China’s netizens love sharing live video of themselves
The authorities wish they wouldn’t
MOST days Wang Leyu broadcasts himself live for five hours, and sometimes all night. While he talks on camera about his life or hums a tune or dances, viewers watching on their phones write messages that pop up on his screen. Occasionally a bright icon flashes, meaning a fan has paid money to send him a virtual sticker as a tip.
An 18-year-old university student, Mr Wang (or “bboylele” to his fans) is part of the latest internet craze to sweep China: live-streaming, or zhibo. Out of countless apps to choose from, three of the most popular, Douyu, YY and Yingke, have hundreds of millions of registered users between them. Western equivalents such as Facebook Live and Twitter’s Periscope are in effect blocked in China; homegrown apps have much greater traction as a result.
Live-streamers entertain and inform in a variety of ways, from playing video games—so that viewers can watch their on-screen action—to giving English lessons. But the majority are young women who stream video of themselves as they flirt, sing or dance. Such diversions are a big hit among Chinese men. The most popular streams are viewed by over 100,000 people at a time.
The authorities are watching, too. In April the Ministry of Culture launched an investigation into whether live-streaming is “harming social morality”. In May it banned lewd behaviour on streaming sites, including the “seductive” eating of bananas. In August the Cyberspace Administration of China, the main internet regulator, announced that platforms must monitor the content they host and keep recordings, including copies of on-screen comments. The stated aim of this rule was to help prevent the broadcast of anything deemed pornographic or otherwise illegal. But it is likely that officials also want to deter people from discussing politically sensitive topics.
Most live-streamers are careful to avoid such contentious issues. But non-political, non-salacious content can also rile the authorities. In April a video blogger, Papi Jiang, caught their attention. The 29-year-old comedian’s rapid-fire monologues on everything from typical boyfriends to regional accents have attracted a massive following on Youku, a video-sharing site. She was scolded by state regulators in April for using vulgar language, according to official media. Many of her videos were taken down temporarily. She posted an apology, promising to be “more careful” of her words. And in July she broadcast her first live stream, which was viewed 20m times, raking in money from tips and sponsorship.
Mr Wang, the student live-streamer, earned 500 yuan ($75) last month from his account on Douyu—a couple of days’ wages for the average worker in Beijing. But he says it is not the money that motivates him. “Everyone wants people to like them,” he says. “I can share my happiness but also my pain.” It is the ease of connection with like-minded people and the potential size of audiences that encourages so many Chinese to broadcast themselves online. That is also what makes the government nervous.