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China's Crackdown on Livestreaming May Stifle Boom of Internet Stars


FILE - A fan livestreams her participation during China's premiere of the film "Warcraft" at a theater in Shanghai, China, June 7, 2016.

Over the past year, the popularity of internet celebrities has exploded in China, creating a massive streaming video industry that has turned some into millionaires.

But just as fast as the medium has grown in popularity, authorities are working to put in place extensive controls, making the booming industry another target of official repression.

The rise of internet stars has caught China's younger generation by storm, especially those born in the 90s, aspiring for fame in the domestic streaming internet video market. Online statistical portal Statista estimates the industry will be worth at least $9 billion this year, up 55 percent from 2015, with an audience base of more than half a billion.

Wang Hong

Successful internet stars, or "Wang Hong" in Mandarin, which refers to those who become cyber celebrities, can turn their online fame into an actual business across all sectors without limit to entertainment, beauty and fashion.

FILE - Chinese internet star Furong Jiejie, aka Sister Furong, dances on a roof in Beijing, Aug. 10, 2005.
FILE - Chinese internet star Furong Jiejie, aka Sister Furong, dances on a roof in Beijing, Aug. 10, 2005.

Twenty-year-old college student Huang Xianer, a major in advertising, is among those "Wang Hong" wannabes — a dream she and her peers pursue.

"After I graduated [from college in summer], the internet age has been ripe and livestreaming industry was exploding. Some of my classmates may also work in the same line of business," Huang told VOA.

While many young female internet celebrities sing or dance and flirt with men online, Huang has found a different niche and is using her training as a travel specialist to produce short city travel features. The features are shot and produced before being put up on her company's live video channel Youku, China's version of Youtube.

Revenue from hits, or website visits, and corporate sponsorship has funded the online venture, which has yet to turn a profit since Huang has just begun to attract thousands of followers, according to her company Vermodel. The small company of 10 staff members has signed contracts with more than 30 online personalities.

Road to stardom

The first generation of A-list internet stars in China included literary personalities such as online writer Han Han, who was one of Time magazine's most influential people in 2010.

FILE - Han Han, 27, one of China's most popular bloggers based on his website's registered hits, attends a news conference during the Hong Kong Book Fair, July 22, 2010.
FILE - Han Han, 27, one of China's most popular bloggers based on his website's registered hits, attends a news conference during the Hong Kong Book Fair, July 22, 2010.

Since then, with the maturation of social media, supported by technologies for video blogging, Chinese netizens have been allowed to share user-generated visual content to gain viral popularity, said Meng Deming, CEO of Qingdao Micro Innovation Marketing Planning.

With the penetration of handheld devices, the outreach of internet video has accelerated to make Wang Hong's road to stardom easier, Meng said.

The success of Papi Jiang, with rapid-paced comedy monologues, turned a new chapter for the emerging industry, he added.

"In 2016, the so-called Wang Hong economy experienced a boom as a result of [surging] video posts. For example, Papi Jiang, who successfully raised funding for her act earlier this year, has become the talk of the town," Meng said.

Jiang's comic video monoblogs poke fun at everyday topics, including relations between men and women in China.

In four months, her videos garnered more than 290 million hits.

She became an overnight sensation in March, when a venture-capitalist put down $1.7 million in investment and bidders went as high as $3 million to get the web star to promote their brands during a video ad auction in April.

FILE - An employee is seen through a glass wall as she walks past the logo of Youku.com above the reception desk at the company's headquarters in Beijing, Dec. 9, 2010.
FILE - An employee is seen through a glass wall as she walks past the logo of Youku.com above the reception desk at the company's headquarters in Beijing, Dec. 9, 2010.

The outlook for China's Wang Hong economy, thus, will be rosy if the scope of Wang Hong is further expanded to include opinion leaders across all industries, who can sustain a viable business model online, the analyst said.

Internet controls

However, a wide range of internet controls, including the most recent ban on livestreaming, may once again shake up the landscape of the industry as a whole, although the impact on online personalities is expected to be limited, according to Meng.

On a personal level, Jiang, for example, was reportedly required by certain social networking platforms to remove several of her posts, in which authorities found her language vulgar or abusive.

Vermodel said its talents have not yet received any warnings, except reminders from the platform to ensure their livestreaming content is "green and healthy."

On an industry-wide level, no livesteaming will be allowed if any of the nation's 200 live-broadcasting platforms fail to secure permits, according to a notice released by the Ministry of Culture earlier this week.

Livestreaming performers are also required to register their real names with the media platforms, which will then be responsible for the content, added the notice, which is in accordance with the regulation finalized by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio and Television as early as in September.

FILE - Customers surf the web at an internet cafe in Beijing, China.
FILE - Customers surf the web at an internet cafe in Beijing, China.

An industry reshuffle is, therefore, unavoidable as the nation's 200 livestreaming platforms — including douyu.com, live.bilibili.com and huya.com — may soon be under the radar of the administration's repression, local media reported.

Free speech stifled

Qiao Mu, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, however, argued that the real target behind the authorities' tightened controls would be opinion leaders of political development and controversial social events.

"What the authorities really want to control is political content since some livestream shows or forums may touch upon politics or social issues. This has long been the area which the authorities try to clamp down," Qiao said.

The latest livestreaming ban would be in line with a wide range of internet controls that authorities have put together to repress freedom of speech online or offline, the professor added.

The entertainment industry, however, will see limited impact as networking platforms will not favor political content, on which they will be required to impose censorship, according to Qiao.

Bill Ide in Beijing contributed to this report.

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