On the afternoon of May 24, a beauty pageant took place at an apartment in Kitwe, Zambia. The contestants, numbered from one to seven, took turns walking in front of the camera to loud music from a hit Chinese matchmaking show. “Are you single?” a young Chinese man asked the Zambian women, before telling them to repeat back lines to the camera he recited in Chinese. “Hello everyone … I’m 19,” the first woman said after him. “I’m single. … My eyes are small.”
Halfway around the world, this was primetime entertainment in China. Tens of thousands of viewers were watching live on the Chinese video app Kuaishou and offering their takes. “All good — except too black,” one person commented while the seventh woman was instructed to sing a song. “Number five has straight legs,” another viewer remarked.
The host, 28-year-old Cheng Wei, who accumulated close to 10 million followers across different Chinese social platforms under the handle “African Mr. Hello,” offered his own opinions after introducing the women. “This is not China but Africa,” Cheng said. “Africans are inherently savage, barbaric, you know? They only have profits in their eyes.”
Cheng is one of many Chinese influencers overseas who made a fortune, promoting a sense of economic, cultural, and political superiority among Chinese fans by exploiting racist ideology, experts told Rest of World. In dozens of videos filmed and uploaded by these influencers, Black people, including children, are shown to embrace Chinese language and culture. Black women are degraded as sexual objects, participating in beauty pageant shows and calling Chinese vloggers laogong, or “hubby.” The influencers portray themselves as wealthy saviors who provide locals with money, jobs, clothes, health care, housing, and food.
Rest of World analyzed more than two dozen popular accounts based in Guinea, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, and Kenya as well as other countries in Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia and found that the vloggers, with follower counts that reach into the millions, together make up a multimillion-dollar e-commerce industry. Part of China’s livestreaming e-commerce boom, experts say, was built on top of hours of racist and misogynistic content. During that particular 4.5-hour livestream, Cheng sold about $22,000 worth of T-shirts, facial wipes, and watches, according to tracking service Bihukankan.
Although the vloggers often claim to be helping out in Africa, experts say their work essentially monetizes racial inequality. “[Chinese] tend to think of themselves as targets of racism. They do not think about themselves as doers of racism, that they are also practicing racism to other people. But they are,” said Sheng Zou, a researcher at the University of Michigan who specializes in Chinese digital media. “If you look at the representations in those videos, they are trying to establish the kind of contrast between them as modern subjects and Africans as somewhat inferior, somewhat premodern subjects that are backward.”
In June, a viral BBC investigation exposed a Chinese video maker in Malawi named Lu Ke who was accused of physically abusing at least one black child. After the video prompted a global outcry, the Chinese government vowed to crack down on online racism. The country’s all-encompassing censorship apparatus often turns a blind eye to xenophobia, which the state does not view as an imminent threat to its rule, according to researchers. Soon after the BBC documentary was released, social media platforms, such as Kuaishou, Xiaohongshu, WeChat, and Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, blocked users from searching video accounts containing the term “Africa.” Almost all the top Chinese influencers in Africa stopped their daily livestreams. Cheng told us that Kuaishou had told him the livestream ban on Africa-based vloggers was triggered by the BBC investigation; Kuaishou, Xiaohongshu, and Bilibili did not respond to requests for comments. ByteDance declined to comment on the crackdown. Tencent, owner of WeChat, also declined to comment on the ban and referred Rest of World to the app’s policy against hate speech.
Only when racism from the Chinese internet triggers backlash in Africa, a key economic and diplomatic partner, does Beijing feel the need to act, said Emmanuel Matambo, research director at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies.
“[The Chinese government] only respond when there’s outrage,” Matambo told Rest of World. “The Chinese always want to show Africans that they are a different type of partner from what Africa had with the colonists.”
But in Zambia, Matambo said, some Chinese entrepreneurs’ patronizing way of treating local people and lack of understanding of their culture has caused problems. Zambian workers have long complained about labor abuse at Chinese firms, such as being told not to join unions or allegations of being detained at factory sites during Covid-19 outbreaks.
One of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrants who moved to Africa to seek economic opportunities, Cheng went to work at an air filter factory in 2015 in Zambia, hoping to escape the fierce competition for jobs at home and find a fast track to success. Hailing from a rural part of Henan province — an economic backwater in inland China — Cheng dropped out of secondary school after his first year. Months into his arrival in Zambia, in early 2016, before TikTok was launched, Cheng started posting short videos of Africans on Kuaishou, then the dominant short-video app in China. He called the account “African Mr. Hello,” because “hello” was the only English word he knew when he went to Zambia.
In an interview with Rest of World in June, Cheng told us that he first made money from the virtual tips sent by his fans in China. After work, he would walk around the village where he lived filming local people, food, and markets. He would film children chanting Chinese poems and lining up to collect snacks he bought for them. He made a series of videos as he delivered food to an impoverished elderly man and another video where he showed himself helping to build a wooden hut for him.
Runako Celina, producer of the BBC’s Racism for Sale, the documentary that led to public outcry across the African continent — said such content reinforces the discrimination against Africans in China. “This industry is situated in these wider narratives around African-ness: of poverty, of neediness that allows for saviorism to play out,” she told Rest of World. Celina, who also founded digital platform Black Livity China to document Black people’s experiences in China, added that “it feels very human zoo in nature.”
After three years in Zambia, Cheng became a full-time vlogger. He hired local women to act in his videos and livestreams, showing them telling jokes in Chinese and cooking Chinese dishes in giant pots. Cheng noted to Rest of World that images of charity and Chinese culture being adopted abroad were particularly popular, pointing to positive comments from fans. As his fan base in China expanded, Cheng went from behind the scenes to being a central character in front of the camera himself, wearing sunglasses and Dior shirts — an image of a wealthy, powerful, and fashionable Chinese man who generously helps local Africans and is widely revered.
Until the recent crackdown, Chinese video apps rewarded populist, racist content with viewers and profits. Video sites such as Bilibili and ByteDance’s Xigua pay content creators according to the traffic and advertising revenues they generate. Other video apps, such as Douyin and Kuaishou, match vloggers with advertisers and share revenue from product placement. In the afternoons, Cheng peddled cosmetics, snacks, and homewares, just like hundreds of thousands of other Chinese livestreamers. The products often don’t have any ties to Africa or the content: it’s simply one way to stand out in China’s crowded livestream shopping industry. According to Bihukankan, Africa-based livestreamers that we examined together sold more than $7 million worth of products in May and June, with the tech companies taking 0.6% to 10% of the income. Viewers also send virtual tips, and about 50% goes to the platforms. Cheng, the most successful of all, raked in more than $5.6 million in revenue over the last three months, according to Bihukankan. Cheng said that on average, he earned some 20% of the revenue as commission. He claims that his African staff, including a 20-year-old who served as the camerawoman, were paid above the local salary level.
Western companies have cashed in as well. In Guinea, Wang Fei runs a YouTube channel with 255,000 subscribers, regularly featuring a boy he adopted from a neighbor’s family on his channel. The child, whom he nicknamed “little monkey,” speaks fluent Chinese, cooks Chinese food, and attends classes at a China-funded Confucius Institute. The videos have been watched 110 million times and are estimated to have earned him about $229,000, according to the YouTube money calculator on Influencer Marketing Hub. YouTube did not respond to a request for comment.
In a June video, Wang Yao, a Kenya-based influencer with 5.4 million followers on Douyin, who often appears flanked by female assistants labeled as Miss World winners representing different African countries, spoke to his audience about the abundance of mosquitoes in Africa before promoting a Bayer mosquito spray. After Rest of World asked Bayer about the product placement in July, Bayer said it had asked a distributor to remove the advert, adding that it’s committed to a culture of inclusion and diversity.
In China, racially charged nationalism has been on the rise over the past few decades, as the Communist Party mobilizes people’s pride toward belonging to a homogeneous Chinese nation and frames itself as leading its rejuvenation against Western hegemony. Kun Huang, a Cornell University researcher who specializes in race and Blackness in Chinese culture, says images of Chinese men wielding power in Africa plays up to a desire to see their own nation, instead of Western countries, projecting influence over others.
When asked about the beauty pageant in May, the vlogger said he had paid the contestants and offered them a nice meal in exchange for their appearances. The winner of the show, Cheng said, had joined his staff as a cook who occasionally performed in the videos. Cheng told Rest of World he believed his business was saving Africans from poverty. “I changed their fate,” he said of his local employees. “I gave them new lives. They also made me successful. It’s reciprocal.”
Despite the crackdown, Cheng’s pages are still live, as of publication. Influencers have removed the word “Africa” from their usernames generally, and they are still able to post new videos. Cheng’s account, “African Mr. Hello,” changed to “Mr. Hello Overseas.” His new videos from Zambia still attract tens of thousands of likes. In the comment section, fans have asked when his livestreams will return.
“Chinese people love watching how other places are not as good as China,” Cheng told Rest of World, arguing that he had portrayed Africa in a truthful way. “If you film some advanced stuff here, people might not like watching. They would rather see lives that are worse than their own.”