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2020-03-25 13:14:38 Voices

Last August, 20-something influencer Xin Youzhi finally got his mainstream crossover moment. The self-proclaimed “Peasant CEO” with 40 million fans on livestreaming platform Kuaishou has long been popular within the confines of China’s earthiest livestreaming app, but after he reportedly dropped 50 million yuan ($7 million) on an opulent wedding featuring appearances by Jackie Chan and singers Wang Leehom, Cecilia Cheung, and GEM, his inspirational rags-to-riches story started making the rounds of the broader Chinese internet. In January, he thrust himself back into the spotlight by trumpeting a 100 million yuan donation to the epidemic relief effort; in March, he loudly claimed to have sold 400 million yuan of goods in a single streaming session.

Xin is a product of his virtual environment: Kuaishou was founded in 2011 as a GIF-making tool, and developed into a community for short-video makers in 2013. After introducing a livestreaming function in 2016, the TikTok competitor emerged from obscurity to cultivate a brash, working-class aesthetic. Most of the app’s best known personalities — MC Tianyou, “King of the Social Shake” Paipaiqi, and “Peasant CEO” Xin — are rural Chinese with no professional or industry background. Like many of their fans, before hitting it big, they were high school dropouts working odd jobs as grill masters or trying to make it as gangsters.

Their less-than-cultivated antics and street affectations have occasionally gotten them in trouble with the country’s content regulators. In 2018, the Cyberspace Administration of China issued a ban on almost all of the most popular online MCs amid the “social shake” dance craze. The official reason given for the ban was that online celebrities were crossing legal boundaries in their attempts to increase their fan base — notably, by carrying out fake philanthropic events, organizing fistfights with other streamers, or engaging in self-harm.

But to their fans, who coalesce into gang-like fan “families,” or jiazu, around a given star or stars, they’re idols. Some Kuaishou families require members to include their favorite livestreamer’s name in their handles and encourage them to fight for their idol by posting comments on the pages of “enemy” livestreamers. Idols encourage this behavior, manufacturing rapper-esque beefs to grab attention and boost their brand.

A GIF of a Xin Youzhi livestream on Kuaishou, 2019. From Tencent Video

A GIF of a Xin Youzhi livestream on Kuaishou, 2019. From Tencent Video

When we attempted to contact one of Xin’s fan clubs, we came up against the usual barricades that niche groups use to shut normies like us out: We sent more than 100 requests for an interview; every single one was rejected. Some fans were polite, while others questioned whether we had obtained the Peasant CEO’s consent. A marketer for Kuaishou told us that fans tend to decline formal invitations, “but if you set off rockets (a type of paid-for virtual gift that the streamer can redeem for money) during live broadcasts, the streamer may decide to add you on (messaging app) WeChat.”

In the end, rather than launching virtual rockets, we decided to use publicly available information on the platform for our window into the inner world of Xin and his fans. One of the first things we noticed was that, despite their reputation for crassness and history of clashes with hand-wringing content regulators, many Kuaishou streamers describe themselves and the world around them in mostly positive terms. In his lengthy Kuaishou bio statement, Xin writes:

Came from the peasantry. Owe everything to the people. Son of a farmer. Just call me the Peasant CEO. Only support 818 (a loosely-organized but influential livestreamer gang on Kuaishou). Being better than you were yesterday is true talent. Getting what you need to do done is true ability. If you haven’t learned the importance of hard work, there’s no use envying others. If you don’t know how to learn from mistakes, you have no right to arrogance ... Do what you can with the rest of your life, and try to live as best you can. Nothing beats 818.

Here Xin emphasizes his rural, working-class roots; expresses his support for Kuaishou’s “818 Family”; and extolls the virtues of hard work, determination in spite of adversity, and pursuing humble pleasures.

Positive language is also prominent in the user profiles of Xin’s fans. Following the online crackdown, Kuaishou’s users began actively incorporating the official discourse into their hashtags and regular online expressions. An analysis my research partner and I ran of 1,500 user bios revealed that some of the most frequently used phrases were: “Don’t forget your original intention,” “Channel positive energy,” “Persistence,” “Be yourself,” and “Support.”

The first two are directly taken from government slogans, suggesting that Kuaishou streamers and fans aren’t exactly your typical boundary-pushing street rebels. Their proficiency in mainstream discourse and slogans is indicative of the blurred lines between central power and the broader public sphere that exist in Chinese cyberspace.

In this context, power comes in at least two forms: streaming platforms and government regulators. In our analysis of Kuaishou’s user data, among the most commonly repeated sentiments were expressions of gratitude to the employees tasked with monitoring content, like “Thank you, Kuaishou officials!” Even outside of the big-name streamers like Xin, many ordinary Kuaishou users also make a living by selling products through their feeds, and after the 2018 crackdown, the community became acutely aware that the platform employs scores of manual censors who will swiftly take down the accounts of anyone who breaks the rules.

Following the online crackdown, Kuaishou’s users began actively incorporating the official discourse into their hashtags and regular online expressions.

In order to survive, then, streamers try to show support for Kuaishou’s establishment of a “green” wholesome platform, a reference to the preferred language of content regulators. And in China, that means staying positive: Last October, Xiaoyiyi, a popular livestreamer married to Paipaiqi — who himself lost his account in the 2018 purge — held a livestream with another influencer. When her co-host got too worked up over the topic at hand, however, Xiaoyiyi repeatedly scolded her for losing her cool: “Don’t cry, or you’ll get us shut down!” before abruptly cutting the feed.

Kuaishou users aren’t simply appropriating the language of government slogans as a way of dealing with content controls; many have internalized mainstream values on their own. Xin calls himself a “Peasant CEO,” but the millions he’s earned selling products online have lifted him well out of the working class. His social ascent hasn’t alienated his fans, however — rather, it’s reinforced their belief in the myth of class mobility. The comments under Xin’s videos overflow with praise, envy, and even vicarious joy — fans are proud that their idol is able to mingle with the stars and dream of becoming just as rich and charitable as him.

Outside of politics, Kuaishou streamers exist in an ambiguous relationship with mainstream society: Their reputations are predicated on their supposedly marginalized status, but they also work together with capital to exploit their connections with grassroots consumers. Xin’s image among his fans is that of the “good-hearted retailer.” In every stream, he announces that he’s “looking for good products and suppliers, and fighting to secure the best prices” for his fans.

In return, they reward him with virtual gifts worth real money. Given how platforms like Kuaishou and TikTok have blurred the lines between viewer and creator almost beyond recognition, however, these fans aren’t merely passive consumers. Even gift-giving can have its own commercial logic.

If you buy virtual presents for a streamer, your account details will automatically pop up on the streamer’s feed. This has become a way for aspiring stars to boost their visibility: In 2018, Xin earned tens of millions of new fans by spending 2 million yuan on virtual gifts during another influencer’s livestream.

Meanwhile, keeping purchases within families helps build community ties and strengthen family bonds. Particularly well-off fans sometimes drop huge sums to hear their names read out loud by their favorite streamer, which acts as a highly visible and gratifying confirmation of their status within the group. An exception to this rule is the end of a feud between streamers: Those involved will buy virtual gifts for each other in a symbolic show of conciliation — and encourage their fans to do the same. Taken together, it’s clear that even subcultures as insular as the rural-based Kuaishou gangs have been penetrated by the commercial logic of mainstream society.

As my research partner and I conducted our research, we couldn’t help but think of a distinctively Chinese concept: jianghu. The term, which literally translates to “rivers and lakes,” refers to a semimythical realm outside of law and state control, populated by rogues, brutes, and drifting heroes. Its usage in modern China can be attributed to martial arts literature — in particular, novels like “The Smiling, Proud Wanderer” by the late Hong Kong writer Louis Cha.

The comments under Xin’s videos overflow with praise, envy, and even vicarious joy — fans are proud that their idol is able to mingle with the stars and dream of becoming just as rich and charitable as him.

Drifters in these novels often have extraordinary talents, but circumstances lead them to become alienated from society and fall into the life of an outlaw. Different factions of drifters, like Kuaishou gangs, offer platforms for heroes to hone their skills, as well as a sense of belonging and a set of ethics rooted in brotherhood. One can summarize the essence of the Kuaishou jianghu in three words: spontaneous, oppositional, and bounded. Indeed, while the internet may have initially seemed like it would erase boundaries, it in fact transformed and localized them. Kuaishou users are knitted into tight in-groups often hostile to outsiders.

And just as the faction leaders in martial arts novels often oscillate between their nomadic life among the “lakes and rivers” and that of a formal apprentice in the “temples and halls” of the societal mainstream, some livestreamers simultaneously rebel against and yearn to become a member of privileged society. They continually adjust their stance in the hope of casting aside their marginal grassroots status and finding mainstream success. In MC Tianyou’s songs, for example, contempt for fu’erdai — the children of China’s nouveau riche — exists alongside dreams of fabulous fame and wealth of his own.

In short, rather than posing an outright challenge to prevailing business and political forces, these fluid, multilayered identities have formed a dynamic balance with them. A few years ago, people tended to describe Kuaishou as “vulgar” and “parochial,” but trend-watchers with a real interest in China’s grassroots know that people on the margins admire and imitate mainstream society. They copy its “positive energy” discourse, worship its stars, and study its commercial logic. At times, they obey the rules; at others, they turn their noses up at them. The walls between the rivers and lakes and the temples and halls are never quite so clear as they seem.

Isabel Fangyi Lu, a Ph.D. candidate of culture and media studies at the University of Melbourne, made an equal contribution to this essay.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.

(Header image: Hiaomao for Sixth Tone)