While other Shanghai residents are battling prolonged isolation and food shortages, Taiwanese actor Will Liu is having the biggest moment of his career. It took a lockdown in China’s biggest city for the 49-year-old singer and actor, previously known as “Jay Chou’s close friend,” to finally find fame for himself. Liu and his wife Vivi Wang catapulted to internet stardom from their apartment in Shanghai by livestreaming workout routines on Douyin, China’s domestic version of TikTok. The simple but tiring movements went viral and gained him some 60 million followers in just one month.
Liu’s rise in merely a few weeks demonstrated the star-making power of China’s short-video industry, especially at a time when millions have been stuck at home for weeks on end. China’s zero-Covid lockdowns have hit offline retailers hard, and tightening censorship has dimmed the profitability of the traditional entertainment industry. The vlogging and livestreaming economy is a rare bright spot that’s still enjoying significant growth during the pandemic. Those who have attained a new life as digital stars include not only native vloggers but also last-generation pop stars, entrepreneurs, and Olympians who are trying to make money out of their often-outdated fame.
As film, TV, and streaming programs are tightly controlled by the state or entertainment companies, the short-video apps have provided a space where anyone can try their luck at becoming rich and famous. “Everyone wants to win the lottery,” said Chunmeizi Su, a researcher at University of Sydney who studies the short-video industry in China. “If this platform could give me a second career or give me a boost in my original career, why don’t I try that?”
Liu and his wife are now among China’s most valuable influencers, with viewership even dwarfing those of the country’s top e-commerce livestreamer, lipstick king Austin Li. While Li, also based in Shanghai, has seen his business take a hit due to supply disruptions caused by zero-Covid restrictions, lockdowns have been the perfect opportunity for digital trainers to shine. Liu’s signature movement is to keep kicking his legs upward to a Jay Chou beat. The women who follow the workouts every night, hoping to lose weight, call themselves “Will Liu girls.”
The playbook is straightforward: build a strong digital personality, attract a significant number of followers, and, eventually, cash in through shopping-channel-style livestreams, in-video ad placements, paid online courses, or simply tips from fans. Cecilia Cheung, a 41-year-old Hong Kong star whose acting career peaked in the 2000s, peddled skin cream, tissue paper, and salt on Douyin and hit nearly $10 million in sales during her first livestream show. Swimmer Sun Yang, banned from competing, due to a doping scandal, has started livestreaming from a duty-free store. Yu Minhong, the once-high-flying founder of top English-language tutoring company New Oriental, also became a livestreamer after his firm lost more than 80% of its market value because of Beijing’s private tutoring ban. The GRE and physics teachers he employs are now selling groceries like beef, durians, and crayfish.
While the barrier to entry is low, the odds of becoming a phenomenal influencer like Liu are almost as slim as winning a lottery. On Douyin, for example, more than one million livestreamers, from restaurateurs to flight attendants to business tycoons, compete for the attention of some 780 million online shoppers. For those who are used to acting in blockbusters or competing in international sports events, entertaining the mobile audience requires a completely different skill set. York Lee, a Beijing-based marketing specialist who represents retired athletes, said livestreaming salespeople are expected to keep talking on camera for four hours or longer, but most sports stars-turned-hosts can last only an hour. Many also lack the confidence and the expertise in product selection. “Not everyone can become an e-commerce livestreamer,” Lee told Rest of World. “Athletes might have no problem talking about basketball shoes, but if you ask them to sell a smartphone [that is] out of their knowledge zone, it could be a big challenge.”
Despite a growing number of older consumers, most buyers on short-video platforms are currently under 40, according to market research firm QuestMobile. Mint Xu, a marketing specialist working for a Korean cosmetic brand in Hangzhou, said that although pop stars have asked for big commission fees for including products in their livestreams, they often fail to deliver sales numbers as high as grassroots influencers, who appeared more relatable and trustworthy to the young buyers. “These celebrities only work on people of my parents’ generation,” Xu said. “They just have an outdated vibe.”
Besides fighting for consumers’ attention, the entire industry also needs to compete for the government’s blessing. Last year, several top livestreamers were banned for alleged tax evasion. In April, China’s cyber watchdog pledged strict controls over influencer accounts and the agencies behind them, in order to clean up the “chaos” in the short-video and livestreaming sector, such as flaunting one’s wealth or scamming consumers with fake personalities. With more regulations to come, the buzzword in the short-video industry is now “positive energy” — an umbrella term that covers the Communist Party’s official values, such as patriotism, hard work, and filial piety. “The party line is the bottom line,” said Su at the University of Sydney. “For everyone who wants to join the short-video industry, you have to be aware of the party line, so that you don’t cross the bottom line.”
Like other Taiwanese celebrities who are tapping into the massive mainland market, Liu stays silent on politics. When other Shanghai residents were protesting the two-month-long lockdown online, Liu and Wang always looked upbeat. The couple previously courted controversy in Taiwan when they marched against same-sex marriage (which was later legalized), but it was not an issue in China, where discussions about gay rights are often censored. In a recent interview, Liu’s agent said that having three children was a solid starting point for the couple’s career as influencers, because it matched Beijing’s three-child policy.
Fans are now speculating how Liu is going to turn his fame into cash. On shopping site Taobao, vendors have already labeled their water bottles, yoga mats, and socks as “same as Liu’s.” The first obvious product placement in Liu’s workouts were the Fila shirts and shoes he and his wife were wearing this month. And at the end of a recent workout, they stopped to promote soy milk. As the popular saying goes in China, “The end of the universe is selling stuff on livestream.”