As Beijing gets tough on celebrity gossip and gaming, online content providers pin their hopes on ‘knowledge’

  • Knowledge videos have become a safe bet for China’s tech giants amid on ongoing campaign by Beijing to clamp down on unsavoury content
  • Popularity of free-for-all online classes has been a shot in the arm for platforms amid censorship drive

Sixty-five-year-old Dai Jianye, with a shock of white hair and speaking in a broad Hubei accent, stands in front of the camera, looking slightly uncomfortable and wondering where to look.

“All my classes have been delivered in the classroom and this is the first time for me to record online lectures,” the retired professor from Central China Normal University, who specialises in Chinese classical literature, says in the opening lines of his online lecture series.

Despite this initial uneasiness, Dai has now become an unlikely China internet star. “Don’t call me grandpa, I also want to become younger on Bilibili,” he writes in his personal bio on the video-streaming platform, where he currently has 2.6 million followers.

Dai has become known for using his passionate, down-to-earth teaching of ancient Chinese literature. When explaining a verse written by famous Chinese poet Su Shi about his deceased wife, he could not help breaking into tears, winning him a legion of online fans.

Videos of his online classes have been widely shared on Chinese platforms such as Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok operated by ByteDance, as well as the increasingly popular short video channel of Tencent Holdings’ super-app WeChat.

Aside from their intrinsic appeal, Dai’s videos have become a safe bet for China’s tech giants amid on ongoing campaign by Beijing to clamp down on content it deems unsuitable such as celebrity gossip, gaming gore, pornography and media that promotes foreign values.

As a result of China’s stricter approach to content, Shanghai-based Bilibili – which started as an online community to share Japanese cartoons and games – has tilted towards education and science topics.

In the past year, so-called “knowledge content” has grown to account for 45 per cent of Bilibili’s total views, with 113 million individual users watching it, or three times the size of China’s total number of college students, according to the company.

Meanwhile Douyin last month invited eight scholars to deliver live-streaming classes on topics ranging from film, literature, design, virology and astronomy to atmospheric physics. Most of them come from elite universities, such as Peking University, Tsinghua University and Wuhan University.

Its closest domestic competitor and the country’s second-largest platform, Kuaishou Technology, has also pointed out that knowledge has become one of its fastest-growing content genres, with law, science and finance the top three categories with the fastest growth for videos longer than 60 seconds.

Zhao Bin, a professor at Fudan University, has posted more than 170 videos on Bilibili.

His journey began with uploading videos about landscape ecology in March last year, amid the pandemic and when most colleges had to postpone the new semester. “Although I didn’t have many followers at that time, the course apparently managed to provide help to some students … they were asking me to update with new videos, which gave me a feeling of being ‘sought-after’,” he said.

Zhao soon noticed the difference between giving lectures offline and online though.

“In the offline classroom, if students are willing to interact … there is communication but … everyone has the same foundation and a similar background,” said Zhao, whereas the online audience has people with more diverse backgrounds that can trigger different thoughts and insights.

“If some of my videos don’t get much attention, I will of course introspect to see whether I can improve the way I share,” said Zhao. “But I don’t intend to cater for certain types of audience. That would be against my original intention.”

To be sure, despite the new-found online interest in lectures delivered by elite school professors, the hottest topics on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, are still mainly about celebrity gossip. And Bilibili, Douyin and Kuaishou have all been asked by regulators to clean up vulgar content on their platforms in recent years.

However, the popularity of free-for-all online classes has been a shot in the arm for these platforms amid the censorship drive and after Beijing banned profits in private tutoring, forcing students to seek extra-curricular training online.

Beijing’s recent purge has included new rules on algorithm regulation, restricting gaming hours for minors to one hour on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and public holidays and stricter content guidelines. Some famous TV shows, including My Fair Princess, have disappeared from the internet. Zhao Wei, the well-known actress, cannot be found on the Chinese internet for unknown reasons.
But for some of China’s netizens, the focus on knowledge is a welcome change.

Ren Jian, a 28-year-old film industry worker, spends at least two hours a day on Bilibili watching knowledge content videos. He follows Zhao Bin’s videos as he thinks Zhao manages to “explain complex things in an easily understandable way”.

“My first choice is to watch videos [if I want to learn something]. If there is anything that I’m very interested in, I would then find a book to read,” he said. “A book gives you a different understanding. Watching videos is more about following other people’s thoughts, which requires much less effort.”

Authos: Tracy Qu and Iris Deng, SCMP

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