China's farmers reap rich harvest through social media and video-sharing apps


When Ma Gongzuo’s city-based business failed and he returned to his village, people saw him as a loser; a year later, he’s an undisputed hero


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Ma Gongzuo (centre) shares videos of his rural life, rather than advertising his products, but it’s led to great financial reward.

"Do you want a piece?” beekeeper Ma Gongzuo says, looking into the camera of a friend’s smartphone before biting into the dripping comb of amber-coloured honey.

The clip goes out to his 737,000 followers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, that has 400 million users and has turned Ma into something of a celebrity.

Creating videos has become a popular sales tactic for Chinese farmers: the clips show increasingly discerning consumers the origins of the product and provide a window into rural life that captures audience imagination.

For some it has helped them find a way out of poverty, which the ruling Communist party hopes to eradicate by the end of this year.

“Everyone said I was good for nothing when they saw I’d come back,” the 31-year-old says of his return to his village after a failed attempt at running an online clothing business.

“They tell us that we can only get out of poverty if we study and get a job in a city,” he adds. Today, Ma drives an expensive car and has already earned enough to buy property and help his parents and fellow villagers with their homes and businesses. 

In 2015, Ma took on the family honey producing business in the verdant hills of Zhejiang province, and thanks to e-commerce apps, managed to turn a yearly revenue of 1 million yuan (HK$1.12 million).

But the sales began to stagnate. 

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So in November 2018, with help from his friends in the village, he began posting videos about his life on the farm. 

They showed him opening up a hive surrounded by a swarm of bees, swimming bare-chested in a river, and chopping wood. “I never advertise my products. I show my daily life, the landscapes of the countryside. That’s what interests people,” Ma says.

“Of course people suspect that I’m selling honey. But they decide to get in touch with me to say they want to buy some.”

Ma says he now sells between 2 and 3 million yuan worth of honey each year, as well as dried sweet potato and brown sugar.

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“When I was young we were poor,” he recalls, adding: “At school I used to admire other kids who had pocket money, because I never had any.”

“Using Douyin, that was the turning point,” he says. “Today I can buy my family what they need. I help the other villagers to sell their products, too. All of the local economy benefits,” he explains.

Some 847 million people on the mainland access the internet via their smartphone, so online apps have played a vital role in Ma’s success.

“It’s progress,” his father Ma Jianchun says happily. “We old people are overwhelmed. With the money, we’ve been able to renovate our house.”

Many might consider honey a humble ingredient with no broader appeal; for one farmer, however, the gleaming elixir has proven to be literal liquid gold, earning him millions, thanks to the success of his Douyin videos showing his daily life.
Photo: AFP

Getting in on the trend, Douyin’s parent company ByteDance says it has organised training for 26,000 farmers on how to master the art of making videos.

“We want to be an example, to show young people that it is entirely possible to set up a business and earn money in rural areas,” explains university-educated Ma Gongzuo.“We hope that more will return, so that life and the economy can resume in the villages.”

With his newfound fame, Ma says he has already received many proposals. And not just from those interested in his honey.