China has the biggest live-streaming industry in the world. There are more than 400 million vloggers, or video bloggers, in the country. In November 2021, online influencers were banned from recommending stocks online, and 88 celebrities were given "warnings" over live-streaming content. The livestreaming market in China was estimated to be valued at around US$5 billion in 2018. By some estimates a quarter of Chinese internet check it out at least occasionally. To social scientists the trend reveals, according to Slate, “a deep hunger for entertainment outside the heavily censored and state-controlled broadcast and film offerings.”. Some livestreaming stars make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. But most amateur hosts earn very little. [Source: Christina Larson, Slate, April 25, 2018; [Source: BBC, December 21, 2021]

The film “People’s Republic of Desire” explores this lucrative and exploitative world as it is displayed on of, a social media site focused on live livestreaming. Rachel Zheng wrote: “Many luxury brands increasingly use livestreaming to attract fans and monetize that attention. Livestreamers can receive money from viewers — which has sent ordinary people on a quest to instant fame and fortune. The film, according to the Hollywood Reporter, is a “a revealing examination of contemporary Chinese internet culture...reckoning the cost of fame. “It is also “provocative and unsettling as it brings us on a guided tour through the digital marketplace for something resembling human contact,” commented Variety.[Source: Rachel Zheng, Jing Daily, Film Insider, December 5, 2018]

“The film focuses on two main characters, 21-year-old Shen Man (See Below) and 24-year-old comedian Big Li (See Above). Both had relatively humble upbringings and backgrounds — Shen studied nursing, while Li started as a construction worker in Beijing. A few years after stepping into their livestreaming careers, their overnight-riches stories have become idolized by fans. The livestreamers hold a similar value to luxury brands — creating a sense of aspiration fulfilled that is craved by the people living in smaller cities, where unemployment is high and wealth is lower than the average for China. For example, while livestreamer Shen earns big money from live streaming, one of her viewers earns less than $300 a month.

“The virtual world reflects the real world situation, where the class and wealth gap continues to widen in China. The rich are called tuhao — used to describe the nouveau riche, overnight rich, who are likely big-brand luxury shoppers — whereas diaosi — the poor — dream about the life that livestreamers have made for themselves. The director, Hao Wu, a former executive of internet giants like Alibaba and Yahoo!, was interested in the mechanism behind this money-making machine. The totalitarian nature of the livestream platform should serve as a reminder to brands that they are actively participating in the game. “Livestream has developed a complicated virtual universe that took me years to unpack, a universe encompassing idol worshipping, conspicuous consumption, status seeking, and layers upon layers of profit-making,” said Hao Wu.

“What’s driving the craze is the China’s current social landscape. The one-child policy and urban migration have shaped a lonely millennial generation, as many have turned to the virtual world for meaningful connection and emotional release; the livestreaming platform keeps them hooked. According to Slate: “The only consistently lucrative and stable positions in the livestreaming industry are those of the talent agencies, which promote favored hosts, and those working for the platforms, which take cuts of up to 60 percent of a performer’s income. With more than 100 million active users (the equivalent of nearly one-third of the entire U.S. population), the Guangzhou-based YY has a market cap of $6.2 billion. Its stock price on Nasdaq doubled over the past year. And it’s just one of dozens of livestreaming platforms in China, which together command the attention of 200 million of the country’s 750 million internet users.

Rules for Video Content in China

In March 2009, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and TV issued new rules on Internet videos that emphasized its concern over vulgarity and listed various types of content that online video hosts should filter from their sites. According to the rules Internet audio-visual program service providers must edit or delete programs that contain any of the following: 1) Distortions of Chinese culture, Chinese history, and historical facts; distortions of the history of other countries, and disrespect to human civilization and the culture and customes of other countries; 2) Disparaging or mocking depictions of revolutionary leaders, heroes, important historical figures, and major domestic and foreign literary works and their main characters; 3) Disparaging depictions of the PLA, people's armed police, the PSB, or the judiciary; depictions of torture of prisoners or of the use of torture to extract confessions from criminals or suspects;

4) Displays of arrogant criminal behavior, detailed depictions of criminal activity, exposure of particular investigative techniques, or leaks of the appearance and voice of witnesses or individuals whose identity should be protected; 5) Calls for religious extremism, provocation of conflict between religions, religious sects, or between believers and non-believers, hurting the feelings of the public; 6) Promotion of palm-reading, fortune-telling, fengshui, divination, exorcism, and other feudal superstitious activity; 7) Mocking depictions of scenes of catastrophe, including major natural disasters, accidents, terrorist incidents, and war; 8) Detailed depictions of promiscuity, rape, incest, necrophilia, prostitution, solicitation, sexual perversion, and masturbation;

9) Depictions or suggestions of sexual activity, sexual process, sexual techniques, and excessive related physical contact; 10. Deliberate displays in which private parts are only obscured by limbs or small coverings; 11) Sexually suggestive or provocative content that leads to sexual thoughts; 12) Promotion of unhealthy content including extramarital affairs, love triangles, one-night stands, sexual abuse, and wife-swapping; 13) Use of “adult film,” “pornographic film,” “Cat III film,” “hidden camera,” “indecent exposure,” and other provocative words and pictures in the program title or category; 14) Intense scenes of murder, bloodshed, violence, suicide, kidnapping, drug use, gambling, and the occult; 15) Excessively frightening images, text, background music, or sound effects; 16) Detailed depictions of cruelty to animals, or the capture, killing, and consumption of protected animals; 17) Content that violates personal privacy; 18) Depictions of fighting, humiliation, and obscenity affirmatively or in a manner that invites imitation; 19) Promotion of a negative or decadent outlook, world view, or value system, or deliberate exaggeration of the ignorance and backwardness of ethnic groups or social ills; 20) Clips that SARFT has cut from films and TV shows or has prohibited from being broadcast; 21. Content that violates the spirit of the law and regulations. [Source:, April 1, 2009]

The rules also sated that Internet audio-visual program service providers must improve their program content administration systems and emergency response mechanisms by hiring well-qualified service personnel to review and filter content, with particular attention paid to online music videos, variety shows, film shorts, and animation, as well as “self-shot”, “hot dancing”, “pretty girls”, “funny” , “original content”, and “netizen reporters”, to insure that program content does not violate the rules.

Video Streaming Begins To Take Off in China in the Early 2010s

David Barboza wrote in the New York Times: “Media and technology companies across the globe have tried for years to attract viewers en masse to live Internet broadcasts, with X-rated websites the only real success stories. China, though, appears to have cracked the code. Millions are now tuning in every night to watch karaoke performances, comedy skits and talk shows — moving beyond the common web fare of scantily clad women doing erotic dances. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, April 17, 2014]

“The shows are typically low-budget productions by amateur entertainers who work out of tiny apartments, fitted with webcams. And viewers spend large sums online to buy credits to give virtual gifts of roses, chocolates and Chanel bags to performers, who receive a slice of the revenue from Internet companies. The strategy offers a potential path for the rest of the world, which is struggling to move profitably into online programming. Services like Netflix and iTunes have prompted some consumers to drop cable. But viewers in the United States and elsewhere are largely sticking with traditional television for live shows.

“Given the government restrictions on all manner of media, consumers in China seem more willing to go online for movies, music and even role-playing fantasy games. State-run television — with its steady diet of propaganda, game shows and stale dramas — just doesn’t offer the same variety. The websites mix video feeds with streaming-text commentary from the audience. In the upper left corner of the screen is a running count of how many viewers are in the virtual concert hall. Digital cars — representing the V.I.P.s who spend large sums — speed in and out of the imaginary hall. “I’ve spent more than $15,000 in each of the past two years,” says Mi Tian, a 29-year-old architect from Shandong Province. “I’ve given virtual gifts to basically every performer I’ve watched.”

YY and the Early Livestreaminng Business in China

David Barboza wrote in the New York Times in 2014: “The leader in China in this industry is a fast-growing start-up called It has 92 million monthly active users and more than a million channels. David Li, YY’s 40-year-old co-founder and chief executive, says live web entertainment is transforming an industry that has been savaged by copyright infringement and online file-sharing services. “Now we’ve found a whole new way to rejuvenate the music industry,” Mr. Li said. “This will help entertainers make money.” “Investors are betting he’s right. Shares of YY have soared 500 percent since the company’s public offering on the Nasdaq stock market in late 2012. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, April 17, 2014]

“None of this was by design. YY began as an online community dedicated to World of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment’s popular role-playing fantasy game. And started as a video-sharing site, much like YouTube. “When faster Internet speeds arrived in China, video sharing gave way to live broadcasting. The early adopters were online gamers. Then came singers, DJs, hip-hop dancers and comedians.

“YY was the vanguard for other Chinese webcasters considering listings in the United States, and And while some critics dismiss it as a fad, Sina and Tencent, two of China’s biggest Internet companies, have jumped on the bandwagon with their own live karaoke shows. The companies have latched onto a new business model: turning amateur entertainers into live broadcasters who control their own programming, and offering them revenue-sharing deals to split the proceeds from virtual gifts, an idea adopted from the gaming industry. Instead of 100 or 500 channels, there are millions, each with a person creating his or her own live content. “This is something on the border of movies and video games,” says Eric Wen, an analyst at China Renaissance. “It’s a challenge to the Hollywood model, which, because of copyright theft, didn’t really work in China.”

Christina Larson wrote in Slate:. YY’s CEO Chen Zhou is disarmingly frank about what his product does. Or rather, what it doesn’t do. He doesn’t pretend YY aims to “bring the world closer together,” optimize for “meaningful social interactions” or “time well spent,” or make the world a better place. “I don’t think this virtual world is that much different from real life. Only that this platform helps release some energy that is otherwise suppressed,” Zhou says as he sits in his sparingly decorated Guangzhou office. He’s wearing a modest windbreaker over a striped shirt; unlike YY’s online celebrities, he doesn’t need to dress to impress. As for the platform’s most ardent users, he says, “Most of them live in the virtual world. They may lack friends in real life.” [Source: Christina Larson, Slate, April 25, 2018]

Making Livestream Videos, Politics and Gaining an Audience in China

Live streaming requires much less in terms of scripting and production design than other offer forms of social media celebrity exposure. But that doesn’t mean its easy. “You’re compelled to constantly stream or else your fans forget you,” he told the The New Yorker, adding that he regularly spends eight-hour stretches at his computer. To fill the time, he said, “I put on makeup, or, if my makeup is already done, I sing karaoke, but I don’t have a good voice.” [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, December 18, 2017]

“If you want to build an audience, especially a young one, you should probably avoid politics,” one influenced told The New Yorker. “If you say something controversial, you’ll get shut down. If you’re repeating what’s on the news, well, then, what’s the point?” “It’s not only about the censors,” someone else added. “Politics is also just not that interesting to our fans. They are teen-agers and want to be amused by stuff actually relevant to their lives.”

It became clear, though, that most of the stars approved of President Xi Jinping’s tough stance toward Western powers. “The way to succeed is to listen to the Party and follow the government,” one man said. Beyond that, they took no interest in politics and thought of China’s development as a generational evolution. People born in the nineteen-seventies, one star explained, still bear traces of the collectivist mind-set of the days before Communism was tempered by market reforms. “They only know what it’s like to please the group, and don’t really have a sense of self,” he said. The one-child policy meant that people born in the eighties are a bit more self-centered, and subsequent generations are even more so. Today’s teen-agers, he said, “want to stand out and be individuals — to be like everyone else is just uncool.”

Poison: Livestreaming Star in the Early 2010s

Reporting from Zigong, a midsize city in a mountainous region of Sichuan Province, David Barboza wrote in the New York Times: China — Dolled up with makeup and a blond wig, the pretty young Chinese woman sat at home in her bedroom on a quiet Sunday evening and began singing karaoke. A large microphone and three webcams clipped to a desktop monitor streamed the performance over the Internet, to thousands of fans who knew her only by her stage name, Poison. “Hey, Big Brother!” she greeted one fan in between songs. “Did you just get back from vacation in Sanya or are you watching on a laptop?” Poison, 26, still lives with her parents and her dogs Blueberry and DuDu in a modest apartment. But she is one of the most popular attractions in a thriving new business in China: live interactive web entertainment. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, April 17, 2014]

“Live web shows are empowering amateur entertainers, some of whom can now earn $90,000 annually, nearly 30 times the average Chinese salary. From a run-down apartment complex, Poison often performs live for more than 10,000 online viewers a night (a birthday concert once drew 36,000 viewers), making her one of the most popular performers on YY’s Entertainment channel. Her popularity earned her a mention in the I.P.O. prospectus YY sent to investors.

A former dancer, office clerk and online gaming enthusiast, Poison began performing karaoke on several years ago before being recruited to YY. “Just call me Poison,” she says when asked her real name.““The reason I’m doing this is simple. I wanted to be a singer since I was a little girl, but there wasn’t a way I could do it,” she says putting on eyeliner before a performance.

“Just before her nightly show begins, around 8, she sits on her bed, surrounded by toy animals, staring at her computer monitor to see what viewers can see. She uses a special webcam to create candy-colored hues around her online image, strokes the locks on her blond wig, and selects karaoke tunes, favoring a mix of Cantonese love songs and theme songs from online games. A bottle of water and a roll of toilet paper are by her side to deal with thirst and a runny nose. And then her three-hour live show begins, right from the edge of her bed. “Hi everyone,” she says after going live with an audience that soon that night reached 15,000 people. “Did you miss me while I was away?”

Shen Man: Livestreaming Star in the the Late 2010s

She Man earned $40,000 a month as a livestreamer in 2018. Christina Larson wrote in Slate: “It’s taken Shen Man just three years to amass a following of 5 million fans by singing, chatting, and flirting online as a hostess on the Chinese livestreaming platform YY. With large eyes, porcelain skin, and a tapered chin, Shen Man matches the modern Chinese ideal of doll-like beauty. Her voice is usually soft, almost cooing. She’s had plastic surgery to augment her nose, eyelids, temples, and chin, and been professionally coached in how, precisely, to tilt her head and lilt her voice — all preparation to become a virtual girlfriend to lonely hearts across China.[Source: Christina Larson, Slate, April 25, 2018]

“While her song-and-chat shows are usually rather banal, Shen Man herself is whip-smart. She understands how the game of online fame is played in China: She must keep her ordinary fans happy, but also cultivate deep-pocketed patrons and agency bosses who play a crucial role in buying votes in the online popularity contests that keep her in front of viewers’ screens.

She has rocketed to fame on YY, a YouTube-like livestreaming platform that, instead of relying on advertising, allows viewers and patrons to make online payments directly to content producers. (Yes, there are plenty of camgirls in the West, but YY and its peers have achieved a mainstream presence in China that the fractured networks of American sites — with their often expressly sexual content — lack.) YY held out the promise of American Idol — like meritocratic fame for unknowns singing their hearts out, but over time it became captive to an invisible network of talent agencies and “popularity” contests determined by vote buying, as Wu reveals.

“Wu fans out across China in search of devotees of these unexpected online icons — and finds that there is a unifying factor among these die-hard fans. It’s isolation. For online hosts who play the game successfully, the financial stakes are considerable. At her peak, Shen Man earns $40,000 a month in digital gifts and payments. And, as with the bottom rungs of Hollywood, the lives of starlets are precarious: Even the ones who do break out often crash and burn, rapidly surpassed by fresher faces. For example, as Wu’s documentary shows, once Shen Man’s offline entanglements are publicly revealed, her fan base and patronage network wither.

“When she became an actual celebrity, however, the media started digging into her personal life and uncovered multiple real-life trysts, including with some of her online “patrons.” These revelations shattered her cultivated aura of chaste sexiness: lusted after, but untouchable. Never mind that male stars aren’t subjected to the same scrutiny; the backlash from her former fans is swift and severe. A barrage of insults scrolls down the screen of her chat room: “Such a slut!” “Fucking tramp!” “Stinky whore!” Shen Man confronts her online accusers. At first insouciant, later her voice sounds rasping and defeated: “I’m a whore, a worn-out pussy. Happy now?” “Should I be ashamed? How about you?” The 21-year-old woman stares into her webcam, eyes flat under heavy false eyelashes and her long hair parted, half spilling over her left shoulder. “You self-righteous douchebags!”

Shen Man’s rise and fall may recall a Chinese Britney Spears, but her online fame has real-world consequences. Wu interviews the family members who have become dependent upon her unlikely income and who worry about her fading allure. Her father has quit his own business, and he and his new wife have moved in with Shen Man, though they don’t understand how she makes money or what kind of pressure his dependence puts on her. “People my age don’t understand computers. This society is moving too fast,” he says, lounging in striped pajamas. “Though we live together now, we don’t talk much.”

Chinese Male Beauty Livestreamer

Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: Abner said his live-streaming income had paid for his surgeries several times over. He told me that his look was chiefly inspired by Korean models he follows on Instagram. Instagram is blocked in China, but he uses a VPN. connection to get past this. He’d even live-streamed from Seoul recently, while attending a friend’s birthday party., but the whole thing had been a fiasco. He’d been completely unaware of a recent diplomatic standoff between China and South Korea. over the latter’s deployment of an advanced American missile system. Abner was startled by a sudden onslaught of hostile comments from followers calling him a traitor to his country. “I don’t watch the news, and politics is the most boring thing I can think of,” he said. “Before leaving for Korea, I didn’t even know about that stupid missile. I told my fans I booked the tickets months earlier, and, besides, the weather was perfect for outside photography.” [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, December 18, 2017]

Abner was studying finance in college, but said, “I don’t go to classes much, though I try to show up for the tests. I’ll probably collect the degree, even if it’s completely pointless.” The idea of working in an office struck him as ludicrous, and he expressed contempt for the way his parents, who run a small cell-phone store, thought of nothing but work and constantly fretted about money. “What my parents don’t get is that being a wang hong is much more practical than any office profession,” he went on. “The truth is that in China going to school is useless. The things my professors drone on and on about — can they actually help me make money? The best-case scenario is you’ll just be a lowly cog in a corporation owned by rich people and run by their children.”

“Over by the stage, Abner was halfheartedly trying on various glow-in-the-dark accessories that Meitu had provided, taking a selfie with each new look. “I still don’t know why my video from this morning hasn’t gone viral,” he said sulkily and wandered off. I took out my phone and scrolled through his videos. Abner’s eyes were large and imploring, his complexion so pale that, when he happened to pose in front of a white wall, the face he had so painstakingly sculpted melted into the background and became almost invisible. In one video, a single wisp of hair had been artfully primed to keep falling in his eye. He would brush it away with his arm. He was wearing a ruffled shirt too big for his skinny frame, and the over-all effect somehow called to mind the Little Prince. In another, he played languorously with a piece of cheesecake but never quite took a bite.

“Below each video came the comments and donations of his teen-aged fans. (He had told me that the best time to earn money was around the Chinese New Year, when kids were flush with cash given to them by their families; he could easily clear six thousand dollars a week.) The bottom of his screen was a blizzard of hearts and stars and money bags. But one adoring girl wrote a longer, more earnest message: “Him. He was my first wang hong idol. I never thought it was possible to love a person so much. He was really my first. Stylish, majestic, with ethereal beauty. Truly, can anyone be so perfect?”

Chinese Livestreaming Fans

David Barboza wrote in the New York Times: “The viewers tend to be single men in smaller locales with fewer entertainment options. Many are wealthy enough to spend thousands of dollars to get the V.I.P. privilege of driving a virtual Lamborghini Aventador LP 700-4 Roadster to and from the virtual concert halls during performances. They pay $1,100 for the privilege. “People don’t understand why Chinese spend so much money like this, but it’s partly cultural,” said Yan Liu, the chief executive of “Even in the time of Peking Opera, performers were paid with gifts.” The most popular performers are female “hostesses,” many of whom practice the art of sexual tease. “What is it about me that attracts you guys? Is it my thighs or something else?” one hostess asks on YY. Viewers can respond in real time, through text or voice message with comments like this: “Can you imagine what it would be like if she stripped her dress off?” They never do, though the women often show lots of skin and cleavage. Critics have complained about the corrupting influence of the live shows, which sometimes feature lewd behavior. But YY and its competitors insist they abide by the law, which forbids nudity or even behaviors that “generate sexual fantasies.” “We have very clear rules on behavior,” said Mr. Li at YY. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, April 17, 2014]

Christina Larson wrote in Slate: Livestreaming’s vast appeal in China may seem inscrutable to Western audiences because, often, what you find on the end of the camera isn’t especially remarkable. Pretty women singing. People in the countryside slurping noodles. But Wu fans out across China in search of devotees of these unexpected online icons — and finds that there is a unifying factor among these die-hard fans. It’s isolation. [Source: Christina Larson, Slate, April 25, 2018]

Yong, a thin 18-year-old migrant worker with floppy hair and sad eyes, works as a waiter in a massage parlor and later packing motorcycle parts in a factory in Guangzhou. His monthly wages, about $400, are enough to hang on, but not to plan a stable future. “I feel very lonely. Sometimes I really want to find someone to have a heart-to-heart, but it’s very difficult. It rarely happens,” he reflects, sitting on a metal-framed bunk bed inside a worker dormitory. “Watching Big Li feels different. In my heart, he’s my idol.”

“Even the affluent patrons who spend lavish fortunes online don’t seem especially happy in Wu’s depiction. One wealthy tuhao, or nouveau riche patron, wearing pearls and a fur coat, says she’s spent $500,000 on online gifts on YY. “I need to find something to do besides trading stocks,” she says, pausing to stroke her fat tabby cat. “My social circle is too small.”

Songge is a thuggish patron who says he can’t talk about his real-world business, except that he’s “a profiteer.” He’s lavished more than $2 million on online gifts and votes on YY and freely admits that he thrives on attention from online hostesses and their fans. At one point, Shen Man coos in a public chat room: “Oh my god, Songge! Songge’s gifts are giving me hot flashes.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

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