Despite being unable to speak or read Mandarin, I can’t get the song “Capitalism Is Good” by YouTuber Boston Roundface out of my head. Its lyrics rattle around my skull all day long, their escape seemingly impossible:
The song itself is a parody of the famous Chinese communist song “Socialism Is Good,” composed in 1958 by Li Huanzhi, who, under Chairman Mao, produced some of the most famous propaganda songs of the People’s Republic after the cultural revolution, including its national anthem. And while that might be the reason Roundface’s song has received millions of views on Weibo and Bilibili (China’s state-approved version of YouTube), Roundface has cultivated a sizable audience in the West, too. The reason is twofold: 1) The song whips; and 2) it’s a scathing critique of the American response to the coronavirus pandemic (or as one Twitter user put it, “all you need to do to roast America is to describe it honestly”).
“Capitalism is good,” Roundface sings, smiling. “COVID-19 comes, people give up their life / Wealthy people have masks / … Testing kit, not ready yet / … Put the average people on fire.”
Given Roundface’s sharp elbows, as his video went viral, he was frequently accused of working on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party, or at the very least, being a willful propagandist spreading anti-American disinformation. It’s a criticism, though, that the Boston-based YouTuber dismisses as boring and cliché. “The Chinese government doesn’t have to pay me anything or make me say things,” Roundface tells me over Discord. “Everything in the song was based on facts that you can find on Google.”
Roundface didn’t tell me much about himself, other than that he was a fairly average college student in Boston, in his early 20s, and like most international students currently unable to travel, confined to his dorm room. (Along these lines, he chose not to give me his real name.) He says that his inspiration to start vlogging came from “being angry about all the racism toward Chinese people that you hear on the U.S. news. There was one reporter at Fox who claimed Chinese scientists made the coronavirus and that they should pay [reparations] to America.”
He found that things were even worse on Twitter and Reddit, where the tropes were far more offensive, with terms like “uncivilized” still frequently used on the main coronavirus subreddit and hashtags like #ChinaPeopleLied, #CCPvirus and #WuhanVirus frequently trending. “It wasn’t that I was a nationalist or a communist, it was that this information was clearly incorrect,” Roundface explains. “Actually, a better word for it is propaganda.”
Roundface set up his YouTube channel at the beginning or March, initially to talk openly about Chinese politics. His videos were straightforward and tended to be summaries of news articles from both China and the U.S. But as the pandemic spread — and in turn, the anti-Chinese rhetoric — he started incorporating comedic material, from irony-tinged rap songs to overtly hyper-ironic rage comic memes, into them. Today, his videos are a mix of serious commentary, East Asian pop-culture references and general shitposting about the failures of his temporary home country.
“Don’t get me wrong, I prefer China to America,” he laughs. “But I’m more [frustrated] that the U.S. doesn’t even want to understand China, so they make lazy assumptions about communism, or see this as a battle between communism versus capitalism.” In that way, Roundface says that his videos are less a critique of capitalism as a concept and more “how Americans are deluded about how it works.”
As evidence, he cites what he says he sees right outside of his dorm-room window. “In Boston, you don’t have to go far to see homeless people that the government isn’t protecting. There are slums. There are thousands of people who are dying every day, and no health-care system. How can people really look at this and think that it’s actually people in China who are uncivilized? How can you really believe news that says that Chinese people are subhuman?”
That sentiment is pretty much its own YouTube genre now. In addition to Roundface, there’s also Longface, who produces similarly lengthy tirades on international issues related to China, and “Ronnie,” who is reportedly based in Hong Kong and makes comedic videos where he mocks Americans who conflate Chinese communism with that of the USSR.
To Roundface, they’re more representative of Chinese millennials than other forms of pop culture pushed by the Western media or Chinese government. “A lot of us are angry that people don’t understand China,” he reiterates. “On some days, we’re communists; on other days, we’re imperialists. On some days, we’re poor and eating rats; on other days, we’re rich and keeping Americans poor. So the new generation is trying to explain what China is and what we’ve learned from our history. We have such a long history and have been through every system; so it’s about saying that we aren’t trying to be communist. We aren’t trying to be imperialist. We’ve done all that and seen what happens.”
That said, Roundface tells me that he isn’t planning on becoming a full-time YouTuber or expanding his channel. In part, that’s because of his studies. But it’s also because he was uncomfortable with the level of attention he got when “Capitalism Is Good” went viral. “I was receiving death threats and abuse from people in the West, and I was being called a traitor in China because I was studying in America,” he explains. “There were journalists at [Chinese] news stations saying that I was making fun of people dying and laughing at them, which wasn’t true. It was because the video got taken out of context, and then another version was translated so it sounded like I was [mocking] the people who had died.”
As for his newfound popularity among online leftists as a top-tier troll, Roundface mostly feels vindicated. “I didn’t say anything [profound], or something that came out of propaganda,” he says. “I just made a song using statistics I found on the CDC website. Maybe people only realize that American capitalism isn’t normal when they see a foreign person talking about it.”