Li Jiaqi was one of the most well-known figures in China until a month ago.
The 30-year-old internet editor, also known as Austin Li, had 64 million followers on the online shopping platform Taobao.
He once sold 15,000 lipsticks in 5 minutes as part of a competition he entered with Alibaba founder Jack Ma and became known as “the lipstick king of China”.
According to CNN International, Li’s reputation ended in the first week of June, hours before the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square events.
On June 3, Li aired as planned. He was showing the audience a plate of ice cream decorated with cookies and waffles. The ice cream and decorations looked like a tank at first glance.
The broadcast of “Lipstick King” was interrupted shortly after these moments.
Just at this moment, Li’s transmission suddenly stopped. Hours later, Li posted an apology on his social media account, citing several technical glitches.
“Sisters, I’m sorry. Due to a problem with our equipment, we won’t be able to continue the live broadcast tonight,” Li said.
“Please all of you go to bed early. I will feature the products I didn’t have the opportunity to show today in upcoming publications.”
But these broadcasts were never made. Two of Li’s scheduled broadcasts for the next few days have been cancelled. After canceling all broadcast activities, Li disappeared into the online world. The Weibo and WeChat accounts are still open, but they haven’t posted since early June. Considering Li has done around 250 live streams in the last year alone, this silence is not uncommon.
(Li and his manager did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.)
“LIVE QUEEN” IS ALSO OFFLINE
Furthermore, Li is not the only Chinese influencer to be silenced in this way. In December, Chinese authorities fined Huang Wei, known to his followers as Viya, with a tax equivalent to $210 million.
Huang, who has millions of followers on many social media and shopping platforms like Weibo, Taobao and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, was shut down in December. No one has seen Huang online since that day.
Known as China’s “Live Streaming Queen”, 36-year-old Huang has become one of the country’s top influencers over the past 10 years. The sales of the products he promoted constituted a savings of billions of dollars.
Even more interesting, the person who filled Li and Viya’s gap in the field of live streaming: Dong Yuhui, this former English teacher, gives free English lessons and sells products on his streams. Thanks to Dong, his company reached 22 million followers on Douyin’s live streaming platform in less than 2 months.
(Viya and Dong also did not respond to requests for comment.)
NOBODY IS “TOO IMPORTANT” IN CHINA
These sudden ups and downs of China’s famous influencers also reveal just how fragile the world’s second-largest economy is for those who make money from the internet.
Experts who spoke to CNN are certain that Li and Viya were silent as a result of the Beijing government’s censorship. According to experts, these influencers played a role in the Communist Party’s attempts to increase its control over private sectors, from technology to real estate.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who came to power in 2012, has been trying to realize his vision of “renewing the Chinese nation” ever since. In this context, the areas of business, education, entertainment and culture are under strict control.
In late 2020, Xi launched a program to “reduce economic inequality” and “balance the excesses of capitalism”. As a result, Chinese companies operating around the world have lost a total of $3 trillion in value.
Cara Wallis, a professor at Texas A&M University who studies China’s media industry and online culture, said: or gone,’ he said.
IT WAS NOT FORGIVEN, EVEN A SINCERE MISTAKE
The Beijing government is particularly adamant when it comes to controversial policy statements. Also, it doesn’t matter who made that statement or what their intentions were. So it’s no surprise that Li’s tank-shaped ice cream was also penalized.
The shape of the tank is a delicate symbol for China. Many associate this symbol with the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989. Large-scale protests led by students, intellectuals and workers between April 15 and June 4, 1989 ended when the Chinese government sent the army and tanks to the square. Indeed, the photograph of a man in front of tanks with grocery bags in his hands has become a symbol of the protests. After the military intervention, the Chinese government announced that 200 civilians and many security personnel had been killed. Western sources, on the other hand, suggest the number may have reached 10,000. Incidents in Tiananmen Square are considered prohibited everywhere from school books to media sites and social networks. Even the most superficial posts that touch on this subject are removed immediately.
Noting that Li had barely made any political posts so far, Wallis said, “I really think he made a mistake. As many people have said, most of Li’s fans may not have been able to make the connection between the form of the ice cream and June 4th.” .
Rongbin Han, a researcher on China’s internet and media policy at the University of Georgia, also said he believed what Li did was an “unintentional” mistake, but stressed the timing was “deadly”.
The square that went down in history on June 4, 1989
NEW RULES FOR PUBLISHERS
A few days after Li’s broadcast was interrupted, China’s National Radio and Television Administration and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism issued a joint statement.
The statement listed new rules banning 31 ‘improper acts’ by internet publishers.
The rules emphasized that broadcasters must “adopt the right political and social values.” They also included self-monitoring, avoiding “illegal or harmful” content and “not posting anything that could harm the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party”. It was also stated in the text that a blacklist and permanent bans await those who seriously break the rules.
David Craig, a communications professor at the University of Southern California, said doing business with China is always difficult because companies and managers that are economically and culturally dominated are seen as a threat by the state, adding that time is important.
“There are waves of such exaggerated administration every 5 years before the Communist Party congress,” Craig said. The regular congress of the Communist Party, underlined by Craig, will be held in October this year.
IF THE E-COMMERCE PUMP IS NOT PUBLISHERS…
Pressure on the growing live-streaming economy could hurt the Chinese economy. According to data from iResearch Consulting group, China’s live streaming e-commerce market grew by 197% in 2020 from the previous year, reaching 1.2 trillion yuan (US$178 billion). iResearch predicted that growth will continue at this pace and the market will reach 4.9 trillion yuan (US$726 billion) in 2023.
But the world’s second-largest economy is also showing signs of slowing.
China’s economy grew by just 0.4 percent in the second quarter from a year earlier. This is the worst result since the beginning of 2020. Unemployment rises while consumer spending falls. A strictly zero Covid policy, pressures on the private sector, the housing crisis increasing bad loans at banks and growing social protests are putting pressure on policymakers to sustain growth.
Jack Ma and his company, Alibaba, are among those feeling the pressure most in the tech sector.
PRESSURE RELIEF IN TECHNOLOGY COMPANIES
Concerned about the state of affairs, Beijing has signaled that the tight controls that were in place a year ago on the technology sector will be loosened. For example, pledges of support have been made to technology companies looking to get into foreign exchange.
But the market is still not strong enough. Fines imposed on some tech companies accused of violating monopoly laws in mid-July caused market turmoil and stock sales.
“The fact that a non-politically motivated social media influencer is targeted for censorship is frightening,” said Han.
Another important point is that the increasing pressure on internet publishers has coincided with the slowdown in the growth of the e-commerce sector.
Two major e-commerce events are held in China every year. The first is Singles Day in November, and the second is the online shopping festival on June 18th. Sales on June 18 this year were up 0.7 percent from the same period last year. According to data from Syntun, a China-based e-commerce analytics company, there was a 27% increase in the 2020-2021 period. The big difference between these two rates is seen as a sign of a slowdown in the Chinese economy.
Compiled from CNN International’s report titled “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow: China’s Missing Livestreamers”.