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2022-03-11 11:47:54 Voices

On Nov. 14, 2020, a content creator known only as “Little John Khan” quietly uploaded his first video to the Chinese streaming site Bilibili. In a short introductory clip, the pseudonymous vlogger refers to himself modestly as a “new uploader.” Although technically true, longtime users of Zhihu — China’s answer to Quora — likely recognized him as “Little John,” a frequent poster on that site’s history and culture sections. (The name is a reference to Frank Underwood’s code name in the fictional Netflix series “House of Cards.”) Little John’s lengthy response to the question “How strong was the Soviet Union at its height?” received more than 140,000 likes and over 6,000 comments after he posted it on Zhihu in October 2020, and eventually formed the basis of Little John Khan’s Bilibili debut a month later.

Little John, or Little John Khan, if you prefer, is among the most successful of a group of Chinese history and current affairs content creators to make the pivot to video in recent years, as platforms like Bilibili branch out from their niche roots in anime, comics, and games. In less than a year and a half, Little John’s videos have racked up 380 million views on the platform, and last year he made Bilibili’s official top-100 creators list, a space typically dominated by lifestyle and video game streamers.

Little John’s formula is simple: He tells stories of little-known or forgotten events and people from oft-overlooked parts of the world in an accessible, often humorous fashion. Although he initially focused on the countries and regions that make up the former Soviet Union, he has since branched out into other regions, including Latin America and Africa.

The classic Little John video starts with an eye-catching premise and unfolds as a semi-humorous narrative of human failures and foibles. His first and best-known series focused on what he calls the “failed” leaders of “small countries”: former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh, and the “Emperor of Central Africa,” Jean-Bédel Bokassa. Although these videos occasionally reference the historical trends that shaped his subjects’ lives, like the presence of European mercenaries in post-colonial Africa or the exploitation of banana republics by the United States, Little John generally builds his narratives around the harm done by bad rulers to their countries and people. He grows his audience by appealing to viewers’ curiosity about eccentric dictators in far-off lands.

These videos fill a knowledge gap for many Chinese by covering topics and people rarely mentioned in textbooks, newspapers, or on television, which are dominated by coverage of global powers like the United States. Accessible, engaging narrative history about places like Argentina, Israel, or Ethiopia is a rarity on the Chinese internet. Little John’s own definition of “small countries” reflects this skewed view of the world. “Anything smaller than China is a ‘small country,’” he once quipped.

A screenshot shows Little John Khan’s recent output. From @小约翰可汗 on Bilibili

A screenshot shows Little John Khan’s recent output. From @小约翰可汗 on Bilibili

Over time, however, Little John’s work has shown hints of dissatisfaction with the great power-centric realism that tends to dominate contemporary Chinese geopolitical discourse. Shifting his focus from humorous anecdotes of bumbling despots, he began offering viewers more empathetic portrayals of the tragic heroes of the 20th century: Hafizullah Amin, the Afghan Communist leader killed by the Soviet Union, Salvador Allende, who met a similar fate at the hands of a U.S.-supported military coup, and Thomas Sankara, the martyred leader of Burkina Faso.

These videos represented a shift in Little John’s output that paralleled broader trends in Chinese online spaces toward leftism, communism, and international solidarity, especially among what Mao Zedong once termed the “Third World.” Instead of telling tall tales about “small countries,” he started recounting the history of the Cold War through a Third World lens. In practice, that has meant de-emphasizing the role of poor leadership in the failure of post-colonial states, and instead highlighting their misfortune in being caught up in the Cold War.

“Not all countries have a path forward in this world,” he once wrote.

It’s a pessimistic yet idealistic outlook that resonates with young Chinese, who are rediscovering and reappropriating the country’s leftist political traditions as they grapple with issues like the growing gap between rich and poor, stalled progress on gender equality, and lacking protections for workers. This simmering discontent at the system has led many to reject the icons of capitalism like Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

As with online leftist or anti-imperialist communities elsewhere in the world, memes play an important role in the dissemination of their ideas and arguments, and this is where Little John’s content shines. His videos don’t just espouse anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, and pro-internationalist positions; they’re also extremely meme-able, thanks both to Little John’s keen eye for topics and his exaggerated use of homophones, regional dialect, and other jokes popular among extremely online Chinese. When a video about Salvador Allende mentioned the famous Chilean leftist song “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” so many fans flooded the comments section on the popular NetEase Cloud Music app that the song’s older fans complained they were being overrun.

Little John also continues to expand the scope of his videos. In the second half of 2021, he introduced a new series centered around historical figures titled “Hardcore Badasses” (yinghe henren). The videos revolve around a seemingly random collection of bank robbers, con artists, and spies, well-known individuals like children’s author Roald Dahl, and even otherwise ordinary people who performed extraordinary feats of survival.

These videos fill a knowledge gap for many Chinese by covering topics and people rarely mentioned in textbooks, newspapers, or on television.

On the one hand, the “Hardcore Badasses” series marks a return to the more entertainment-focused approach of Little John’s early videos on small countries and failed leaders. On the other, the new framing allows him to break free from the limitations of the “small countries” lens and tell stories of individuals from great powers like the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States. While the subjects of his “Hardcore Badasses” videos might seem disparate, they share a common desire: to slip the bonds of hegemony and imperialism. That’s true regardless of whether they hailed from the “Third World” or were lucky enough to have been born in a “big” country.

There are signs that Chinese state media recognizes the pull of left-leaning influencers like Little John. On Christmas Day 2021, for example, the vlogger published an episode of “Hardcore Badasses” in collaboration with China’s official news agency Xinhua on George Blake, a British spy who defected to the Soviet Union because of his Marxist beliefs.

Yet the relationship between China’s online left and the establishment remains tenuous at best, as the former seems more interested in the kinds of stories mainstream Chinese media rarely tell. Reporting from small, poorer countries continues to be marginalized in most Chinese official media outlets, publications, and even school curriculums, and the authorities prefer cultural products that can tell “China stories.”

This might seem to exclude a vlogger like Little John, who rarely mentions China in his work, and whose videos almost never touch on the country’s modern history, or even China’s contributions to the international socialist movement. For Little John and his followers, however, a focus on smaller countries is not necessarily inconsistent with the desire to tell “China stories.” After all, the pursuit of self-reliance by developing nations and the profound effects of hegemony on international politics are hardly irrelevant to understanding China’s past and present.

Nevertheless, the Chinese left’s renewed emphasis on internationalism has yet to fuse with the more mainstream nation-state narrative preferred by official media sources. During the past several decades of rapid economic growth and development, Maoist internationalism and Third World-ism were deemphasized in favor of the domestic reform agenda. Now, young Chinese are again beginning to look outward, not just at the West, but also at the developing world, often through a lens colored by nostalgia for the era of socialist solidarity and idealism.

It’s not clear whether China’s online left can translate its growing popularity to the real world. Although members of the community have staked out left-wing positions on industrial relations and colonialism, they are a diverse group, not bound by real-world bonds such as a shared class identity, and there is little space in China for offline organizing. Little John’s detractors point out he operates on one of China’s most capitalist platforms, and complain he is simply selling tales of “political doom and gloom” about failed socialist experiments absent any practical vision for the future.

Then again, we shouldn’t discount the power of nostalgia. For 30 years at least, there has been no truly internationalist wing of mainstream Chinese political discourse. We debate the merits of humanitarianism absent a thorough understanding of the colonial history of other countries and their struggles to break free of great power hegemony. The Cold War might be over, but while the Soviet Union has been relegated to the history books, the idealism of revolutionaries like Sankara, Allende, and Blake doesn’t have to be. Perhaps it’s time to find out whether leftist memes have the potential to construct as well as deconstruct.

Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: Visual elements from @小约翰可汗on Bilibilli and studiostockart/iStock/VCG, reedited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)