China's livestream queen makes nice with Beijing

Once marginalized, livestreamers have become key influencers for Beijing.

Liya, the star of China's most recent New Year Gala

Liya, the star of China's most recent New Year Gala.

Screengrab: Protocol

Huang Wei tried to break into China's showbiz in the mid-2000s. It didn't work out. Fifteen years later, Huang, now 36, is a household name. Now known as Viya, Huang is China's livestream queen, a billionaire and increasingly, a political role model promoted — and controlled — by the state.

Viya can sell just about anything. In 2016, already a successful owner of several online garment shops, she started her livestream influencer career on Taobao Live, China's first and largest livestreaming shopping platform. Since day one, she's worked around the clock to promote products via a phone screen, snagging Taobao Live's livestream queen throne the first year she switched careers. In 2020, she sold $31 billion worth of goods, including a rocket-launch service, on her livestream show. This was an annual gross transaction volume larger than that of the most profitable shopping mall in China.

Viya's explosive success on livestreaming channels has brought her not only tremendous wealth, but social and political prominence. With a net worth of $1.25 billion, she ranks among China's wealthiest 500 individuals. In May, she was awarded the title of "Project Hope Ambassador" by China Youth Development Foundation for her philanthropic engagements and public service.

Viya has been at the forefront of what Taobao calls its "poverty alleviation and public welfare undertaking" since 2018, connecting farmers from far-flung places to consumers across China. Her political ascendance accelerated in 2020, colliding with the takeoff of livestreaming in China and the rollout of a national policy to stimulate the rural Chinese economy with ecommerce. Last August, Viya was co-opted as a member of the All-China Youth Federation as an exemplary Online Marketer. Last October, she won a National Poverty Alleviation Award for helping sell farm products on her platform. In March, the municipal government of Hangzhou, China's ecommerce hub and the host of the 2022 Asian Games, named Viya the upcoming sports event's ambassador.

Not so long ago, internet celebrities (网红) in China belonged to a marginalized subculture. But since 2016, livestreaming ecommerce has become a hallmark of Chinese tech innovation and generated countless billions of dollars: Social commerce sales in China are projected to reach $363 billion in 2021, more than tripling 2018 spend, according to eMarketer, a New York-based market analytics firm. And Beijing has pursued policies focused on modernizing agriculture and digitizing traditional manufacturing, which means that internet celebrities, particularly those with dazzling sales records and social influence, have not just gone mainstream — they've become politically useful.

"The rise of Viya signals China's heavy push toward rural ecommerce through livestreaming," Xiaofei Han, who researches social commerce in China at Carleton University, told Protocol. "It's politically meaningful because livestreaming ecommerce helps boost the rural economy."

Viya was among the first prominent livestreamers to sell large volumes of agriculture products. Her persona also fits into China's mainstream (if frequently unrealistic) political typology: She's married with a child, but she's also a hard-working career woman.

Her positive image has earned her an appearance at the highly politicized and widely watched CCTV Spring Festival Gala earlier this year, a nod of approval from the Party and the State. The coveted spots at the CCTV annual gala were once reserved largely for prominent sopranos from military song and dance troupes.

A co-opted business?

Starting in 2016, Beijing has issued strict rules regulating the livestreaming shopping industry, subjecting it to the same level of censorship and scrutiny enforced within China's TV, film and publishing industries.

Last May, China's Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security designated that livestreamers who engaged in sales — the number of which was increasing by 8.8% each month — belonged to a new occupation: "Online Marketers (互联网营销师)". On May 25, seven central government agencies rolled out a set of measures regarding livestreaming ecommerce. Livestreamers are encouraged to "adhere to the core socialist values," and they are barred from streaming any content that could "endanger national security, leak state secrets, subvert state power, and undermine national unity."

Top internet celebrities appear to have gotten the memo. In public comments, they've taken to emphasizing their social responsibilities. At the 2021 Boao Forum for Asia, sometimes known as the Asian Davos, Viya and Li Jiaqi, a popular streamer known for selling lipstick, were invited to speak about their responsibilities to consumers as streaming celebrities. Viya stressed the importance of engaging in public interest activities. Li acknowledged that he spent months adjusting his streaming style and scripts after being granted the title "Online Marketer." In an April interview with Sina Technology, Li acknowledged he had to be more cautious in his shows and expressed the responsibility he felt to help the government shape livestreaming rules for "the healthy development of this industry."

Viya and Li are fluent in "playful patriotism." Last year, during the height of the "empty plate" campaign against food waste, at the invitation of the Hangzhou Municipal Commission for Discipline Inspection, Viya propagated the virtue of food-saving on Douyin with Yuan Longping, the renowned Chinese plant scientist whose discoveries of high-yield hybrid rice varieties helped end famine. Viya and Li are ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on China's first Top Internet Celebrity Social Responsibility Report, published by the government-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2020.

With the phenomenal popularity of livestreaming and growing influence of streamers, livestreaming platforms and short-video apps have become new vessels for state propaganda. Hundreds of central and local governments and law enforcement agencies have set up accounts on platforms like Douyin, Kuaishou and Bilibili. Douyin has created a trending topic hashtagged "Positive Energy," referencing videos that promote mainstream political ideology, many of which were posted by government accounts, a 2020 study found. Such content, which digital media scholars have coined as a form of "playful patriotism," had been viewed 16.7 billion times on Douyin by late May.

After Yuan, the scientist, died on May 22, Chinese celebrities paused their entertainment for two days to mourn his death. On May 24, Li's followers found him wearing black while drumming up attention for the upcoming mid-year online shopping festival in a livestream show. Viya published a heartfelt tribute to Yuan via Weibo. "I am sure that many people, when they hold their rice bowls today, will think of [Yuan] and tears will fill their eyes," she wrote.

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