A Documentary Reveals the Dangerous Fickleness of Online Fame in China

In The People’s Republic of Desire, Hao Wu films the lonely shadows where the lines between online and offline dissolve.

The People's Republic of Desire
Tripod Media

“Should I be ashamed? How about you?” The 21-year-old woman stares into her webcam, eyes flat under heavy false eyelashes and her long hair parted, half spilling over her left shoulder. “You self-righteous douchebags!”

It’s taken Shen Man just three years to amass a following of 5 million fans by singing, chatting, and flirting online as a hostess on the Chinese livestreaming platform YY. With large eyes, porcelain skin, and a tapered chin, Shen Man matches the modern Chinese ideal of doll-like beauty. Her voice is usually soft, almost cooing. She’s had plastic surgery to augment her nose, eyelids, temples, and chin, and been professionally coached in how, precisely, to tilt her head and lilt her voice—all preparation to become a virtual girlfriend to lonely hearts across China.

When she became an actual celebrity, however, the media started digging into her personal life and uncovered multiple real-life trysts, including with some of her online “patrons.” These revelations shattered her cultivated aura of chaste sexiness: lusted after, but untouchable. Never mind that male stars aren’t subjected to the same scrutiny; the backlash from her former fans is swift and severe. A barrage of insults scrolls down the screen of her chat room: “Such a slut!” “Fucking tramp!” “Stinky whore!”

Shen Man confronts her online accusers. At first insouciant, later her voice sounds rasping and defeated: “I’m a whore, a worn-out pussy. Happy now?”

It’s a rare moment of emotional candor in China’s $5 billion livestreaming industry, which has enthralled more than a quarter of the country’s internet users and revealed a deep hunger for entertainment outside the heavily censored and state-controlled broadcast and film offerings.

While her song-and-chat shows are usually rather banal, Shen Man herself is whip-smart. She understands how the game of online fame is played in China: She must keep her ordinary fans happy, but also cultivate deep-pocketed patrons and agency bosses who play a crucial role in buying votes in the online popularity contests that keep her in front of viewers’ screens.

It’s risky emotional work. “You’re often walking a tightrope,” her friend and onetime coach Dabao warns her. “As an online host, you shouldn’t have gotten yourself into the situation where you have to reject patrons because your livelihood depends on their affection. But you’ve never followed the rule. The rule is simple for girls: Keep online and offline separate.”

The People’s Republic of Desire, a new documentary from director Hao Wu, explores what happens when the lines between online and offline dissolve, as in the above scenes. (Disclosure: Wu is a Future Tense fellow at New America, where I was once a Schwartz fellow; Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.) Wu describes the film, which is in Chinese with English subtitles and premiered at SXSW in March, as revealing a subculture that’s a cross between American Idol and Black Mirror. Chatting over Korean food recently in Manhattan, New York, Wu, born in Chengdu, China, said his initial idea was simply to follow the lives of China’s top livestreaming celebrities. But he said he later became fascinated by the hidden role of money, sex, and connections in subverting the supposedly populist forums.

Shen Man is one of two main characters Wu follows over the course of two years. She has rocketed to fame on YY, a YouTube-like livestreaming platform that, instead of relying on advertising, allows viewers and patrons to make online payments directly to content producers. (Yes, there are plenty of camgirls in the West, but YY and its peers have achieved a mainstream presence in China that the fractured networks of American sites—with their often expressly sexual content—lack.) YY held out the promise of American Idol–like meritocratic fame for unknowns singing their hearts out, but over time it became captive to an invisible network of talent agencies and “popularity” contests determined by vote buying, as Wu reveals.

For online hosts who play the game successfully, the financial stakes are considerable. At her peak, Shen Man earns $40,000 a month in digital gifts and payments. Big Li, a rough-hewn comedian who rallies China’s diaosi, or self-proclaimed “losers,” earns about $60,000 a month. By comparison, most amateur hosts earn a pittance. And, as with the bottom rungs of Hollywood, the lives of starlets are precarious: Even the ones who do break out often crash and burn, rapidly surpassed by fresher faces. For example, as Wu’s documentary shows, once Shen Man’s offline entanglements are publicly revealed, her fan base and patronage network wither.

The only consistently lucrative and stable positions in the livestreaming industry are those of the talent agencies, which promote favored hosts, and those working for the platforms, which take cuts of up to 60 percent of a performer’s income. With more than 100 million active users (the equivalent of nearly one-third of the entire U.S. population), the Guangzhou-based YY has a market cap of $6.2 billion. Its stock price on Nasdaq doubled over the past year. And it’s just one of dozens of livestreaming platforms in China, which together command the attention of 200 million of the country’s 750 million internet users.

What makes The People’s Republic of Desire especially engrossing is Wu’s combination of empathy for individual subjects, much like a critical older brother, and his sharp ability to lay bare how the system works. He finds the people who typically never appear on camera, but whose money and favoritism sway what everyone else sees. For instance, the film features Songge, a thuggish patron who says he can’t talk about his real-world business, except that he’s “a profiteer.” He’s lavished more than $2 million on online gifts and votes on YY and freely admits that he thrives on attention from online hostesses and their fans. At one point, Shen Man coos in a public chat room: “Oh my god, Songge! Songge’s gifts are giving me hot flashes.”

Shen Man’s rise and fall may recall a Chinese Britney Spears, but Wu’s film endows a potentially frivolous episode with deep pathos. Her online fame has real-world consequences. Wu interviews the family members who have become dependent upon her unlikely income and who worry about her fading allure. Her father has quit his own business, and he and his new wife have moved in with Shen Man, though they don’t understand how she makes money or what kind of pressure his dependence puts on her. “People my age don’t understand computers. This society is moving too fast,” he says, lounging in striped pajamas. “Though we live together now, we don’t talk much.”

Fascinatingly, the film also takes us into the worlds of a few of the millions of off-screen fans. Livestreaming’s vast appeal in China may seem inscrutable to Western audiences because, often, what you find on the end of the camera isn’t especially remarkable. Pretty women singing. People in the countryside slurping noodles. But Wu fans out across China in search of devotees of these unexpected online icons—and finds that there is a unifying factor among these die-hard fans. It’s isolation.

Yong, a thin 18-year-old migrant worker with floppy hair and sad eyes, works as a waiter in a massage parlor and later packing motorcycle parts in a factory in Guangzhou. His monthly wages, about $400, are enough to hang on, but not to plan a stable future. “I feel very lonely. Sometimes I really want to find someone to have a heart-to-heart, but it’s very difficult. It rarely happens,” he reflects, sitting on a metal-framed bunk bed inside a worker dormitory. “Watching Big Li feels different. In my heart, he’s my idol.”

Big Li, a 25-year-old former migrant laborer turned celebrity host on YY, is a pudgy comedian with a more rough-hewn appeal than Shen Man. He succeeds, in part, by holding out the vague promise that one day even self-proclaimed “losers,” or diaosi, may luck into fortune themselves—in spite of China’s steeply declining social mobility. But Big Li isn’t a happy-ending fairy tale either. While he draws a large fan base of young men, he’s less adept at cultivating wealthy patrons and talent-agency connections. When he loses an important online contest, we watch his mood swing between anger and depression. His wife endures his tantrums for months, and then they separate. She takes their toddler son with her.

Even the affluent patrons who spend lavish fortunes online don’t seem especially happy in Wu’s depiction. One wealthy tuhao, or nouveau riche patron, wearing pearls and a fur coat, says she’s spent $500,000 on online gifts on YY. “I need to find something to do besides trading stocks,” she says, pausing to stroke her fat tabby cat. “My social circle is too small.”

Amid the isolation born of fast economic and societal change in China—and in an era in which U.S. social media companies are coming under increasing public scrutiny for their unintended impacts—YY’s CEO Chen Zhou is disarmingly frank about what his product does. Or rather, what it doesn’t do. He doesn’t pretend YY aims to “bring the world closer together,” optimize for “meaningful social interactions” or “time well spent,” or make the world a better place.

“I don’t think this virtual world is that much different from real life. Only that this platform helps release some energy that is otherwise suppressed,” Zhou says as he sits in his sparingly decorated Guangzhou office. He’s wearing a modest windbreaker over a striped shirt; unlike YY’s online celebrities, he doesn’t need to dress to impress. As for the platform’s most ardent users, he says, “Most of them live in the virtual world. They may lack friends in real life.”