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2021-10-19 04:01:55

SHANGHAI — Standing under the blinding glare of eight spotlights, Li Jiaqi waves manically at the camera as he launches into yet another marathon broadcast. “Hello, everyone! Here we are!” he shouts.

The 29-year-old is almost unheard of overseas, but in China he’s a bona fide megastar. He has an online following to rival pop star Harry Styles, a string of movie and TV appearances to his name, and a bulging list of brand partnerships. Even his dog — a white bichon named Never — has her own reality show.

Li has built his reputation on being the nation’s personal shopper: a source of trustworthy advice on what — and what not — to buy online. Six evenings a week, he hosts a livestream in which he presents a selection of items he’s chosen to endorse, ranging from makeup to million-dollar rings. Then, he yells his favorite catchphrase: “Buy it!”

You can listen to an audio version of this article via “China Stories,” a SupChina-produced podcast sharing the best writing on China.

It’s a simple formula, but it’s become appointment viewing for young Chinese. Tonight, more than 10 million people have tuned in to watch Li’s show on Taobao Live — a livestream channel linked to Alibaba’s e-commerce platform Taobao. On a good night, he can attract 10 times that figure.

I hope to let consumers know that ‘made in China’ is very powerful.

Now, China’s top influencer has a new message for his viewers — and it’s bad news for global brands. He’s urging shoppers to buy more Chinese products.

“I hope … to let consumers know that ‘made in China’ is very powerful,” says Li, speaking with Sixth Tone inside his studio in downtown Shanghai. “We are not second to any other countries.”

The livestreamer is one of many Chinese celebrities that appear to be repositioning themselves in response to a deep shift in China’s cultural zeitgeist.

The government has launched a campaign to promote “cultural confidence” — and celebrities feel obliged to echo these values. The message has found a receptive audience among young Chinese, who unlike previous generations have only known a world in which China is a global power.

A poster for a Li Jiaqi livestream promoting domestic brands, August 2021. From @李佳琦直播官方微博 on Weibo

A poster for a Li Jiaqi livestream promoting domestic brands, August 2021. From @李佳琦直播官方微博 on Weibo

Many are fiercely patriotic and take it for granted that domestic products are just as good as big-name foreign brands. They’re driving a growing fashion for “national chic” — products that integrate aspects of the country’s traditional culture.

Li’s response has been to lean into his image as a patriot and man of the people. Though he’s now fabulously wealthy, he comes from a humble background. Born and raised in central China’s Hunan province, he worked as a beauty advisor at a L’Oréal store until just five years ago.

His break into social media stardom came almost by accident. In late 2016, L’Oréal began holding auditions for staff members to become online hosts demonstrating beauty tips to viewers via livestream. Li entered, and within a few months he’d been selected and had moved to Shanghai to begin his new role.

At the time, livestream channels like Taobao Live were brand new and struggling to gain traction. But Li stuck with it, and he began to develop a talent for grabbing people’s attention. He didn’t simply present new products; he gushed over them, often blurting out his favorite English phrase: “Oh my god!

He also had an eye-catching sales technique: Rather than simply trying out new lipsticks on his hands, he’d also apply them directly to his lips. His viewers loved it. Many began referring to him as the “lipstick king,” and Li embraced the moniker. During one early show, he tried on 380 different lipsticks over the course of six hours.

“I felt like my lips were tearing apart,” he says.

Li Jiaqi tries on lipstick during a livestream in Shanghai, 2018. Niu Jing/People Visual

Li Jiaqi tries on lipstick during a livestream in Shanghai, 2018. Niu Jing/People Visual

Soon, Li was the most recognizable face in an industry that was undergoing stratospheric growth. Alibaba promoted Taobao Live heavily, believing users would value the opportunity to see streamers try out products and answer their questions in real time. The company was right. By 2019, commercial livestreaming was a 430 billion yuan ($67 billion) market in China. 

COVID-19 took livestreaming to yet another level, as hundreds of millions of people locked down at home began passing the time on Taobao Live and its competitors. Almost overnight, Li had become a household name. In February, he even starred in state broadcaster CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala — China’s biggest TV event of the year.

These days, Li produces his show from the offices of Mei One — a studio and talent agency he co-owns based in Shanghai. It’s a massive operation. When Sixth Tone visits, Li is surrounded by more than 20 production staff waiting for the show to get started.

But as his status has grown, so has the expectation to be a positive role model. Last year, Li endorsed agricultural goods from communities in rural China, raising more than 200 million yuan toward their poverty-alleviation efforts. He also promoted products from the central city of Wuhan, to help the city’s economy recover after its COVID-19 epidemic.

This year, the livestreamer has become increasingly vocal about his efforts to make “made in China” great again. In April, Li appeared at the Boao Forum for Asia — an annual business event China hosts in the southern Hainan province — to discuss the rise of domestic brands. 

Li still works with foreign companies, but his push to promote “national chic” isn’t just rhetoric. In 2021, he has featured more than 400 Chinese products in his livestreams, compared with around 200 last year.

“In recent years, I feel that young Chinese people have become more confident,” Li says. “Their pride in our national culture has gotten stronger.”

Boosting domestic products is in many ways a natural fit for the livestreamer. Despite his high fees, Li has been careful to style himself as humble and down-to-earth. 

Many consumers view him as an antidote to the bougie influencers that have become common on Chinese social media — the kind that like to post photos of themselves clasping Hermès handbags. Endorsing cheap but high-quality Chinese goods has helped Li show he understands ordinary people’s needs in a way celebrities and big businesses often don’t.

Li is the nobody who made it big despite all the odds stacked against them.

“Li is the nobody who made it big despite all the odds stacked against them,” says Toni Yang, a brand consultant with over a decade’s experience in China. “He has rebuilt the trust and warmth between consumers and brands — the kind of warmth that has been diluted by so many influencers’ use of beauty filters and promotion of an aspirational lifestyle.”

In return, the “lipstick king” has enabled his Chinese partners to overcome a chronic issue: consumers’ long-held assumption that domestic products are inferior to their international competitors.

Chinese e-commerce platforms are still plagued by fake and shoddy goods — and the user reviews are often fake, too. Many shoppers stick to well-known global brands, assuming any cheaper alternatives are bound to be poorly made.

However, Li invests significant resources in ensuring the products he endorses are genuinely high quality. Mei One has claimed that only 5% of the goods clients want Li to feature on his show pass his team’s strict vetting process.

His staff also runs thousands of group chats on WeChat, a Chinese social app, to gather feedback from users and answer their queries. If a shopper encounters an issue with a product sold on Li’s show, his team often acts to resolve the dispute themselves.

Over time, this effort has given Li’s endorsements a stamp of authority, Yang says. “This is why Li has become so popular,” she tells Sixth Tone. “He allows consumers to gain a more grounded and real sense of the products that are in line with their values.”

Li Jiaqi prepares for a livestream in Shanghai, Nov. 9, 2020. People Visual

Li Jiaqi prepares for a livestream in Shanghai, Nov. 9, 2020. People Visual

Chen Chaoqun, a 23-year-old graduate student from Shanghai, first started watching Li’s show while the city was under lockdown restrictions in early 2020. Forced to spend weeks alone, she says the livestreams were a comfort and helped ease her feelings of loneliness.

“He introduced each product in detail with an excited, high-pitched voice,” says Chen. “Sometimes, he had his dog and other star guests in the studio. I felt like I wasn’t watching a live sale, but a funny variety show.”

The show soon began to alter Chen’s spending habits. In the past, the student had never purchased a Chinese beauty product, as her mother had always told her that foreign brands are more trustworthy. Now, she buys domestic products all the time, she says.

“I trust Li and bought some Chinese products recommended by him,” says Chen. “I was amazed by their textures, effects, and packaging … And they were one-third of the cost of the international brands I used to use.”

Li Jiaqi’s production staff assist Li during a livestream in Shanghai, June 17, 2020. Courtesy of Li Jiaqi’s team

Li Jiaqi’s production staff assist Li during a livestream in Shanghai, June 17, 2020. Courtesy of Li Jiaqi’s team

Zhao Yiru, a 29-year-old accountant, has been watching Li’s show since 2018. She now spends 2,000 yuan a month on Li-endorsed goods, ranging from napkins to gold jewelry, because she believes she’s less likely to be ripped off that way.

“Li not only helps me save time, but also money because his team has done the quality control and bargaining for me,” says Zhao. “He constantly reminds us to shop rationally and only buy the things we need and can afford.”

In several cases, Li has almost single-handedly turned around a Chinese company’s fortunes. Florasis — famous for producing a lipstick with traditional Chinese patterns carved into its surface — was struggling to break into the top 20 cosmetics brands on e-commerce platform Tmall’s sales charts. Then, in March 2019, Li spotlighted one of Florasis’s products during a livestream, and the brand’s sales skyrocketed. In 2019, its revenues reached 1.13 billion yuan — a 25-fold year-over-year increase. In 2020, this figure exceeded 3 billion yuan.

In “Proudly Made in China” — a documentary co-produced by e-commerce platform Tmall released this April — the founders of several other Chinese beauty brands shared similar stories. Liu Qianfei, who runs the skincare firm Zhuben, said her brand had failed to gain traction after launching in 2017. But when Li endorsed a Zhuben cleansing oil in 2019, the effect was immediate. Within a minute of the show starting, the firm had sold 50,000 bottles.

Li Jiaqi promotes a skincare product at the China International Import Expo in Shanghai, Nov. 5, 2020. Han Haidan/CNS/People Visual

Li Jiaqi promotes a skincare product at the China International Import Expo in Shanghai, Nov. 5, 2020. Han Haidan/CNS/People Visual

Li acknowledges that he’s responsible for the popularity of several Chinese brands. But he stresses that the companies also have to be genuinely competitive to sustain their success.

“Quality is the priority,” he says. “Even if I strongly recommend a product, if the brand can’t handle the traffic … it’ll be short-lived.”

Recent consumer surveys suggest the shift away from global brands is gaining momentum in China. In a 2019 report by Chinese tech firm Tencent, more than half of consumers born after 2000 said they felt foreign brands were no better than domestic ones. According to Tencent, the sales of domestic brands have surged since the second half of 2019, driven mainly by Gen Z buyers.

Even if I strongly recommend a product, if the brand can’t handle the traffic … it’ll be short-lived.

The same trend is visible across categories, but it’s particularly clear in the beauty sector. Around 40% of beauty products purchased by Gen Z Chinese are now domestic brands, according to data aggregator CBNData. Companies including Perfect Diary and Florasis have begun marketing “oriental beauty” products to appeal to these younger consumers.

Meanwhile, Li says he’s trying to forge even deeper relationships with his Chinese partners. In many cases, he has already gone far beyond his original role as a livestream host, advising brands on product development and marketing strategies.

“Li connects consumers and brands, allowing both parties to understand each other’s needs and pain points,” says Yang. “He has first-class insights into consumer needs, marketing, and branding.”

Yet the “lipstick king” could still be dislodged from his throne, Yang cautions. Li’s value as an influencer still rests largely on his fame. If the public mood were to turn against him, his star could quickly fade.

“Li needs to think about how he can continue to respond to consumers as a pioneer,” says Yang. “He needs to create a greater degree of social value and cultural significance.”

Commuters walk past a billboard bearing Li Jiaqi’s face in Beijing, March 2021. People Visual

Commuters walk past a billboard bearing Li Jiaqi’s face in Beijing, March 2021. People Visual

The livestreamer has already provoked pushback from viewers over his recent decision to promote expensive Chinese designer clothes. Their love of “national chic” doesn’t extend to paying several thousand yuan for a dress, he has found.

“They snap at me in the live ‘bullet screen’ comments and on social media,” he says. “They don’t understand why a piece of Chinese-designed clothing can be that expensive.”

The criticism has been hurtful, Li admits, but the star is sticking to his guns. He believes people’s attitudes toward Chinese fashion labels will shift over the next few years — just as they have toward Chinese cosmetics.

“I need to tell the viewers, if you don’t know these designers, it’s OK, you can slowly get to know them on my show,” says Li. “Then, when it becomes a Chinese luxury brand, you’ll know it’s the same designer Li Jiaqi once recommended in his live studio.”

Editor: Dominic Morgan.

(Header image: Ding Yining/Sixth Tone, visual elements from iStock/People Visual and @李佳琦Austin on Weibo)