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March 23,2018

Rise of foreign stars in Chinese social media marks the beginning of a new trend

In some ways, people don’t realize how involved Western celebrities already are with Chinese social media. Karlie Kloss joined Xiaohongshu (called Red in English) in May while Robert Downey Jr, Taylor Swift, Britney Speaks and Dwayne Wade have been on Weibo for some time and Radiohead even had a Weibo account at one point


China’s internet celebrity economy has expanded exponentially in recent years. According to a report released by iResearch, the number of online celebrities in China with more than 100,000 followers has increased by 57.3 percent since 2016.

With a single embedded ad in a WeChat post worth up to $145,000 USD for influencers with dedicated followings, and a total market estimated at $14 billion USD in 2018 by Beijing-based research agency Analysus, it’s a sizeable, attractive market for internet personalities.

Chinese internet celebrities have capitalized on these huge audiences and lucrative businesses, but foreigners have started to realize they can join in the fun.

Internet celebrities from outside of China can’t dismiss a market with a reported 1 billion mobile users and many are bringing their online presence to Chinese platforms. Along with their increasing involvement, interesting patterns have emerged.

Relatable English-speakers bring their brand to China

In the past, most foreigners who gained fame in China or entered its social media world were either international celebrities or foreigners living in Asia. Most of those in the second group stood out for two reasons. They either showcased very unusual personas, such as that of cross-dressing, bearded, former wrestler Ladybeard, or made a name for themselves through their knowledge of Chinese language or culture, like Dashan.

But now a new breed seems to be taking the reins. They’re often already popular on social media overseas and don’t speak Mandarin apart from a few simple phrases. This doesn’t phase people as English is better understood among the younger generation and fans often subtitle videos to help those who aren’t fluent. And these content creators may not be experts on Chinese culture, but they somehow connect with Chinese audiences.

A good example of this trend is 8-year-old Gavin Thomas, known in China as "jia xiao nan hai" ("fake smile boy".) He became a well known figure on Chinese social media after photos showing him smiling to be polite went viral there.


Gavin Thomas, famous for his reluctant polite smile, is a Meme King in China. He has 1.9 million folowers on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.

Putting on a happy face to please others or smooth things over is a cornerstone of many Asian cultures so people could relate and he gained fans for his cute, clear expression of “polite reluctance.”

The hashtag #Gavin Thomas# (in China, # is before and after the word) appears over 11.6 million times on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. Gavin opened his Weibo account in July, 2018 and already has 1.9 million followers on the platform, which is more than each of his Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts.

But Gavin didn’t begin his social media journey on Weibo, Facebook, or YouTube. His uncle Nick Mastodon is an online star in the West and started putting videos of a very young Gavin on platforms like Vine years ago. He’s also played a key role behind the scenes in Gavin’s success in China.

Gavin has now cooperated with Taobao to launch co-branded items such as a hoodie with his picture on it. This arrangement reflects a change in the monetization path for foreign bloggers in China.

There also seems to be a new drive among laowai (“old foreign,” a slang term for foreigners in China) bloggers in 2018 to not only produce excellent content but to connect themselves with aspects of life in China and become cultural symbols in their own right.

In 2019, foreign influencers in China have been predicted to pay more attention to connecting with Chinese audiences, creating self-branded products that resonate there and monetizing them.

Multi-platform reach

The biggest platforms in China are WeChat and Weibo. They could be considered equivalents of Facebook and Twitter, except that the version of WeChat used in China, has exponentially more functionalities than Facebook, including the ability to pay bills, hail taxis, and buy flight tickets.

In the past, international bloggers focused mainly on WeChat and Weibo. But with big trends in China toward short video content in 2018, local influencers spread their content among different secondary platforms and foreign influencers followed suit. Because YouTube is blocked in China, so it’s the localizing channels that fit the preferences and appetites of a Chinese audience.

Chinese social media is blooming with all kinds of new platforms and features, especially with the rise of short video, creating a wider array of content for different platforms to attract followers became a must for foreign internet stars.

For new creators and emerging talents, there are plenty of other smaller outfits looking for partners and content that will translate well in the Chinese market.

Internet celebrities from outside of China can’t dismiss this market and previous foreign bloggers living in the territory will establish a stronger presence there in 2019.

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