The Shining Promise and Dashed Dreams of China’s Live Shopping Craze

The yurt stood in the middle of a sweeping northern Chinese grassland, beneath a cloudless sky. A reedy folk tune played. Nearby, sheep grazed.

Suddenly the livestream, which had been showing the idyllic vista, cut to a man in his 30s, wearing a Mongolian hat with a pointed golden spire. “Welcome, brothers and sisters!” he announced from his perch atop a platform bed. “How’s the signal? I set up Wi-Fi in my yurt.” He held up a bag of beef jerky, branded with a cartoon image of his face. “If it’s your first time here, I’m Taiping, and I make beef jerky.”

It was another day at work for Taiping, a Chinese livestreaming salesman. Illuminated by carefully arranged studio lights, speaking into two iPhones propped up on a table, Taiping began wooing the thousands of viewers who tapped into his channel. He dangled unwrapped jerky before the camera, describing traditional Mongolian air-drying techniques. He shredded it with his fingers to show its tenderness.

Viewers, by typing comments, sent real-time questions that bubbled from the bottom of the video feed, about how spicy it was or which flavor was best. (Taiping, who read each comment aloud, suggested buying half original, half cumin.) Some longtime fans sent animated pink hearts or thumbs-up symbols, while others simply wanted to say hello. “I missed you, too,” Taiping, who like many ethnic Mongolians uses only one name, replied to one viewer.

By the end of the four-hour session, during which he barely paused to drink water, he had received more than 650 orders, totaling $15,000.

Taiping is one of countless Chinese riding the explosive wave of influencer culture and live online videos in the country to transform the way people buy and sell. Last year alone, an estimated $500 billion in goods were sold via livestream on apps like Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, or Kuaishou, another short video platform — an eightfold increase since 2019.

Star streamers have become celebrities. The most famous, including Li Jiaqi — whose prowess at trying on and pitching makeup products earned him the nickname “lipstick king” — are able to attract tens of millions of viewers per session. Kim Kardashian once appeared with another top Chinese streamer, Viya, to promote her perfume in China, selling 15,000 bottles within minutes.

The format emerged in China several years ago, then became ubiquitous during the coronavirus pandemic. Now nearly half of China’s one billion internet users have tried it, even as it remains largely unfamiliar in the West. To Americans, it may be reminiscent of television shopping — but interactive and, as a result, far more compelling.

The most successful streams are as much entertainment as they are sales pitches. Hosts hawk everything from makeup to microwaves, in an energetic patter that marries the urgency of an auctioneer with the intimacy of an old friend. They tell jokes and personal anecdotes to hold viewers’ attention. They call individual fans by name to earn their trust. They promise exclusive deals to win their dollars.

For viewers, the appeal is not only convenience, but also the feeling of being catered to. They can ask a host modeling clothing to show it from a different angle, or inquire how long a snack will keep. They place orders in the stream, never interrupting their favorite host’s spiel.

Restaurants, beauty salons, and even car dealerships and property developers now court customers in real time. Global brands from Ikea to Louis Vuitton have paid China’s influencers to stream their products. But much of the appeal of this line of business is that anyone can do it: Farmers, factory workers and retirees have joined the frenzy.

Taiping, a former herdsman, now runs his own jerky factory and has more than one million followers. He recently starred in a Kuaishou ad campaign splashed across subway stations in Beijing.

Yet with the market’s breakneck growth has come new challenges. Fierce competition has driven many streamers away. A broader economic slowdown has fueled layoffs at the companies behind the streaming platforms.

And the Chinese government, worried that the business was growing too big, too fast, has issued a flood of ever-evolving regulations. Celebrity hosts have abruptly disappeared from view.

The story of livestreaming e-commerce, then, is not only about the rise of a new form of shopping. It is a window into the opportunities and perils of doing business in today’s China, as Beijing seeks greater control of private enterprise.

“The Chinese state is so caught up in this economy; it has a dual goal of boosting development, which is a huge imperative for them, and maintaining stability,” said Lin Zhang, a media studies professor at the University of New Hampshire who has studied Chinese e-commerce. “Sometimes, this tension is impossible for them to resolve.”

A High-Tech New Opportunity

Growing up, Taiping could hardly have imagined making a fortune by any means, let alone by talking into his phone. Born in the plains of Inner Mongolia, a region in northern China where temperatures can plummet to minus 20 degrees, he left school after fifth grade, working as a herdsman, security guard and truck driver. He hardly spoke Mandarin, China’s dominant language, as his schoolteachers had taught mostly in Mongolian.

In 2015, noticing that his town’s scenic grasslands were attracting tourists, Taiping, then 30 years old, decided to borrow $15,000 to make and sell his own beef jerky. But weeks later, the tourist season ended.

Then a friend introduced him to Kuaishou.

The app, pronounced kwai-show, started as China’s first short video platform, a place where users shared clips of themselves dancing, cooking or harvesting crops. Taiping quickly saw business potential: He began posting prerecorded videos about his jerky, shipping it to people who messaged him to buy.

Soon, a different opportunity arose. Kuaishou itself had also been looking for ways to make money, and around the time Taiping joined, it introduced livestreaming. At first, streamers earned money purely by performing, trying to attract fans who could send virtual tips; the platform took a cut. But before long, some streamers began staging outlandish stunts to lure viewers, like eating light bulbs, or discussing topics considered taboo, like teenage pregnancy.

Chinese officials, alarmed by what they called “vulgar” content, ordered the company to clean up. Kuaishou scrambled for a new direction — and, in 2018, landed on live sales. By encouraging streamers to sell products, it could still capitalize on the popularity of livestreaming, but in a more predictable context.

One day, Taiping received a phone call from a Kuaishou representative, who said the company was looking to support rural entrepreneurs. It wanted to help Taiping expand through livestreaming.

Taiping hesitated. “My Mandarin wasn’t good,” he recalled. “I was nervous. I didn’t know how to interact with people.”

But the company offered to fly him to Beijing for training; he had never been on a plane, so he agreed. He received a crash course in public speaking, employee management and trademark registration. Kuaishou, eager to advertise its wholesome new direction, promoted his journey in the media.

Over time, Taiping — who at first had kept a Mandarin dictionary just offscreen — became confident and unflappable. He heartily gnawed his jerky on camera. He invited fans, whom he called “old friends,” to visit, promising a personal grasslands tour. When he occasionally still stumbled over a word, he poked fun at his limited education.

In 2018, he sold $650,000 worth of jerky — earning 30 times more that year than two years earlier.

Then the pandemic hit, turbocharging online shopping. The value of Kuaishou’s e-commerce sales grew six times in 2020 over the prior year, according to company statistics, mirroring booms at Douyin and Taobao Live, the other major live shopping platform. In 2021, Kuaishou went public for $5.4 billion, the world’s biggest technology initial public offering since Uber.

Taiping’s business soared, too. He now has 10 customer-service employees who help him respond to fans while he talks. He still sometimes streams from his grassland yurt but also had a yurt backdrop built above his brick-and-mortar store. Onscreen, he wears traditional clothing — customers like the feeling of authenticity, he said — but off duty, favors Fila athletic suits.

“Before, how would I know what a trademark was?” he said. “Now I have three.”

Chasing an Elusive Dream

More than 1,000 miles south of Taiping’s grassland empire, the city of Yiwu is a living showcase for how pervasive livestreaming sales have become.

The city, a manufacturing hub south of Shanghai, claims China’s first college for livestreaming e-commerce, as well as multiple training academies that offer days- or weeklong courses. Its office towers house dozens of companies dedicated to managing streamers. The city government, to woo high-earning influencers, has promised prime school placement for their children. Officials built a red archway above a street, trumpeting in neon letters: “Social Media and E-Commerce Capital.”‌

Every day, Yiwu draws aspiring streamers like Wang Tiebiao, 55, who is from a small city in eastern Shandong Province about 700 miles away. Mr. Wang had been delivering cargo and selling cheap stainless steel cookware, barely covering inventory costs. Then he saw a Douyin video recruiting streamers to sell home goods for a factory in Yiwu, and promising free training.

“If you open a physical business, you have to pay rent, buy goods, invest so much,” Mr. Wang said in February, days after getting to the city. “For this, you just need yourself and a phone.”

But the rapid expansion of the field, which has created more opportunities for anybody to jump in, has also made it more difficult to hang on. If Taiping embodied livestreaming’s potential for riches, Yiwu is closer to most people’s reality.

Under Mr. Wang’s deal with the factory, he could choose any of its goods to promote on his personal Douyin account. He would receive a commission on any sales. He had no income otherwise.

To make a sale, however, he had to stand out against legions of other streamers — not only the fellow newbies working for the same factory, but also the smooth-talking veterans trained and backed by production companies. From his free training, he learned only a few catchphrases and basic technical skills.

For several days, Mr. Wang wandered around the factory’s showroom, assessing what among the rows of plastic bowls and spatulas he could pitch well. One morning, fixing his camera on a decorative hourglass shaped like interlocking gemstones, he tested the techniques he had learned for sweet-talking viewers.

“Fans are the heavens and earth, so hit that follow button,” he said. His glasses and measured delivery gave him a soothing, professorial air, and he avoided extended silences. Still, his viewers stayed in the single digits.

“There’s some metaphysics, or luck, or secrets that we don’t know,” Mr. Wang said.

Some secrets may be just a matter of money. Many streamers now complain that the apps promote only accounts that pay for traffic. Big agencies splurge on advertising.

Within days of arriving in Yiwu, several of Mr. Wang’s fellow trainees had pivoted to looking for more traditional work. Still, Mr. Wang, who had amassed about 1,000 followers, planned to keep trying.

“If I were just another cog in a factory, I could make a few thousand dollars, but I don’t want that,” he said. “Since we all have to work anyway, I’d rather work for something that has a chance of success.”

The State Tries to Clean Up — And Control

But that success can vanish as quickly as it appears.

First to disappear was Viya, whose real name is Huang Wei, the livestreaming star who had broadcast with Ms. Kardashian. One day in December 2021, all of her social media accounts were deleted.

Several months later, Li Jiaqi, the lipstick king, was abruptly cut off midstream. He posted on social media that he was fixing a technical glitch — then went silent.

Both had run afoul of the other major force reshaping the livestreaming market: government scrutiny.

Growth was so quick that at first few rules existed to govern it, and soon complaints of misconduct piled up. Brands accused influencers of faking viewership numbers to demand higher commissions. Shoppers reported receiving counterfeit goods from streamers who had seemed trustworthy. Beijing had little way of knowing just how much streamers were earning.

And as audiences grew, so did the potential for livestreams to promote ideas beyond what to buy — in a format that was, by definition, unpredictable, posing political concerns for a government fixated on control.

Starting in late 2020, regulators began playing catch-up, issuing increasingly detailed restrictions on what streamers could say and do — part of a broader crackdown on the tech sector, which Beijing believed had grown too influential.

Many of the regulations aim to protect consumers. Unproven claims that products can promote weight loss or improve feng shui are forbidden. Platforms often ban the use of superlatives, like “cheapest” or “best.” The rules are enforced through a mix of human censors and artificial intelligence; penalties range from 10-minute suspensions to permanent bans.

Viya’s offense was evading more than $100 million in taxes, according to the authorities. They fined her $210 million, then apparently erased her from the internet. More than a year later, she has not resurfaced.

But the government also wants live-streamers to abide by its moral and political standards. Platforms have banned smoking and low necklines. A state-issued code of conduct, issued in June, ordered hosts not to disparage the Chinese Communist Party, and to “establish a correct world outlook.”

“To be a live-streamer, you must have reverence,” a commentary in People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, said. “You absolutely must not cross the bottom line for the sake of traffic, or test the law for the sake of money.”

As the rules proliferated, they risked eroding the central appeal of live-streamed shopping: the entertaining, carnivalesque atmosphere. Mr. Li, the star streamer, had drawn an ardent following with his sassy, at-times off-color jokes, poking fun at other celebrities. But as regulations emerged, he said, he restrained his style. In an interview with a Chinese news outlet in 2021, he acknowledged that some fans thought he had become boring; sometimes, he said, he agreed.

But Mr. Li could not avoid all risks. In the livestream last year where he was cut off midstream, he pitched his viewers on a tank-shaped ice cream cake — one day before the anniversary of the Chinese military’s June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators. There is no indication that Mr. Li intended to deliver a politically charged message. The topic is heavily censored in China and many younger people do not know about it. Still, he vanished for three months.

The constantly evolving landscape has also weighed on smaller-time streamers, like Taiping.

Viewers frequently ask him to speak in Mongolian, and he used to readily comply. But then the streaming platforms started issuing automated warnings for speaking in languages other than Mandarin. (The government has made Mandarin usage a key part of assimilationist policies; other languages may also be harder for censors to understand.)

Taiping now at most says hello in Mongolian. “I won’t talk at random,” he said. “I’ve seen what happened to others, and I warn myself.”

In recent months, the pace of new regulations has slowed, as the government has pledged to rejuvenate the economy, including by supporting tech companies. Government reports have called livestreaming e-commerce an important channel for boosting consumption.

Tech companies still see room for expansion. Douyin last year reported 124 percent annual growth in livestreaming sales.

In the United States, YouTube and Amazon have poured money into it. But it has struggled to catch on. Americans have returned to in-person shopping after the pandemic, and unlike in China, Western social media apps don’t have as many built-in payment features. Facebook and Instagram recently abandoned live shopping.

Even in China, the future of the business is far from certain.

Taiping, despite his success, doesn’t see himself streaming forever. Spending hours every day performing for the camera is exhausting; once the stream turns off, he often doesn’t want to talk.

He dreams of moving to a big city, becoming a more traditional businessman.

Once, he imagined passing his account to his preteen daughter, but no longer. “By then, who knows if e-commerce will still be around?” he said. “There will probably be something new.”

Li You, Joy Dong and Liu Yi contributed research.

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