Behind the Great Firewall, the Chinese version of TikTok is worlds apart in terms of political content

Jane Zhang

Videos of teenagers dancing to Panic! at the Disco’s High Hopes, the campaign walk-on song for US presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, are going viral on TikTok.

The fact that Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend in Indiana, does not have a verified account on the short video platform is not an apparent barrier to his popularity there – content tagged with the #mayorpete hashtag had gathered almost 672,000 views as of Friday.

TikTok is known for its goofy lip-synch and dance videos rather than serious political content. One video, for example, features carefully edited clips of US President Donald Trump’s speeches spliced together so he appears to be singing along to the song Señorita by Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello.

Unlike Twitter, where Trump and many presidential candidates have verified accounts and often directly promote their campaigns, most of the political content on TikTok is generated by young supporters.

Still, it could loom large in the US 2020 election.

Videos with the hashtag #trump2020 dominate the platform with 271 million views as of Friday, far overtaking the #politics hashtag which has 166 million views. Other trending hashtags related to US presidential candidates as of Friday included #joebiden for former vice-president Joe Biden, with 3.5 million views, and #warren2020 for Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, with 2.8 million views.

But behind China’s Great Firewall on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, politics is a different story.

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When the Post tried searching for names of politicians such as Chinese President Xi Jinping, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Douyin, a separate app from TikTok, no relevant results showed up despite the fact that Chinese Communist Party newspaper People's Daily and state-run news agency Xinhua frequently feature clips of Xi on their Douyin accounts.

Political terms deemed to be sensitive, such as the names of Xi and other politicians, have been known to be censored in online searches in China on platforms ranging from US-based stock image site Shutterstock to the short-lived Chinese web browser Kuniao, which claimed to allow Chinese internet users to legally access blocked sites such as Twitter and YouTube before disappearing in a matter of days.

Douyin declined the Post’s request for comment.

While it is hard to find political content created by individual users on Douyin, more than 5,700 Chinese government agencies and Communist Party organisations were active on the platform by the end of last year.

Combined, they posted about 258,000 videos that received 4.3 billion likes in 2018, and many of the most popular government accounts were police or army related, data from Douyin showed.

The police force of Siping, a northeast Chinese city, had the most followers among the government Douyin accounts last year: 15 million, five times the city’s population of three million.

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Siping Police Force’s channel is full of skits featuring real-life officers and professional actors re-enacting criminal cases and explaining laws in areas such as gambling and online fraud.

Responses to the videos are often positive – one Douyin user commented that the account worked wonders for de-stressing, while another asked what it would take to get a job in the police department.

Government agencies are moving from simply existing online to fully taking advantage of platforms, Henry Yan, an associate research director at International Data Corporation (IDC) Government Insights, told the Post. “But there are challenges to generating new content for the younger generation as forms of communication evolve.”

Short video platforms can be a powerful tool to spread political content, according to Yu Xue, a research manager at IDC China's Industry and New Technology Research department.

“The advantage of short video platforms is that they can meet users’ desire for bite-sized information and can provide customised content using algorithms,” Yu explained.

Beijing-based ByteDance, which owns both TikTok and Douyin, has repeatedly defended TikTok over US concerns about data privacy and security, saying that the platform stores US user data locally with backup redundancy in Singapore.

TikTok has also denied censoring users’ content and said that it would not allow political ads. “TikTok content is whatever users decide to create and post – while political content is not the focus of the platform, ultimately it’s up to users,” a spokeswoman told the Post.

However, the app continues to face suspicion from US lawmakers and officials.

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“TikTok claims they don’t store American user data in China,” Republican Senator Josh Hawley, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, said at a US Senate hearing earlier this month.

“That’s nice, but all it takes is one knock on the door of their parent company, based in China, from a Communist Party official, for that data to be transferred to the Chinese government’s hands whenever they want it.”

Widely regarded as the first Chinese app to achieve international success, Douyin was launched in China in September 2016 before it was released for global markets as TikTok in 2017.

Douyin has more than 320 million daily active users, its general manager of marketing, Zhi Ying, said in July.

TikTok was downloaded close to 176 million times in the third quarter of 2019, making it the second most downloaded app worldwide in that period, according to data from mobile intelligence firm Sensor Tower.

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