In Rural Sichuan, Poverty and Profit Are Just a Click Apart
Editor’s note: Jike’erbu, a boy of the Yi ethnic minority group, stands in front of a dilapidated house in Lehe Village in Liangshan Prefecture in the southwestern Sichuan province. Choking back tears while on camera, he says he is an orphan and earns money doing odd jobs for neighbors to care for his young brother and sister.
In October 2021, this was part of a three-minute video that went viral on WeChat. In no time, it drew more than 100,000 likes and 35,000 comments.
Then, local authorities investigated the video. Soon after, they announced that the video’s creator had convinced Jike’erbu to perform in front of the camera in exchange for shoes, clothes, and school supplies. The house was set up to look dilapidated, and his face made up to look disheveled.
In Liangshan, this poverty porn was not an isolated case. Many of the region’s Yi-ethnicity inhabitants rely on short videos or livestreams to earn a living, often putting poverty on display to attract more views. However, this strategy clashes with the local government’s narrative of poverty alleviation.
Last summer, anthropologist Ji Guangxu led his students at the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies on an expedition to five formerly impoverished counties of Liangshan. There, they visited 21 Yi-ethnicity content creators to detail rural life under the influence of digital media.
Mose Labo often sprints up the 2,556 steps of the steel stairway that flanks one side of the mountain. On the other side, is a sheer 800-meter drop. This is Atule’er Village, also known as Xuanyacun, literally translating as “Cliff Village,” in Liangshan Prefecture’s Zhaojue County.
This village is nestled amid three rocky slopes along the broken ridge of the Meigu River Canyon — more than 1,400 meters above sea level.
In the past, villagers traversed the cliff face only via precarious ladders made of woven branches and vines, something Mose Labo has long been accustomed to. This life on the edge was also featured in a May 2016 media report, which brought Atule’er instant fame.
At the time, readers couldn’t fathom how people lived in such poor and isolated conditions. Less than three months after the report, the village began replacing the old vine ladders with a steel stairway, which was completed in November 2016. By the end of that year, the village was completely connected to a 4G network.
In 2020, residents of Atule’er were relocated and resettled to the Muendi Community near the county town. But some, like Mose Labo, continue working around the cliff face in the tourism sector.
Last summer, when I led my students on the expedition up the steel stairway into the village, to one side was the now-abandoned vine ladder. Along the new steel railing, a thick fiber optic cable winds all the way up — an information stairway.
For Mose Labo and the residents of Atule’er, it became a window to a whole new world.
A Liangshan official said that their annual mobile internet data usage ranks second out of all prefectures in Sichuan. The numbers tallied with my observations in the field.
In 2018, Mose Labo saw a short video on a tourist’s phone and was amazed by how “entertaining and attractive” it was. The tourist suggested he make short videos of his own too, and leverage the cliff village’s booming popularity.
Mose Labo registered a Douyin account and soon became the village’s first local internet celebrity.
His content focuses primarily on the steel stairway. Climbing the stairs is far harder than imagined. It took me four and a half hours to walk from the village and back. And the effort left me gasping for air.
Mose Labo, meanwhile, can get down the mountainside in as little as 15 minutes, and getting back up takes him only double that time. To this day, he holds the climbing speed record. Thus, the name of his Douyin account: “Cliff-glider Labo.”
But initially, he aspired to more than just racing up and down stairs. The youngest son in his family, he once worked at a factory outside town.
However, local custom mandates that when brothers start their own families, the youngest must return home to take care of the elderly. When his older brother got married, Mose Labo had no choice but to go back to the village, where he grew corn and herded sheep — still teetering close to poverty.
But going online changed all that. Now, as an influencer selling goods on livestreams, he earns as much as 20,000 yuan ($3,000) a month. He’s even been invited to perform on TV shows in major cities like Chengdu.
Today, his Douyin profile says it all: “I’ve been on CCTV 1, 2, 4, 7, and 13, as well as Hong Kong’s TVB. I’ve done reviews with movie star Zhou Xun and have appeared in short animated movies.”
His success has since inspired several of the village’s youth to try their hand at making videos. They’ve bought mobile phones, portable chargers, and stands, and registered for accounts on various apps. Most foray into a new life of online content creation with a timid, “Hello everyone, welcome to my livestream.”
While many have leaped at the chance to become content creators, some still harbor doubts.
Jike is among the few young workers in the village who chose not to become a livestreamer. “I am very introverted and speaking in front of a camera makes me anxious,” he says.
The eldest of three brothers, Jike dropped out of school at 18 to work in Qingdao. Since then, he’s jumped from one factory to another. Now 27, he continues to take on new migrant jobs each year.
Though his work on the assembly line is hard, there is no social pressure. This year too, Jike and his wife will continue traveling for work because the family only has a two-bedroom resettlement house, and to take care of his two younger brothers.
Now, the older of his two brothers has started high school and maintains average grades. Jike wants to earn more to open a small store for this brother in Zhaojue, the county town, and he also wants to buy another house.
Since his village has become famous, many of Jike’s peers have made money selling goods on livestreams. But he says this is not a long-term solution. He believes Atule’er Village’s popularity has dwindled greatly in the past year, with fewer and fewer tourists coming to visit, much to the detriment of its locals.
His mantra is simple: “If you want to get rich, rely on your own hard work.”
On the air
Compared to the men, Atule’er Village’s women are more enthusiastic about livestreaming. Women accounted for 67% of the Yi-ethnicity content creators I interviewed, and most were more willing to use beauty filters on the air.
Because of the high altitude, long hours of daylight, and harsh sunlight in this region, people of the Yi ethnicity have darker skin. So to conform to the beauty standards most fans demand, women tend to use filters profusely when producing videos or on livestreams.
Personally, I believe these young men and women have a natural beauty that is far superior to the homogenous features such filters project. I couldn’t help but find their whitewashed on-screen appearance somewhat bland.
Rather than producing offline content to upload later, the young women of Atule’er prefer interactive livestreams, during which they often dress in a deliberately careless manner, with a dilapidated house or open field in the background. Sometimes, even livestock can be seen in the frame.
They go out of their way to depict the hardships of life in the countryside.
For example, during a livestream, some content creators squat down, pull yams out of the ground, and eat them immediately after just a quick wipe. Others serve instant noodles in a filthy basin for their younger siblings.
The spectacle compels middle-class, urban fans to realize how well off they are in comparison. By exaggerating elements that would strike outsiders as exotic, local content creators attract more views, which directly translates to increased revenue.
Axi, a 19-year-old woman from another remote village in Zhaojue County, is one of the top content creators of the Yi ethnicity on Douyin. Her supporters consider her a shining example of how young Yi people are changing their fate.
From an extremely poor family, Axi’s fellow villagers took her to Qingdao for migrant work when she was just 16. However, she was shorter than other girls her age — even the smallest uniform was too big for her. Anxious that people would easily recognize she was a child, the factory boss decided against hiring her.
With no options left, the villagers took her back home. Over the next two years, she continued to travel with them, looking for other avenues of migrant work. But because she was too young, she found it impossible to sleep and often quietly cried in bed.
On most occasions, she was sent home after only a few days on the job.
In 2020, unwilling to keep traveling, Axi threw herself into online content. Her livestreams start at 8 a.m. every day, often against the backdrop of the hillside outside her grandmother’s old home. During these livestreams, she constantly engages with viewers, while peddling Liangshan’s local specialties.
Axi has a dark tan and was dressed simply. At first glance, she wasn’t at all like I had imagined her to be as an influencer with 2.96 million followers. Because she knew I was coming, she had changed into clean clothes and put on bright lipstick but even off camera, she behaved the same way as she did during livestreams.
While chatting with me, she turned her mobile phone camera to her two younger sisters; the older sibling continued to answer viewers’ questions, while the youngest did her homework.
She films her livestreams outside a dilapidated production facility. “This is where my family raises pigs, sheep, and cows,” she said in the interview. In the day, her father herds the cows and sheep up the hillside; and in the evening, brings them back down to lock them up in a pen.
Since the terrain is relatively flat and they own land nearby, Axi’s family also uses this facility to store freshly harvested buckwheat in the fall.
She insists that she does not go out of her way to create a “spectacle of poverty,” nor has she given herself some kind of tragic backstory in a ploy to garner sympathy. She showed me blisters on her hands from harvesting buckwheat the day before. The blisters had popped, leaving bruises. This is her daily life.
“I have made a lot of money selling goods online, especially Sichuan peppercorns, in 2021,” she says. For every 100-gram bag she sells on Douyin, Axi makes 0.5 yuan. However, according to a pricing system that I couldn’t understand, she earns 8 yuan for half a kilogram.
“Each livestream lasts four to five hours, attracting up to 30,000 viewers. At the least, I can count on about 5,000 people showing up,” she says. On good days, she sells around 2,000 or so orders of peppercorns a day, netting an average monthly income of around 30,000-40,000 yuan.
As the eldest daughter, she uses this hard-earned money to improve the lives of her family. So far, she’s bought them a hundred sheep and 10 cows. Now, the family depends on her for all expenses, and she gives all the money she earns to her mother.
Despite the livestreams, she still works on the farm every day, and helps her parents maintain the house; otherwise, her father scolds her. He has never really understood her online work, but Axi says he’s very happy whenever she hands over money to her mother.
She adds she’s full of confidence about her future and that the heartwarming encouragement in the chats on her livestreams has renewed her faith in the world. It’s the cyberbullying that tortures her.
From the moment she acquired a modicum of celebrity status, the rumors attempting to discredit her have never stopped. Some allege she is already married and has a child, while others claim she’s bought a house and a car, and has a team behind her that helps create a facade of poverty.
During most livestreams, she is forced to argue with these “hate followers.” On a few occasions, such comments have even brought her to tears.
“Douyin is very strict when it comes to monitoring language and behavior during livestreams,” says Axi. During livestreams, she avoids certain sensitive words that can get her banned.
Because her two younger sisters are underage, every time one of them appears on a livestream, she must also be present in the frame or face penalties for violating Douyin’s rules. When viewers ask about her sisters’ age, she deftly avoids giving a clear answer with all the prowess of a veteran content creator.
Axi also spoke of the thin line between fact and fiction in livestreams. She says that Liangshan Prefecture has already been lifted out of poverty, and that the region’s Yi-ethnicity inhabitants have a responsibility to promote its natural beauty as well as its quality of life.
Therefore, the content she uploads must not deliberately create an impression of poverty. As the interview wound down, and I prepared to take a photo with her, she insisted we pose in front of the mountains, rather than the dilapidated production facility.
Since leaving Liangshan, I’ve continued to follow Axi’s activities on social media. Every time I join her livestream or watch her short videos, I always spot a number of viewers commenting on her living circumstances, with many still expressing shock or cynicism. “Does such a poor place really exist nowadays?”
For 40-year-old Chen Dong, a photo of him sending his son to school up the old vine ladder was one of the reasons Atule’er became a media sensation. Last summer, I met him by accident along the village’s steel stairway.
At the time, he was trudging up the stairs with a crate of mineral water on his back. He looked exhausted, his face dripping with sweat. But gripping his phone and portable charger, all the while panting, he continued to tell his fans over a livestream about his day as he climbed.
I recognized him instantly because I already followed him on Douyin. Without thinking, I took out my phone to take a photo of him. He immediately stopped me.
This surprised me — content creators are hardly camera-shy. I told him I was a fan who followed him on Douyin, and that I had come specially to meet him.
Even so, he insisted I not take pictures of him, looking a little angry. I slowed my pace to strike up a conversation with him. Perhaps more from exhaustion than anything else, Chen too stopped climbing, and sat down on the steel steps to answer questions from his fans on the livestream.
I expressed my intentions and, once I’d assured him that I wasn’t a reporter, he relaxed. He pointed his phone camera at the mountainside across from the stairway, took out a pack of cigarettes, and chatted with me about his experiences.
Before the steel stairway was built, Chen Dong’s family lived in straitened circumstances, and their livelihood depended entirely on the sale of Sichuan peppercorns.
But since the completion of the stairway, the increasing influx of tourists gave him the idea of opening a small shop to sell water, cigarettes, and instant noodles. Like other young people in the village, Chen started using Douyin in 2020 to share scenes from the village as well as his daily routine of climbing up and down the stairs.
Now, he’s accumulated 270,000 followers.
In keeping with local customs, Chen moved to the village after marriage to live with his in-laws. All his six children are now in school; the eldest in high school, while the youngest has just begun elementary school.
On reading his story in the newspaper, some samaritans took the initiative to subsidize his children’s studies, which has greatly reduced his financial burden. He still complains, however, about their tuition costs, which stretch thin his household income.
But it’s his hukou, or household registration status, that really worries him.
There are currently 21 households in the village that have been offered special subsidies for poverty alleviation. However, as Chen’s hukou is not registered in Atule’er, his family is not eligible for such assistance.
Individual members of poverty-stricken households in the village receive basic government subsidies each year, as well as an additional 1,000 yuan per person to purchase pigs and chickens. Together, the subsidies total around 10,000 yuan.
But Chen and his family don’t benefit from these policies. He can’t make sense of it though this is his wife’s hometown, and they’ve purchased a house here. The village originally agreed to accept his hukou, but now that it is developing tourism, they’ve changed their stance.
“They’re afraid that I’ll unfairly profit from the benefits of development. My first home got flooded due to the state’s development policy, and now my second home won’t allow me to transfer my hukou. Our family is the only one in this village without a local hukou,” says Chen.
To supplement the family’s revenue, Chen’s two eldest daughters sold water along the steel stairway during school holidays. Once, when the eldest daughter was lugging a crate of water up the stairway on her way back home, a reporter took her photo and published it with a caption that twisted the facts.
Soon, Chen’s family drew the local government’s ire and had to write a letter of self-criticism.
Chen says the incident with the reporter harmed him and his family immensely. It’s why he’s been very cautious about when and how he appears on camera.
“I post videos to improve my family’s circumstances. This way, my six children can focus on studies and leave the mountains behind,” he says.
He even self-deprecatingly said that he was now “begging” on the internet — begging everyone to give him rewards out of sympathy.
Finding a balance
Chen Dong’s “begging” is exactly what the Liangshan government has been trying to rid throughout its poverty alleviation work.
Since the relocation of the cliff village’s residents in 2020, social workers in the resettlement community have encouraged members of the Yi ethnicity to sign a “pledge” to maintain better living habits, including taking a shower once a week and cutting their nails once a month.
Residents who complete these tasks earn points in exchange for prizes such as washing powder and hand sanitizer.
Liangshan authorities also hope to demonstrate the results of poverty alleviation with social media training. In 2019, to improve the skills of publicity officials, local media centers, and content creators, the Liangshan Prefecture invited experts from Toutiao and Tencent to organize training seminars, during which influencers were led on a trip to film and produce content in Zhaojue County.
In August 2021, Douyin’s Sichuan channel launched a short video contest in cooperation with Liangshan Prefecture, which demonstrated the achievements that Liangshan has made in poverty alleviation and rural revitalization.
As of November, videos about the event had 110 million views. This series of videos offered a new set of rhetoric to view Liangshan: here, the people are smart, the mountains and rivers are breathtaking, produce is abundant, while the ethnic culture has an illustrious history. Even scenes of labor reflect the Yi people’s diligence and competence.
This completely different image of young Yi-ethnicity content creators is seemingly more in line with the discourse of the state on poverty alleviation. Muguo from the cliff village is the epitome of this new type of Liangshan content creator.
In 2020, Muguo moved to the resettlement community. Because of the small size of their new house and since his elderly parents had trouble getting used to life in the county town, Muguo rented a second house for them in a nearby village.
Muguo and his wife run a small shop in which they have invested 150,000 yuan (comprising an annual rent of 26,400 yuan, an auction sales commission of 3,000 yuan, labor costs of 14,500 yuan, as well as water, electricity, decoration, and purchase fees).
Part of this money (50,000 yuan) came from bank loans, part of it was borrowed from friends (25,000 yuan), while the rest came from their savings. Currently, the shop is open every day from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and business is not bad.
Muguo says he opened it here because, while they were self-sufficient in the mountains, moving to the county town left them without a stable source of income, even if they liked their new house.
Running a supermarket gives his wife a way to earn money as she looks after their three small children, while he sells goods on livestreams.
Muguo started livestreaming in 2019. Back then, it was more something he did casually with friends. But, to his surprise, more and more people began following him, so he learned to do it himself.
Every couple of days, he uploads a short video. With this, he’s not only gained valuable experience but also received assistance from many people.
For example, a woman from Beijing once sent him a refrigerator, while a man in the eastern province of Zhejiang has regularly sent him care packages. Communicating with these people on the internet has also helped Muguo learn more Chinese characters.
Livestreaming brings in an additional 20,000-30,000 yuan each year — once making more than 40,000 yuan. Over the last two years, Muguo has sold products on Douyin, Toutiao, and Xigua Video.
Rather than making a spectacle of poverty, he actively cooperates with the government. On one occasion, he traveled to another county to help the local bureau of commerce promote the online sale of goods. This has gained him a positive reputation.
Local influencers have seemingly long been aware of the new requirements surrounding representations of poverty in Liangshan. As they carefully embrace the message of poverty alleviation, they cautiously continue to share details of their precarious circumstances for more views and profits.
Jike and Chen Dong are pseudonyms.
A version of this article originally appeared in Code for Life. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Xue Yongle and Apurva.
(Header image: Axi’s two younger sisters in Atule’er Village, Sichuan province, July 2021. Courtesy of Ji Guangxu)