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    China’s Latest Marketing Craze: Impoverished African Children

    Short videos of African kids advertising Chinese goods and services raise ethical and legal concerns.

    Huddled around a blackboard scrawled with colorful Chinese characters, a group of Zambian children announce that Qihoo 360 is the number-one anti-virus application for gamers. Behind the camera, an unseen man reads the blackboard’s message phrase by phrase, pausing as they repeat after him.

    Short videos of African children shouting out messages in Chinese have become wildly popular on the country’s social media platforms in recent weeks. The kids read content ranging from personal messages such as marriage proposals and declarations of love to company advertisements and staff morale boosters.

    Clips can be ordered from a number of online stores that provide “African child placard” services on Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace, China’s largest e-commerce site. Product descriptions guarantee genuine, unedited clips containing anywhere from five to 10 children, lasting up to 20 seconds, and costing 150 to 220 yuan ($22 to 33) per video or 10 yuan per still image. According to the ads, orders take between one and four days to process.

    In one short clip, a group of children shout: “Want to see pretty girls? Use Jike! Want funny stories? Use Jike! Want GIFs? Use Jike! Only 10 yuan, really great!” One image circulating online shows an African child holding a placard that says: “Huizhi, my wife, I’m sorry. Come back. I love you. From Da Shuang.”

    Other stores on Taobao offer similar “placard” services with people from non-African countries such as Ukraine, Italy, and Brazil.

    On Aug. 7, Beijing Youth Daily published a report on the increasingly sophisticated businesses behind the African child videos. One online provider they spoke to described the model as charitable, as the majority of the profits went directly to the African “darlings.” However, talking to an ethnic Chinese photographer who had filmed such videos in the slums of Zambia, they found that each child only received a snack or a few coins in compensation for each batch of orders.

    Others have voiced concerns about the messages the children are made to speak. In some videos, the children innocently speak Chinese swear words or advertise products such as X-rated live streams. Many of the videos are also in violation of China’s advertising law because of unfounded claims, such as calling their product “the best” or using other unlikely superlatives. Taobao customer service told Beijing Youth Daily that they are aware of these issues and are investigating the vendors in question.

    Despite some concerns, the majority of online commenters have supported the production of these videos. “I don't see what’s so wrong with this,” read one upvoted comment under an article by The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication. “These Africans are helping to make ads and are getting something back. They’re not being forced to do it, so what’s the problem? If you investigate the people making these ads, will the Africans appreciate it when you ruin their business?”

    Not all agree, however. “Every time a client asks me if I can film African children, I say I can’t because it’s illegal,” Rui Xiao, the owner of a Taobao store that provides similar services with young adults from Brazil and Italy, told Sixth Tone. “I despise people who use the poor as moneymaking tools. I give 50 to 70 percent of the money from our videos to the foreigners.”

    Speaking to the apparent popularity of some recent videos, Rui added: “This has to do with China’s obsession with all things foreign. Many people here have never been out of the country — they haven’t seen foreigners, so they think it would definitely be interesting for foreigners to do ads for them.”

    Editor: David Paulk.

    This article has been updated to correct the translation of Da Shuang’s message and to clarify that Rui Xiao contracts young adults, not children.

    (Header image: A promotional photo from a nameless Taobao vendor shows a group of African children holding a Chinese-language ad in Zambia. From the vendor)