This story first appeared in China Report, MIT Technology Review’s newsletter about technology in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

Over the last year, a few Chinese influencers have made millions of dollars peddling short video lessons on AI, profiting off people’s fears about the as-yet-unclear impact of the new technology on their livelihoods. 

But the platforms they thrived on have started to turn against them. Just a few weeks ago, WeChat and Douyin began suspending, removing, or restricting their accounts. While influencers on these platforms have been turning people’s anxiety into traffic and profits for a long time, the latest actions show how Chinese social platforms are trying to contain the damage before it goes too far. 

The backlash started last month, as students angrily complained on social media about the superficiality of the courses, saying that they fell far short of the educational promises made about them. 

“I paid 198 RMB ($27.50), and the first three courses were void of actual content. It’s all about urging people to keep paying 1980 RMB for the next course,” Bessie, a Chinese user of the social media site Xiaohongshu, posted about her experience. The courses were created by Li Yizhou, a serial entrepreneur turned startup mentor who, despite having no background in AI, pivoted to posting about explaining AI and drumming up anxiety after the release of ChatGPT in November 2022.

Li sold his entry-level course package for $27.50, and an advanced one for 10 times that price. The cheaper offering contained 40 lesson videos, most of which were around 10 minutes long. Li’s course consisted of tutorials of specific generative AI tools, talks with Chinese AI company executives, and introductions to unrelated topics like how to manage your time more effectively. 

His lessons were a huge commercial success. According to the social media data analysis site Feigua, they were sold over 250,000 times last year, which could have brought in over $6 million in revenue. 

Li is not the only influencer who, despite having no background in AI, saw a business opportunity to calm people’s AI anxieties with quick fixes. There’s also “Teacher He,” an influencer with over 7 million followers who until recently mostly talked about marketing and personal finance, and Zhang Shitong, also followed by millions, whose usual videos mix basic economics with sensational conspiracies like 9/11 denialism. These creators also offered beginner AI lessons at a similar price to Li’s.

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In addition to quality complaints, buyers reported that it was hard to get a refund when they changed their mind. Bessie tells MIT Technology Review that she got a refund since she applied early, but others who applied for a refund more than a week after the purchase were denied. A Beijing-based AI community website has also accused Li of appropriating their free user-contributed templates and selling them for profit as part of his course offering. 

By late February, the platforms that hosted these video lessons began to heed the complaints. All of the classes by Li and other AI gurus have been removed from Chinese social media and e-commerce websites. Li hasn’t posted on any of his social media channels since he was suspended in late February. Other creators like “Teacher He” and Zhang Shitong have also been silent.

Li and “Teacher He” didn’t respond to a media inquiry sent by MIT Technology Review. But a customer representative working for Zhang Shitong said the team processes all refund requests in 12 hours and that it was the team’s own decision to not post anything for the past three weeks.

On Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, Li’s account, which used to have over 3 million followers, is now hidden from search results. WeChat Channels, another popular short-video platform, blocked Li and other similar creators from getting new followers in the last week of February. Other smaller platforms have also taken action. Zhishi Xingqiu, a Patreon-like platform that was used by many influencers to sell access to AI-focused communities, has now blocked the search for keywords like “AI,” “Li Yizhou,” or “Sora.”

But none of the platforms have specified which rules the gurus violated. While they may have overpromised with their marketing, it’s hard to say whether their activities really qualified as “scams.” Douyin and WeChat declined to comment on their decisions.

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However, there are signs that the restrictions could be reversed. While Chinese social media platforms often permanently delete the accounts of users they believe are flouting rules, these AI course creators have kept their accounts on all platforms. On WeChat, after around two weeks of being blocked from receiving new followers, the creators quietly regained that ability in mid-March. On Douyin, Li’s account was hidden from in-app search results, but his past videos can still be found by going directly to his profile page. 

So far, the Chinese government has not directly addressed the phenomenon or given its official stance. The government has been reining in the livestreaming industry heavily in recent years to censor how influencers act and post, and Chinese platforms set their own rules accordingly, sometimes ahead of government orders, to show they are doing their parts in content regulation.

Even as the creators and their lessons were removed online, there are still lots of Chinese people keen to access these lessons. On social media, some people are now reselling pirated videos of Li’s courses through file sharing, likely without Li’s permission. Now, instead of $27.50, people can spend a few bucks to access the whole course package.

Do you think these AI gurus have crossed a line? Let me know your thoughts at zeyi@technologyreview.com.

Now read the rest of China Report

Catch up with China

1. The US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to pass a bill that would force ByteDance to either sell TikTok or see it banned in the US. Now it’s heading to the Senate, where there’s less urgency to pass it. (Associated Press)

2. While the TSMC chip plant in Arizona is delayed, the company’s other new plant in Japan is set to start mass production on schedule in the fourth quarter of 2024. (Wall Street Journal $)

3. Tesla is talking to countries like Thailand to prepare for a potential production expansion in Southeast Asia. But it will have to compete with Chinese EV companies like BYD, which currently accounts for over a quarter of the EVs sold in the region. (Reuters $)

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4. An obscure Chinese e-commerce platform called Pandabuy is recruiting influencers to peddle counterfeit products on TikTok and Facebook. (Wired $)

5. The US and Chinese governments quietly renewed their bilateral deal on science and technology research for another six months. (Wall Street Journal $)

6. Chinese students and academics say they are increasingly being targeted at US airports when they enter the country. (Washington Post $)

7. As the Chinese population ages quickly, a tutoring industry for the elderly is thriving. (Reuters $)

Lost in translation

As the Chinese automobile industry moves fast toward battery-operated cars and electric motors, internal combustion engine technology is increasingly seen as a thing of the past. The Chinese publication Economic Observer talked to students who chose to study combustion engines out of their love for cars. They found it’s a decision some now regret, as they’re finding it hard to land a job after graduation. 

Engineering universities are recruiting experts who can teach students about car batteries, but the pace is not fast enough to catch up with the speed of the Chinese market. From January to July 2023, there was a 6% increase in job postings in the automotive industry in China, but a 18% increase in job postings in the EV industry. As a result, large numbers of combustion engineering students say they are being rejected by the auto industry. They either have to compete for the limited positions still available, or find jobs outside the car industry.

One more thing

Youdao, a Chinese online dictionary app, recently started letting users upload their own pronunciations of English words to appear alongside the standard pronunciations in American or British accents. It soon became a vehicle for fun, with people competing to insert jokes, cultural memes, viral TikTok soundbites, and dramatic acting as pronunciations. In a particularly amusing example, someone pronounces “constipation” as if they are actually experiencing it.

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