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China cracks down on influencers, demanding livestreamers prove they’re qualified to promote certain products

June 23, 2022, 10:08 AM UTC

Being an influencer just became a little more professional in China.

On Tuesday, China’s State Administration of Radio and Television and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, set down a new “code of conduct” for the country’s growing population of livestreamers, mandating that any influencer producing content that requires specialist knowledge—such as offering medicinal, financial, or legal advice—be qualified to do so.

Livestreaming platforms are now responsible for reviewing a streamer’s expertise and approving their content before broadcast. Influencers that violate the code of conduct could also be banned from livestreaming permanently, as Beijing plans to name and shame wayward influencers by publishing a regular blacklist of hosts whom regulators expect broadcasters to boycott.

The rules requiring expert influencers to prove their credentials are just part of Beijing’s push to impose a tighter grip on online content.

Tuesday’s code of conduct also dictates that influencers can’t denigrate the Communist Party or traditional Chinese culture, nor can they threaten national security. Influencers can’t show “excessive” horror or be too sexually provocative, nor can they flaunt their wealth. Livestreamers can’t promote smoking or drinking, discuss scandals or gossip, or engage in activities that exaggerate food waste.

The strict guidelines might crimp sales at China’s e-commerce giants that have embraced livestreaming as a lucrative revenue stream. According to consulting firm McKinsey, 10% of China’s e-commerce revenue now comes from livestreams, and a good livestreamer can drive billions in sales.

During China’s annual Singles’ Day online sales event last November, Chinese livestreamer and beauty influencer Austin Li Jiaqi—colloquially known as China’s “Lipstick King”—sold $1.9 billion worth of goods and attracted 250 million viewers in 12 hours during a livestream on Taobao Live, Alibaba’s e-commerce livestream channel.

But relying on personality-driven livestream sales comes with risks, too. One of the country’s top livestreamers, Huang Wei—also known as Viya—was fined $210 million last December for tax evasion. (Viya has not been seen in public since, notes Bloomberg.) The large fine sent shares of Chinese livestreaming providers, like Bilibili, plunging by as much as 11%. 

Livestreamers can also easily fall foul of China’s online censors. Earlier this month, censors shut down a livestream from the Lipstick King after the host held up an ice cream cake that looked similar to a tank. The livestream took place one day before the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre—a time of heightened censorship in China, as officials try to quash any reference to the event. Li has not livestreamed since.

To avoid regulatory scrutiny, some e-commerce outlets are employing virtual avatars as livestreaming hosts instead of humans, because avatars have the advantage of being controlled completely. But even there, livestream sites like Bilibili or Taobao Live might run into trouble. Tuesday’s new rules also bar livestreamers from impersonating party or state leaders by using “deepfake” technology.

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