The first thing Jeffrey Ding saw when he opened his new account on the Chinese version of TikTok, known as Douyin, was a video of the Chinese army seemingly attacking protesters on the streets in Hong Kong.

The muscle-flexing promo shoot featuring an anti-riot drill was released this week by the People's Liberation Army Hong Kong garrison after weeks anti-government protests in the city. Inside the special administrative region, many saw it as saber rattling. In the parallel universe of Douyin, however, the short video got 88 million likes.

The three minute video of the PLA participating in an anti-riot drill has been trending online at a very sensitive time for Hong Kong. (Picture: CCTV via YouTube)

In the West, ByteDance-owned TikTok is usually seen as goofy fun for tweens wanting to shoot videos of themselves singing along to their favorite pop stars. In China, things are a little different.

Douyin still has the silly dance moves, comical skits and stunts. But over the last few years, dozens of state-owned media outlets like People’s Daily and China Daily have created their own accounts. So have government agencies, including police and military outposts, giving them an outlet to directly share their own points of view.

Among short videos of teenage lip-syncers and farmers doing the robot dance, you’re now likely to stumble across statements from Chinese government supporters or speeches from Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying accusing the US of playing a role in the Hong Kong anti-extradition protests.

Patriotic Douyin delivered me carefully curated content featuring government-approved viewpoints on the Hong Kong protests. (Picture: Screenshots from Douyin)

And as it usually goes with social media, sharing and liking certain types of content only surfaces more of the same. A few swipes may lead not only to videos of officials explaining the latest government directives, but also to Chinese military officials claiming jurisdiction over disputed islands in the South China Sea.

It could even bring up promo videos for the Chinese army and police, such as the one posted by the PLA’s garrison in Hong Kong. Videos of soldiers exercising, running military drills or just generally looking tough are a big part of patriotic Douyin. It’s the part of the social network people turn to for nationalist content, like military videos that play like modern renditions of Rambo movies.

This music video showing a police SWAT squad in China’s restive region of Xinjiang features a catchy hip hop beat. (Picture: Screenshots from Douyin)

It’s not really clear how Douyin chooses what it recommends to users. ByteDance suggested it was about quality content.

"Douyin encourages creativity and a merit-based system," a ByteDance spokesperson told Abacus. "The following that accounts are able to build over time is based on content quality and user preferences."

In Ding’s case, the PLA video showed up as the most searched item. But Chinese social media platforms have steadily been filling up with content from state-approved sources. Some see the algorithms as aiding that content.

“The rise of recommendation engines means that internet content is no longer about removing what is not acceptable on the Chinese web, but about tailoring propaganda specifically for each user,” said Elliot Zaagman, corporate trainer and host of the China Tech Investor Podcast.

State media outlets in China aren’t known for producing captivating content, and the government is aware of this. So state media have been recruiting young, tech-savvy new media specialists to promote what is usually described as “positive energy,” replacing bureaucratic droning with something more palatable.

Some videos are more serious, like the ones warning Taiwan that it belongs to China. Others are more light-hearted, such as the amateur comedic skits about the dangers of money laundering. (Picture: Screenshots from Douyin)

Hosting all this patriotic content doesn’t save Douyin from Beijing’s watchful eye, though. Like any other social media platform in China, Douyin is subject to strict content monitoring. ByteDance already had a brush with the government in 2018 when it got into trouble over content on its news platform Jinri Toutiao. The company later promised to hire 10,000 censors.

The push to create patriotic content is even stronger in restive areas. In celebration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, the Xinjiang government started collecting patriotic-themed short videos for social media, nationalist tabloid Global Times reported. The Chinese government has been accused of human rights violations against the Muslim Uygur minority in the region, and it’s recently stepped up efforts to counter criticism.