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Semafor LogoLouise Matsakis
Louise Matsakis
tech

On YouTube, China is always about to collapse

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YouTube/Louise Matsakis

“China's Economy Will Collapse In 34 Days,” a financial news channel called Casgains Academy announced in a 20-minute YouTube video in September, which racked up 3.2 million views. Around the same time, the finance guru Andrei Jikh told his 2.2 million YouTube subscribers the collapse would happen in “a matter of days.”

On YouTube, China always seems to be on the verge of total destruction. For months, a diverse group of creators on the site have been getting millions of views by repeatedly warning about the country’s impending doom, even as its economic and political systems have remained very much intact.

The videos are part of a battle over global perceptions of China taking place amid rising tensions between Beijing and Washington. And while platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook grapple with how to handle state-sponsored propaganda from China and elsewhere, the most successful — and often exaggerated — content about the People’s Republic is virtually all intensely negative. These anti-China narratives attract far larger audiences than state-backed outlets like The People’s Daily and China Central Television.

Some of the videos are produced by organizations explicitly opposed to the Chinese Communist Party, like the persecuted Chinese religious group Falun Gong, which is affiliated with two of the top anti-CCP media outlets, The Epoch Times and The Vision Times. One video uploaded in November by China Insights, a YouTube channel linked to The Vision Times, warned the economy was sliding “rapidly toward collapse,” attracting over 460,000 views.

But much of this content is put out by savvy YouTubers who know what their audience wants to hear. In one of his first videos about China uploaded in September, Graham Stephan, a self-described “real estate agent and investor” with over 4 million YouTube subscribers — more than the Wall Street Journal and roughly as many as The New York Times — declared “It’s Over: China’s ENTIRE Economy Is About To Collapse.” A few weeks later, Stephan alleged the collapse had “Just Got Worse.”

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In one of the most dramatic videos in the genre, Business Basics, a YouTube channel whose Facebook page suggests it’s based in the Philippines, stated China was running out of “WATER, FOOD & ENERGY.” The 17-minute video received over 2 million views.

Seven of the most popular YouTubers who have shared China collapse videos did not respond to requests for comment. China Insights could not be reached for comment.

undefined headshotLouise's view

The YouTubers who traffic in the China collapse narrative don’t have much in common, aside from being almost entirely male. Many appear not to speak or read Mandarin, or have much firsthand knowledge of China. What unites them is their popularity and the shared realization that predicting the looming downfall of the People’s Republic is a sure way to draw eyeballs.

They are far from the first to come to that conclusion. They reflect, among other things, a bipartisan political consensus in the U.S. that has been shifting hard against China for a decade. And viewers don’t necessarily seem troubled when predictions of imminent collapse don’t pan out, even though they sometimes acknowledge hearing the same rhetoric in the past.

“This has to be at least the 278th time I've heard this in the last 20 years,” complained a commentator on one of Stephan’s videos.

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The sheer scale of these videos suggest they will influence how the West perceives China. They have become so ubiquitous that Reddit users have begun taking notice and asking where they came from. As China began loosening its COVID-19 restrictions over the past several weeks, a close relative earnestly sent me one clip about how China should be considered “offline from a manufacturing point of view” for at least the next three to four months.

These videos are one side of the double-edged paradox of how China is portrayed in the West. If the country is not described as being on the precipice of a complete meltdown, it’s portrayed as a limitless authoritarian power on the verge of taking over the world.

Title iconRoom for Disagreement

YouTubers are not wrong in saying that China’s economy has been experiencing significant headwinds recently. After three years of pandemic lockdowns, growth has slowed. The country’s housing market has faced significant troubles and its prominent tech sector was forced to contend with a wide-reaching government crackdown.

The content of China collapse videos also doesn’t always match the apocalyptic language and imagery used to market them. For example, in a clip with the same title as Stephan’s, “It's Over: China’s ENTIRE Economy Is About To Collapse,” a financial analyst named Kevin with 1.85 million subscribers says the opposite is actually true. The country is going through a tough period, he notes, but “China, in my opinion, is unlikely to collapse.”

Title iconNotable
  • Pew Research Center found that negative views of China remain at historic highs in many countries, including the U.S., Europe, and Japan. Among the 19 countries it surveyed, 68% of respondents said they thought poorly of the country.
  • Americans are “woefully unfamiliar with even the basics of Chinese history and culture,” putting the U.S. in “danger of misinterpreting or misunderstanding Chinese motivations in bilateral relations,” argues a 2020 article in the The Asia-Pacific Journal.
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