A few months ago, I saw my first factory video on TikTok. The ten-second clip slid onto my For You page and showed a dozen magenta gloves attached to a rotating mechanical arm, which dipped them into a pool of hot liquified nitrile rubber: I was watching the origin story of a gardening glove.
It was one of dozens of videos posted by the same account, featuring endless rows of neon-colored gloves being cast in rubber coating. The clips included no company name, factory location, or contact information. The person behind the videos had seemingly never even bothered to change the username TikTok had generated for them — user6902705342747. The only identifying clue was a link to a Chinese e-commerce site I didn’t recognize. I bookmarked the video to investigate later.
In the coming weeks, TikTok fed a series of other manufacturing videos onto my feed. In one, anonymous workers on an assembly line sliced open aloe plants with knives and a machine then squeezed the inner jelly into plastic tubs. Another showed lasers burning holes into jean shorts, a process that transformed them into the kind of distressed cut-offs that might fill the racks of a Forever 21. A garment worker held the fabric in place, their hands frighteningly close to the laser beams, before moving to swat out a minor denim fire.
I wasn’t the only one watching: The #factory hashtag alone has over 930 million views on TikTok. Under that umbrella are viral videos of stuffed animals getting injected with white fluff, a clip of a bright orange wig being detangled by a plate of metal needles, and several accounts devoted exclusively to the niche subgenre of glove-dipping content. User6902705342747 released their first video back in December and already has over 250,000 people following along.
It’s hard to describe Factory TikTok as just one type of video, but each clip — in its own way — offers a strange glimpse into how mundane objects are made. It can be hypnotizing to peer into this industrial world, which is usually obfuscated by complex supply chains. Some of the most popular accounts are run by aggregators, which rip off videos originally posted elsewhere to artificially boost their own views and follower counts. A handful of factory accounts are also from disparate parts of the world, like Pakistan, the Philippines, and Turkey. But the more time I spent watching, the clearer it became that many of the trend’s most popular clips were filmed in Chinese factories.
Soon, though, I began wondering whether the videos were really uploaded by factory workers at all. A little digital sleuthing eventually revealed something else entirely. Like everything it depicts, Factory TikTok itself comes from a factory — one manufacturing a constant stream of viral videos designed to sell products.
Over the last several years, millions of new migrants in China traveled from rural areas to work in urban factory centers, continuing a trend that began in the 1980s. After they arrived, the first expensive purchase many of them made was a smartphone, according to Xinyuan Wang, an anthropology research fellow at University College London and the author of a book about social media use in factories in Zhejiang province.
The devices allowed the migrants to document their experiences, and in recent years, content filmed by factory workers has become its own established genre on Chinese video platforms like Kuaishou and Douyin (the domestic version of TikTok, also owned by tech giant ByteDance). Some workers told Wang that the tedium of factory life was harsher than they had imagined, entailing repeating the same tasks over 2,000 times per day. But recording that monotony for others to appreciate online became a small way for them to imbue their labor with new meaning and significance. Watching these videos as a consumer, Wang said, “You see and you feel where you are in this globalized labor chain.”
Across dozens of short-form video apps available in China, this type of labor content has become widely popular. Produced not only by factory workers, but also traditional craftsmen and agriculturalists, it usually caters to the curiosities of middle-class urbanites, who Wang argues are alienated from the labor that goes into their everyday purchases — whether a cosmetic cream, a pack of tissues, or a new pair of sneakers. “We don’t know where [these things] come from, it is just presented to us as the perfect industrial product. But now we see the process, and because you see the human labor, it is no longer a cold product,” Wang said. “That is the reason it went viral among middle-class people who know nothing about industry.”
But when you visit the comment section of Factory TikTok, you won’t find messages from middle-class users in cities like Guangzhou — TikTok isn’t accessible in Chinese app stores. Instead, there are often messages from people who speak a wide array of different languages, like English, German, Japanese, Arabic, Thai, and Russian. The videos, set to trendy song clips, feel as if they’ve been manufactured to go viral in as many markets as possible. While many of the videos mimic the aesthetics used by amateur factory workers, some digging into their origins revealed that Factory TikTok doesn’t fit neatly into the same domestic social media trend in China. Instead, it’s part of a larger business enterprise.
Look closely at many of these clips, and hints emerge that corporate actors are hiding in plain sight. Some factories directly promote the goods they make, like the account run by a silicone factory, which links to an AliExpress page selling the fidget toys it produces. Other accounts publish content entirely unrelated to the products they list for sale. One went viral for a series of clips depicting a man injecting stuffed animals with polyester fiberfill, which were spun off into a subgenre of reaction videos and memes. The link in the account bio, however, briefly led to an e-commerce shop called Moda Island, which sells knockoff designer bags under a Swedish domain name. (The link has since disappeared.)
One day, I stumbled upon @DiaperFactory, an account with over 20,000 followers that, at first, appeared to be one of the more authentic chronicles of factory life. In each video, an unnamed factory owner paces the assembly line floor and inspects conveyor belts of diapers while wearing white rubber gloves and a luxury watch. He always appears busy, and greets his employees with smiling eyes behind a face mask. The clips are usually accompanied by platitudes written in English: “If you want to be irreplaceable, you have to be different,” reads one. “You have to fight for your own chance and grasp your destiny,” commands another.
The WhatsApp number in @DiaperFactory’s bio led to an account with a display picture that read “Made in China” in bolded red text. The same number was in the bio of @ToyFactory3, an account featuring another unnamed factory owner. It showed up again on @ToyFactory4, as well as on @AyoPaper, which belongs to a factory that produces tissues. It looked as though the behind-the-clips from each of the accounts were produced by the same camera crew. Who was filming?
Messages sent to the “Made in China ” WhatsApp number went unanswered. But another clue emerged when I revisited the account where this TikTok investigation had started: user6902705342747. In its bio, the glove-dipping account linked to an e-commerce site called Bioa Mall, which advertises itself as sharing “China’s selected good things to the world.” A browse through their inventory shows these goods include cigar lighters, holographic basketballs, orthopedic gel cushions, and the gardening gloves (as seen on TikTok).
A company spokesperson working in Bioa Mall’s offices in Hubei province told Rest of World that a team of 30 people operates nearly 200 TikTok accounts at any given time. The company essentially acts as a middleman service, connecting Chinese manufacturers to foreign customers without the need for an unpredictable platform like Amazon, which last month banned a number of major sellers based in China.
The Bioa Mall spokesperson, who declined to provide their full name, said that a small video team on staff is routinely dispatched to factory sites to film footage on assembly lines. The company also posts product reviews and demos. In total, their network of video channels has racked up over 2.4 billion views since the company launched less than a year ago.
Bioa Mall is just one player in a growing market of small-scale Chinese e-commerce sites using TikTok to help factories promote their goods. The startups are offering an inexpensive and extremely direct form of marketing, in which the people who manufacture products also become the influencers selling them.
While China’s largest industrial companies have largely recovered from the pandemic, small factory businesses are being squeezed by the rising cost of raw materials and weak consumer demand. Nearly 19% of small businesses shut down last year in China, according to Tsinghua University, up from 6% in 2019. “A lot of the products [in these videos] have already been outsourced to Southeast Asia and I think a lot of factories are really left on their own to survive,” said Lin Zhang, an assistant professor of communications at the University of New Hampshire, who studies digital capitalism.
Factory TikTok, in other words, isn’t about workers documenting their own labor, but is primarily a marketing scheme devised by their employers, many of whom may be under increasing financial pressure. In the videos, workers often show off specialized skills set to happy-go-lucky background music, but rarely are people really the focus of the lens. Instead, the camera gravitates towards the material object, which just might be on sale at the link above. “You could actually take one of these videos and re-edit them with different messages and different music and turn them into a documentary about exploitation,” Zhang mused.
The spokesperson for Bioa Mall said the company’s largest customer base is in North America, specifically the United States. Popular media in the U.S. often favors narratives about industrial China that associate it with poor conditions and cheap products. But in the chaotic TikTok world of diaper factory motivational videos, pseudo-Scandanavian luxury retail sites, and laser-based fast fashion, Chinese factory owners are taking control of the narrative. Here, assembly line aesthetics are pulling American customers in and selling them a romanticized snapshot of Chinese factory life — and maybe a set of new gardening gloves.