In early August, the Beijing municipal government laid out a four-year action plan, a way that authorities in China often communicate their priorities, giving a not-so-subtle nudge to businesses about the direction they should head in. The new plan began, like many others, with standard language: in order to “thoroughly implement” the instructions of President Xi Jinping and “the strategic deployment” of the 14th Five-Year Plan for Digital Economy Development, the government would promote growth in key areas of the tech sector. But that’s where this plan was different: this one aims to boost investment in digital humans.

In the plan, the Beijing government does not outright define what counts as a digital human, but analysts who study Chinese tech policy say the term covers anything from player-controlled avatars in games like Roblox or metaverse platforms like Baidu’s Xirang to virtual influencers and digital pop stars like Ayayi and Luo Tianyi. The new action plan, called the Beijing Action Plan for Promoting the Innovation and Development of the Digital Human Industry, is the first of its kind, in which the government lays out the goals and prospects for all things online — and in the metaverse — that perform a human-like function.

More broadly, analysts say the significance of the digital human plan is that it exists at all. Beijing’s acknowledgment of the industry and the impact it might have in the future shows that China is looking ahead to set standards in a sector that few other governments have yet to acknowledge, let alone come up with a concrete plan for growth. “Other countries like the U.S. might have overarching policies or agendas for the tech sector in general,” said Hanyu Liu, who analyzes China’s metaverse and gaming industries at Daxue Consulting in Shanghai. “But in China, [the government] has delved deep into the industry itself.”

The plan envisions huge growth in the next few years, projecting that by 2025, revenue will hit $7.3 billion in the capital city alone — and expecting that virtual humans will assist with online banking, shopping, and travel services within the next few years.

It’s not as far-fetched as it might sound: Digital humans in various forms have already seen widespread popularity in China. Tech giant Alibaba even launched its own virtual influencer for the 2022 Olympic Games, modeled to be an “outspoken young woman passionate about sports.” Games and metaverse platforms encourage players to spend money to customize the look of their avatar, effectively buying virtual clothes for their digital persona. As VTubers – or virtual YouTubers – and virtual influencers have emerged as a new form of celebrity, marketing agencies and entertainment companies have invested in developing digital personalities as controllable alternatives to real stars. But even these virtual stars are powered by the talents of real people who lend their voices and movements to bring them to life.

The virtual idol industry has been dogged by reports of low pay and grueling working conditions, but Beijing’s action plan focuses instead on two cornerstone themes of Chinese tech policy: personal information security and promoting the “healthy and orderly development of society,” which invariably involves censorship. “As we can see from the plan, [the government] has really concrete ideas on how to lead this industry to the point where they want it to be,” said Liu. “They’re trying to centralize as well as isolate the Chinese metaverse or digital ecosystem from that abroad.”

The plan also signals that Beijing will take a more active role in handling the personal data generated by these platforms. Some of the directives outlined in the plan require any user-facing aspect of the digital human industry to be subject to rules that protect information about and generated by platform users, while also treating user data as a resource to be traded on the country’s new data exchanges. 

As is the case on almost all user-facing tech platforms in China today, Liu noted, any users of metaverse or gaming platforms that could be considered part of the digital human industry will likely be required to tie their online personas to their real-life identification documents. On one hand, said Liu, it’s a deterrent against scams, misinformation, and other harmful actions users could perpetrate against each other – especially valuable on platforms where interactions take place in real time. On the other, it means any data the platform collects by anyone playing or interacting with a digital human are all tied to users’ real life identity. 

The plan follows a government crackdown on the tech sector, in which Beijing has pushed tech giants away from the consumer-facing industries that made them, like gaming and online education, toward industries that reinforce the country’s technological self-sufficiency, like semiconductors and artificial intelligence. Qiheng Chen, who has analyzed China’s tech policies for Stanford’s DigiChina project, told Rest of World the government is using growing interest in the digital human industry as a rallying point to attract talent and investment in related technologies. “The plan is an effort to create a clustering of adjacent industries such as virtual reality, machine learning and deep learning, computer graphics, human-computer interaction, and all the underlying design software involved,” said Chen.

Experts as well as workers employed in the digital humans industry agree that government interest in growing the sector will trigger an influx of cash. But it could also mean that more money flows into the high-tech industries that make digital humans possible, rather than companies whose bread and butter is virtual idols. “The application of digital humans for branding, e-commerce, and marketing attracts more attention from different kinds of companies that don’t make their money [only] off of digital humans,” Mengyu Peng, director of branding at virtual avatar service company SuperACG, told Rest of World. “Digital humans are just a tool for them.”