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The real star of China's New Year Gala: livestreaming ecommerce

China is leading the way on combining ecommerce with live video, and it's become a powerful economic tool for Beijing.

The real star of China's New Year Gala: livestreaming ecommerce

For any Chinese celebrity, an invitation to appear on the annual televised New Year's Gala is a sign of state approval. But this year, the event also blessed an entire new industry: livestreaming ecommerce.

In 2021, the star of the Gala — viewed by over a billion people each year — was 36-year-old Huang Wei, known as Viya by the millions of fans who tune in to her ecommerce livestreams every day. She's known as the livestream queen of China, and her selection signals that China is eager to showcase itself as the world leader in ecommerce tech while also using the influence of new stars like her to manage its own economy.

Livestreaming ecommerce took off in China in 2020, when the COVID-19 lockdown gave everyone more screen time while effectively forcing them to buy online. It's now on the edge of becoming a trillion-RMB business, equal to about $150 billion. It's fast become both an international poster child for Chinese technological innovation and a key policy tool for Beijing, helping juice domestic consumption and bring more money to China's farmers, who number around 550 million.

Top influencers in China can sell anything on livestreams. (Viya literally sold a rocket launch service last year.) But seemingly everyone has reserved some screen time for China's rural governments to advertise their local specialties — mostly food. Kuaishou, which completed a $5 billion IPO in Hong Kong earlier this month, claims to have helped 5 million sellers from China's poorest villages market nearly $3 billion worth of agriculture products in 2019.

China is leading the way by fusing social influence and selling; in the U.S., the two have yet to join. But now, ecommerce platforms are racing to catch up; Amazon Live was launched in late 2019, while Walmart tested the waters with a one-hour live shopping event on TikTok in December. Analysts say it's only a matter of time before livestreaming becomes a mainstream marketing tool outside of China too.

On Feb. 11, Chinese New Year's eve, Viya appeared in a sketch at the Gala, hosted by CCTV, China's powerful state broadcaster. Before that, she livestreamed for four hours from a CCTV studio. Renowned news anchors and celebrity guests shuffled in and out to help sell products ranging from snacks to red wine to luxury cosmetics to kitchen appliances. The products were heavily discounted, and many sold out within seconds. The show received over 20 million views on shopping platform Taobao.

Viya's Gala-themed livestream wasn't all that different from her usual fare, but she included more products offering "relief for farmers." These are usually specialty foods from rural localities, produced via public-private partnerships. Viya kicked off her Gala show selling a novel snack made with persimmons and walnuts, a specialty from Fuping, Shaanxi, a town of about 800,000 people in western China that also happened to be the birthplace of Xi Jinping's father.

Viya has long been a government favorite, particularly because she's dedicated dozens of shows to promoting local agricultural products. Those shows don't make much money for Viya or the platform that hosts her — she's claimed she takes no commission from sellers in these cases — but they help boost consumption for goods produced in China's poorest places. In June 2020, Viya undertook a nationwide tour where she "discovered and recommended" local produce. Everywhere she went, she was accompanied by provincial party officials, local government representatives and ordinary farmers, who sometimes become livestream influencers themselves.

It's all part of the Communist Party's plan. The CCP said its major goal for 2020 was to "eradicate extreme poverty" in China, which means no one has an annual income less than about $600 and every village has access to basic infrastructure. On Dec. 3, the state said it had met the target — conveniently in time for the CCP's 100th anniversary.

Like every other new technology that rose to popularity in China — even those with enthusiastic state backing — livestream ecommerce still needs to survive intensifying regulatory scrutiny. In November 2020, the National Radio and Television Administration announced it would tighten regulation, increasing the number of staff censors employed by platforms to one per 50 livestream channels. The administration was clear it wants livestreaming to serve state ends like poverty alleviation and "industrial upgrading."

As long as influencers like Viya can maintain the balancing act between private gain and the government's aspirations, livestreaming ecommerce is here to stay. Expect to see more shopping livestreams like the one on New Year's Eve, where it's hard to distinguish commercial events from Party diktat. This might be the first time a Taobao influencer stood on the stage of China's New Year Gala, but it's probably not the last.

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Google wants to help you get a life

Digital car windows, curved AR glasses, automatic presentations and other patents from Big Tech.

A new patent from Google offers a few suggestions.

Image: USPTO

Another week has come to pass, meaning it's time again for Big Tech patents! You've hopefully been busy reading all the new Manual Series stories that have come out this week and are now looking forward to hearing what comes after what comes next. Google wants to get rid of your double-chin selfie videos and find things for you as you sit bored at home; Apple wants to bring translucent displays to car windows; and Microsoft is exploring how much you can stress out a virtual assistant.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

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The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

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What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
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Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

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There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

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