Despite the title which youse fell for once again, I actually have a lot of respect and compassion for these three men.
They’ve walked a hard road and made the most of trying circumstances.
Winston Sterzel aka Serpentza
Winston is a British South African who moved to China in 2005. He gives the impression that he needed to get out of South Africa, to anywhere, due to the deteriorating situation there. In some ways he is a refugee.
Winston began uploading YouTube videos about China in 2007. I quite like his earlier material. This is a favourite:
While living in China, Winston obviously pulled his punches in order to avoid trouble but nevertheless was able to say enough to give the observer an interesting view of the country.
Matthew Tye aka Laowhy86 aka C-Milk
Matthew has the most pedestrian background of the three, a fact for which I’m sure he is grateful.
He’s an American who moved to China to teach English in 2000 and started his YouTube channel in 2012. Here’s an early video from him:
The two quickly began collaborating and doing motorbike tour videos together. Here’s a snippet I found enlightening:
They gradually became more negative about China as time went on, they would say because China became a nastier place in the first decade under Xi, their enemies would say because Chinese, increasingly proud of their developing nation, became less adoring of whitefellahs living among them.
In any case, this sentiment grated against the limits and dangers of reporting on China and the tension could be sensed in their work.
At one point they were detained in a remote part of China on a motorbike tour, perhaps for getting too close to a military installation or troublesome minority. Their drones were treated as suspicious. They were eventually released without charge but this may have put them on the CCP radar.
Adding to this was the constant haranguing from the Wumao Army, many of whom would attack them without having watched or understood the videos. Communication breakdowns were likely exacerbated by clickbait titles. These activists frequently threatened to dob on them to security services and probably did so frequently. Perhaps those receiving the calls initially couldn’t pin down anything in particular on them except for a generally bad attitude.
Things eventually came to a head.
Brown pants time
According to a video, Winston received a call from a contact warning him that someone important had decided to go after him. He skedaddled to Hong Kong (back when that was barley) and then to the US. His family followed.
Matthew faced a similar situation, which Wiki writes up pretty well:
After he went back to Huizhou, a friend informed him in early 2018, members of the public security bureau there had shown his photo in bars and establishments frequented by foreigners. Tye determined that he had to exit from China without delay. The first phase of his plan was to travel to Hong Kong and the second phase was to decide what to do next. His aim was not to have the Chinese government bar him from departing. His friend took him to a Shenzhen border crossing, where the border inspector asked him to provide his Chinese name. Tye responded that he had no Chinese name and said in a later interview that he had never previously been asked for his Chinese name. After he finished going through customs, the policewoman mentioned his Chinese name and asked whether he would be returning to China. Thinking that saying “yes” would be the right answer, he responded in the affirmative and was allowed to enter Hong Kong. While Tye was in Hong Kong, his friends told him he was being sought by Huizhou’s public security department and transportation department. The government authorities accused Tye of using a drone to create an aerial video that showed a Huizhou military base. Tye stated in an interview that the government had the drone in its registry, Chinese citizens had filmed the area and posted it online, and he would have received a warning if his drone was flying a restricted area.
They both ended up in California and continued making videos together and in solo projects.
But it’s not the people, it’s the government!
As you can imagine, their tone became less restrained at this point.
Now they seem to have painted themselves into a prison of their own making. They have established an audience for China videos but the longer they are away from China, the more distant their experience there becomes. The footage used in the backgrounds, once an interesting view into ordinary Chinese locations, is now endlessly reused and probably out of date. They can no longer do shows like the one interviewing Chinese tattoo artists or deliberately getting scammed in Beijing.
They may also be trapped into making relentlessly negative videos because that is what their audience demands. I’m not sure. All I know is, I can no longer make it through a whole video because it comes across as repetitive propaganda. Even Falun Gong-funded China Uncensored is more balanced, occasionally throwing the CCP a bone in order to appear reasonable to a Western audience. Or if they don’t manage that, at least the videos are brief and to the point.
I think part of the pair’s anti-China fury comes from a feeling of betrayal and disappointment. They put all their eggs in the China basket during a brief moment of openness, learned the language, set up businesses, married, had kids, bought property etc. That’s about as committed to a country as you can get.
Then China reverted to a more authoritarian, xenophobic mode and it became clear that producing anything but fawning videos about the Middle Kingdom was no longer a viable livelihood. They had to scamper and leave behind much of what they had built, basically starting from nothing. I’m not sure how long they can maintain their present audience given the limitations discussed.
The pair have tried making motorbike repair videos and tours of other places in order to break out of this dread spiral. I hope that works out.
Nathan Rich aka Hot Pot King
Just as there are anti-China vloggers, there are plenty of pro-China vloggers singing the praises of the CCP. These are the ones usually referred to as White Monkeys, in addition to those doing other stupid jobs for white people in China like modelling and ads.
Here is a fairly typical one of Nathan’s videos. I like it because, while biased, it actually gives a pretty good account of the events:
A Chinese audience will sympathize with the swimmer while we will mock the athlete for being such a pathetic mummy’s boy. The idea that a special person ought to be given special treatment also plays better in the East. This indicates who Nathan’s audience is. The constant subtitles are a hint, too. Those things are expensive to add.
The Chinese may not worship YT like they did back in 2010 but they still love hearing pro-China talking points coming out of a white face.
There are so many Chinese using VPNs to access YouTube and watch this stuff, it is presumably very profitable for White Monkeys to produce.
One might suspect that people like Nathan are receiving payments from the CCP for their services. There is evidence that this occurs, at least in other cases.
By the same token, one might suspect the same of the other two. How can we know?
Another possibility is that Nathan genuinely sympathizes with China and is hostile to his native America. Why could make a man turn against his own nation?
I have deliberately left Nathan’s background to the end, and it is the greater part of this article.
Nathan’s origin story
Wikipedia suggests Nathan’s single mother was some sort of animal psychic, though I could not trace that back to a specific source. In any case, she was definitely a committed Scientologist.
At age eight, Nathan says he was ‘actively rebelling’ against Scientology so his mum sent him to some sort of correctional camp allegedly run by the church. Apparently the religion holds children to the same laws and rules as adults.
“Life at the Palmdale ranch was generally that you [when you] wake up, you’ve got to clean your room immediately,” Rich said. After breakfast came physical labor and cleaning the grounds. “You would do some kind of like schooling — things that you need to know for Scientology … there wasn’t any, like, math or history or anything like that.”
Children at the ranch would write “knowledge reports,” or K.R.s, documents Scientologists are supposed to write if they witness actions or in-actions not in line with Scientology practices. “If you didn’t like a kid, you would write a K.R. on them even if they didn’t do it,” Rich said.
As a punishment for being dirty from playing outside, Rich said a security guard took Rich to an outdoor shower and had the entire student body and staff watch as he scrubbed him with a metal fence brush . . .
There’s much more detail about these experiences on his homepage – see video on bottom right.
Rich didn’t speak to his family throughout his entire time at the ranch, per his mother’s request, and didn’t see them until his graduation. But when he returned home, he still didn’t accept Scientology’s teaching so he ran away and spent seven years battling homelessness and drug addiction.
When he eventually pulled himself together and decided to go to college, his mom wouldn’t fill out the FAFSA form with her financial information. Rich, who is now the chief technology officer for a major visual effects company, wrote her an email saying he hated her and didn’t want to see her again. She died in 2010, and his biggest regret is not being able to patch up their relationship.
In another source, he weeps when he realizes that he’ll never be able to reconcile with his mother and the following occurs. My bold:
No one knows quite what to do, or how to comfort him. They can’t exactly tell him he’s wrong. So they hug him. They suggest talking to a therapist. At this, Rich rears up. “Why?” he says, his face once again an impassive mask. “Tell me why, after everything that has happened to me, I should trust anyone else?”
As his enemies take pleasure in pointing out, Nathan got in trouble with the law during his drug-addicted, run-way years:
His citations and arrests primarily involved damaging property, public intoxication, driving while under the influence, criminal conspiracy, traffic violations, and most seriously, possession of heroin. All but one of Rich’s crimes took place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with the exception of drug charges in Rio Rancho.
This became a bit of an issue in the 2010s as China began cracking down on foreign residents with undeclared criminal convictions. Checking his record, it seems a grey area because he seems to have been given some sort of ‘no conviction recorded but punishment/treatment program accepted’ deal. I’m not sure how that works in American law, but I’m sure Chinese authorities would be able to interpret it generously in his case.
After this trouble in his runaway years, Nathan seems to have suddenly become good at computers, left drugs behind and begun a career. He says somewhere that he made his mil.
At the moment his day job appears to be with a special effects company and he has many credits on IMDB, some of which are disputed at the Taiwanese source above but you can make your own judgement.
My judgement about the whole thing is, Nathan’s life is an incredible rags-to-riches story. With no family, little education and and awful background, he became very successful and has the receipts to prove it.
In addition to his vlog, Nathan regularly appears on Chinese state media where he says much the same things. Here’s an article about him in the Global Times. Nathan tends to describe anti-Chinese comment as racist, right-wing extremist or fascist, presumably choosing terms that will play well with his domestic audience and the Party.
Does he believe it?
I shouldn’t attempt to be an online psychologist, analyzing from afar people I’ve never met. We cannot know what is in his head. But I am a guy with a lot of opinions.
My instinct is that it mostly genuine.
His own family and society utterly let him down when he was a child. Perhaps, visiting China, he felt comfortable in a country where Scientology and cults like it are illegal and brutally crushed.
From childhood he seems to have been a native rebel – he’s gone from rebelling against his mother’s religion to rebelling against his country. I suppose that’s a pattern, but then he doesn’t rebel against the CCP at all.
In addition, have you ever participated in a debate? Start arguing for any side and you’ll start to agree with it. I reckon there may be a bit of this for all three of today’s characters.
All we can do is speculate. I wonder if they have any deeper insights themselves.
In any case, I hope Nathan in particular is careful. Being a pro-China shill is a dangerous game, as is any political activity in that country. One slip up and he’s gone. There was another pro-China vlogger who accidentally played an anti-Chinese song in the background of his clip, not knowing what it was, and he lost his career.
He was not living in the country so it didn’t get any worse than that.
I guess it goes without saying that Serpentza and Laowhy86 do not like Nathan Rich and visa versa. They’ve made attack videos against each other and it’s unlikely they’ll ever bury the hatchet given some of the nasty things they’ve said about each other.
The reader can look that up for himself; I have no interest in online feuds.
You may laugh at these three guys and find their lives ridiculous.
I’m at an age when I realize much of life is ridiculous. Thing get tough and we do whatever we have to in order to pay the bills. There are plenty of people doing more ridiculous things than them.
If you wanted to make a hit piece on me, it would be easy to make my life story appear stupid and absurd, and it is. I’m not going to throw stones.
Westerners often fall into the mind-rut of seeing the world in terms of protagonists and antagonists; goodies and baddies. We know better. Sometimes men are enemies simply because they are opposite men on oppositive sides, not because one is noble and the other evil.
From one White Monkey to another, I feel sympathy for these three men. They’re like twigs in a creek, pulled along wherever the tide of history flows.
I don’t know what the future holds for any of them but I wish them peace.