Protocol | China

Livestreaming ecommerce is the next battleground for China’s nationalists

Vendors for Nike and even Chinese brands were harassed for not donating enough to Henan.

Screenshots of nationalists trolling in livestream comments.

Nationalists were trolling in the comment sections of livestream sessions selling products by Li-Ning, Adidas and other brands.

Collage: Weibo, Bilibili

The No. 1 rule of sales: Don't praise your competitor's product. Rule No. 2: When you are put to a loyalty test by nationalist trolls, forget the first rule.

While China continues to respond to the catastrophic flooding that has killed 99 and displaced 1.4 million people in the central province of Henan, a large group of trolls was busy doing something else: harassing ordinary sportswear sellers on China's livestream ecommerce platforms. Why? Because they determined that the brands being sold had donated too little, or too late, to the people impacted by floods.

The result is something both comical and sad: Because of the countless comments swarming into livestream sessions of Nike and Adidas products to berate the brands, some on-camera staff for the sportswear companies felt necessary to stick pieces of paper to their bodies that said "We support Erke" — a competing Chinese brand that has been heralded for its 50 million RMB ($7.7 million) donation to charities working on the ground in Henan.

In today's China, nationalism finds a way to integrate itself into seemingly any technology innovation. Starting with the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, livestreaming ecommerce has been one of the highlights of China's tech industry, growing into a trillion-RMB market. Its popularity also means it's vulnerable to populist attacks.

It all started with Erke, a faded, 21-year-old Chinese sportswear brand. On July 21, it executed a PR masterstroke, announcing on social media platform Weibo that it would donate millions in cash and goods to the disaster-stricken area. The brand went instantly viral. People commended Erke for donating an amount of money comparable to much more successful brands, even as the company itself is struggling financially.

The emergence of livestream ecommerce offers Erke a convenient way to convert that surge in popularity into real income. Overnight, millions of people participated in Erke's shopping livestream sessions on Taobao. The viewership of its regular livestream grew from the low thousands to over 19 million by July 24. There were so many purchases that the brand had to apologize for not having enough inventory to meet demand.

"Patriotism sells," Guobin Yang, a professor researching social movement and digital culture at the University of Pennsylvania, told Protocol. "It is a product of popular culture and commerce and is not unique to China. Think about the patriotism in Hollywood movies."

But the patriotic buying frenzy turned dark, quick. It soon became not just about supporting the brand that donated, but also about boycotting the brands that donated too little or too slowly.

Li-Ning, the second best-selling Chinese sportswear brand, became an early target. A day after Erke's announcement, Li-Ning posted on Weibo that it would donate $1.5 million in cash and $2.3 million worth of goods to charities working in Henan.

Social media was not satisfied. One of the Weibo comments, which received over 9,000 likes, reads: "You always advertise your patriotism but you must have gained a lot from raising prices during the time of the Xinjiang cotton [boycott]. When the country is in danger, you donate much less than brands like Anta and Erke."

The angry crowd then left Erke's livestreams and went to Li-Ning's, spamming the comment section with "Erke" or accusing Li-Ning of being a "Han traitor." Recorded videos of the livestream sessions, still available on platforms like Weibo and Douyin, show that some on-camera staff were harassed so thoroughly that they stopped talking and waited in silence for the stream to end.

There's also misinformation circulating around claiming Li-Ning is actually not a Chinese company. Like many Chinese companies, Li-Ning is incorporated in the Cayman Islands.

This is not the first time nationalism has resulted in mass-spamming on livestream ecommerce platforms. Back in March, during the boycott against foreign brands who said they would not use cotton produced in Xinjiang, fervent nationalist trolls — not to mention many ordinary web users — also attacked livestream vendors of Nike and Adidas products. Many of these vendors were just distributors, not Nike or Adidas employees, but that didn't make a difference.

The March boycott actually benefited Li-Ning, which at the time emphasized its Chinese ownership and attracted patriotic buyers. Now it has become the one being boycotted. Unsurprisingly, livestream channels of Adidas and Nike were also attacked (again) after the Henan flooding, even though the two companies have donated to the impacted people in Henan too.

Consumer boycotts are neither new or surprising, said Kacie Miura, assistant professor in political science and international relations at the University of San Diego. "But over the last decade or so, in part because of social media, boycotts of foreign brands that are perceived as having said or done something offensive to China seem to be occurring with greater frequency."

The latest development shows that not just foreign brands but also domestic brands and their employees can become victims of nationalist consumer boycotts. And as livestreaming becomes the dominant marketing tool, it has become a new cultural battleground.

Luckily, like anything on social media, patriotic boycotts disappear as quickly as they arrive. As of Thursday, the trolls have receded, and the ecommerce sellers have gone back to their busy schedule filled with hours of non-stop livestreaming. On social media, people have also started to reflect on, and even denounce, the harassment toward livestream sellers.

One of the only scars left in the visible digital world is in Li-Ning's livestream channels. The comment section, usually stuffed with viewer product questions, lies nearly empty. At the peak of attacks, Li-Ning disabled the commenting function to limit the scale of impact. It still hasn't opened it back up.

"I don't think the cyber-nationalists in the stories you shared are true believers," Yang said. "They may attack the Nike brand today, but will just as comfortably wear Nike shoes tomorrow. Their nationalism is part of their consumerism more than the other way around."

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