Unable to reach Chinese audiences behind Firewall, foreign Internet celebrities flock to China’s social media

By Liu Xin Source:Global Times Published: 2017/3/16 19:43:39

More and more foreign celebrities who made their name on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have begun to make their debuts on Chinese social media and try to build popularity with Chinese netizens

Chinese management companies say online celebrities who want to earn money in China should have some knowledge of Chinese culture, a "moderate" political attitude and the ability to speak a little Chinese

Not all Chinese companies want to cooperate with foreign stars, as some are doubtful of their ability to earn cash from Chinese consumers

A Chinese woman views the Weibo account of Realxinshidandan, who identify as "French guys who are obsessed with China." Photo: Xiong Xiaoying/GT


It seems that Jeremy Jauncey's journey on one of China's most popular social media platforms Sina Weibo, has not been as smooth as it was on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram where he runs the tremendously popular travel account Beautiful Destination.

As the founder and CEO of Beautiful Destination, the agency behind one of the largest travel communities on social media, Jeremy travels the world and posts photos of stunning places on his social media accounts, which reap tens of thousands of likes and have helped the accounts attract a whopping 5.2 million followers.

Although he still offers a feast for the eyes, Jeremy's efforts in attracting more attention from Chinese netizens seem to have hit something of a traffic jam. While Jeremy has managed to win his account more than 200,000 followers on Sina Weibo, an article released on mt.sohu.com commented that "his account is filled with badly-written posts… every word seems to shout that 'I just want to post a selfie."

The sohu article may have been a little sarcastic, but it also pointed out the genuine fact that more and more foreign social media celebrities have begun to appear on the Chinese Internet in an effort to win fans among its hundreds of millions of netizens.


Famous face

"They usually choose Sina Weibo as their first stop to make a name for themselves in China, considering that only a limited number of Chinese know them because you need to use a VPN to access Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube," Janet Chen from the Shanghai-based Tophot, an incubator aimed at nurturing the next top Internet celebrities, told the Global Times.

Chen said that these online celebrities usually have professional teams which help them run their Chinese social media accounts and they seek out Chinese companies which they can cooperate with on profile-raising activities.

In May 2016, Chen's company took on the responsibility of arranging seven days of such activities in China for social media star Park Hye-min, who is known as Pony by her Chinese fans, including attending an award ceremony held by Sina Weibo and meeting her fans.

With over 600,000 subscribers on YouTube and 3.3 million followers on Instagram, Pony is one of South Korea's most famous beauty gurus and viewers of her posts can learn everything from how to craft the perfect smoky eye to how to make yourself up in the same way as glamorous superstars.

She saluted her fans on Sina Weibo on March 21, saying that her account on Youku, one of China's most popular video streaming websites, had also opened and she will upload her new videos on these accounts and YouTube at the same time.

Pony's first post was "liked" 54,533 times and received more than 13,000 comments, which may not look like a huge success, but after her debut on Chinese social media, more and more Chinese girls have started to buy the beauty products and cosmetics she uses in her videos. And she has now set up her own makeup brand, Pony Effect, to cash in on her influence.

Pony is not the only popular foreign Internet makeup artist to have done well on Sina Weibo. Alissa Violet, an American Internet sensation known for her unique makeup and sense of style who has 3.5 million followers on Instagram, appeared on Sina Weibo in August 2016 and now has more than 51,433 followers.

Livestreaming celebrities are invited to a promotion activity in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, on December 17. Photo: CFP

Laugh in any language

Aside from online fashion celebrities, those who have earned their fame by tickling funny bones on social media are also trying to see if they can crack any smiles in China.

The Eh-Bee-Family, Canadian Internet personalities who perform skits and parodies that aim to amuse the whole family, have earned themselves over a million followers on Sina Weibo to add to the two billion views their videos have received across their various social media accounts.

"I have always believed that China will become a major player in mobile Internet. Those foreign online celebrities who are willing to come China to earn money need to find a Chinese company but the threshold for companies to sign them may be high," Lü Donglei, operation director of wanghonglaile.com, a Guangdong Province-based company that cultivates those seeking to become Internet celebrities, told the Global Times.

Lü said that foreigners who want to be a hit on Chinese social media should have some knowledge of Chinese culture, a "moderate" political attitude and the ability to speak a little Chinese.

The language barrier is the biggest challenge for foreign online celebrities, and promotion companies consider the cost and efficiency of translating their content and whether Chinese audiences will accept them before they agree to work with a foreigner, Lü said, adding that "not everyone is Bear Grylls, who is so famous in China that numerous companies want to sponsor him even though he can speak no Chinese at all."

British adventurer and TV host Bear Grylls has more than 1.99 million followers on Sina Weibo, where he shares episodes of his show Absolute Wild which feature Chinese celebrities.

Sina Weibo account Realxinshidandan releases comedic videos of French guys who call themselves Gangdan (steel ball) and Tiedan (iron ball). It has more than 390,000 followers on Sina Weibo and its videos have been watched millions of times on bilibili.com, a Chinese streaming platform which allows viewers to send real-time comments flying across the screen to amuse other viewers.

The fact that all these comments are in Chinese, and many of them contain Internet slang that a novice speaker of the language may find unintelligible, affects foreign online celebrities' interactions with netizens, Xing Rui, who works with Realxinshidandan, told the Global Times.

However more and more foreign online celebrities have begun to post in Chinese on their Sina Weibo accounts or tried to show off their newly- acquired language skills to shorten the distance between them and their Chinese followers. The Eh-Bee-Family's videos are all available with Chinese subtitles and they have thanked their fans in Chinese.

Something new

"Many young people who were born in the 1990s and 2000s still have a servile attitude to foreign things, which makes these foreign online celebrities' nationality, their accents and cultural background part of their glamor," Chen said, stressing that it is quite hard to maintain attention without innovation.

Xing echoed Chen's remarks. She said that Realxinshidandan's followers have showed curiosity not only about their French stars but also about the cultural difference. She mentioned that many netizens send them messages, asking questions like "Are French people born with the ability to speak English and Spanish?"

"Making high-quality videos is also not that easy," said Xing, adding that they are still working on making better videos to attract the attention of netizens.

However, the biggest challenge for these foreign online celebrities - and their Chinese counterparts - lies in how to turn the attention paid to them into real cash, said Lü.

China's livestreaming market has exploded in popularity in recent years and hundreds of platforms have been established. The audiences of particularly popular channels, most of whom are young, can number up to 4 million at one time. Mostly looking for fun or relaxing content, they are often quite generous and send digital gifts of cash to the host.

A well-known Chinese Internet celebrity, such as rap star MC Tianyou, can reportedly earn thousands of yuan a day from the gifts. According to the Shanghai-based Wenhui Daily, the Internet celebrity economy could rake in 106 billion yuan ($15.3 billion) a year by 2020.

Management companies in Western countries are mature. They sign different contracts with online celebrities in accordance with the number of their fans, the size of their influence and their estimation of the performers' future earning power, and then make money by advertising, Liang Liming, an analyst from equity investment website chinaventure.cn, told the Global Times.

Liang mentioned that the most common ways for Chinese online stars to cash in on their popularity rely on e-commerce platforms, advertisements or livestreaming platforms.

"The further development plan is to make them into entertainment stars, hosting online livestreams or attending offline performances. Considering that most livestream viewers are people from low-income groups, introducing foreign hosts is like serving them coffee with dumplings, which is inharmonious," said Lü.

Although Lü insisted that foreign Internet celebrities will not find it easy to break into China, and that domestic stars will dominate for the forseeable future, he admitted that the fact that so many Chinese Internet celebrities are very similar - for example most female hosts have the same big eyes and pointy chin - may lead to audiences eventually turning to something novel.

The core of this industry is content, said Chen, who suggested that besides comedians and makeup artists, foreign Internet personalities who specialize in things Chinese people are particularly interested in - like clothes, childcare and cooking - may find mainstream success in China one day.

Newspaper headline: Translating fame

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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