Now, he wants back in
8 hours ago·8 min read
Bart Baker is a content creator in his midthirties with more than 10 million YouTube subscribers and more than 3 billion views on his YouTube videos. He reached notoriety by creating parodies of popular American pop songs. But he no longer posts videos to YouTube. Now he churns out content for Chinese social media apps like Kwai and Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok).
In a video interview with Vice News, Baker gives us a glimpse into the life of an American web-based entertainer desperately trying to reach fame in China. He spends his days plugging the lyrics of popular Chinese songs into Google Translate in order to rewrite them into barely passable English versions that he then belts into the camera as part of kitschy music videos for Douyin.
He loudly exclaims his love for China and Huawei in snippets of garbled Mandarin to his livestream viewers, hurriedly waving goodbye once his “workday” is over. He casts away this alternate personality as quickly as he dons it.
But how exactly did Baker, an American with no previous ties or interest in China, reach this point in his content creating career?
Baker’s content is strictly controlled and the overarching theme of all his content is that China is awesome, a narrative no doubt forced on him by his media company and legislation.
When YouTube launched in 2005, it was practically just a collection of home videos. People uploaded everything from the absurdly comedic to the unvaried mundane. There were no ads and no money to be made.
But once Google took over the platform in 2006, it began to monetize the content people uploaded and to rein in the massive piracy issues on its newly acquired platform. In 2007 YouTube introduced in-video ads and then launched the YouTube Partner Program, which allowed creators to make money from their videos as long as those videos didn’t include pirated content, a growing trend that was infuriating mainstream media conglomerates.
Now the most popular content creators often rake in millions of dollars from ad revenue, brand partnerships, and video promotions. Children in the United States and the U.K. are much more likely to aspire to become YouTube stars than to aspire to walk among the stars (literally).
While some content creators seem to have YouTube figured out, others have voiced concerns about the mysterious inner workings of their algorithms and lurking threats of demonetization that can jeopardize their livelihoods.
In an effort to make YouTube a more attractive platform for advertisers, Google began to exert influence over the success (or lack thereof) of content to discourage creators from posting content that is hateful, abusive, harassing, or untruthful.
Content that did not meet their expectations was demonetized, which meant that videos (or even whole channels) lost their ability to earn advertising income. Creators now follow a strict but uncertain set of rules to avoid demonetization of their videos and channels. YouTube tells them not to use heavy profanity. They’re told to keep content “family-friendly” for advertisers. Anything from the title to the thumbnail of their videos can be scrutinized and used as justification to demonetize them.
But YouTube’s rules are not always perfectly clear, or perfectly enforced.
Some content creators have had their whole channels demonetized for no discernible reason while other YouTubers have shown dead bodies while only facing short-lived consequences.
According to the Vice interview, after enjoying success on YouTube for nearly a decade, in February of 2018, YouTube removed Baker from the Google Preferred program. This meant he would have to receive upward of tens of millions of views on each new video to even begin to break even on the cost of production. Baker claimed in this impassioned plea to his viewers that YouTube was actively suppressing his channel and hiding his uploads from subscribers.
In the video, he also mentions how he’s hit a low point in his life and is struggling with anxiety and depression, a struggle he says other YouTubers likely go through as well.
A few months later in June of that year, he posted a video of himself destroying his Gold Play Button, an award plaque given to YouTubers who reach 1 million subscribers. Though this was probably overlooked as one of Baker’s crazy antics at the time, more recent comments on the video remark how this was probably a cry for help from a man losing his means of making a livelihood. And this is how a Chinese media company called DCDC was able to charm Baker into embarking on a strange journey to fame in China.
Though Baker has dedicated himself completely to this new journey (even to the extent that he’s moved to live abroad in China), he’ll never have the creative freedom in China that he enjoyed in the United States. His media manager at DCDC, who goes by the name Super BTai online, is a native Chinese social influencer in his own right. He states in the Vice interview that he’s worried Baker may do or say something that is looked upon unfavorably by the Chinese government. Even something as minor as Baker depicting marijuana use in one of his past parody videos could be enough to set off a dangerous chain of events. China has been increasingly cracking down on “cannabis culture,” which the government treats as a foreign threat from Western nations. If officials were to suspect that Baker or employees at DCDC were promoting cannabis culture or using cannabis, they could be subject to police raids and drug tests. These policies have already affected the nightlife and food and beverage industries in other Chinese cities such as Changzhou and Beijing.
Baker’s content is strictly controlled and the overarching theme of all his content is that China is awesome, a narrative no doubt forced on him by his media company and legislation that has effectively banned anyone from posting negative content about the country.
Why then, would a Chinese media company take the risk of representing a Westerner who could put the company at risk of attracting scrutiny from the Chinese government?
Apparently Westerners have a lower barrier of entry to potential fame in China than creators of Chinese ethnicity. Even lower still if they’re able to speak Mandarin. Baker’s manager says that although Baker isn’t very good-looking (oof) Baker’s love of China and his persistence is likely enough to make him famous.
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China’s “White Monkey” problem
One factor in Baker’s success in China may be what is known as the “white monkey” phenomenon.
As recently as 2014, Chinese consumer goods represented 51% of all posted product recalls from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) even though they represented only 23% of all foreign and domestic goods that fall under the jurisdiction of the CPSC. With even more lax testing, inspection processes, and regulations for domestic products, Chinese citizens have good cause to be wary of products manufactured within their own borders. In order to combat this reputation, Chinese companies employ what they commonly refer to as “white monkeys” to establish a more trustworthy brand image for products and services.
White monkeys are foreign models, actors, or performers hired by Chinese companies to work at promotional events, appear in commercials or on billboards, etc. The logic is that if these companies can convince Chinese citizens that foreigners trust their products enough to use them, they can win over the trust of their citizens as well.
The agents behind China’s strictly controlled image have a lot to gain from social media’s extensive reach to their people.
So-called “white monkey jobs” can include posing topless at promotional events, acting as a CEO of a Chinese company for a commercial, or masquerading as a fake English teacher to sell educational programs. Caucasian foreigners from all over the world are highly sought after for these jobs.
Although “white monkeys” are usually people advertising products directly, as an influencer Baker could also be viewed as a “white monkey” as the media company he works for attempts to market aspects of Chinese nationalism with Baker’s “whiteness.”
Brands hope that whiteness alone will give their products credibility. Still, it’s a form of minstrelsy. Qualifying someone to promote a product solely on the basis of their race also has the unintended consequence of emphasizing the distinctions that make them a “perpetual foreigner.” It’s problematic that whiteness holds influence and that influence can be bought and sold readily.
It’s difficult to say just how much of Baker’s experience in China has been shaped by the company he works for. His American social media accounts only account for a handful of updates in which he promotes highly curated glimpses of his life of fame in China throughout the past year. Baker’s American fans may take solace in the fact that he now claims to be “more famous than Bieber in China now.”
Though it’s been a year of uncertainty, Baker has teased that he may be coming back to YouTube. On August 31, 2020, Baker posted a community post on his channel addressing his fans:
“I miss you guys. Hope everyone is safe and healthy. I’m considering starting to post again on here,” he writes.
In subsequent comments he clarifies that more parodies are out of the question for the time being due to the cost of production, but mentions that he is open to sharing what’s really happened to him over the past year. If Baker is still working within the confines of Chinese media though, it would serve anyone well to question whether he’ll be able to tell his tale uncensored.
As the global commerce of influence continues to grow, we can expect that China will collect a large share of the market. China already represents the world’s largest social network market with 926.84 million unique users using a social network site at least once a month. The agents behind China’s strictly controlled image have a lot to gain from social media’s extensive reach to their people. But as the country remains committed to promoting nationalism and is unabashed in the recruiting of foreigners for the sole purpose of bringing credibility to these attitudes, the “truth” that pervades China’s vast social networks will continue to be a highly curated one.