Estimated to be worth billions of dollars, China’s cavalcade of internet celebrities, known as Wang Hongs in Chinese, are big business. But not all are Chinese.
Foreigners are increasingly capturing the hearts and minds of Chinese people on social media. Amy Lyons, a 24-year-old Australian student, is one of them.
“I love performing, I love public speaking, I love interacting with Chinese people, I love Chinese culture, I love exercise, I love travel,” Ms Lyons told ABC’s Lateline.
“If I could become a Wang Hong, I could use all my passions, skills and talents and make that my career.”
Although relatively new to the Chinese social media scene, Ms Lyons has almost 65,000 followers in China.
While global apps like Twitter’s Periscope claim about 10 million users worldwide, Chinese social media platform Meipai has more than 100 million, despite both platforms launching in the same year.
“In China, they don’t have any Western social media,” Ms Lyons said.
“The social media that I primarily use is Weibo, which is equivalent to Chinese Facebook or Twitter – a combination of the two.
“I also use a popular platform in China called Meipai, which is for video content. You can also live-stream on it.
“This is still the beginning for me; I have high goals when it comes to my followings.”
Wang Hongs are monetising their influence
Ms Lyons’ online videos, mostly about travel and fitness, have had millions of views, with her most popular video watched more than three million times this year.
“I did an exercise video about chopstick legs,” she said.
“Chinese people love thin legs, so I took chopsticks and exercise and put it together in this fun little package that was received very well because of its quirky content.”
Owing to her success on these platforms, she has attracted attention from businesses interested in collaborations.
“One of my biggest collaborations in the past year has been with Tencent, which is one of the largest online platforms in China. They’re responsible for WeChat and Tencent Video,” she said.
“They have been doing a big promotional push in China and I have been working on a couple of videos with the company.”
Wang Hongs in China are able to monetise their influence through live-streaming platforms as well as through collaborations with businesses and product placement.
“I definitely think it’s a good business decision,” Ms Lyons said.
“China is a huge market and if 0.05 per cent of those people are interested in what I have to say, suddenly I have millions of fans.
“For me though it’s not just a business decision. I love living in China; it’s a fascinating place.”
Firms see value in non-Chinese Mandarin speakers
Ms Lyons said her venture into Chinese social media grew from her interest in Chinese culture.
“I find the Chinese culture so fascinating, primarily because it’s so different to my own,” she said.
“And I like a challenge, so I started learning Chinese from there and have lots of Chinese friends and I really wanted to converse with them using their mother tongue.”
Melissa Ran, who manages an entrepreneurial support program for current and former UNSW students looking to achieve business success in China, said Chinese companies have an appetite for non-Chinese social media stars.
“Chinese companies, depending on what services they are trying to market, might be interested in hiring foreigners to help them because of the certain image and the kind of audience they want to attract,” said Ms Ran, whose program is the first of its kind at an Australian university.
“One of the very impressive things about [Amy] is that she can speak fluent Mandarin.
“Even though it is becoming more common for foreigners to be able to speak the language, it is actually still quite rare for a foreigner to master the language.
“If you are someone who does not look Chinese but you can speak Chinese, that’s something that gets a lot of attention and people are very impressed by it.”
Ms Lyon admitted it was a “quirky” career path, but that was part of its charm.
“I’ve had real support from my parents and all my friends and I’ve heard no negative feedback,” she said.
“They are happy that I’ve been able to take my passion and actually do it.”