September 22, 2023
BEIJING – The stream goes live at 8pm exactly: a young woman in a hiking outfit is standing in front of a nondescript backdrop.
As viewers stream in, host Susu starts prattling off at a breakneck pace, greeting her viewers by name as she checks her iPad, while talking about the pants she is modelling, switching between various tops and jackets to showcase the possible combinations.
Viewers can click on buttons at the bottom of the screen to buy the apparel she is modelling during the live session, access a catalogue with more clothes, or send Susu gifts such as a virtual beer – a reward of 1 yuan (S$0.19) – or a virtual spaceship equivalent to more than 8,000 yuan.
Over the next four hours, she goes through about 400 products, barely stopping for a drink of water.
From herders in Inner Mongolia in northern China selling beef jerky to poultry farmers in Fujian in the south, and from teenagers sharing their make-up skills in their bedroom to retired academics lecturing about international relations, anyone armed with a mobile phone and an Internet connection can now be a live streamer.
China has the world’s most competitive live-streaming market, with 1.23 million live streamers. Many of them combine retail with live demonstrations, offering a unique form of entertainment and retail experience of shopping and tutorials – ranging from how to perfect that nude make-up look to whipping up a mouth-watering stir-fry – with a pushy sales assistant attitude thrown in for good measure.
While most e-commerce live streams are hosted on Alibaba’s Taobao platforms, other e-commerce platforms and apps such as Kuaishou, Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok) and even WeChat have live-streaming functions.
The undisputed leader in the field – until about 10 days ago – was “Lipstick King” Li Jiaqi, a former make-up counter sales assistant who shot to fame hawking cosmetics online but has since expanded to other products, building a reputation of always getting the best deals for his fans.
On Sept 10, while promoting an eyebrow pencil by a local brand, viewers commented on how the 79-yuan product appeared to be getting more expensive.
“How is this expensive? It’s been this price for many years, okay? Don’t talk nonsense,” he shot back, going on about how the home-grown company only uses well-sourced raw materials.
“Sometimes, it’s your own fault, that after so many years your salary hasn’t gone up. Did you work hard enough?” he added.
Those 37 seconds of a nearly six-hour live broadcast were enough to incur the wrath of many netizens, who felt he was turning his back on the very people who had helped build his immense wealth.
Despite a statement expressing regret and a tearful apology video, he lost nearly two million fans on the Weibo social media platform, but that did not stop him from hosting a four-hour stream on Tuesday this week, flogging baby products.
By Thursday, the number of his followers had fallen to 28.9 million from a peak of close to 31 million.
It is not uncommon for such faux pas to happen during live streams.
Earlier this year, actress Zhang Yuqi came under fire for saying a 699-yuan cashmere blanket was so cheap she “can’t even buy a pair of socks” at that price.
Li himself was abruptly taken offline in 2022 when he brought out an ice cream dessert that looked like a tank close to the anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen incident in 1989, when tanks were sent in to clear protesters.
Meanwhile, Viya, formerly known as China’s live-streaming queen – whose live stream had featured American media personality Kim Kardashian selling lipsticks – disappeared from view after being fined a record 1.3 billion yuan for tax evasion in 2021.
China has also increased regulation over the live-streaming industry, holding influencers responsible for the quality of the products they sell and proper reporting of sales figures.
A Code of Conduct for Online Streamers was released in 2022, containing 18 guidelines and 31 categories of prohibited content. They range from violence and self-harm to showing off their wealth.
Live streamers, the code noted, should uphold correct political and social values.
But in a competitive field where nearly 60 per cent leave after a year, many would still do anything to stand out.
Earlier this year, a Jiangsu-based live streamer downed seven bottles of baijiu, a clear grain liquor, which can range from 35 to 60 per cent alcohol content, during a live stream.
He had promised his fans he would do so if online gifts for him exceeded a certain amount. The man was found dead after his live stream.
Still, according to a survey of more than 10,000 young people on microblogging site Sina Weibo in July, over 60 per cent said they want to make live streaming a career, while schools training individuals to be live streamers are popular in places such as Yiwu, a wholesale hub in eastern China.
Wuhan business undergraduate Tao Meifang recently bought a ring light in an attempt to try her hand at live-streaming make-up tutorials. She has never attended any make-up courses, she said, but has spent “at least four hours a day” watching various live streams on the topic.
“That was my initial idea, but after one session where only about 10 people logged in, including my two sisters, I feel it will take a lot more to attract more viewers,” the 19-year-old told The Straits Times.
“Maybe I’ll use it (the live stream) to help my parents sell pork at their stall instead.”
According to market research company iResearch, the live-streaming e-commerce industry generated some 3.5 trillion yuan and had more than 660 million viewers in 2022, with nearly 70 per cent of viewers tuning in to live streams on Alibaba’s behemoth retailer Taobao.
Live streaming gained popularity around 2012 with the advent of the technology and the growing popularity of social media in China.
It initially revolved around pop and youth culture until e-commerce entered the picture around 2017, said Ms Manya Koetse, editor-in-chief of What’s On Weibo, a site reporting on Chinese social trends.
When the Covid-19 pandemic turbocharged online shopping in 2020, larger firms such as car dealers and even tour guides started doing live streams, in a bid to keep their businesses going amid the strict lockdowns.
“Now it doesn’t matter what sector you’re in, live streaming is part of your marketing (strategy) if you want to have an all-round marketing plan that reaches as many (people) as possible,” she said.
Most live streamers source directly from factories, offering their viewers huge discounts while often taking a cut from sales. Others reward viewers by offering special discount coupons only available during the live streams.
Being a live streamer has also become a popular career choice because it appears to offer an easy path to fame.
“It’s not only the idea of being famous and glamorous, but it’s also about having the potential to become rich when you engage in e-commerce,” Ms Koetse said.
But for some, it is more than just about the product being promoted. Driver Jie Guoyong, 45, from Hubei in central China, said he often plays e-commerce broadcasts while driving alone at night, sometimes replaying episodes even after missing the live stream.
“Listening to the radio can feel impersonal, but with these I feel like a friend is talking to me as I drive. It’s much nicer,” he said.