Chinese vendors are facing backlash for selling customized photos and videos featuring African children via Chinese online marketplace Taobao. As reported by Beijing Youth Daily, these photos and videos have recently become popular as a way to deliver messages for birthdays and other meaningful occasions. They can be purchased for as little as $1, similar to services offered on freelance marketplace Fiverr.
The photos can be ordered from any number of Taobao vendors, and show young children from African countries like Zambia holding a chalkboard with a purchased message, usually around 16 to 20 characters in length. Short videos can also be purchased, where a person behind the camera coaches the children on how to recite the message in Mandarin. For these photos and videos, the vendors usually request between ¥10 ($1.50) and ¥200 ($30), promising delivery within a couple days.
As Sixth Tone notes, the messages are popular both with individuals and companies that use the videos as an inexpensive way to create advertisements. In one clip, a group of children yell to the camera in Mandarin: “Want to see pretty girls? Use Jike! Want funny stories? Use Jike! Want GIFs? Use Jike! Only 10 yuan, really great!” Sixth Tone says other videos show children reciting swear words in Mandarin and advertising X-rated live streams.
The Hong Kong Free Press says some vendors insist on their pages that the videos are a form of “charitable activity,” but when asked about how much money goes directly to the children and their families, had no answer. “I am doing this out of the goodness of my heart,” one vendor told HKFP. “I don’t know how much money is given to the children. Sorry.” Beijing Youth Daily spoke with one photographer who said the children often only receive snacks or a few dollars for completing a batch of photos and videos. An anonymous source echoed the lack of pay when speaking with People’s Daily Online, saying, “The children get very little money from shooting such ads. Most of them just get some snacks or stationery as rewards.”
While some Chinese netizens are voicing concern over the unethical nature of the photos and videos, others appear to have no issue with the service. One person wrote on Chinese media website The Paper: “These Africans help to advertise, have also been rewarded, and have not been forced, what is the problem?” Shanghaiist, the international division of blog Gothamist, shared the story with the caption, “Racist? Exploitative? Or just good marketing?”
A vendor Sixth Tone spoke to says cultural differences are the reason why there’s such fascination with the videos. Their popularity, the vendor says, can be attributed to “China’s obsession with all things foreign.”
“Many people here have never been out of the country — they haven’t seen foreigners,” the vendor said. “So they think it would definitely be interesting for foreigners to do ads for them.” Likewise, a member from the China Africa Project tells The Huffington Post, “The vast majority of Chinese people you meet on the streets of Guangzhou have probably never interacted with someone of another race or ethnicity.”
Comparable video services have been found and abused in other countries. Fiverr vendors garnered backlash in 2015 for selling videos featuring Indian children that were targeted toward Americans. In similar fashion, the children posed with chalkboards that featured purchased messages, and they also read the messages for short videos. Many were obscene. Earlier this year, YouTube personality PewDiePie used the platform to pay two young Indian men to hold up a banner reading “Death to All Jews,” leading to the vlogger being dropped by YouTube and Disney.
Taobao has said it is investigating some of the vendors engaging in the practice, but only because certain videos violate China’s advertising law by using superlatives like “best” and “strongest” to describe products.