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Who are these little boys? Why are they crying? The hunt for a viral Twitter video

It’s not an easy video to watch. Two small boys in grey robes squat before a camera. They are balancing sticks on their outstretched arms. They shake as tears run down their faces. Between laboured breaths they shout a chant or song.  

The video went viral when it was tweeted on 21 November 2019. It has since been shared more than 51,000 times and viewed by over 10 million people. The caption reads: “Chinese evil imperialism in Africa. Black kids are forced to speak Chinese.”

But is this what’s happening in the video? If not, what is going on? Africa Check tried to find out. 

Children are in martial arts stance

A glance through the 4,000 replies to the tweet offers some early clues. 

Users were quick to point out that the video comes from an account on Douyin. (Note: It has since been deleted.) The app, known as TikTok outside China, is used to create and share videos.

The account’s name is 非洲举牌祝福视频, Chinese for “African Blessing Video”.

A number of videos posted on the account show children performing martial arts. In one video, which is also on Twitter, a group of boys walk on their hands across the floor of a large room. In other videos, children and men hold blackboards with messages on them. 

Africa Check asked Marco Kavalier, the founder of The Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre in South Africa, about the viral video of the boys crying. 

“The pose they standing in is a basic stance called Ma Bu, which is taught in most Chinese martial art schools,” he said. 

The exercise – also known as “horse stance” – is considered basic training. It is meant to teach willpower, patience and muscle endurance.

“The Chinese are hard on their martial art students when teaching these systems. They condition their own kids with this extreme kind of training,” said Kavalier. 

Who filmed the video?

Africa Check found an Instagram account with 非洲举牌创意祝福 (African Blessings) in its bio. A video of children holding a blackboard with a message is posted on the account. 

The account lists contact information for WeChat, a Chinese messaging app. 

We called on the help of Eoghan Sweeney, an open-source intelligence and verification trainer, to follow this clue. 

“The WeChat accounts lead to a website that offers what appear to be rather niche forms of advertising, including ‘Black African kids’ shouting or holding up your slogan or message,” said Sweeney.

The website says they have more than 20 teams in Africa who can produce cheap videos of “African kids”, “Russian beauty” and “mercenaries” holding a message of your choice. 

Videos possibly shot in Zambia or Malawi

But where was the video of the two crying children filmed? We have a few guesses. 

In 2017, there were reports of a similar operation selling videos of children holding signs and singing, in Zambia. But the style of the videos – including the children’s clothes and the blackboard – do not match the posts from 非洲举牌祝福视频 (African Blessing Video).

We found more videos linked to 非洲举牌祝福视频  (African Blessing Video) on a Chinese video sharing website called Bilibili. In one of the videos, children stand behind a pile of “Mother's Pride Super Breakfast Meal”. This is produced by Zambian company National Milling Corporation Limited.

Another video on the account appears to have been shot in Malawi – Zambia’s eastern neighbour.

In it, a group of children sit on the back of a truck and wave at a camera. Behind them is a butchery with a number listed on a sign. This number was linked to a butchery that was certified halaal by the Muslim Association of Malawi in 2015. It is listed in an Excel spreadsheet as being located in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital. 

Can you help?

Here’s what we know. The viral video shows two crying children in a traditional martial arts stance called Ma Bu. The video was posted on the Chinese version of TikTok, a video sharing app.

A similar account on Instagram is linked to a website that advertises videos of African children holding personalised messages for sale. Clues in other videos suggest they could have been recorded in Malawi or Zambia. 

Do you have a piece of this puzzle? Leave us a tip off in the comments below or email [email protected].

The video on the Douyin app, known as TikTok outside China.

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