TikTok, the most downloaded app on the App Store this past year, has faced growing scrutiny in the West even as its Chinese counterpart Douyin has thrived under China’s far stricter censorship laws. TikTok and Douyin are short-video sharing apps mainly used by teenagers, with their content being mostly lip-sync, comedy and talent videos. This concern over TikTok is not completely unwarranted. Both TikTok and Douyin are owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based company that is currently one of the most valuable startups in the world. With concerns about data security and child safety raised in the US and elsewhere, the main reason for TikTok’s success in China may come as a surprise to Western audiences: patriotism.

In February 2019, the US Federal Trade Commission levied a record $5.7 million fine on TikTok for illegally collecting personal information from children under 13. The company then declared that it was committed to implementing measures to further protect its young user community, only to be faced with a UK investigation into the same issue of data security for minors in July.

Western concerns about TikTok are not solely focused on data security, as shown during a free speech forum held at Georgetown University where Mark Zuckerberg took shots at TikTok’s censorship of sensitive political content. This happened just weeks after US Senator Marco Rubio called into question TikTok’s acquisition of Musical.ly, a similar social media platform. Senator Rubio claims that “ample & growing evidence exists that TikTok’s platform for Western markets, including the US, are censoring content in line with China’s communist government directives.”

Douyin, on the other hand, exists as a version of TikTok that runs on a different server in order to comply with China’s censorship regulations. Given that ByteDance is based in Beijing, it fall under Chinese jurisdiction. While Western countries may see this as a problem, Chinese citizens, as well as the Chinese government, are enjoying the newfound sense of closeness that Douyin brings.

One of the more surprising user groups of Douyin is various Chinese state media. People’s Daily, China Daily, and many more state media outlets quickly established their presences on Douyin early on. Xinwen Lianbo, the daily news program broadcasted by all local TV stations in mainland China, joined Douyin on August 24th, 2018. Within one day, the outlet’s account gained over 13 million followers. The account’s first ever Douyin video received over 10 million likes and over 100,000 comments.

State media outlets like Xinwen Lianbo and China Daily needed to adapt to the new social media platform’s format of 15-second videos, and they did this by recruiting undergraduate and graduate student interns to complement their existing media departments. China Daily has even asked its Douyin group to browse videos on TikTok for at least 30 minutes every day in order to keep up with the newest trends in music and culture. As a result, state media posts include not only reports on sports and politics, but also videos of beautiful natural landscapes and cute pandas, to which Douyin users respond positively.

This process of trying to stay in touch with the younger generation and Internet trends by no means reduces the amount of propaganda that these state media outlets manage to put out. A study by Shanxi University shows that collectively, propaganda on Chinese national image and Chinese military image take up over 50% of People’s Daily’s posts on Douyin. These two categories of videos, coincidentally, are also the top two most liked among all videos People’s Daily posts[1]. The study points out that Chinese state media posts on Douyin still mainly focus on positive propaganda, and that the Chinese audience enjoys this form of content.

Apart from state media outlets, local government agencies that typically don’t have a media outlet can now make their voices heard on Douyin. By June 2018, over 500 governmental agencies had joined Douyin. “Beijing SWAT”, the Douyin account for Beijing Public Security Bureau’s Anti-Terrorism and SWAT Department, posted its first video of SWAT team members’ daily training routines, which received over 2.5 million likes in less than 12 hours. Local government agencies leapt at the chance for propaganda and publicity, and by August 2018, there are were over 100,000 Douyin videos posted by government agencies, for a total of over 50 billion views.

Douyin’s new way of letting the people interact with the government doesn’t stop at propaganda, however. In June 2018, The People’s Court in Guangxi’s Xingning district posted bounties for the top ten delinquent debt borrowers publicly. Amid social pressure and public shaming from Douyin, one of the debt borrowers turned himself in to the local authorities. People’s Daily reported the incident, praising the court for its resourceful methods of locating criminals.

Some local government agencies take this opportunity to more closely engage with Chinese netizens in unorthodox ways. The Shanxi Fire Department went viral for posting about the jujube trees in its backyard. The Department claimed that if someone could answer a list of questions on fire safety, they could pick a basket of jujubes as a reward[2]. In the following days, the Department posted several new videos about people taking up the invitation and coming to pick jujubes. One such video received over 500,000 likes, which was more than ten times the amount of likes the Department’s other videos usually would receive.

Chinese netizens are enjoying these interactions with their government, and individual content creators see opportunities to publicize themselves amidst the propaganda. During the Chinese National Day celebration, multiple content creators found ways to chime in with their own takes on patriotism. Video game streamers found ways to make the number 70 in their games, since this year is the 70th anniversary for the People’s Republic of China. Skydivers formed the characters for “China” midair, or held Chinese flags in their hands. there was even a viral video of someone herding over 2,000 chickens to form the number 70, which was reported on and praised by CNR News, a state media outlet.

However, not all content creators are rushing to put out patriotic content. Some content creators not only refrain from expressing patriotism, but also actively avoid political issues. Puchi Office, a comedy trio, informed China Hands that they are not looking to engage with social issues too much, since many social issues are too sensitive to talk about. “We would consider talking about some hot button issues,” said Puchi Office, “but we choose our content carefully. Some issues are not suited for entertainment.” Indeed, in most videos, content creators are used to abiding by regulations and social norms in mainland China. The word “death”, for example, does not appear in videos. Content creators either self-censor in some way, or use the romanization for the character instead.

The Chinese government’s use of Douyin is far different from Western governments’ use of Twitter or Facebook. The White House, for example, only delivers news on the aforementioned platforms, and does not engage with the public in the same way as Chinese state media. Local governments in the US have little to no Internet presence, whereas Chinese local agencies can have millions of followers and frequently post viral videos. In China, there is in some respects a closer relationship between government and people than in the West. Douyin isn’t just TikTok in Chinese: it has taken on a completely different political life. In addition to being a popular app for Chinese teens, it has become an interactive media platform guided by the hands of the Chinese government.

Senator Rubio’s worry about Chinese censorship and propaganda, based on the landscape of Douyin in China, is not simply a political one, but also a social one. Douyin has connected the Chinese government and its citizens in previously unimaginable ways, drumming up digital patriotism with well-tailored content. Chinese netizens understand and love the existence of Douyin – it is not only a potential opportunity to put themselves in the spotlight, but also a chance to interact with their government.

Roger Guo can be contacted at roger.guo@yale.edu.

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