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Children exploited in custom videos

Chinese Taobao vendors selling customised online photo and video messages that feature African children have faced criticism because it is seen as exploitative and racist.

The services are advertised on China’s most popular online shopping platform, Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace, as a “meaningful” way to deliver a personal message. Listed by multiple vendors, the videos feature children from unspecified countries in Africa reciting custom-ordered messages in Mandarin while holding aloft signs.

The video messages can be ordered to mark birthdays, anniversaries and even for marriage proposals. Sample photos on vendors’ profiles also show children reading out advertisements for businesses such as dental practices, home refurbishing companies and the Chinese search engine Sogou.

The controversy over the clips feeds into broader concerns about the nature of China’s role in Africa. Beijing took over from the United States as the continent’s largest trade partner in 2009, but some Chinese companies have been accused of echoing the exploitative practices of European powers during the colonial era.

Prices for the video clips range from R20 to R450. Buyers who opt for the higher price receive a 10- to 20-second video featuring about 10 children. Those who purchase cheaper packages receive a photo of a child holding a sign with a handwritten message. Videos are usually completed within 24 to 72 hours of being ordered.

At least one vendor has added a disclaimer, stressing that the children were acting voluntarily: “Children are not merchandise. You can’t choose from different video clips. Thank you for understanding.”

The independent online newspaper Hong Kong Free Press found that one vendor advertised its videos as a form of “charitable activity”. Posing as a potential customer, a reporter asked whether the price of a video would cover compensation for the children involved in its production.

The vendor said: “I am doing this out of the goodness of my heart. I’m not sure — I am asking someone else to take the video for me. I don’t know how much money is given to the children. Sorry.”

Another vendor said the children “are considered to be employed”. When asked about how young the children were, the vendor said he did not know the details of the production, but that the children were “definitely reimbursed”.

Beijing Youth Daily, the city’s widely circulated metropolitan newspaper, spoke to a Chinese photographer who had produced similar video messages in Zambia. The photographer said the children who featured in videos were “compensated” with small snacks or a few dollars each.

The clip producers received R200 a video, which were sold on Taobao by a vendor for double the cost of production.

Taobao said it had received complaints regarding certain vendors using African children for violations of Chinese advertising law, which state that advertisers may not use “superlative expressions” in their promotional materials. The company said it would take down the products if the complaints were valid.

Users had previously criticised the vendors for allowing custom-ordered messages to include inappropriate content, including promotional phrases such as “the best,” “the most well-loved,” and “even the Africans know it!” as well as ads for pornographic live streams.

Some vendors note in their descriptions that custom orders cannot include swearwords, sexual innuendos, mentions of gambling and drugs, or superlative advertising. 

At the time of publication, multiple vendors were still offering their services on the online marketplace. —

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