The People Behind China State Media’s Viral Videos

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The recent BRICS summit has given government mouthpiece Xinhua a chance to launch its latest charm offensive.

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Another day, another viral video. Zheng Xiaoyi and key members of Studio One, an arm of China’s state-owned Xinhua News Agency, finally call it a day well after midnight. Today, Zheng is the co-director of an animated short video by the often strait-laced newswire to mark the opening of the 2017 BRICS Summit in Xiamen, a coastal city in Fujian province, eastern China.

“Featuring the voyage of a five-masted vessel codenamed BRICS, the video was viewed more than 100 million times in the first 12 hours after it went online Saturday,” Zheng says from the conference’s 8,000-square-meter media center. Reporting on the event are more than 300 of Xinhua’s journalists out of a total media corps of 3,000 people.

It’s the third video released by Xinhua in the three days leading up to the state and business leaders’ conferences in picturesque Xiamen, a city Chinese President Xi Jinping has called the “garden on the sea” for its multitudinous islets and peninsulas overlooking the Taiwan Straits. Xi was 32 years old when he was made vice mayor of Xiamen 32 years ago. He spent nearly 18 years in various government offices in Fujian before his rise to the apex of Chinese political power.

Studio One is not one of Xinhua’s regular news teams, but an on-demand task force drawn from multiple news teams. Its job is to cover major events involving President Xi; its first major video production was “When the Great Way Prevails,” a clip commissioned for the Beijing Belt & Road Forum in May that drew over 200 million viewers online.

Xinhua’s performance on overseas social media shows that Studio One’s efforts are paying off, says Ni Siyi, the associate director of the agency’s general desk and the man charged with orchestrating promotional strategy on foreign social media. “Our animated BRICS introduction video was watched more than 10 million times abroad [in the first 12 hours],” he says. “Whether it’s text or visuals, any post hashtagging Xi will trigger much more traffic — dozens of times more than any other topic.”

Xinhua was a relative latecomer to the social media scene and only seriously moved to promote itself on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in 2015. “In the past, we had sporadic social media engagement done by a variety of our news teams,” he says. “In 2015, we decided to go for it in a big way.”

That’s when most of China’s main state-run news outlets realized the need to project a social-driven profile overseas. So far, Xinhua has built up 38 million followers on social media platforms outside China, including 25 million subscriptions to its flagship account on Facebook and roughly 10 million followers on Twitter.

For Xinhua’s charm offensive, Ni runs a matrix of 47 accounts in 19 languages — chiefly English, Arabic, Spanish, and Swahili. He’s not in charge of budgets and is therefore reluctant to say how much Xinhua spends on its engagement campaigns, which don’t always go off without a hitch. Last year, its sports news feed on Twitter came under fire for posting sexualized images of female athletes.

That content has since been removed, and the account’s followers have doubled since July. Yet Ni’s team is more concerned with how frequently and how well Xinhua’s social media accounts engage their readers: “We’d like to have more shares than likes,” he says.

Two years ago, at the beginning of the campaign, Xinhua’s social media performance paled in comparison to top overseas media players. Ni recalls the early days when colleagues were unfamiliar with how to write a social-only post.

“We just dragged-and-dropped a few headlines and lead paragraphs of Xinhua stories onto our accounts,” he says. “Two years ago, I’d be happy if a story we put on Facebook or Twitter got more than 100 likes and shares combined,” Ni says. “Now, it’s more than 1,000 — and sometimes more than 10,000 — closing the gap between us and other world media brands.”

Opening the Xinhua visual campaign at the BRICS Xiamen Summit was a flash mob performance on the iconic Gulangyu, an outlying islet of the city that was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July. Separated from the city’s main island by a 600-meter ferry ride, Gulangyu hosted the foreign diplomatic and business communities from the end of the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century to 1949.

On Sept. 1, Xinhua released a hip-hop music video to explain to a young Chinese audience what BRICS is all about: multilateral trade and investment between the five emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Zhong Chengcheng, a 22-year-old landscaper from Xiamen, liked the idea of learning through the latest installment in a series of songs released by state media that attempt to unpack complex political concepts in a lighthearted and accessible way. “It’s more refreshing to learn such jargon from a song than from the rhetoric used in political news reports,” Zhong told Sixth Tone.

Zhou Xiaoqi, a junior chemistry student at Huaqiao University in Xiamen, says that around 2,000 out of roughly 10,000 students at the school applied to volunteer at the summit, adding that just 200 made the final cut. All of them had to undergo rigorous training, including English lessons, lectures on the BRICS nations, and proper etiquette for dealing with guests from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Zhou says volunteer work is strenuous, and those who are selected have to be physically prepared. They work in six-hour shifts, rotating every hour but standing by during each break. Though she had to sacrifice her summer vacation, she feels it’s been worth it: “It won’t impact my studies so long as I budget my time well,” she says.

Yang Lin, an announcer from a Xiamen radio station, says the summit has invariably caused traffic problems and disrupted “normal” life, though few in the laidback island community seem to be taking issue with such mild annoyances. “To most of the local people, events as big as the BRICS summit don’t come around often,” she says. “Any inconvenience will be over before you know it.”

From Sept. 3 to Sept. 5, the leaders of all five BRICS economies met for their ninth summit. Together, they account for 26 percent of the world’s land area and 43 percent of the world’s population. Since 2009, the BRICS nations have met annually at formal summits. Last year, they accounted for 23 percent of the global economy, up 12 percent from a decade ago.

After 10 years, BRICS cooperation in the fields of agriculture, trade, education, and finance have borne rich fruit. In 2014, the BRICS countries launched the New Development Bank in Shanghai, with reserves of US$100 billion for future infrastructure projects. Yesterday, China pledged another US$4 million to the BRICS Contingent Reserve Arrangement as a safety precaution against a bank bailout. The same day, Chinese vice minister of finance Shi Yaobin said that the BRICS-driven development bank has already approved 11 projects, lending a total of $3 billion yuan (US$465 million).

Since late June, an Indian incursion over the Chinese border in the Himalayas overshadowed the trading bloc’s progress. And North Korea’s latest nuclear test on Sunday has further exacerbated geopolitical tension in the region, shifting international attention away from the summit.

“While conflict between China and India is apparent and potentially dangerous for the unity of the group, it has yet to have any consequential effects on BRICS unity,” says John Kirton, co-director of the BRICS Research Group based at Trinity College in Toronto.

“Rather than unilaterally acting in a confrontational way and challenging U.S. economic hegemony, China’s identification with and actions through BRICS allow China to project its voice in a nonconfrontational and nonhegemonic way,” Kirton and his associate, Alissa Wang, wrote in an email to The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication.

If the BRICS members are able to maintain this unity in an increasingly divided world, they will surely make solid progress toward their goal of strengthening the voice of developing countries and emerging economies in global economic governance, they concluded.

The BRICS summit is President Xi’s last major diplomatic commitment before the highly anticipated 19th congress of the Chinese Communist Party, slated for mid-October. The team at Studio One, Ni confirmed, is already preparing their next set of videos for that event.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.

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