Inside the Dystopian Reality of China’s Livestreaming Craze
Sitting in a luxury apartment in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu, professional livestreamer Shen Man looks into a webcam, smiles coquettishly, and launches into a rendition of a Chinese pop song. Across the country, tens of thousands of web users gaze back at her through their computer or mobile phone screens. Real-time forum boards erupt as fans compliment the young woman’s voice, looks, and fashion sense. Some spend money — sometimes a few yuan, sometimes thousands — to buy Shen whimsical trinkets like digital roses and lollipops, which she later cashes in for herself.
Later, the chatroom comments take a sinister turn. “Take your clothes off!” reads one of them. Others call Shen a “fucking tramp” or a “stinky whore.” At first, Shen bats away the trolls with sarcastic jokes or a withering put-down. But eventually, she cracks. “Yes, I’m a whore,” she responds.
The scene plays out in “People’s Republic of Desire,” a deeply dystopian documentary that explores the people behind China’s craze for online livestreaming — a market that might be worth 112 billion yuan ($16.7 billion) by 2020, according to online statistics portal Statista. The industry continues to boom despite a pair of scandals in 2017 that saw several companies investigated for underreporting taxes and broadcasting pornographic material. (The government responded to the latter issue by banning a range of content, including suggestively eating bananas.)
The director of “People’s Republic,” Hao Wu, previously worked both in Silicon Valley and for some of China’s largest tech firms, including Alibaba and Yahoo China. The film has received multiple awards since its release last year, most notably the Grand Jury Award for best documentary feature at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival.
If Shen’s online shaming sounds like a plotline from British sci-fi series “Black Mirror,” well, that’s sort of the point: Wu sets out to explore how the Chinese livestreaming industry preys upon both its performers’ desire for fame and fortune, and its viewers’ need to assuage feelings of loneliness, with potentially damaging consequences. “As performers became increasingly driven by money, it was increasingly difficult for me to paint a rosy picture of this whole ecosystem,” says Wu. “In the end, I decided to go with a ‘Black Mirror’ feel because, first, I’m a huge fan of that series, and second, China — or at least part of the China profiled in the film — has already boldly stepped into a world dictated by technology.”
The documentary follows Shen and another livestreamer, known to fans as “Big Li,” who both host shows on YY, a wildly popular livestreaming platform that boasted 88 million active users in the third quarter of last year and generated net revenues of more than 4 billion yuan in 2018. Shen and Li, whose shows attract legions of fans and earn them hundreds of thousands of yuan per month, are depicted preparing for YY’s annual idol competition, a high-stakes popularity contest in which fans buy as many votes as they can in the hope their favorite performers will come out on top.
Many livestreamers are young and have comparatively low levels of education — a background they share with many of their fans, Wu says. To him, the latter group — whether they sequester themselves in one of the country’s nondescript smaller cities or migrate to larger cities for work — are often solitary individuals whose dreams of joining the cosmopolitan middle class are increasingly thwarted by growing economic inequality and declining social mobility. They are surrounded by wealth but are rarely able to obtain it.
Ultimately, the characters in “People’s Republic” so thoroughly blur the line between their offline and online selves that the viewer struggles to see where real life ends and performance begins. When Shen insists in an interview that she’s happy, should we believe her? When Big Li weeps before his fans after another defeat in the idol competition, are his tears genuine?
Sixth Tone spoke to Wu to discuss what “People’s Republic” tells us about life — both online and offline — in today’s China. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sixth Tone: What makes Chinese livestreaming different from other forms of online entertainment, and what kind of people watch it?
Hao Wu: Livestreaming content in China is roughly equivalent to vlogging in the West. In China, vlogging never really took off for two reasons. First, online advertisers pay low rates to sponsor user-generated content. Second, when user-generated content first emerged on Chinese video-hosting websites more than a decade ago, most internet users lacked the equipment and skills to make good videos. Consequently, few Chinese vloggers made a decent living.
Livestreaming overcomes both issues. As long as you have a webcam, you can create content and get people to donate money. Like the criticism leveled at American vloggers, some people say livestreaming is brainless, low-quality, and resorts to creating controversy to attract fans. But both models appeal to similar demographics in their respective markets.
Teenagers and people in their 20s are most likely to watch livestreaming. There’s a gender imbalance, too — more men watch livestreaming than women. Because YY was a forum for online gamers before becoming a livestreaming service, its demographic is very male, relatively poor, and not very highly educated. They live in China’s small cities or they’re migrant workers in the big cities, and they have a lot of time to kill.
Sixth Tone: What compelled you to make a film about China’s livestreamers?
Wu: Livestreaming culture interests me because it’s a virtual reflection of things that are happening in real life, such as China’s growing wealth gap and urban loneliness. China’s economy gives young people from the countryside a lot of opportunities to move around. But the drawback is that they move to large, alienating metropolises where they don’t know many people.
Often, these people end up lonely. But on a deeper level, they also don’t feel like they belong there. Few migrants occupy the same social class as people in the cities, and their chances to move up the social ladder are diminishing as the economy moves away from manufacturing and toward services. Nowadays, the kind of people who make a lot of money in China are increasingly those who have a good education and work in skilled industries. The demographic that powered China’s growth in the last few decades feel stuck where they are, and this reinforces their sense of solitude.
In addition, the distribution of wealth in China has been so unequal for so long that rich people now enjoy a strong advantage in securing good education for their kids and maintaining their own social capital. I believe that when poorer people go into the cities and encounter this face to face, they think, “I just can’t see anyone from a poor background like mine rising to the top anymore.”
So, some people turn to livestreaming for escapism. They don’t want to face reality, so they spend all their time online. They see that popular livestreamers are often from backgrounds similar to theirs, and so they live vicariously through them, enjoying the fantasy that someone like them can still enjoy fame and fortune. Many such viewers feel a sense of admiration and sexual desire toward their heroes.
The ways that fans idolize livestreamers are different from the interactions between typical showbiz celebrities and their fans. Livestreaming fans want to directly help their idols maintain their luxurious lifestyles. In the film, Big Li’s wife — a livestreaming promoter — says that the reason why fans want Big Li to succeed so much is that they don’t have anything of their own to show off in real life. So, they invest all their hopes and dreams into Big Li. If he wins, they feel proud — at least it’s something. It’s the only thing they can feel proud of.
Sixth Tone: Your film also looks at the theme of gender. How does livestreaming reinforce traditional gender roles in China?
Wu: The appeal of the male livestreamer lies in his ability to be an alpha male; fans rally around him, because they see him as both a funny drinking buddy and a natural leader. But a lot of the [female livestreamers] sell sex appeal — they have to sexualize themselves to win fans.
This gender imbalance also emerges in the way male and female livestreamers experience online trolling. When trolls go after the men, they’ll say he’s a dishonest piece of shit, that he’s unfairly cheating his fans out of their money. But when they go after women, they always accuse them of sleeping around or say their tits are too big, too small, too fake — that sort of thing. A lot of the insults are about sex and the women’s physical attributes.
Sixth Tone: The livestreamers in “People’s Republic” seem to have similar personalities. They’re extremely extroverted, talkative, and have a cutting sense of humor; sometimes, they can seem vain, self-obsessed, or excessively motivated by money. Does China’s livestreaming model select for these traits?
Wu: In the early days of livestreaming, people said it was a very democratic way of displaying people’s talents. But gradually, it became obvious that to attract fans, you must be able to keep them around. A lot of livestreamers are genuinely talented singers and dancers, but because they can’t engage with their fans, they’re not that successful monetarily. So Shen Man, for example, positions herself as a singer, but banters with and tells dirty jokes to her fans in order to keep them in the chatroom.
But I don’t think that all livestreamers are extroverts. Sure, they look like that on camera. But in their real lives, they just want to lie on the couch and play on their phones. They don’t want to have a real-life conversation. First, because they’re exhausted from talking — sometimes for several hours a day — and second, they’re so involved in the online world that they don’t know what’s happening in the real world. They don’t have a strong foundation to build a conversation with anyone in real life.
Certain livestreamers also appear very vain, but I’d encourage people to look deeper. Vanity usually arises from insecurity. Shen Man, for example, speaks during the film about her plastic surgery. But that comes from a concern with how other people see her. Livestreaming exacts a huge mental toll on the people who do it. It’s easy money, but also toxic.
Livestreamers are characters 24/7. Even when they’re not doing their shows, they’re online, communicating with their fans, maintaining relationships with their patrons. In the end, those who watch them come to doubt how much of what they see is real and how much of it is acting. I think that livestreamers believe they’re real. At any particular moment, they believe they’re being authentic.
(Header image: Livestreaming host Big Li during a show. Courtesy of Sun Junbin)