Livestreaming in China Heads Toward a Blowout

Hi, I'm Christina in Beijing.

It's almost impossible to interview Chinese livestreamers in person without being filmed yourself. After all, novelty is the spice of broadcast.

When I met him in a café in Beijing, 24-year-old Xu Jiafeng was wearing a white hoodie and jeans, and pointing his iPhone straight at me. "I'm being interviewed by foreign media, and this is Kexin," he explained, using my Chinese name. I hadn't consented, but there wasn't much to do except smile and wave to however many of his 23,000-plus followers were tuned in at that time.

Xu has a day job working at an internet company in Beijing, but he also livestreams for 12 hours a week on Blued, a social and dating app for gay men. Xu films himself chatting, singing, and cooking, and occasional outtakes from his travels, including a recent trip to Thailand. "My fans want to see me happy and positive, and they want to see something new." He's charming and articulate, and in person a tad melancholy. "You must give the impression that you are so happy, even if when you turn off the livestream, you are not always that happy."

He says he can earn as much as 60,000 yuan a month ($8,830) through virtual tips, but that's the high end; like most aspects of the gig economy, the income isn't stable. He's not planning to quit his day job. "It's good to have colleagues," he adds. But he enjoys the online affirmation, extra money, and chance to dole out dating advice. "My livestream is like my own personal soap opera."

A few years ago, livestreaming in China was synonymous with online video games and karaoke girls on pioneering video apps like 9158 and YY. But over the past two years, livestreaming has gone mainstream in the world's largest internet market: There are now more than 200 apps with web broadcast functions, and vastly more kinds of content, from shopping channels to financial advisers. A third to a half of China's Internet population sometimes watches livestreams. Credit Suisse estimates that the sector —which generates money through virtual tips, advertising, and tempting shoppers on platforms such as Alibaba's Taobao— will be worth $5 billion by the end of this year.

The rise of this latest online industry has been swift, but it's also precarious. Having millions of people broadcasting in real-time on China's highly censored internet is an obvious oxymoron —mostly a result of the fact that China's web companies move much faster than its regulators, not any kind of political liberalization. The government already bans many kinds of content, ranging from political dissent to pornography, forcing Chinese internet companies to employ large armies of in-house censors. But sometimes this isn't enough.

Over the past two weeks, Beijing has launched an unexpected and yet entirely predictable crackdown on several livestreaming services. An edict from China's media regulator that some platforms were in violation of content standards sent the valuations of social media giants Weibo and Sina, which use livestreaming to engage millennials, tumbling roughly a billion dollars.  Then the Ministry of Culture announced it was punishing 30 livestreaming platforms for infractions ("punishing" wasn't defined), and shutting down a dozen. Just like that, apps including Wukong TV were obliterated from the internet, replaced by an error message of a sad monkey captioned, "Failed to load, tap to retry."

Monkeys aside, there's a common phrase in China about "tigers and flies" —the tigers are powerful leaders and the flies are lowly bureaucrats or followers. So far, the livestreaming crackdown appears to have mostly smashed some flies, but the point is always to make the tigers worry, too. In China, it's possible to be riding high one day, and find your horse, or unicorn, slaughtered the next.

Risk is always part of any technology business, and in China the risks and the rewards are both very great. As for livestreamer Xu Jiafeng, well, that’s why he's keeping his day job.

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