The world’s biggest YouTuber is breaking into the one market Western content creators have generally avoided: China.
Jimmy Donaldson — better known worldwide by his online alias Mr. Beast — recently uploaded his first video to Bilibili, a Chinese website similar to YouTube, taking over an unofficial channel that was operated by his mainland fans. His first video became one of Bilibili’s most-watched this week, racking up nearly 7 million views as of Friday.
“We have an audience basically all over the world except China,” Donaldson said. “I thought it would be cool to start getting the content over to China.”
Known for his extravagant challenges and competitions that give away millions of dollars to fans, Donaldson could find lucrative new avenues in China, but he will likely face challenges adapting his content to Beijing’s political censorship and socialist values.
Mr. Beast’s Bilibili content subtly altered for Chinese internet
Viewers can “immediately see” the “subtle differences” in Donaldson’s video on Bilibili, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI) China analyst Fergus Ryan told Semafor. In his introductory video, Donaldson highlights his charity contributions which “offsets the other hyper-capitalist” aspect of his YouTube brand, and the map he uses of China includes Taiwan so as to not cross “the red lines that exist on the Chinese internet,” Ryan said. Donaldson’s extravagant giveaways in the West are contrary to Beijing’s socialist values, and Ryan suggested that Chinese viewers and censors will likely frame his content as a critique on “American decadence” that highlights “the unequal nature of society in America.” Some of the most successful foreign influencers on Chinese social media have been those that depict the “less palatable” aspects of the West.
Donaldson’s management did not respond to Semafor’s requests for comment.
To monetize content, Mr. Beast will have adapt to ‘the China way’
Donaldson’s global popularity could be enough to get him some recognition on Chinese social media, but to monetize content he will have to adapt to the “the China way” of social media business models, Raz Gal-Or, a China-based YouTuber and founder of Y-Platform, an influencer agency, told Semafor. Unlike YouTube, Chinese platforms do not have a pay-per-view ecosystem, meaning that content creators there rely on selling merchandise or advertisement models “customized for the Chinese audience” to guarantee clicks. “You must give your heart to the Chinese audience to win back the brands and the platforms,” Gal-Or said, adding that Donaldson’s team will need to keep up with Chinese social media trends rather than just re-uploading his YouTube content with Chinese subtitles.
Chinese internet is fascinated with foreign influencers
Foreigners — colloquially known as lǎowài — who live or study in China are becoming popular on domestic social media, according to Media Circle, a Chinese media analytics site. A 2021 investigation by the site found that there were more than 100 foreign content creators on Douyin — China’s version of TikTok — with more than 500,000 followers, prompting Douyin and other social media sites to create a lǎowài content classification filter to spotlight the “cultural phenomenon.” Some of the more popular ones “speak fluent Chinese, tell jokes, dance, and perform skits” that focus on their experiences living in China. Many in China still believe Westerners have a cultural gap in their understanding of the country, so domestic social media users are hungry for “fresh” content that shows foreigners’ “impression of China and the Chinese people,” according to Media Circle.
China-based foreign vloggers face accusations of being Beijing’s ‘propaganda tools’
While some popular China-based Western content creators have left the country in fear for their safety, Beijing is using many remaining foreign influencers as “propaganda tools” to counter the West’s criticisms and perceptions of China’s authoritarian rule, the New York Times reported. Two YouTubers, Matthew Tye (laowhy86) and Winston Sterzel (serpentza), who rose to fame by documenting rural China on their motorcycle trips, told Semafor in 2022 that under Xi Jinping, they were subjected to harassment by police and online trolls after their videos offered “mild criticism” of issues like China’s wealth inequality and road safety. They eventually fled China and now make videos for over 2 million subscribers that focus on critiquing the Communist Party.
But a recent ASPI study found that China is “cultivating” at least 120 foreign influencers — some with millions of followers — to depict China in a positive light and defend the Communist Party in their videos, the Financial Times reported. As Beijing ejects foreign journalists from the country, these pro-China voices will make it harder for online platforms and foreign governments “to distinguish between genuine . . . content and propaganda,” the report said.
Gal-Or — who was accused of being one of the propagandists in the report — told Semafor he “[doesn’t] ever deny” accusations that his videos are pro-China, but he disputed the propagandist claims, saying that he has never been paid by officials to create his videos, but has chosen not to “pick on the negatives” when vlogging about China.