Tea Leaf Nation

I Broadcast Myself on the Chinese Web for Two Weeks

In the process, I learned why Chinese millennials can't seem to unplug from the live-streaming craze.


Chinese live-streaming is a bizarre and rapidly growing phenomenon that feels strangely necessary. It’s home to countless young women with impossibly long eyelashes and painted, pouting lips talking about what they are making for breakfast, and a handful of men rocking aviators and faux leather jackets who croon K-Pop songs into their Apple headphone mics. Some streamers sit in their college dorm rooms eating instant noodles — yes, viewers love to watch — while others broadcast themselves enduring their daily commutes or broadcast, sitting at their work desks, or lying in beds. Viewers swipe through live-streaming channels and follow whoever catches their eye, and can purchase virtual “gifts” to give their favorite streamers, from cucumbers and flowers (a few cents), to a smartphone (about $5), to a limited edition sports car (around $20).

Powered by apps like Inke and YiZhiBo, live-streaming is a huge and growing market. In August, state-run English language publication China Daily reported that nearly half of all Chinese netizens — over 325 million people — were using some form of a live-streaming app. In September, investment bank Credit Suisse estimated that China’s live-streaming industry had reached $5 billion, with revenues more than doubling from 2015 to 2016. (On Inke alone, there are reportedly over 10 million active users.) With the rise of platforms like Facebook Live, Twitter Periscope, Snapchat, and Instagram Stories, there’s no question real-time social media is becoming a global phenomenon. But why has it exploded in China, becoming a beloved pastime for so many millennials there? For two weeks, I tried broadcasting my own life in the United States on the Chinese app Inke to find out.

Although I had lived and worked in China for several years, I live-streamed for the first time while sitting in my bedroom in Jacksonville, Florida. Seeking to emulate the women that attract so many viewers, I caked on heavy makeup before hitting record. I batted my eyelashes and smized — millennialspeak for “smiled with my eyes” — into my iPhone, watching my viewer numbers grow. In a live chat-room just below the video screen, viewers started asking questions: at first, they wanted to know was where I was from and whether I could read Chinese. After I read their questions aloud (thus proving I was literate in Chinese script), viewers asked what I did, what I thought about different cities in China, what sort of food I liked, whether I found Chinese men attractive, who I was voting for in the upcoming U.S. Presidential election, and why it is so much cheaper to buy iPhones stateside than in China. They debated among themselves whether I looked more American or more Chinese (my mother is from Beijing, my father American), the relative merits of the two countries’ education systems, and whether American-born Chinese are considered American or foreign in the United States. I topped out at around 5,000 viewers — a tiny drop in a massive bucket in terms of Chinese internet users, but still a large audience by my usual standards.

After several hour-long sessions, I started to feel more at ease monologuing to fans in fluent but accented Mandarin, greeting them by their screen names when they signed on, regaling them with my mundane daily activities, fielding their questions, and thanking them effusively when they tossed me a virtual cucumber or a bunch of cherry blossoms. Each time I signed out, I could see how much I earned during a given session, usually somewhere between $10 and $15. Exhausted, hoarse from talking for so long, yet elated, I would scrub off my makeup and fall into bed, only to dream of emojis and heart shaped balloons.

Sure enough, live-streaming on a Friday night, Beijing time, my viewer numbers spiked. I jokingly asked, “Why are you at home watching live-streams instead of going out?” Jingjing, a young woman in Shanghai responded, “It’s more fun to watch live-streams and it’s free. My friends are at home watching too.” Others chimed in to say they had “nothing to do” or “didn’t know anyone” living nearby. It may seem incredible that anyone could have nothing to do and not know anyone in some of the biggest cities in the world. But many of my fans were internal migrants: hairdressers, students, restaurant workers, and businesspeople that had flocked to China’s megalopolises from third-tier cities and rural hometowns to study and to work.

The existence they described was bleak, cellular, and detached. A user named EverydayBlueSky said she “hardly talks to anyone during the day.” Another viewer, named Dreaming, agreed, adding, “Work is hard; I like to come home and talk to my online friends.” When I asked why they like to live-stream, Claire, a young woman from Shenzhen, responded that though she is very shy in person, she feels that she can be herself when she is live-streaming. She continued, “There are so many people in China. On Inke, I have my own channel and people will watch and follow me.” With so many Chinese people enduring claustrophobic apartments in massive buildings, long, crowded commutes, tight budgets, boring workdays, and little in-person human contact, it is no wonder then that live-streaming has taken off there.

On the surface, my life bears little resemblance to that of my viewers, but I can relate to their early adulthood struggles of trying to finding a job in a difficult economy, navigate relationships, and carve out a niche in a society where it is increasingly hard to be “somebody.” After just two weeks on Inke, I was discussing with viewers personal matters like family, career aspirations, and relationships. They responded to me thoughtfully. I cashed in some of my earnings for credit (denominated in “gems”) so I could give them gifts back. On the occasions when I didn’t sign on at my usual time, I would receive a slew of private messages expressing disappointment and asking when I would be back. I found myself rearranging “real-life” plans so I could tune in on time. 

Was this getting out of hand? Like any self-respecting early-20 something, I am well versed in platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, and make a point to carefully maintain and curate my social media presence. My iPhone is an extension of my arm. But this was different. Live-streaming brings a whole new level of intimacy to social media, a shift welcomed by millions of young Chinese people leading isolated, high-pressure lives. In a time and place where many feel disconnected and alienated, the sunny live-streaming cyber world is cathartic, providing millions of young Chinese people a comfort and humanity that “real life” often no longer can.

Image: Screenshot of Yizhibo.com

Viola Rothschild is a research associate for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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