With close to eight million subscribers on YouTube, the Chinese internet celebrity is a global sensation. Her popularity abroad has ignited a debate within China about Chinese soft power and how to reach a younger audience.
For years, Chinese internet celebrity Li Ziqi has been dazzling legions of fans with her fairy-tale-like depictions of life in rural China.
Her videos, which are uploaded to YouTube and Chinese social media, show her performing seemingly mundane farm work against scenic mountain backdrops, set to light, airy music and soothing ASMR.
For her more than 50 million fans in China and eight million more abroad, her ethereal videos are meditative and show a side of China that is fast disappearing.
Now, the Chinese government seems to be taking notice.
State media outlets have been penning editorials on how to promote Chinese culture abroad, and they’re holding up Li as an example of how to do it right for a younger, more social media-savvy generation.
The concept of soft power isn’t new to China. For decades, the government has funded cultural institutions and promotional efforts abroad.
There are state-sponsored acrobatic troupes that travel the world performing traditional martial arts and opera, and government-backed language schools across different continents.
But these efforts have largely been top-down. Now, there’s a debate over whether this needs to be updated.
An editorial published on Wednesday in the Southern Weekly, a state media outlet known for being more outspoken, asked whether Li was a “cultural export.”
Cultural export, in Chinese, is often interpreted as “propaganda,” and the responsibility of promoting China’s image abroad is largely seen as the government’s domain.
The Southern Weekly editorial pushed back on this idea.
“People are already forming an impression of a country when they consume the cultural products of that country.”
“People are already forming an impression of a country when they consume the cultural products of that country,” the editorial read. “Chinese food culture—such as kung pao chicken, dumplings, Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet, and Chinatown restaurants—has had a stronger influence abroad than high concepts and academic jargon.”
China is figuring out what many cultural powerhouse countries like France, Japan, and the United States have known for a long time—that food, movies, and books created by individuals do a better job of shaping external perceptions of a country than official campaigns.
In the case of Li, the Chinese government appears to be recognizing the contributions of individual creators.
In September, the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, awarded Li a “people’s choice award” for a video promoting Chinese calligraphy.
In its own editorial, the paper hailed her as a cultural juggernaut who’s able to connect with viewers on a more personal and visceral level. On Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, the topic of Li as a “cultural export” was trending on Tuesday.
These influencers found fame within the confines of China’s internet, and they’re starting to break through the Great Firewall, using tools such as VPNs to get their content on platforms otherwise inaccessible in the country.
They’re incidentally discovering that their content also resonates abroad, and if the chatter of state media is any proof, it could suggest a bigger role in advancing Chinese soft power.