Posted on May 28, 2024

This ‘Russian Woman’ Loves China. Too Bad She’s a Deepfake.

Vivian Wang and Siyi Zhao, New York Times, May 20, 2024

The woman declares, in Mandarin inflected with a slight accent, that Chinese men should marry “us Russian women.” In other videos on the Chinese short video platform Douyin, she describes how much she loves Chinese food, and hawks salt and soap from her country. “Russian people don’t trick Chinese people,” she promises.

But her lip movements don’t quite match the audio of the videos, which were posted recently to an account using the name “Ladina.” That is because it is footage of Shadé Zahrai, an Australian career strategist with more than 1.7 million TikTok followers, that has been modified using artificial intelligence. Someone dubbed Ms. Zahrai’s video clips with a voice speaking Mandarin Chinese to make it seem that she was peddling Russian products.

Welcome to a flourishing genre on Chinese social media: A.I.-manipulated videos that use young, purportedly Russian, women to rally support for China-Russia ties, stoke patriotic fervor or make money — and sometimes all three at once.

It is unclear who is behind many of the videos, but most eventually direct viewers to a product link, suggesting that the primary aim is commercial. And the main target audience seems to be nationalist Chinese men.

The videos are often labeled with hash tags such as “Russian wife” and “Russian beauty.” The women featured describe how accomplished Chinese men are, or plead to be rescued by them from poverty or their own less idyllic country.

Another set of videos feature a blond woman, describing her gratitude for having landed in China.

“I really envy my Chinese friends. You’re born with the world’s most precious identity and most profound and charming language,” she says in a video posted to another platform, Xiaohongshu, which is similar to Instagram.

A different video shows the woman thanking the Chinese people for supporting Russia through its economic difficulty by buying Russian chocolates from her. “In the past year, the entire world is boycotting Russia, imposing all kinds of restrictions and difficulties on us. China is like a savior,” she says.

These videos looked much more natural, with the woman’s lips synced to the fluent Mandarin. But they are fake, too. They were retooled from YouTube videos posted by Olga Loiek, a college student whose real videos are about self-improvement and her gap year in Germany.

Ms. Loiek doesn’t speak Chinese. And she would never praise Russia like that, she said in an interview. She is from Ukraine, and some of her relatives are still there.

The makers of these videos are trying to capitalize on a market born of China’s current moment in geopolitics, technology and public sentiment.

Relations between Russia and China have deepened significantly in recent years, with the countries’ leaders, Vladimir V. Putin and Xi Jinping, declaring a “no limits” partnership in the face of mounting hostility from the West. Mr. Putin visited Beijing last week, where Mr. Xi welcomed him with great fanfare.

The use of foreign faces to laud China also seeks to tap into a sense of national pride, or nationalism, among the Chinese audience. Nationalist content has become one of the surest drivers of internet traffic in China, in a censorship environment where more and more topics are off limits.

That nationalism — like nationalism around the world — has often included a strain of sexism, said Chenchen Zhang, a professor of international relations at Durham University in England.

“This representation of young white women in sexually objectified ways is a typical trope of gendered nationalism, or nationalistic sexism,” Professor Zhang wrote in an email. “Viewers can get both their nationalistic and masculine pride reaffirmed in consuming this content.”