Based on the top online searches in the last few weeks, Russia, which saw a mutiny on 24 June, has garnered significant interest from Chinese netizens. Since the outbreak of the Ukraine war last year, Chinese netizens have been intrigued by Russia and its people, so much so that there have been several online impersonators using deepfake AI to pass off as Russians.
‘Russian’ soldier with a Henan accent
On 16 June, Chinese media outlets such as The Paper and Chengdu.cn reported on “Pavel Korchatie” (保尔·柯察铁) who claimed to be a Chechen special forces soldier fighting on the frontline of the Ukraine war. Korchatie used short video platforms such as Douyin and Kuaishou to post short clips of himself on the battlefield, attacking Ukraine and American soldiers and destroying American weapons. The name “Pavel Korchatie” was obviously derived from that of Pavel Korchagin, the protagonist in the Soviet novel How the Steel Was Tempered.
According to the reports, a number of netizens thought his videos were real despite the clear use of deepfake AI and onscreen labels of the videos being enactments based on movie or TV plots. Korchatie even set up an online store to sell goods after garnering more than 300,000 followers.
When eagle-eyed netizens noticed that he spoke with a Henan accent and used a Henan IP address, Korchatie deleted all his videos and changed his handle to “Wang Kangmei” (王抗美, literally anti-America Wang). However, the account was still suspended indefinitely by the short video platforms.
... even though Pavel Korchatie failed to mask his Henan accent when regaling viewers with tall tales from the battlefield, he still managed to accumulate more than 300,000 followers before his account was suspended.
Given the absurdity of this news, it did not spark much of a serious discussion among netizens. Indeed, Korchatie is not the first Chinese internet celebrity to impersonate a foreigner and neither will he be the last to profit through this way using popular global issues.
Impersonators’ identities remain a mystery
Most of Korchatie’s short videos begin with him saying “Hi, my Chinese friends”, followed by scenes of him fighting Ukrainian or American soldiers, before ending with “The red flag will never fall”.
Taking Douyin as an example, even though Pavel Korchatie failed to mask his Henan accent when regaling viewers with tall tales from the battlefield, he still managed to accumulate more than 300,000 followers before his account was suspended.
In the screenshots circulating online of comments on Korchatie’s earlier videos, a number of netizens praised him for his Mandarin fluency, addressed him as “hero” or “warrior”, and reminded him to stay safe. The level of support the impersonator received probably encouraged him to rebrand himself as Wang Kangmei, an anti-America fighter and pioneer, after his ruse was exposed.
The suspension of the Pavel Korchatie account reminded many netizens of a similar incident last year. In that instance, a user with the handle “Russia Nana” (俄罗斯娜娜) also used deepfake AI to pass off as a foreigner...
On 16 June, Douyin officially announced that Korchatie had severely violated its regulations, through acts of impersonation and sharing of fabricated content such as battlefield videos and updates, to generate interest and gain social traffic. So, the platform suspended the account indefinitely, removed the followers it amassed and withheld the profits it generated.
But other than having his account suspended, it seems like the account holder evaded further punishment and liability, and his real identity remains a mystery.
The suspension of the Pavel Korchatie account reminded many netizens of a similar incident last year. In that instance, a user with the handle “Russia Nana” (俄罗斯娜娜) also used deepfake AI to pass off as a foreigner and managed to accumulate nearly two million followers on two short video platforms before being exposed.
Unlike Korchatie’s tough guy image, Russia Nana mostly sat in front of the camera to chat with her viewers about her daily life, sing a couple of old songs, and sell some Russian products. While she appeared to be blonde, have blue and deep-set eyes, and a high nose bridge and spoke Mandarin with a heavy Russian accent, her pronunciation was impeccable when it came to singing. This discrepancy, together with several video segments in which the deepfake AI filters malfunctioned due to livestreaming issues, eventually gave her game away.
The confluence of the emergence of deepfake AI, the outbreak of the Ukraine war, and events in Russia drawing the interest of the Chinese public means that Russians are among the most impersonated foreigners.
Like Korchatie, four accounts linked to Russia Nana were indefinitely suspended by Douyin last April. But the true identity of Russia Nana is still unknown, and sporadic online discussions in China about her gender remain.
The confluence of the emergence of deepfake AI, the outbreak of the Ukraine war, and events in Russia drawing the interest of the Chinese public means that Russians are among the most impersonated foreigners. Fortunately, such AI technology is still in its infancy and the impersonators lack the acting skills, so there are still no reports of serious scams, only light-hearted accounts of comical accents.
Aside from saying with derision that “Chinese only dupe their fellow countrymen”, Chinese netizens also questioned whether short video social media platforms have adequate oversight of such AI-generated content.
A field guide to foreign internet celebrities in China
Notwithstanding the few impersonators, there are genuine foreign bloggers in China. For some of them, their rise to prominence can even be traced back further than when the internet first became available in China in 1994.
Mark Rowswell, a Canadian who is better known in China by his stage name “Dashan” (大山), can be considered the pioneer of such internet celebrities. An academic, host and performer of xiangsheng (相声, Chinese comic dialogue act), Rowswell rose to fame after participating in the China Central Television (CCTV) New Year’s Gala in 1989 in which he portrayed Chinese youth Xu Dashan in the skit Ye Gui (夜归, literally returning home at night). Subsequently, he became a student of Chinese xiangsheng master Jiang Kun and made more appearances on the CCTV New Year’s Gala in 1998, 1999, 2009 and 2011.
Rowswell’s claim to fame was that he spoke fluent Mandarin despite being a foreigner. At a time when China was just opening up to the rest of the world, he satisfied the curiosity of Chinese audiences towards foreigners.
Over the years, Rowswell contributed greatly to promoting Mandarin and cultural exchanges between China and Canada, earning him plenty of plaudits from the Chinese government and the public. The Chinese state media People’s Daily even described him as “a foreigner but one of our own”. He was also appointed a cultural ambassador by then Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper. Rowswell cut down on his activities in China since 2015 but continues to promote Chinese culture in different countries around the world.
Complimenting China the key to online followers
In 2017, after Rowswell faded from the public eye, we-media account Ychina (歪果仁研究协会) and its Israeli founder, Raz Gal-Or, found fame on Chinese video-sharing platform Bilibili. Most of the videos produced by Ychina are street interviews of foreigners living in China, with the aim of helping China and the rest of the world better understand each other.
Raz Gal-Or is a Peking University graduate and has been interviewed by the CCTV-9 documentary channel and the Global People news magazine. Some of the videos produced by Ychina have also been carried by Chinese state media and other mainstream media outlets. In 2019, Gal-Or and his team were invited to shoot a promotional video in preparation for the Beijing Winter Olympics.
In 2021, Gal-Or published Xinjiang-related videos on YouTube and Facebook to show that the situation in Xinjiang was normal, with no sign of human rights infringement. As a result, he was accused by foreign netizens of acting as a mouthpiece for the Chinese government.
These critics also felt that from another perspective, Kokolevskiy’s rise to fame also shows that the Chinese still lack confidence in their culture and worship all things foreign.
Around the same time, British video blogger Jason Lightfoot who was living in China also posted videos to rebut the accusations from foreign governments and media outlets of human rights infringements in Xinjiang. Chinese state media CGTN even reported on Lightfoot’s actions.
Currently, Gal-Or’s personal account and Ychina’s official account on Bilibili have over 270,000 and 4.35 million followers respectively.
In contrast to Gal-Or’s publicity videos that are at least based on evidence, Russian Vladislav Yuryevich Kokolevskiy, who found fame on short video platforms, is more direct.
When Kokolevskiy began posting videos on Douyin, his videos were based on his experiences with Chinese food and culture. Around 2020, he switched to an over-the-top style, and refrains such as “I love China” and “I want to become a Chinese citizen” were prevalent across his videos. Subsequently, Kokolevskiy became an online sensation with more than 13 million followers on Douyin.
While many of Kokolevskiy’s followers enjoyed his flattery, there are Chinese netizens and we-media accounts that question whether his “senseless compliments” are just a bid to boost social traffic through satisfying the vanity of Chinese netizens. These critics also felt that from another perspective, Kokolevskiy’s rise to fame also shows that the Chinese still lack confidence in their culture and worship all things foreign.
... even though foreign internet celebrities share a variety of content across different social media platforms, most of those that won the approval of Chinese netizens have one thing in common — they are complimentary of China.
On the whole, even though foreign internet celebrities share a variety of content across different social media platforms, most of those that won the approval of Chinese netizens have one thing in common — they are complimentary of China.
When social traffic hinges on international affairs
A number of Chinese netizens feel that the foreignness of these internet celebrities helped them become famous by praising China, but if a Chinese were to do the same, there would be much less interest from Chinese netizens.
According to an article published by we-media account “Cha Ping Jun” (差评君) that has since accumulated more than 100,000 views, there are two main reasons why foreigners can easily find online fame in China and profit from their popularity.
First, viewers are generally receptive towards cross-cultural communication and many Chinese are curious about how foreigners view China, like whether they enjoy the convenience of mobile payments or find local food delivery services novel. Second, many Chinese are still not used to the alienness of foreigners and are split over how to treat them. There is a camp that views foreigners with disdain and another that craves for their approval and praise.
Even though foreigners enjoy an advantage, whether they can find online fame in China also depends on whether they have an accurate grasp of the topics of interest and are adept at generating social traffic.
In an article published by the we-media account “Mao Lina” (毛丽娜) on the current hot topic of “Russians”, the writer analyses that imposters such as Pavel Korchatie and Russia Nana were able to achieve and profit from high social traffic because they were familiar with the workings of and topics of interest on Chinese social media platforms. In comparison, real Russians may not be as familiar with China’s online environment or know what Chinese netizens like to hear. So, even though they may produce more authentic content, most of them remain obscure.
... it is also clear that the type of foreigner that is most likely to be a hit with Chinese netizens depends on China’s place in the global order.
Lashing out against the US also enticing
A combination of the dramatic Wagner rebellion, the Ukraine war that has dragged on for over a year, and the worsening bilateral ties between China and the US, has made Russians highly popular among Chinese netizens. Clearly, when changes in the global state of affairs bring in the next hot topic, another nationality may well replace Russians as the new favourite of Chinese netizens.
At the same time, it is also clear that the type of foreigner that is most likely to be a hit with Chinese netizens depends on China’s place in the global order. At the height of Rowswell’s popularity, China was beginning to reconnect with the outside world, so the majority of its people harboured a friendly curiosity towards foreigners. All Rowswell had to do was to be himself. Even during Gal-Or’s rise to fame, there were still benefits of being a foreigner and it was still possible for foreigners to be part of the Chinese government’s publicity efforts.
By Kokolevskiy’s time, the Covid-19 pandemic and worsening bilateral ties between China and the US presented China with more challenges internationally. This was accompanied by a shift in the attitudes of Chinese netizens towards foreigners as they came to either view foreigners with disdain, or hope to receive further compliments of China’s superiority from them. Such polarised views provide plenty of opportunities for those with ulterior motives to fake their way towards social traffic and profits.
Over the years, the tactics used to increase social traffic have evolved from relatively objective and carefully shot videos on cultural exchanges and experiences, to shouting refrains like “I love China”, and the current trend of not even having to praise China as simply lashing out against the US or focusing on popular topics is enough.
Even though it is human nature to enjoy compliments, doing whatever it takes to boost social traffic has fouled up the internet. A good case in point is the lamentable and ludicrous acts of impersonating foreigners.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as ““俄罗斯大兵”在中国带货？”.
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