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China-Africa relations

Videos of African children giving personalised birthday greetings – sold on Chinese e-commerce websites – divide opinion 

Popular in Hong Kong, video greetings are marketed by middlemen for as little as US$14; have vendors checked children are not being exploited, a human rights researcher asks, but a business ethicist sees nothing inherently wrong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 May, 2018, 5:48pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 May, 2018, 1:18pm

For her 23rd birthday, Cherry Cheung received a peculiar gift from her friend – a video of a dozen black children chanting birthday wishes to her in heavily accented Mandarin, singing her a birthday song and dancing to disco music. 

“I initially thought it was Photoshopped, but then I realised they are indeed shouting my name,” says Cheung, whose friend bought the personalised, 39-second video on Taobao, an online e-commerce platform in China, for 288 yuan (US$45). Taobao is a unit of Alibaba Group, owner of the South China Morning Post.

Such services have been around Taobao and WeChat, a Chinese social media platform, for years. But the trend recently took off in Hong Kong, where social media users post on Facebook and Instagram the videos they receive as gifts or buy themselves. 

Prices start at 90 yuan (US$14) for a short video in which children chant a 10-character personalised message, while a 30-second clip featuring a 20-character message, dancing and singing costs up to 300 yuan. As well as having children chant a message, you can choose “African mercenaries” firing blanks from guns, or Russian girls in minidresses who dance. 

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Customers can receive their videos within 24 hours of ordering them, according to one seller based in Tianjin, a city in northeast China. The videos are shot by colleagues of his in the southern African countries of Malawi, Zambia and Angola, and in Russia, he says. 

“The children are paid for filming the video and even make a living through this,” he says, though he will not reveal how much they each receive. 

His WeChat account shows that he sells up to 20 videos a day. While most clips feature quirky birthday wishes – “you are fat and ugly but I love you still” is an example – there are also congratulations to newlyweds, good luck messages for new businesses and wedding proposals. 

The seller also posted footage of bread, bananas, new sneakers and toys being distributed to the children.

The children are paid for filming the video and even make a living through this
Anonymous video seller

While Cheung and her friends had a good laugh over her birthday video, the unusual business idea has divided opinion. Some internet users accuse sellers of exploiting the children, while others think it is a better way for the youngsters to earn money than other forms of labour they might engage in. 

“Children in Zambia, or Africa [in general], are at high risk of child labour and other types of exploitation. Any businesses providing or advertising services like these should have done the necessary checks to ensure children are not being exploited,” says Lowell Chow, a researcher at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, an international charity. 

David Bishop, who teaches business ethics at the University of Hong Kong, says: “There is nothing inherently wrong with it except for the lack of transparency, whether or not there are negative externalities that could expand into other things, such as that being a portal for sex or organ trafficking. 

“But if I knew for sure the money is going to their pocket, absolutely I would have done it. It's bringing cultures together.”

However, not everyone agrees such videos can facilitate cultural exchange. 

“It is more important to underline how ‘products’ of such kinds objectify Africa by reducing its people to a commodity – little more than a moneymaking tool,” says Dr Emily Chow Shun-man, a postdoctoral fellow in African Studies at HKU, who is researching the representation of Africa and Africans.

 “Regardless of its claim to be an innocent commercial activity, it is difficult to deny that it … promotes rampant capitalism – a certain amount of money would motivate the children to speak a slogan, sing and even dance for you or your company for any reason,” says Chow. She says similar business ideas would be considered racist and unacceptable in a Western country.

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Taobao routinely removes such products and services from its platform, but they can still be easily found on the website. 

Cheung thinks the video greeting trend will be short-lived. “It is just for a laugh. It is not a product you will keep going back for,” she says.