China Is in the Midst of a Live-Streaming Revolution

But it won’t spur a political one.

Shen Man, a popular live-streaming singer.

Shen Man, a popular live-streaming singer.

Jingyang Cheng

Live streaming may still be struggling to take off in the United States, but it has become one of the hottest trends in China. Currently, about 46 percent of China’s 710 million internet users watch young people, mostly girls, sing, dance, and eat bananas erotically (OK, that has been banned) live on the internet. Top online show hosts, often born into poor families and without a proper education, can make more than $150,000 a month through digital gifting. They attract upward of 100,000 viewers to their individual showrooms every day and more than 500,000 on special events. Many TV programs on less popular American cable networks would envy those numbers.

When I was raising money for my new feature documentary on China’s live streaming, I shared those numbers with a potential funder, who was floored. Live streaming can be such a powerful change agent, that impressed funder commented. Imagine when those hosts start talking about politics!

But that has not happened, and it’s unlikely to any time soon.

In the West, we believe that technology encourages political discussion and is a force for change. We watch Facebook and Twitter play pivotal roles in social uprisings in many parts of the world and think that, inevitably, the same will happen in other authoritarian countries. But in China, that power seems to have been neutered. Instead, China’s internet appears to have only produced instant riches and endless banal entertainment.

Government control and censorship is only part of the reason. Censorship was indeed the decisive force that crushed civic discourse on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, which is banned there. Weibo’s explosive popularity took the government by surprise. At its peak in 2011, viral Weibo posts could spur public outrage, shaming the government into firing corrupt officials. That power, and the social-media–fueled Arab Spring, scared the authorities into action. Accounts were closed, and some top Weibo celebrities were arrested on trumped-up charges and shamed on national television. Public discussions migrated to private circles on the then-emerging app Wechat, which now dominates China’s social media landscape. Weibo, meanwhile, embarked on a path of intense commercialization. Now 32 percent owned by internet giant Alibaba, its pages are full of ads sending users to various e-commerce shops.

Similar political control has been put in place on live streaming, but has rarely been invoked. Current regulations stipulate that hosts criticizing the Communist Party or the state receive the same penalty as those performing pornographic acts: instant and permanent account closure. Yet lately, government crackdowns have focused exclusively on live streaming’s wayward content—eating bananas erotically, performing sexual acts, or crashing luxury racecars—all in eager pursuit of fans’ attention and money.

Political discussion is absent from live streaming because neither the hosts nor their fans care for it. In 2011, the Weibo opinion leaders were older, better educated, and had more stable careers. They represented the middle class and educated elites clamoring for political participation. In contrast, the virtual inhabitants of the live-streaming world belong to China’s diaosi (“loser”) generation. Diaosi is a Chinese slang term, widely adopted by youth and often used in comedic and self-deprecating manner, to refer to young people of mediocre appearance and poor means. Born in humble families, many have migrated to China’s expanding cities, where they’re stuck in menial and dead-end jobs. They have no meaningful savings, no roots, and no social capital. In today’s China, which values material wealth above all things, the term has taken on fast and deep resonance. Some online surveys report that about 40 percent of China’s population self-identify as diaosis.

Diaosis flock to live streaming because they are lonely, they want to connect with someone (even if only virtually), and they fantasize about wealth. There, they can watch their idols’ online shows for free, worship or lust after them, and chat with other like-minded lonely fans in real time. When they have some money saved up, they buy their idols virtual gifts, like lollipops (about 1 cent apiece) and diamond rings (about $3 each). Thirty to 50 percent of the money goes to their idols’ wallets. Fans also like to watch rich people frivolously spend as much as $1.5 million a year. The poor clap and applaud, virtually, so the rich—their egos stroked in front of tens of thousands of fans—spend even more. Live streaming is popular because it provides around-the-clock entertainment (albeit of low quality) and unceasing spectacles of wealth-chasing beauties with total abandon—all for free.

In many ways, the popularity of live streaming reflects what young people, especially those diaosis at the bottom of China’s booming economy, think about their reality. They are most concerned with finding better-paying jobs and mates, not with how to participate in the political process. They bemoan their luckless upbringing but still dream of becoming a millionaire someday, just as their idols have done. Chinese society has become increasingly stratified, with the poor feeling ever more hopeless to climb up the class hierarchy. But to the young diaosis, the internet—especially live streaming—provides some hope, however remote, that they could climb the economic ladder.

Meanwhile, youths are generally more patriotic and nationalistic than the older generations and educated elites. This is a result of the government’s intensified Patriotic Education Campaign, launched in the 1990s after the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement. It is also a reflection of people’s pride in China’s progress. Even when live-streaming hosts mention social issues in the heat of a rant, their fans will shush them by reminding them of the potential penalty—even if some of those issues, from corruption at the Chinese Red Cross to income inequality, have been widely reported in mainstream media. In comparison, when hosts extol national pride during China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors, their fans applaud and virtual gifts keep streaming in.

The leaders of the virtual packs, the live-streaming hosts, have no incentive to rock the boat, either. Instead, they worry about the fleetingness of internet stardom. Their job is to entertain their poor diaosi fans and rich patrons so they continue to watch and spend. Credit Suisse recently reported that China’s live-streaming industry will surpass $4 billion in 2016. For comparison, China’s total movie box-office receipts in 2016 is estimated to be $7 billion. Why go against the government and put your dream of wealth in jeopardy?

For a long time, Western media tended to quote posts from Weibo and other websites popular among China’s middle class as representative of Chinese internet users’ sentiments on social issues, while overlooking others where diaosis congregate, like Baidu Tieba (old-fashioned bulletin boards) and QQ Zone (anonymous social networking). Even China’s elites often ignore diaosis’ internet presence. Back in 2014, when I started filming, few Chinese urban professionals had heard of live streaming, even though YY, China’s leading live-streaming platform, was already attracting more than 100 million diaosi users a month. Now they regard the phenomenon with bewilderment bordering on disgust, considering the content dumb and vapid. Still, its popularity forces these elites to acknowledge diaosis’ existence on China’s internet, an existence full of loneliness, of hunger for connection, of dream of a better life.

So far, diaosis seem to have followed the government’s dictates on good online behavior—no politics, lots of vulgarity but only moderate sexual innuendos, spiced with sporadic nationalistic outbursts. It mirrors the grand bargain between the Chinese government and its subjects: As long as the economy keeps growing, as long as there’s room to dream of a better future, government control on social discourse will not be challenged.

But China’s economy is slowing, and the government is having a tougher time keeping its end of the bargain. In the first half of the 20th century, the Communist Party rode to power on popular anger at the Kuomintang regime from peasants, urban factory workers, and young intellectuals—basically the historical equivalent of the diaosis. What will happen when the “Chinese Dream” dims, online and offline, for the current generation of hundreds of millions of diaosis? It is a scenario that the government is surely working hard to avoid, for if and when popular anger crescendos, China’s live streaming will likely sing a different tune.

This article is part of the “Who Controls the Internet?” installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.