Scrolling through my Instagram content the other morning I came across a video that caught my attention. Most of the algorithmic content that pops up on the Reels section of my Instagram feed is strange at best, but this short clip was uncannier than anything I’d seen in a long time.
The video featured a made-up and heavily filtered Chinese influencer in a kind of tennis match with luxurious orange shopping boxes that intentionally mimic the Hermès orange. A box would be slid rapidly across the desk, the woman would snatch out the item, say a few words deadpan to the camera, toss the piece back in and catch the next flying box; and on and on. Questions flooded my head: Who was this woman? What was she selling? Why was she so inexpressive, and why was it all so dizzyingly fast?
Enter the world of one of China’s live-streaming influencers and online shopping promoters. With her mesmerising box game and blank expression, the influencer featured in the video, Zheng Xiang Xiang, raked in an estimated $18.7 million USD in just seven days. Her strict routine: spending no less than three seconds on each item, without the usual upselling spiel, and promoting extremely cheap items which encourage impulse purchases. Zheng works on the Chinese version of TikTok, Douyin.
Live-stream influencing has quickly become one of China’s most lucrative and popular careers amongst young people. Given the rise of unemployment amongst Chinese youth, and the struggle many are facing to find stable jobs following university, live-stream influencing has become a popular way to earn money quickly. According to a Chinese research agency, there are 1.23 million live-stream influencers as of 2023, whilst a survey done by social media site Weibo saw that more than 60% of young people had interest in becoming an influencer.
The influencer economy has at times become a lightning rod for China’s growing political and economic problems. In 2021, one of the country’s most popular live-streamers Huang Wei, known as Viya, was fined and had her social media accounts banned due to her evasion of 643-million-yuan worth of taxes (around 90 million USD).
Another popular live streamer, ‘Lipstick King’ Li Jiaqi came under intense scrutiny after he told followers who complained about the high price of an eyeliner that they didn’t work ‘hard enough’. A year ago, in 2022 Li found further trouble when advertising a tank shaped cake hours before the anniversary of Tiananmen Square.
Like the influencer industry of the West, China’s live streamers have also been faced by the threat of replacement by AI and deepfakes. The Western influencer model based in para-social relationships and developing ‘trust’ between user and audiences has meant that AI has arguably failed to fully penetrate the West’s influencer economy. In comparison, the Chinese model of rapid advertisement, long, gruelling livestreams and the success of robot-like influencers such as Zheng Xiang Xiang has been the perfect environment for AI.
Overall, it can be said that the Chinese influencer economy demonstrates the way online economies and internet cultures act as crucial reflections of the state of a nation. The popularity of influencing amongst Chinese youth reveals even further the despondency many find searching for jobs and financial stability. It can lead us to asking some fundamental questions on the future of the Chinese state, its economy and socio-political stability.