“Children are not merchandise. There is no option to choose. Thank you for understanding.”
So reads the advice on the online sales platform Taobao, which warns against a controversial service known colloquially by netizens in China as “black people holding signs”.
It works like this: a Chinese business wanting cheap, eye-catching advertising pays a Chinese crew in Africa to film or photograph locals holding up placards or shouting out slogans in Mandarin.
Usually it’s a case of African children standing under trees, smiling or pulling silly faces. Photos of small groups gathered round signage costs as little as Rmb10 ($1.50). Videos of them shouting longer phrases in Chinese costs a little more, up to Rmb200.
“Choose Mr N for your takeaway food. Its clean, yummy and speedy,” say the kids in one clip.
“Biao Qi shoe polish! It sells all over the world. It’s really good,” proclaims another.
A person behind the camera shouts the lines and the children parrot them back, although the production teams that shoot the footage warn customers that the pronunciation is not “standard”.
“The kids have no experience of learning Chinese. They don’t even know the meaning of the words,” explains one vendor, whose videos are filmed in Zambia
The same man also pitches marriage proposals, apologies and congratulatory messages.
“Jiulin, you are the most beautiful girl in the world. I will always love you. Happy birthday” is one of the sample messages on his website.
The practice, which has become increasingly popular, has sparked a heated debate, with some describing it as exploitative and demeaning.
China’s presence in Africa has grown massively in recent years, with Chinese companies now involved in a huge range of businesses from dam construction, mining and gold prospecting to farming, hospital building and retail.
Last month the People’s Liberation Army opened its first overseas base in Djibouti and regular services are expected to start on a Chinese-constructed railway between that east African port and the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa later this year.
As many as two million Chinese may now be living in Africa, according to the Centre for Global Development in Washington. Occasionally their presence causes tensions, including the arrest of 31 Chinese for illegal copper mining in Zambia this summer, or cases in which Chinese buyers of donkey gelatine have been driving up the prices of donkey meat, making life difficult for local farmers that rely on the animals.
Last year one Zambian newspaper even reported that Chinese companies were exporting human meat disguised as corned beef – a rumour that the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs was quick to quash.
So far the story of children being paid a few cents to read out as many as 100 messages a day for consumption on China’s internet has not reached the Zambian press.
Alibaba, which is trying to expand abroad, will be hoping that the news doesn’t reach Africa at all. It began pulling the Taobao ads in August after the Beijing Youth Daily published an exposé.
One clip circulating on social media showed a camera crew shouting at the kids for getting their lines wrong. Others showed children reading slogans advertising inappropriate products.
However, the reaction on social media was mixed. Some believed the practice to be racist, but a great many could not see what all the fuss was about.
“Chinese people are earning money and these poor kids are getting a snack out of it – it’s a win-win,” said one.
“I think this a great scheme,” said another. “Poor children in China could also earn money this way.”
Others struck a more nationalistic tone, arguing “Why do we always have to get foreigners to advertise stuff? Chinese people should listen to Chinese people.”
Last year the detergent company Qiaobi landed in hot water for an advertisement that appeared to show a black man becoming Asian after being put into a washing machine by a Chinese lady (see WiC327). That type of extreme political incorrectness was a bit more clearcut than this situation in which companies hire African children to endorse their products. But suffice to say both manifest some of the complex racial sentiments of modern China.
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