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Why a Top Chinese Influencer Got Taken Offline

The censorship of Li Jiaqi’s livestream highlights sensitivity around the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
A pro-democracy activist holds an electric candle in Victoria Park, the traditional site of the annual Tiananmen Square massacre candlelight vigil, on June 5 in Hong Kong.
A pro-democracy activist holds an electric candle in Victoria Park, the traditional site of the annual Tiananmen Square massacre candlelight vigil, on June 5 in Hong Kong.
A pro-democracy activist holds an electric candle in Victoria Park, the traditional site of the annual Tiananmen Square massacre candlelight vigil, on June 5 in Hong Kong. Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Chinese censors pull an e-commerce influencer offline for a perceived reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre, Western officials say China is secretly building a naval base in Cambodia, and Chinese leaders are concerned about the agriculture sector after weeks of COVID-19 lockdowns.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Chinese censors pull an e-commerce influencer offline for a perceived reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre, Western officials say China is secretly building a naval base in Cambodia, and Chinese leaders are concerned about the agriculture sector after weeks of COVID-19 lockdowns.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


Censors Silence Popular Influencer

June 4, the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre—in which People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces killed hundreds and perhaps thousands of protesters as well as crushing demonstrations across the country—is a fraught moment in China. In Hong Kong, the public once freely memorialized the massacre. This year, authorities again used the national security law passed in 2020 to block gatherings; six people were arrested.

In mainland China, the anniversary claimed an unexpected victim: e-commerce influencer Li Jiaqi, widely known as the “Lipstick Brother” or “Lipstick King.” During a livestream on June 3, Li was presented with a cake that resembled a tank. Censors promptly pulled the show offline, and it hasn’t returned, with Li’s team citing “technical difficulties.” Early June is a prime time for online shopping ahead of June 18, China’s second-biggest day for online sales. But Li’s name now returns blank results on search platforms, even on e-commerce sites.

Li and his team likely did not plan for the tank imagery to coincide with the Tiananmen Square anniversary. Military equipment is often cutely reproduced in China, with even playgrounds bearing pictures of armored personnel carriers or helicopters; a cake that looks like a tank isn’t an unusual idea. Li’s background also doesn’t suggest a willingness to burn down his online empire for a symbolic gesture. As his nickname suggests, Li specializes in selling cosmetics and became famous a few years ago for marathon sessions of lipstick application.

Streaming is a huge and competitive business in China. By 2019, Li was worth a few million dollars. But his popularity exploded during the coronavirus pandemic: He now has more than 40 million followers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, and he sold a record $1.9 billion of products via the major e-commerce platform Taobao in a single day last year. (It was Singles Day, the Chinese equivalent of Black Friday.)

Following the government line, in the last year, Li had turned away from promoting international products, doubled down on patriotic language, and encouraged his viewers to buy Chinese-made goods. It seems that the tank cake was an unfortunate coincidence leapt on by sensitive censors—a kind of paranoia that is common during tense times in Chinese politics. But that neither Li nor his team spotted the potential error speaks to the success of the silence around Tiananmen. Successful Chinese influencers are attuned to political dangers; Li hadn’t planned a livestream for June 4, suggesting he was at least aware it was a sensitive date.

However, many young Chinese are unaware that the Tiananmen Square massacre ever happened. On diaspora social media, some nationalists argue that the students and workers who were killed were terrorists or that the violence was justified. But even these pro-government arguments are censored within mainland China. Paradoxically, the censors’ paranoia may have made more people aware of the massacre, as they search on as-yet-uncensored forums or foreign websites for details of what happened to Li.

It’s unclear what will happen to the influencer. He may well return, chastened, to streaming in a week or two. But he was already vulnerable on other grounds, thanks to a homophobic push by the government that began last year. Li does not discuss his personal life, save for his five Bichon Frises. But in his public persona—a man selling feminine beauty products to an audience he addresses as “sisters”—he operates in an established but fragile space for entertainers who don’t conform to conventional masculinity.

Li had so far dodged the clampdowns on “unmasculine” performers and streamers. But in China under President Xi Jinping, the combination of tanks near June 4 and lipstick on men might bring down a marketing empire.


What We’re Following

Secret naval base. The Washington Post reports that Western officials say China is secretly building a naval base in Cambodia, a close ally. The facility would be only the second overseas base for the PLA, after the Djibouti base was built in 2017; like in Djibouti, it appears to be relatively small, with space for just two ships.

Beijing has long backed Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has cracked down on dissent since his government forcibly dissolved the country’s political opposition in 2017. That has raised concerns among observers that Cambodia is too eager to appease China—a stark contrast with neighboring Vietnam, which maintains a distance from the government in Beijing.

Of course, Washington has little grounds to criticize other countries investing in military bases overseas or chastise Cambodians for being skeptical of overtures from the United States, which killed Cambodian civilians in secret bombing campaigns during the Vietnam War. But the Chinese naval base is still likely to empower military officials fearful of Beijing’s expansion into Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Is Eileen Gu American now? Olympic freestyle skier Eileen Gu, whose decision to join the Chinese Olympic team caused a stir this year, announced this week that she will be an ambassador for Salt Lake City’s Winter Olympics bid. The move resurfaces scrutiny of Gu’s nationality. Chinese law does not allow dual citizenship, but it seems likely that the Olympian retained her U.S. passport. That has prompted complaints of special treatment in China—resentment that has previously boiled over against Gu online.

Threads about Gu’s decision to support Salt Lake City’s bid have racked up hundreds of millions of views, with some commenters accusing her of using China for financial gain, then flying back to profit from the United States. Gu has said she feels American in the United States and Chinese in China; but for a public figure, that kind of dual identity is difficult to sustain amid intensified nationalism.

Shanghai’s lockdowns aren’t over. Despite Shanghai announcing “victory” over COVID-19 and reopening on June 1, the city is still experiencing regular lockdowns of residential compounds and new neighborhood restrictions, with hundreds of people at a time dispatched to centralized quarantine facilities. As Eyck Freymann and Yanzhong Huang argue in Foreign Policy, there is little chance of China’s zero-COVID policy ending any time soon. Sudden lockdowns are likely to persist across the country.

Mass testing attracts less attention than lockdowns, but it is a significant burden on people’s time. I’ve had two recent calls to people in China disrupted by health staff knocking on the door to demand the residents come down for testing. Meanwhile, leaving China has become increasingly difficult despite a huge increase in interest regarding emigration among Chinese citizens.


Tech and Business

Getting the harvest in. Although much attention has focused on restarting manufacturing, Chinese political leadership appear to be concerned about agriculture in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns that left fields fallow. With global grain prices rising as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the domestic harvest is even more critical.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, the point person for the logistical recovery, recently addressed wheat farmers on video and issued special instructions to prioritize the harvest, which begins as early as late May in the south. It’s unlikely that China will have problems feeding itself, but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is exceptionally sensitive to increases in food prices; anti-food waste campaigns are one of Xi’s signature initiatives.

Housing woes. Real estate continues to be a quiet disaster for the Chinese economy despite numerous government efforts to pump up the sector. New home sales have fallen for 11 straight months and reached a nadir in May, when there was a 56 percent decline compared to the previous year. That has wrecked the fortunes of many developers and threatens to upend the economy; real estate makes up around 29 percent of China’s GDP.

The crisis has political ramifications. The wealth of major Chinese political families is deeply tied into the real estate sector, one of the easiest areas to trade political pull for economic gain. Between 2004 and 2016, firms linked to central CCP members were able to obtain discounts of around 55 percent on land compared to unconnected firms; the local party secretaries who provided the discounts were more likely to rise to power.

Whose family fortunes collapse and who can make the best deals from the wreckage will depend largely on the victors in upcoming struggles as Xi cements his third term in office.

Inflation restarts tariff fights. There are serious debates within the Biden administration about lifting former U.S. President Donald Trump-era tariffs on China, prompted in part by serious lobbying from businesses that argue the measure would boost the economy and help fight inflation. But unions argue otherwise, and while U.S. President Joe Biden has expressed some openness to the idea, it seems unlikely the arguments will be resolved any time soon given other crises.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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