Guoping Chen, the story goes, is an ordinary police officer in the Chinese town of Qinhuangdao, Hebei province. But it’s his second life on social media that has brought him fame. There, Chen is a cybercrime-fighting influencer for good, determined to save the Chinese public from internet fraud.
Dressed in full uniform, Chen jumps unannounced into livestreams with popular internet personalities. In one viral clip, a streamer feigns shock, joking that he hasn’t committed a crime. Chen goes on to explain the dangers of online scams, which have seen an uptick during the pandemic.
He has livestreamed on the video platform Douyin for up to six hours at a time, even while off-duty, to the praise of followers and state media. Each stream tends to lead to the same question, which Chen asks sternly, looking into the camera lens: “Have you downloaded the Anti-Fraud Center app?”
Chen has become the face of a government social media campaign to encourage downloads of a fraud-alert app, which was launched by the Ministry of Public Security in March. The app was described as a defense against online scams, with functions that include checking incoming calls against a database of known scammers’ phone numbers, and allowing users to request that contacts verify their identity via facial recognition. Users must register with their ID number, phone number, and district of residence.
On its launch, though, the Anti-Fraud Center app was met with a stack of complaints. People claimed that they had been forced to download it at schools, that officers stopped them in public to pressure them into downloading the app, and that they had received false scam alerts. Negative reviews tanked its rating to 1.5 stars on the Chinese iOS store in April.
Chen’s videos are part of a new, proliferating genre of police-influencer content, deployed to improve the app’s appeal. Rest of World identified at least 100 verified government accounts which regularly promote the campaign on Douyin. Much of their content is startlingly comedic, and focuses on internet scammers, singling them out as a national threat to public safety.
Chen is by far the most popular personality among those accounts. State media reported that one of his livestreams this past September attracted 38 million viewers and 100 million likes in one evening — figures that rival established Chinese influencers on the platform. His videos are published on the official, verified account of the Qinhuangdao police department, which is branded with his name, and which has amassed 4.3 million followers.
“I don’t know if Chen’s channel is actually backed by the Public Security Bureau itself, or just an individual kind of activity. But the intention is quite clear,” said Jian Lin, co-author of Wanghong as Social Media Entertainment in China, a study on the country’s livestreaming economy and influencers. “They want to use social media to cultivate a more positive public image about this app.”
Across Chinese social media, police departments are circulating similar content. In one clip, uploaded by a Sichuan-based police department, an anti-fraud officer uses dialect to interrogate fraudsters, who are theatrically remorseful and recite anti-fraud slogans. In a roleplaying-style video from the Bao’an District Police Office, a traffic cop pulls over a car, opening the trunk to find an incriminating stack of leaflets clearly labeled “Fraud Guide.” The video explains that the anti-fraud app is no different than a traffic cop hailing a suspicious vehicle — it identifies possible threats, and investigates them on your behalf.
Chinese state news agency Xinhua lauded Chen’s resourcefulness in reaching the “internet citizens of this age,” who are “full of personality, have individualized interests,” but “reject preaching-style promotions” — seemingly referring to bluntly pro-government campaigns. Other agencies should use similar strategies, the article encouraged.
In his videos, Chen himself uses a number of proven tactics to attract audiences, including joining streaming battles, or PKs, in which influencers compete for likes, multiplying his reach. For the influencers that host Chen, it can be valuable to appear next to a police officer, which aligns them with an official message in a moment of government disapproval towards internet celebrities.
“I think it is a useful way for [key opinion leaders] to convince their followers that they represent, or at least are in line with, the authorities’ expectations,” said Lin, calling it a kind of “performative allegiance.”
Livestreaming has proved a powerful tool to cultivate an audience on social media. Last year, Douyin added livestreaming capabilities to official government accounts, which the Qinhuangdao police department has capitalized on. The National Anti-Fraud Center itself has its own account on the platform, but Chen and his fellow influencers are not explicitly affiliated with it.
Users who spoke to Rest of World understand Guoping Chen to be part of an online hearts-and-minds campaign, paired with on-the-ground efforts to increase the number of anti-fraud app downloads. Local police departments have, in some cases, uploaded “promotional visit” videos, which show officers lecturing passersby on the importance of internet safety. One shows an officer delivering a speech at a night market, another at a shopping mall, another still at a flower expo. Speaking to Rest of World, users inferred that officers were attempting to hit download target quotas before national holidays on September 21 and October 1.
The National Anti-Fraud Center app is currently the most downloaded in the Chinese iOS store, outpacing both Douyin, the domestic version of TikTok, and WeChat. (While it’s not trending in the Tencent app store, it has recorded 400 million downloads to date.)
Some of its users’ privacy concerns may be justified. In September, the Financial Times reported that the app’s data was used to identify and question users who had accessed foreign financial media. And, despite the influencer campaign, debate has continued over the app’s security, including a 1,200-comment-long thread last month on Q&A message board Zhihu.
Chen himself is not immune to the ebbs and flows of online fame. In a recent video, he announced that he would be taking a break from his marathon livestream sessions. Online criticism had grown over his appearances alongside controversial internet personalities. But he told his following that he had not given up on the cause of public internet safety, nor the fight against scammers. On September 30, Chen assured his followers on Weibo, “Nothing to be afraid of. Behind me is the support of thousands of people.”