WASHINGTON - At first glance, the videos conjure up visions of a secluded utopian paradise.
In one, a young woman rides on horseback in the dewy landscape of China’s southwestern Sichuan province, picks lily magnolias while wearing in a red cape and then cooks a large spread of dishes with the blossoms.
In another, she uses grape skins to dye white cloth, sews a flowing purple maxi-dress, and dances in her beautiful, spacious country house.
Meet one of China’s most popular vloggers, Li Ziqi. Picking ingredients from her farm, constructing furniture by hand, and tending her adorable sheep and dogs, she performs the work of a farmer with the grace of a fairy and offers a romantic depiction of China’s country life.
This rural dreamscape comes with some hardheaded analytics: She has over 26.3 million followers on China’s Sina Weibo, more than over 3.5 million followers on Facebook and She has 11.8 million subscribers on YouTube, where her last post, “The Life of Cucumbers” generated more than 10 million views in three weeks. Facebook and YouTube are blocked by China’s Great Firewall.
Li is one of the few Chinese Internet celebrities whose popularity transcends borders. She has received high praise from China’s state media outlets for “showing the wonderful lives of Chinese people in the countryside,” who account for about 40 percent of its people.
Experts who spoke to VOA say that China is trying to tap into its vast pool of talented cybercelebrities to generate soft power for the country. Yet they suggest the strategy is unlikely to be very successful because the actions of the Chinese Communist Party have generated mostly negative publicity outside of China. Soft power, a concept first introduced by Harvard University professor Joseph Nye, refers to a country’s appeal and attraction originated from its culture, political values, foreign policies and ways of life.
In an interview with Goldthread, which explores trends and presents human interest stories from China, the 30-year-old said she started as a one-woman operation in 2015. Li said now she has a videographer and an assistant, but she “has full control of the content she wants to film.” The news outlet noted that they were not allowed to observe Li’s filming.
Li's main audience includes urban millennials, as her videos portray an appealing rural life for urban fantasies. Michel Hockx, a professor of Chinese literature at the University of Notre Dame, told VOA Mandarin that these videos would undoubtedly appeal Western audiences and Chinese-speaking communities worldwide.
“For non-Chinese audiences, they might strengthen certain views of Chinese culture and Chinese tradition as "exotic and different,” he said.
Along with praise from her fans in China and elsewhere, China’s official CCTV applauded Li for introducing Chinese culture to the world, telling China’s stories and showing “the confidence and wonderful lives of China’s youth.” All this falls in line with President Xi Jinping’s call issued two years ago to “to tell China’s stories well, present a true, multidimensional, and panoramic view of China, and enhance our country’s cultural soft power.”
Global Times, an English-language Chinese newspaper published under the auspices of the official People's Daily, reported Li lives a reclusive yet ideal Chinese pastoral life, adding which foreigners may liken to “a fairy tale.” The China Association of Young Rural Entrepreneurial Leaders, an organization with deep ties to the Communist Youth League, has invited Li to be their ambassador.
Kingsley Edney, one of the editors of Soft Power With Chinese Characteristics: China’s Campaign for Hearts and Minds, said the fact that the state media are praising vloggers like Li sends a political signal.
“The Chinese government would certainly see these celebrities as a potential resource, but one that needs to be harnessed and controlled,” he told VOA Mandarin.
Stanley Rosen, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Southern California, echoed Edney.
“I think there is no question that the Party/government wants to co-opt these individuals for domestic and international purposes,” he told VOA Mandarin. “The latter is clear from the YouTube channel since YouTube is banned in China.”
Han Li, an associate professor of literature at Rhodes College, pointed out that Li has a support team for her presence on the banned platforms, Facebook and YouTube. “That tells you she has government support,” she told VOA.
In June, an article in The Diplomat magazine said that individual content creators like Li are sensitive to viewer perceptions and present a softer, diversified, and apolitical side of Chinese society that better connects with international audiences.
“Their success implies that China could tap into this vast pool of talented cyber celebrities to generate soft power for the country – in fact, this may have already started,” wrote author Jo Kim.
Rosen said the Chinese Communist Party has tried to generate soft power through its culture in numerous ways, including films and Confucius Institutes, but has not been notably successful, particularly in the West.
“Given all the negatives that stem from China's actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the South China Sea and elsewhere, the Party-state is looking for something to show the ‘soft side’ of China, through ordinary people, to show that Chinese people are just like people everywhere,” he said.
Yet Rosen argued this strategy would be hard to be overly successful because the recent aggressive actions of CCP have generated negative publicity outside China.
Since Xi came to power, the Chinese leader has stressed the importance of building a network to reach out to the international audience, and do a better job "telling China's stories, conveying China's voice and building cultural self-confidence."
University of Notre Dame's Michel Hockx said he doesn't believe the videos are a specific promotion of soft power or that they will necessarily benefit China.
"These celebrities are not actively working with the state, as far as I know. Of course they're not working against it either," he said. "They are making use of the spaces that are available to achieve fame and success, and the state is happy to hold them up as exemplars for their policy."
He adds that "there are plenty of cultural producers out there on the Chinese Internet that are doing much more interesting things."
Jonathan McClory, a globally recognized expert on soft power and government communications, said it’s hard for China to win the hearts of citizens from other countries in light of its authoritarian rule at home and aggressive foreign policies abroad.
“While cultural soft power is best placed to draw people in for an initial ‘conversation’, (China’s) behavior in terms of domestic and foreign policy will carry the day in shaping global opinion of a country,” he told VOA.
Edney said the biggest problem with China’s image is its political system. Meanwhile, almost all of the culture it promotes is traditional Chinese culture which is largely non-existent in today’s China.
He recommended the Chinese authorities give these Internet celebrities a little space to promote their quirky interests or personalities, so it can help showcase the vibrancy of contemporary Chinese society to international audiences and give people a fresh view of the country.
Edney continued, saying “Internet celebrities are not going to be able to make people ignore human rights abuses in China.”
Correction and update: An earlier version of this article inaccurately described Kingsley Edney's professional involvement with Soft Power With Chinese Characteristics: China’s Campaign for Hearts and Minds. He was one of the book's editors. This article has also been updated with additional quotes from Michel Hockx.