Focused on in-depth videos about cultural differences, Kowal combs social and economic news every day for polarizing topics to explore. But for many other Chinese-speaking foreign vloggers, praising China can mean big business.
Recently, a novel genre has become popular on short-video platform TikTok called “Foreigners Praising China.”
One divisive example is Russian vlogger “Vlad” (Vladislav Kokolevsky). In one of his videos, Vlad exclaims with ebullience: “I love China because I feel so safe in China. Subways here are just like airports and they have security checks. I love China because everything here is so advanced. I can order a cab by phone and scan a QR code to make purchases. Everything I love is all in China. I will settle in China immediately and become a real Chinese!” The video has over 3 million likes.
Some foreign vloggers purport well-worn conspiracy theories as fact. One posted a video saying the World Trade Center terrorist attacks were an inside job by the US government. It infuriated Kowal. “I was in New York at the time. So many people died!”
But as more foreign internet celebrities cash in, Chinese viewers are becoming increasingly jaded. Many criticize them for lack of sincerity and objectivity and deliberately flattering Chinese viewers purely to profit.
Despite his massive following on TikTok, others on Bilibili and Zhihu, China’s largest Q&A website, have accused Vlad of being insincere and patronizing. Many netizens call him “a shameless ass-kisser” and satirize his catchphrase “I Love China” as his magic money-making mantra.
But sometimes gauging the complex attitudes on Chinese social media can be like navigating a minefield for foreign content creators. One misstep or unchecked opinion can trigger accusations of racism, bias or disrespect for China, particularly when it comes to politics and history.
In 2018, a popular British vlogger “Fulingfang” (William August) was accused of racism over remarks made on the First Opium War (1840-1842).
In 2019, “Xinshidandan,” a popular vlog channel run by two French people living in China, suffered the same fate for using dance song “Booty Swing” by Parov Stelar as the background music for their videos. The song samples vocals from the 1939 song “Oriental Swing” by Lil Hardin Armstrong, (wife of jazz legend Louis Armstrong), whose lyrics refer to China as “the land of Fu Manchu.”
Kowal receives more compliments than complaints, with followers calling him “sincere,” “unbiased” and “balanced.”
“Kowal is one of the few creators I think harbor true intentions to increase mutual understandings between people in China and in the US,” wrote Zhihu user “Dipper Pines,” a comment that gained more than 20,000 likes. “In one video, he visits a Detroit neighborhood. If he followed the regular formula, he might use Detroit to show how safe Chinese cities are. But he didn’t do that. He just wanted to show us an accurate picture of Detroit. His attitudes, shown in his videos, are impartial and balanced, neither overbearing nor flattering.”
“From [Kowal’s] videos I can truly understand the differences in US and Chinese cultures. He is like a friend sharing knowledge and ideas with you, instead of catering to you or making you laugh but leaving you with nothing,” another Zhihu user “Hou Sailai” commented.
“I think misunderstanding stems from how we originally learn about other countries. In the US, we learn about China mainly through movies or other media. A lot of these movies are about the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and many are fantasy movies. Americans know little about the modern China. I want to inform Americans that China is way different from what we think. The same goes for Chinese,” Kowal told NewsChina.
“I think I’ve learned not only about China but also the US. I’ve learned a lot about China and how people think about China, and through doing videos I’ve also learned a lot of about myself, my country and my culture,” he said.