One of China’s most popular livestreamers quietly resurfaced online Tuesday night, after a three-month absence linked to his appearance with a cake shaped like a tank, in what many believed was an oblique reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre.
On Tuesday night, Li Jiaqi reappeared on Alibaba’s Taobao Live, a live-streaming platform for the e-commerce giant.
His show immediately attracted thousands of viewers within the first few minutes, despite no prior notices on his social media accounts. By the end of the two-hour show, 63 million viewers had watched his live-stream, higher than most of his previous shows. But still lower than the traffic during major shopping festivals.
The 30-year-old livestreamer, also called Austin Li, was one of China’s biggest internet celebrities, with 64 million followers on Alibaba’s Taobao. He once sold 15,000 lipsticks within five minutes in a sales competition against Alibaba founder Jack Ma, winning himself the nickname “China’s lipstick king.”
But the superstar salesman had gone silent since early June after his popular show was abruptly cut off on the eve of this year’s anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Just before the abrupt ending, Li had shown his audience a multi-layered ice cream treat decorated with Oreos and wafers. It resembled a tank.
Analysts said Li was almost certainly censored by the government, as the tank shape is a sensitive symbol in China, associated by many with the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. Although Li might have just made an “inadvertent” mistake, the Tiananmen crackdown is a clear taboo and the timing is “fatal,” according to Rongbin Han, an associate professor at the University of Georgia.
During Tuesday’s show, Li didn’t explain why he had disappeared or where he had gone in the past three months.
He focused only on introducing the goods, including cosmetics, skincare products, and fashion apparel, which were quickly snapped up by passionate fans. One of the top-selling items was a face cream, which sold more than 50,000 units with a total sales of 12.3 million yuan ($1.75 million).
“Finally you are here!” some fans said in bullet comments scrolling across the screen. “Welcome back!”
The fans were so avid that they bought out many of the goods more quickly than expected, forcing Li to end the show earlier than usual. His previous live-streams usually last more than three hours.
“Today, the goods have been prepared in a hurry, and many girls couldn’t grab it,” Li said near the end of the live-stream, adding that he felt sorry for causing a bad shopping experience because there were not enough goods.
“How about we end it for now, and then we will continue to broadcast when we have enough goods,” he said. “See you tomorrow, girls.”
Li’s return has quickly become a hot topic on social media, with many Weibo users hailing the live-streaming star in a wild welcome.
“I burst into tears when seeing him again on screen!” one said. “I’ve waited for so long!”
“I’m ready to shop shop shop!” another user said.
Li was not the only live-streaming star who vanished in recent months.
Viya, who was — until recently — known as the “live-streaming queen,” has not appeared online since December, when authorities slapped a record $210 million fine on her for tax evasion. The 36-year-old had millions of followers on China’s major social media and shopping platforms — including Weibo, Taobao and TikTok’s China version Douyin — but her accounts were removed in December.
The sudden rise and fall of China’s most famous influencers underscores the vulnerability of those who depend on the internet for their livelihood in the world’s second-largest economy.
In June, just two weeks after Li disappeared, Beijing intensified its crackdown on the the country’s booming livestreaming industry. Regulators released new rules banning 31 “misbehaviors” by livestreaming hosts, and requiring them to “uphold correct political values and social values.”
But the strict crackdown on the ballooning live-streaming industry might not be a good news for China’s economy.
Policymakers now face mounting challenges to keep growth and jobs steady, as the country contends with the impact of Bejing’s adherence to a rigid zero-Covid policy, a bruising regulatory crackdown on the private sector, and a real estate crisis that is causing rising bad debts at banks and growing social protests.