China’s Small-Time Influencers Search for a Hit
A dizzying excitement permeated the room as the instructor began shouting slogans. “Show us your best self!” “Break your limits!” “Stop overthinking!” “This is the path to success!” “You can do it!”
The men and women in attendance, many of them middle-aged, swayed to the pulsing, rhythmic background music as they competed to see who could make it from one end of the spacious hall to the other in the most creative fashion. Some were visibly stressed as they rolled, twisted, crawled, and hopped their way back and forth. The longer the competition wore on, the stranger and more ungainly their body movements became.
It was a lot to take in, but there was a method to the madness. Over the past three years, e-commerce livestreams have gone from niche to necessary for China’s sellers. The trainees, merchants based in the eastern e-commerce hub of Yiwu, had signed up to learn how to run an account on short-video platforms like Kuaishou and TikTok-equivalent Douyin. Most were uncomfortable on camera; they were there to overcome their inhibitions, build confidence, and learn the tricks of the trade.
That includes how to deal with the opaque boom-or-bust algorithms that govern life on short-video platforms. Although e-commerce livestreams first appeared on Alibaba’s Taobao in 2016, it took the rise of dedicated short-video platforms to propel the model into the commercial mainstream. On April 20, 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping stood in front of a livestreaming set in the northwestern village of Jinmi and declared that new advances in e-commerce held great potential to promote agricultural products, alleviate poverty, and foster the revival of the rural economy. His words appeared in almost all major state press outlets the next day, cementing what early adopters already knew: livestreaming e-commerce had become China’s latest fengkou.
Fengkou, or “tailwind,” was coined in 2015 by Lei Jun, the founder of Chinese tech giant Xiaomi, when he declared, “Even pigs can fly if they have a tailwind.” Venture capitalists have adopted the term to describe lucrative investment opportunities, but it can also refer to opportunistic, sometimes short-sighted behavior in business. After all, flying pigs don’t typically stay airborne when the tailwind disappears.
While a handful of livestreaming influencers, including the “lipstick king” Li Jiaqi and Wei Ya, have made fortunes, streamers in Yiwu — home to the world’s largest small commodities market — operate on a far smaller scale. These “nano-influencers” typically have a few thousand followers at most, but legends persist of overnight wealth from baodan, or “explosive orders” caused by a viral hit.
Going viral is like winning the lottery. The algorithms used by short-video platforms are opaque, and distribution of traffic highly unpredictable. To improve their odds, nano-influencers often imitate trending videos and create attention-grabbing clips that rely on sexual, strange, or emotional content. They are essentially micro-businesses unto themselves: The hours are long, and many burn out long before hitting the jackpot.
To keep the content coming, Kuaishou and Douyin selectively increase the visibility of a small percentage of nano-influencer videos, generating unpredictable “tailwinds” for a small handful of winners. Many of the nano-influencers we interviewed were inspired, not by established stars like Li Jiaqi, but by the seemingly miraculous success of formerly small-time sellers like Kuaishou’s Xin Youzhi (better known by his screen name, “Xinba 818”) or Yige on Douyin, both of whom started self-producing short videos and now earn tens of millions of yuan from a single livestreaming session.
Nano-influencers often arrive in Yiwu with entrepreneurial or self-employment experience, mainly in the agriculture, transportation, and construction industries. They’ve opened restaurants, retail shops, e-commerce, and direct sales businesses, often shifting from one industry to another in search of the next big thing. Many come from rural areas or small townships and have only limited education, meaning their options in big cities are limited. The jobs they can find are generally in factories or the service industry, both of which offer low autonomy, income, and social status.
“I hate it when people order me around,” explained a young influencer who had spent time working in a factory after dropping out of high school. “I’ll do what I need to do. Just leave me alone. There were surveillance cameras all over the factory, and there were even rules about using the toilet.”
As a nano-influencer, she can be her own boss. Others emphasized their desire to get rich, quick. “I tell you what, my dream is to make a lot of money,” said one of my interviewees. “Then I’ll work when I feel like working, and I’ll play when I feel like playing. In winter, I’ll buy a villa in northeast China. I’ll look out of the French windows as snow falls outside and fire burns in the fireplace. That’s what you call financial freedom.”
Less than one-third of interviewees had ever won the baodan lottery, and even then, sustainable success proved elusive. One interviewee arrived in Yiwu in early June 2020 and scored his first baodan within half a month, earning nearly 200,000 yuan ($29,000). But it never happened again, and he lost it all after a failed business expansion. “Let me put it this way: Many people who got rich on Douyin only switched from Kuaishou after seeing my baodan,” he explained. “Now they’ve all had baodan, while I have to go back to the drawing board. It’s really embarrassing sometimes.”
Over time, the hope and enthusiasm felt by newcomers to Yiwu begin to fade. “You can see a light in the eyes of the newcomers,” said one interviewee. “They are curious and passionate about everything. If you see someone sitting there looking glum, you know he has been here for a couple of months and has begun to feel the pressure.”
After working for months to land a baodan with no success, one young woman said she fell into a depression and experienced anxiety attacks when she saw someone else hit the jackpot with a video very similar to one of her own. She left Yiwu shortly afterward, but many others persist, hoping that their turn will come if they just work hard enough.
It rarely does. Most nano-influencers leave Yiwu either without having made any profit or having lost their savings. Hailing from society’s margins, their social, cultural, and economic backgrounds place them at the periphery of the digital economy and in a position of structural vulnerability. Kept engaged by a mysterious, ever-changing set of rules, they constitute another form of unpaid, voluntary digital labor, one that fuels the growth of digital capitalism while reproducing the structural inequalities of the real world.
Li Zhiyi contributed to the research and writing of this article.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A man livestreams in Yiwu, Zhejiang province, Nov. 10, 2020. Xu Kangping/VCG)