Streaming Away From China’s Censors

This spring, Jin transformed a corner of his three-person Beijing dorm room into a makeshift livestreaming studio. For privacy, the skinny 24-year-old grad student pressed sticky hooks to the ceiling in a semicircle and hung a pale-green shower curtain around his wooden desk. He bought a lamp for backlighting and a plastic stand to hold his iPhone roughly at eye level. He even persuaded his roommates, both fellow biology Ph.D. candidates, to stay away most evenings from 7 p.m. until midnight. That’s when he pulls the curtain to hide the dingy concrete walls, takes out his bags of makeup, and streams live video of himself on the internet.

One typical night, Jin glances between his small lavender mirror and the iPhone while he draws a blush-tipped brush languidly along his cheekbones and pencils in arched eyebrows. As a mellow playlist cycles in the background, he chats with a few dozen viewers—he talks, they type—occasionally turning his head from side to side to show off his profile. He dons a long black wig, then laughs, flipping the locks over his shoulder. “This wig doesn’t suit my outfit,” he says. “I’ll change it.” The next one is red; a fan writes, “So beautiful.”

Jin recognizes some of these regulars, who’ve subscribed to his channel and are notified when he logs on. “I haven’t seen you for a while,” he says when a longtime viewer greets him. “What are you doing?” The response: “I’m missing you.” Unending affirmation is hard not to love, which explains why Jin is reluctant to pause and be interviewed. “I started livestreaming because my school life is boring,” he says, “and I wanted something more exciting.”

The grad student has known since middle school that he’s gay, but he isn’t out to family or most friends. In China homosexuality was a crime until 1997 and was labeled a psychiatric disorder until 2001. Public acceptance is fragile; there are no antidiscrimination employment protections, same-sex marriage is illegal, and some parents still push LGBT children into electroshock “conversion” therapy.

Jin says he feels freer to be himself alone in his dorm. A few months ago he decided to try the new livestreaming function on Blued, China’s largest gay-dating app. Some 15,000 fans now send him a steady supply of “beans,” a virtual currency that converts to as much as 1,800 yuan ($274) a week after the app takes its 70 percent cut. (Certain stars negotiate a 50-50 split.) That means he makes more than the average salary in large Chinese cities.

China didn’t invent livestreaming, but the country has taken to it with fervor. In the past couple of years, the broadcasts have gone from nerd fringe to mainstream, with more than 200 million of China’s 730 million internet users watching on at least 1 of 200 Chinese apps, according to PwC. Viewers are transforming the economy with beans, hearts, and red envelopes; Credit Suisse Group AG estimates that all of the virtual thumbs-up, plus product sales spurred by promos, will total almost $5 billion this year, up from about $750 million in 2014. By comparison, the nation’s movie theaters expect to collect about $6.6 billion in box-office revenue.

The broadcasts aren’t just kids behind shower curtains. “Livestreaming is being adopted by a whole slew of industries, whether it’s education or news or boutique grocery shopping,” says Shaun Rein, founder and managing director of China Market Research Group in Shanghai. Now there are livestreaming functions on leading online services including Alibaba’s shopping site, Taobao China, and Sina’s Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter.

With the public’s embrace, streaming has become a bigger target for government censors. As China’s regime tightens its grip on the internet—a stark and aggressive trend since the beginning of the year—it’s unclear if the quirky and chaotic livestreaming space will survive. Much of its allure depends on the perceived intimacy and authenticity that comes with somebody talking to you from his bedroom, a contrast to scripted state media broadcasts. “There’s not much trust of any establishment in China,” says Sara Jane Ho, a Beijing lifestyle guru who streams. “People want to see something real and unexpected.”

From Day One, China’s livestreaming platforms have included systems for micropayments so content providers didn’t need to rely on advertisers. Early audiences were mostly guys under 25 living in third-tier cities without a lot of entertainment options; the first hit sites, such as YY, featured geisha-style entertainers. Livestreaming’s influence widened as dating apps such as Blued and Momo, as well as Taobao and Weibo, added the function.

Ho doesn’t need to appeal to young men in provincial backwaters. She uses Weibo’s partner app, Yizhibo, to raise her profile among potential nouveau riche clients seeking lessons in etiquette, fashion, and social graces. She styles her hair and makeup neatly to talk on camera with friends about how to pick the most flattering bikini. But she says fans respond most enthusiastically when things go awry. Occasionally, a shop owner refuses to be filmed, or she shows up to a building that’s locked. Spontaneous connection is “the quickest way to grow your fan base,” says Ho, who was raised in Hong Kong and attended Harvard Business School.

Her approach is becoming more common among the young and business-minded in China, who see livestreaming as an intimate branding opportunity. On a Friday night in early June, Fan “Troy” Hongyi and Zhou Zhou are sitting on a black sofa in their Beijing office, clad in T-shirts and cargo shorts and clasping pillows that read “I Love London” and “Keep Calm and Carry On.” The teachers at New Oriental Education & Technology Group Inc., one of the country’s most successful education companies, are about to begin a 90-minute livestream on Yizhibo doling out “language tips for surviving overseas,” as the message to Fan’s 141,000 followers reads.

The men, in their early 20s, mix jokey banter with practical advice. An off-camera colleague operates a desktop speaker, adding exaggerated electronic sounds such as studio applause. First they cover lost-in-translation basics, such as how to answer the question “Where are you from?” The correct answer should be a country, not the last place you were. “Don’t say you’re from the toilet!” Fan says.

Next they review cultural touchstones that an overseas Chinese student could use to bond with English or American peers, including The Vampire Diaries, Backstreet Boys, and Jack Daniel’s. (Zhou pantomimes gulping from a bottle.) By now they have about 2,700 people watching. They close by offering cheesy pickup lines to a viewer asking for dating advice. Responding to questions is crucial, Fan says after the broadcast, because interaction is what makes livestreaming better than TV.

Which might explain why, “instead of 600 cable channels, you have millions of livestreams,” says William Bao Bean, a partner at venture firm SOSV and managing director of Chinaccelerator in Shanghai. This spring, Bao Bean’s accelerator attracted 1.3 million viewers to a Yizhibo stream of startup founders sharing business advice.

Livestreaming might also translate into off-screen fame. In June the app Momo rented a soundstage in Beijing’s Chaoyang Park, equipped it with strobe lights, and brought 10 of its most-followed livestreamers onstage in sparkling formal wear to belt out Chinese pop anthems. The performances, mostly duets and trios, resembled American Idol, and executives from BMG, the music label and talent agency, were there to announce a partnership aimed at selecting starlets to pack off to Hollywood. “I didn’t understand the lyrics,” BMG Executive Vice President Thomas Scherer told two stiletto-clad singers after they finished their song, but “you both have amazing voices.”

Even China’s government is experimenting with streaming official propaganda, such as Premier Li Keqiang’s annual work report. More attention from Beijing, however, may also threaten the medium’s range of possibilities. As education companies and Hollywood powerhouses have turned to livestreams to hunt for customers and talent, the government has started to impose new restrictions. “Politically sensitive” material and porn have always been off-limits, but some of the latest decrees are laughably precise, including a ban on women suggestively eating bananas, while others are intentionally vague so that officials can enforce them as they please.

Earlier this summer, the Ministry of Culture cracked down on 30 livestreaming apps without defining what the services had done wrong. Overnight, a dozen were shuttered. The government says it’s also banned more than 2,000 hosts for behavior that “offended socialist core values and brought negative impacts to the healthy growth of youth and teenagers,” according to a statement from the Cyberspace Administration of China, which oversees internet content.

Streaming companies have responded by employing armies of in-house censors. About a quarter of Blued’s 230-employee Beijing office is dedicated to real-time monitoring of user accounts. One Beijing-based nonprofit says a planned livestream raising awareness about young people’s options for mental health care was abruptly canceled by its app partner shortly after the latest crackdown. On the streaming app Inke, a standard disclaimer scrolls across every broadcast: “If you see livestreams about protests, please report such behavior—the platform will handle it immediately. The Internet police is patrolling 24 hours a day.”

Jin ran afoul of the Blued censors once this spring when he uncrossed his legs and—accidentally, he says—his dress tugged up to partially reveal his underwear. Instantly, his feed was cut off. A professional livestreamers group (Jin is one of a few hundred members) negotiated with Blued to get him reinstated.

Some livestreamers are full-time, but Jin says he’s not planning to give up his studies. His biology research focuses on genetically modified organisms, which he says is a promising line of work. It just doesn’t offer the rush he feels in front of his iPhone.

As more streamers win followings, optimists see the enormous market and cultural value boding broader changes. “I hope we can help people feel less pressure, less discrimination because of their differences—no one should feel inferior,” says Blued founder Geng Le, a 40-year-old former cop.

Livestreamers Kyle and Klaus might foster the kind of tolerance that Geng is after. The young couple bought their first apartment a year ago in northern Beijing, a rite of passage for middle-class Chinese. Unlike Jin, these young men have painstakingly won the acceptance of their close family and friends. On their Blued stream, they typically putter around the house, bantering about Klaus’s work as a research scientist or Kyle’s neglected dancing talents. Sometimes they play with their rescue mutt, Coal Black. It’s all fairly mundane, says Kyle, wondering aloud why they have 15,000 fans. He hoists Coal Black into his arms, then answers his own question.

“Many people must watch us to imagine what it would be like to be an out gay couple, to live together in China, not as a secret,” Kyle says. “What we show on our livestream, it is daily life for us, but it is someone else’s fantasy.”

[Bloomberg Businessweek]