China’s live streaming craze is creating a new kind of celebrity and challenging censored media. We go to China to meet these unlikely stars and ask; why are people watching?
WANG SIYUAN AKA ‘WANG XIAOYUAN’ (Translation): There are so many of you already. You’re so early today. I’ll play some musical instruments and sing a few songs for you. As you all know, I’m the best singer on the worldwide web.
My real name is Wang Siyuan, my stage name is Wang Xiaoyuan. I’m a talk show streamer, I’m a comedian. I bring joy and laughter to many people. Before I became a streamer, I was idling away my time on the net every day. In the real world, I’m a guy with no real achievements because... I didn’t do well at school, I’m not from a privileged family, I have limited skills for other jobs. So I decided to become a live streamer.
This is my girlfriend.
WANG SIYUAN (Translation): Girlfriend, my girlfriend.
REPORTER: She is your girlfriend?
WANG SIYUAN (Translation): English is hard. Did I say it right?
This self-confessed unemployable young man earns a fortune without leaving home. He won’t say how much, but it’s enough to buy this apartment – and a couple of others.
WANG SIYUAN (Translation): We have a bee-bee.
WANG SIYUAN (Translation): A baby.
REPORTER: Are you going to have a baby with her?
WANG SIYUAN (Translation): A bay-bee. Okay, close enough.
As a live streamer, hundreds of thousands of people tune in to watch him talk, sing and play the fool, making him one of China’s unlikely superstars.
WANG SIYUAN (Translation): You’re all connecting with me before I go to Australia.
WOMAN (Translation): Why are you going?
WANG SIYUAN (Translation): To catch a kangaroo.
WOMAN (Translation): There’s a part of the kangaroo that can enhance manhood, right?
WANG SIYUAN (Translation): I learned to talk faster and to think quicker and more wittily.
It’s a high-pressure act, enhanced by a large dose of canned laughter.
WANG SIYUAN (Translation): In the real world it’s almost impossible to put thousands of people into a room, unless it’s a stadium. But that can be done easily online.
Thanks to their so-called “Great Firewall”, the Chinese experience the internet differently to the rest of us. There’s no Facebook or Twitter or even Google connecting them to the rest of the world. Stripped of everything from politics to pornography, hundreds of millions of Chinese turn to live streaming platforms for their entertainment, for them it’s worth paying for.
JONATHAN KAIMAN, BEIJING BUREAU CHIEF-LOS ANGELES TIMES: Millions of people have taken to these platforms as a new social mode, a way of communicating. As a way for these lonely hearts, these lonely young people to connect.
The live streaming phenomenon has been an irresistible story of modern China for the Los Angeles Times Beijing bureau chief, Jonathan Kaiman.
JONATHAN KAIMAN: So, it's a technology story, it's a business story, it's a social story and it's a political story all wrapped into one and it's unpredictable.
Streamer and comedian Wang Xiaoyuan has over 5 million fans. They’re tuning in to his foolish antics in the same way we would consume hours of cat videos on social media.
ZHU WENPENG, FAN (Translation): He’s very funny, very humorous.
One of his biggest fans stops work every afternoon to watch.
REPORTER: How much time do you spend watching streaming every day?
ZHU WENPENG (Translation): Three to four hours a day, I suppose. I watch Wang Xiaoyuan the most.
The Chinese have a special term for streamers and their fans – diaosi. Originally applied to online gamers who may not have many social skills but who are in their element online. It turns a community of nerds into superstars.
ZHU WENPENG (Translation): I’ve made many friends online. We can chat on this platform. There’s even a chance that we might meet up one day and grab a meal together. Look, he’ s going to smell his own foot.
WANG SIYUAN (Translation): One moment!
ZHU WENPENG (Translation): The punishment was to smell his own foot, but he didn’t do it, he pretended to do it, to amuse us. I typed “He never washes his feet.” This is how we interact.
Xiaoyuan earns a living thanks to the generosity of his fans, who buy him virtual gifts using an online currency equivalent to China’s yuan.
ZHU WENPENG (Translation): There are many gifts to choose from. A more expensive gift, like this lipstick, is worth 19.9 (AU$3.80) in YY currency. Then it shows up here. Look, there’s a rich guy there who’s showering him with heaps of lipstick.
Today, Xiaoyuan’s fans will buy him four and a half thousand virtual lipsticks – worth about $18,000. Around two thirds of that money goes to the streaming platform and the rest to Xiaoyuan – $6,000 isn’t bad for a couple of hours work.
REPORTER: Mr Wang probably doesn’t need your support and of course you can watch for nothing. Why do you buy these gifts?
ZHU WENPENG (Translation): I think live streaming is hard work. For example, he talks for a couple of hours non-stop to do a great show and keep us entertained. I’m sure it’s very taxing. I show my support by giving him gifts that I can afford.
In China, countless small acts of generosity by fans add up to a billion-dollar industry.
WANG SIYUAN (Translation): I see that many of you loved it. Thanks for the compliments. Thank you, everyone, for the gifts. Thank you. I love you all!
Wang Xiaoyuan enjoys the trappings of his success. He’s got an assistant who chauffeurs him from his new apartment, to the one he’s bought for his mother.
WANG SIYUAN (Translation): It benefits my whole family. For example, now... I don’t need to worry about food and clothing. My parents are retired, they don’t need to work anymore. They feel secure. I can give my parents a comfortable life and I can live comfortably too.
Xiaoyuan had a humble upbringing, his parents worked for state owned factories before being made redundant. They hoped their only son would take care of their in her old age and never imagined it would be like this.
YANG SHAOYIN, MOTHER (Translation): I wanted him to study hard, to be a good child. I mean, I wanted him to study hard and get into university.
REPORTER: How did you feel about Wang getting involved in live streaming when he was first starting out?
YANG SHAOYIN (Translation): At first, I didn’t even know what live streaming was. He’d often talk and yell in his room. I’d knock on his door and ask him to keep it down. I’m happy for him, I’m happy that he’s doing well online. He earns more money for the family and he’s independent now, he can make his own living.
Live streaming has created its own fan-driven economy……but in the West, it’s often used very differently…
PROTEST: The cops are beating a man. They’re beating a man back there.
…to broadcast protests or police shootings.
PHILANDO CASTILE GIRLFRIEND LIVE STREAMING:
POLICE: I told him not to reach for it. I told him to get his hand off it.
WOMAN: You told him to get his ID sir.
There’s no citizen journalism in China but it turns out that even online silliness worries the government.
JONATHAN KAIMAN: What bothers the Communist Party about live streaming is first and foremost how popular it is, how many people are on it. It's about people having the ability to interact using channels that are beyond the government’s control.
The industry doubled in size last year and the Chinese government - is grappling with how to control it. In the last 18 months, there’s been a crackdown on live streaming focusing on morality - first in the censors’ sights – sexy banana eaters.
JONATHAN KAIMAN: There's one woman who gained a following for eating a banana in a sort of sexually suggestive manner. And so the government issued an new edict banning the eating of bananas online.
REPORTER: That’s a specific edict?
JONATHAN KAIMAN: It was a specific edit from China’s media watchdog.
REPORTER: That you can’t eat a banana while you’re streaming or you can’t eat a banana suggestively?
JONATHAN KAIMAN: You can't eat a banana in a suggestive manner while live streaming.
Since then, thousands of streamers have been banned and strict new regulations introduced. In July, three major internet platforms were ordered to shut down their streaming services.
JONATHAN KAIMAN: It's impossible to overestimate the degree to which the Communist Party will go to maintain its grip on the discourse. The government’ itself has teams of censors and forces internet companies to have their own teams of censors that can number in the 10s of 1000s or 100s of 1000s that are attuned to the government’s demands. They know or they have an idea where the red lines are and it's their job to shut things down.
To keep streamers online and the money rolling in the industry has taken to self-censorship.
LIU YANG, CO-FOUNDER REDU MEDIA (Translation): This is Redu Media, the largest live streamer agency. These are our most popular live streamers. Let me show you around.
Liu Yang is co-founder of Redu Media, a company that’s a kind of factory for live streamers…
LIU YANG (Translation): Our vision is to become the largest streamer agency, providing quality streaming content. Here’s one of our studios. The session has begun. We have over 100 agents and scouts working across China, looking for suitable candidates to join the profession.
The latest industry statistics suggest there are two million live streamers across China. But less than one per cent have a fan base of one million or more. We have a dedicated team of professionals to support them, so they can rise from the grassroots to internet stardom in a short period of time.
This is our dancer streamer Jun Jun. She’s been with us for a month and has 5000 fans. She’s practising her new dance routine. Hot dancing is fine if she dresses appropriately and shows restraint with her body movements. These are the rules for our streaming sessions. For example, content involving obscenity, gambling or politics is strictly prohibited.
Live streamers’ clothes can’t be overly revealing. This is a list of songs that are inappropriate. They shouldn’t be played on air. As the saying goes “No rules, no achievement.” Every profession must abide by the rules and regulations that apply to them. We work within these limits to help them realise their potential and express themselves.
Streamers don’t just have the government breathing down their necks… they also have family honour to worry about.
ZHAO XINLONG (Translation): When I was young my parents worked hard to make a living. Seeing them sweat and toil that like made me feel bad. I was determined to fight my way to wealth and success so that they could live comfortably.
In the industrial city of Tangshan, Zhao Xinlong is struggling to support his wife and young son as a taxi driver. But he dreams of riches and celebrity.
ZHAO XINLONG (Translation): Your top is so hard to unbutton, others are so easy.
WIFE (Translation): Who did you unbutton for?
Until six months ago he had a thriving career as a live streamer, and made these little comedy sketches with his wife. But it’s hard for a dutiful son to pursue a career in live streaming if his parents disapprove.
ZHAO XINLONG (Translation): I gave it up because my parents didn’t like it. They thought I was begging for gifts, which made me cheap, and that by acting foolishly on the show. I cheapened and degraded myself as a person.
I ask Xinlong if he could take me back to his village to meet his parents…they lived through the cultural revolution when individual expression was suppressed. How do they feel about their son’s ambition to be an internet star?
REPORTER: Why didn’t you want him to be live streaming?
HUANG XINLONG, MOTHER (Translation): Unlike working with one’s hands or expertise, live streaming doesn’t feel like proper work to me. Why do people give you money for talking to them, for making them laugh? I really don’t get it. No one paid us to chit-chat with people. We earned money by working hard.
From his parents’ point of view, Xinlong might as well be from another planet but he knows China has changed, and he’s determined to embrace the future.
ZHAO XINLONG (Translation): I like watching other streamers. I want to find myself in live streaming again. Live streaming can be very profitable. I can see myself becoming a famous streamer. Once my parents see that I can help them live a better life, they’ll understand.
After a six-month break, Xinlong is going to have another crack at live streaming…
ZHAO XINLONG (Translation): Let me play you a song to dance to. When I live streamed for the first time, it was hard. At first not many people watched me. Who would want to watch an awkward streamer? Come on! You dance like a gorilla. Do I? What about a baboon?
He realised that being himself wasn’t enough to attract an audience …
ZHAO XINLONG (Translation): Can you say hello? Nice to meet you.
…his alter ego needed to be more confident and spontaneous.
ZHAO XINLONG (Translation): Then I changed my style to a funny one and a new persona emerged.Are you happy now? I like his voice. He’s very handsome.
My fans loved it. The new persona helped me to make money.
Xinlong can make more than $200 streaming for a couple of hours – compared with $40 a day as a taxi driver. No wonder he sees live streaming as a ticket to a better life. Whether they’re from the countryside or the city… …anyone can become a streamer and find and audience. But can they hold on to their stardom and stay within the government’s boundaries at the same time.
FAN (Translation): Can I take a photo? I’m a fan. May I?
WANG SIYUAN (Translation): Yes.
FAN (Translation): Thank you, thank you.
WANG SIYUAN (Translation): Bye-bye.
Confidence and spontaneity can get you more fans…going too far can mean falling foul of the censors. That’s a lesson Xiaoyuan learned the hard way when a live stunt brought his career tumbling down. He got drunk and then started streaming.
WANG SIYUAN (Translation): In 2016, I made a mistake. As a result, my live streaming account was banned.
Breaking the government’s regulations on morality Xiaoyuan got caught with his pants down.
WANG SIYUAN (Translation): Begging people for forgiveness didn’t work. I made a mistake and it was like getting the death sentence for committing a crime. I was very depressed. For a long time I just couldn’t cheer myself up.
Many of his fans were devastated, with their favourite streamer gone, there was a hole in their lives.
WANG SIYUAN (Translation): One day, they started an online petition calling for my return. More people kept joining. It got to 500,000 people.
Xiaoyuan spent a year in limbo wondering whether he’d ever be allowed to stream again…
WANG SIYUAN (Translation): The platform approached me. They asked if I was contrite, if I had realised the gravity of my error. I then issued a public apology. Finally they let me come back.
I’m too nervous today. I’m afraid I might put my foot in my mouth. Today isn’t like any other day. If I stuff up today, I’ll lose face.
Back online with Wang Xiaoyuan, and the usually confident streamer seems to be a little camera shy…He knows self-expression is a double-edged sword.
WANG SIYUAN (Translation): I messed up. Please edit this part out. Let me try again.
…that boundaries exist, even if he doesn’t always know where they are.
REPORTER: It's almost as though technology offers a promise of freedom that can never actually be realised.
JONATHAN KAIMAN: Yes - people say in china that people live in a cage here yet the walls of the cage for many or the bars of the cage are so far away that people don't know they exist and they don't know where they are. And I think the metaphor holds true for the live streaming phenomenon.
dr kenny wang
26th September 2017