A couple of weeks into the 2022 Shanghai lockdown, which led to disruptions so far-reaching that the most deeply affected among the city’s 25 million residents briefly feared starvation, a viral trend spread across social media platforms: groups of shirtless African men shouting wishes for an early end to the COVID-19 outbreak and lockdowns. People were commissioning these videos and sharing them on social media. They became a major part of the lockdown “experience.”
The trend intersects with several deeper issues in China: national branding, misconceptions about foreign partners (particularly Africans), and unrealistic expectations.
Even after many years of Chinese businesses, tourists, and students “going global,” there still are persistent stereotypes and blind spots about the outside world, which are often self-fulfilling. These perceptions and assumptions determine what is acceptable and popular in China as the country takes a global role proportionate to its population and market size.
Chaniece Brackeen, a social media consultant from the United States, put the videos in the context of personal experiences living in China as a Black person.
“While I am not from Africa, my appearance makes it obvious that my roots are African. It’s quite common to hear ‘AFRICA!’ screamed by people who pass me, fingers pointing to my hair, wondering out loud if it is natural or not,” she said.
“In China, ‘black’ is funny, different, entertaining.”
The “African Greetings” trend illustrates these persistent issues.
No to Western Beauty Queens, Yes to “African Wolf Warriors”
As lockdowns started around the world in early 2020, I coordinated a video greeting by Miss China World, wishing people around the world an early end to the lockdown and expressing a hope to “meet again soon.” The videos got some attention abroad, and later, in China.
Two years later, when the Shanghai lockdown started, I thought that it would be appropriate to do the same again – but this time having foreign celebrities and beauty queens wishing people in Shanghai an early end to the lockdown.
Producer friends in media immediately rejected the idea, saying it was not “appropriate.” They explained that such videos would be highlighting the situation in Shanghai, and it would be a “loss of face” to receive wishes from Western people, even if well-intentioned.
A few days later, however, video wishes by groups of African men and children began to go viral.
The videos are bright, loud, and fun – and ubiquitous. They follow a similar format: A group is lined up behind a blackboard (or a screen) displaying a message in Chinese, then someone off screen reads that message and the “actors” shout or chant it back. At the end they break into a dance. Some videos feature the actors firing gunshots into the air.
Their content is relatively standard (but customizable): It includes the name of a residential area or compound, company, school or university, and a wish for an early reopening or negative antigen and PCR results. Gratitude to the volunteers is also expressed at the end.
There are videos wishing luck to what seems to be virtually every residential compound in Shanghai, as well as recipients ranging from individual milk tea shops to Fudan University.
These videos are ordered and paid for. A standard video is priced at about 198 renminbi (around $30) – and ones with “effects” such as gun shots are about $10 more expensive.
The most common type of videos, featuring young shirtless African men, are called “Wolf Warrior” videos. That seems to be related to the “Wolf Warrior 2” movie, which has an African setting – and a very patriotic vibe. After becoming China’s biggest box office hit of all time, it gave a name to the firmer and sharper Chinese approach diplomacy in recent years: “wolf warrior diplomacy.”
Other options for the videos include African children, African “aunties,” African “beauties,” Ukrainian and Russian “beauties,” “Pharaohs in front of the pyramids,” and Thai “ladyboys,” a controversial but commonly used slang term for transwomen.
Some of these initially innocent videos evolved into something more. At least one mockingly thanked a local government for bad quality pork that was distributed to compounds in lockdown. Another video became a meme when a group of African kids expressed a wish that the kids of Shanghai could have food to eat every day – flipping the stereotype about food availability in some parts of Africa and China’s richest city.
These videos made me wonder why the idea of a “Western” beauty queen recording a similar general “spontaneous” greeting was not acceptable, while thousands of clearly for-profit videos featuring Africans flooded social media.
I believe the answer lies in the geographic source of the videos – and how they align with some established ideas about China’s relationship with the rest of the world.
A quick survey among my Chinese friends indicated that not too many are reading much into the trend. They see the videos as “interesting,” fun, and almost a must for the lockdown “experience,” as “everyone is ordering them.”
Questions to some of the agents behind the videos went unanswered. I tried to ask where they were located, who the people in the videos were, and what their pay was, but the invariable response was “Business is too good, very busy, no time for this, what video do you want?”
During a recent online lecture for the Shanghai University for Science and Technology I asked the students – over 100 of them – what their thoughts were.
Everyone knew of the trend, and many found it fun and positive. The students who responded highlighted an understanding that China and Africa have a “tighter,” “purer” relationship, in which China has “helped” and “invested” a lot. The students agreed that is no “rivalry” with Africa like the one China has with the “Western world.”
Some also highlighted that both China and Africa are developing “countries.” Yet others thought the videos were a good way to “interact” with people far away when all travel is impossible. My students also thought the videos were a good example of Chinese entrepreneurship – and a good opportunity for people in need in Africa to make some money.
Professor Liu Yuntong from the School of International Exchanges at Tongji University also offered the explanation that the relationship with Africa is widely viewed as “purer,” and so the audience in Shanghai would accept that Africans are being genuine when expressing wishes for an early recovery.
“This perception is caused by a persistent narrative present in the education Chinese students receive: that there is friendship between China and Africa and that China has helped Africa in various ways,” Liu said. This “means that most people take this narrative for granted and do not question it when something like this trend appears to align with it.”
Jilles Djon, director of business development at the African Chamber of Commerce in China, understands why African greetings might be more welcome. “Considering the strong anti-China narrative currently presented by Western media and explicitly articulated by Western leaders, one can easily understand why Chinese content producers are not willing to support similar initiatives with Western involvement, for it can easily be misconstrued and taken out of context,” he said.
“On top of that, there has been an increase in anti-Asian violence in Western countries, which could explain why people in China may doubt the sincerity of anything coming from these countries, as opposed to initiatives coming from Africa where China does not receive the same level of antagonistic feelings from its population, media, and leaders.”
Dr. Yaya Dissa, a native of Mali, graduated from Tongji University and is currently the CEO of a China solar energy group with projects in 25 African countries. Dissa notes that China “is Africa’s largest trading partner and builder, as well as the largest donor to many African countries, but only a modest investor there.”
“The balance of power is asymmetrical: Chinese SOEs with the support of China behind them, and a ‘conglomerate’ of poor countries with very little strategic long-term vision,” he continued.
“This alone merits attention and caution.”
Trading in Stereotypes
There is a Chinese saying, “外事无小事,” meaning, “There are no small matters in international relations.” Even viral videos are no small matter when they have international content and implications.
There have been several incidents of inappropriate or insensitive representation of Africans and people of color in Chinese media, among them a Chinese New Year Gala skit, a washing powder TV commercial, and the recent viral lockdown meme about “eating the Black neighbor from the seventh floor.”
When Western media cover such incidents, Chinese media usually respond that China doesn’t have a problematic racial relations history, and those who criticize or see anything inappropriate in those examples are doing it because of their own negative history and “guilt.”
But some experts do see potentially troubling aspects to the viral trend.
Kabelo Seitshiro, a news editor for Botswana TV who holds an MA in Chinese Politics and International Relations from Fudan University, hadn’t heard of the trend until I asked about it. But upon viewing the videos, Seitshiro called them “a little unsettling.” “Some of these people look like they are being used as props,” Seitshiro said. “They are dressed up in costume, and being ‘made’ to chant stuff I doubt they understand.”
Brackeen, the U.S. social media consultant, has researched “blackface” videos in China and found “a reoccurring theme of the perceived backwardness and unintelligence of Black and African people that makes them entertaining and lovable characters. ‘Lovable’ because the characters are not generally hated, but are rather treated almost like innocent children that don’t know any better.
“If you use this context to analyze these African greeting videos that feature stereotypical and cartoon-like depictions of African people, it is obvious those viewing it only see it as a form of entertainment,” she continued.
“It might not make them hate or even dislike African people, but it certainly encourages attitudes towards African and Black people that dehumanizes them, making them no more than a color and vague sense of culture wrapped in eccentric garb. It is this monolithic way of viewing African people and Black people that is dangerous – quite the opposite of fostering any deep friendship between Africa (an entire continent) and China.”
Djon, of the African Chamber of Commerce in China, also sees the cookie-cutter nature of the videos as a problem. “From an African perspective it is always a cause for concern to see Africans in their rural environment being exposed to Chinese audiences without disclaimers,” he said.
There are many instances where such representation of Africans by Chinese travelers has been derogatory at best.
“Although Africa is a continent with many different countries and cultures, in China we are generally perceived as a monolithic group; therefore we are all victims of the same stereotypes regardless of our country of origin,” Djon said.
This issue is not unique to China, of course. “Our cultures have had a very complex history of misrepresentation by foreign travelers with “good intentions,’” he added.
Chinese analysts acknowledge these issues as well, but still see the potential for the videos to enrich China-African relations. According to Bai Yan, the founder and chair of the China Tourism Journalists Association, “The Chinese public perception of Africa for tourism can be summed up in two key words: backwardness, and a great place to see animals.”
Bai continued: “The videos with Africans cheering for China are purely commercial, but they have a positive aspect – they might be planting seeds of interest in the minds of Chinese people who might consider traveling to Africa because the videos have created a positive emotion.”
Dr. Shaoming Zhu, the founder and president of the Foundation for Law and International Affairs, said that this viral trend ultimately “could give insight into existing, established perceptions, ideas and opinions – and could help identify areas in which we could do better – by addressing stereotypes, blind spots, and false boundaries.”
“People-to-people diplomacy should not be underestimated – it is often the basis for further, deeper exchanges,” Zhu continued. “And while these videos are not a direct example of spontaneous, people-to-people exchanges, the various stakeholders would be well advised to study how to take advantage of such viral trends and, if necessary, to do a degree of damage control, should they believe there are aspects that might perpetuate stereotypes and hinder further, more meaningful and beneficial exchanges.”
For Brackeen, a simple reframing could help make the issue clear. “If this form of entertainment is okay when performed by Africans, surely it would be okay if African people were buying the same greetings put on by Chinese people in Africa?” she said.
“If there is any hint of ill-feeling towards this, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate one’s feelings towards these very dehumanizing ‘human greeting cards.’”