Chinese Manufacturers, Meet American Shitposters

What a new meme says about content from China on TikTok.

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Donghua Jinlong glycine

A few years ago, I noticed that a number of factories in China had started opening TikTok accounts and posting footage from their assembly lines. The videos offered a rare glimpse into global supply chains, and millions of Western TikTok users marveled at teddy bears being stuffed with polyester fiberfill, machines dipping gardening gloves into hot liquified nitrile rubber, and quality assurance testers seeing whether cheap cigarette lighters worked. (My friend and former colleague Andrew Deck wrote a great story about factory TikTok for Rest of World in 2021.)

Since then, hundreds of other Chinese factories have joined TikTok. Some of them produce industrial equipment that would never be bought by normal people, like dump trucks or bottle labeling machines. And while the older factory accounts were often created by marketing agencies, these newer ones seem to largely be the work of earnest salespeople trying to find new customers. Many of them are relying on AI translation and text-to-speech tools, making the videos unintentionally sound very funny.

One of these manufacturers is a company called Donghua Jinlong, which is headquartered in Hebei province about 200 miles from Beijing. It sells “high quality industrial grade glycine,” a type of nutritional additive that evidently sounds silly and abstract to people who never need to think about how processed food is made. Donghua Jinglong and its glycine have become a relatively big meme on TikTok, Instagram, and X over the last few days, and some of the company’s videos are getting over 100,000 views (even though its official account only has roughly 4,400 followers).

@gangstasportivik / TikTok

Donghua Jinlong itself, however, doesn’t seem to have any idea what’s going on. People in the comments keep begging it to make official merch, but the company doesn’t understand why anyone would want a sweatshirt or t-shirt with the name of an industrial manufacturer on it. Shitposters have also started referencing the Donghua Jinlong meme in the comments of videos from other Chinese factories.

A company called HengYuan, for example, posted a video of what can only be described as a machine for filling Tide Pods, and one of the top comments is someone asking “Could you pack food grade glycine in this?”

Clearly baffled, HengYuan responded, “No. This is used to pack detergent in PVA Film.”

Screenshot / TikTok

The Donghua Jinlong meme is a great microcosm of what’s actually happening on TikTok when it comes to content from China. Some people might argue that Chinese manufacturers are choosing to post on the app because its parent company, ByteDance, is also from China. In other words, these factories could be held up as an example of TikTok allowing Chinese influence to grow in the US (albeit a bizarre one).

But Donghua Jinlong also has a Facebook page with even more followers, it’s just that no one is engaging with its posts there. That’s because there are likely very few people searching social media for a new glycine supplier at any given time. TikTok, however, doesn’t rely on users to actively seek out content, it serves videos to them via an algorithm. So now tons of random people are coming across glycine manufacturers and Tide Pod machines by accident, and they’re happily turning the whole thing into a joke.

I personally find these videos to be fascinating, both because It’s cool to learn how things are made, and because they provide the opportunity to watch in real time what happens when random Chinese companies come into contact with American social media users. I don’t think this is the type of Chinese influence lawmakers are imagining when they worry about TikTok, but it’s arguably much more interesting and human.

  • What the TikTok Bill Is Really About, According to a Leading Republican (New York Times) Representative Mike Gallagher, 40, is one of the most prominent China hawks in Congress and co-sponsor of the current bill to ban TikTok. He’s leaving office in a few weeks, reportedly to take a job at Palantir. This interview with him provides a really great overview of how many lawmakers are thinking about TikTok and tech policy more broadly. “I don’t really use social media at all,” Gallagher told the Times.

  • Commerce Startup Flip Raises $144 Million to Challenge TikTok (Bloomberg) A number of well-funded startups are trying to build “social commerce” apps—basically platforms that mix shopping with social media. I would say the majority of them are trying to recreate China’s popular livestream e-commerce ecosystem in the US. Examples include Whatnot, Talkshoplive, and Firework, but I had previously never heard of Flip. Bloomberg reports it has downloaded 5 million times and promises “brand name products promoted via video reviews made by shoppers.”

  • Why visiting China is important in 2024 (Following The Yuan) Yaling Jiang makes the case for experiencing China on the ground, especially areas outside so-called first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai. She argues there’s no substitute for seeing things in real life, particularly as China becomes more “insulated from global influences due to the Great Firewall, reduced international exchanges, and the rise of nationalism.” But despite the government’s recent efforts to boost tourism, including waving visa requirements for visitors from some European countries, I think it still remains pretty tough to go to China. It can be cumbersome to get train tickets to cities that are further afield, and many hotels refuse to take in foreigners.

  • Why Threads is suddenly popular in Taiwan (MIT Tech Review) While it’s not clear how much staying power the Meta-owned app will have in the US, Threads is doing “exceptionally well” in Taiwan, according to Instagram head Adam Mosseri. “Since Threads doesn’t have an official name in Chinese, Taiwanese users have tried to translate it in creative ways,” Zeyi Yang writes. “Some stay close to the meaning and call it 串 or chuan, which means a string of beads or other objects (it could also mean a kebab skewer). Others call it 脆 or cui, which means crispy or fragile. It’s a transliteration attempt that many feel is too far-fetched, but since there’s no sound like ‘th’ in Mandarin, it’s the best alternative, and it has already caught on among the users and surpassed other names.”

  • We Need to Talk About Trader Joe’s (Taste Cooking) A fascinating look at how America’s most beloved grocery chain develops “ethnic foods” under its own private label. Five founders of small to midsize food brands said Trader Joe’s “commonly solicits product samples and even asks for potential recipe adjustments—a revealing and time-consuming exercise for bootstrapped founders—before inexplicably abandoning the negotiations and releasing its own private-label versions of similar products at lower prices.” This sounds pretty terrible, but as Taste Cooking notes, the knockoff products are typically a lot cheaper.