It seems like something straight out of an episode of Black Mirror.
A young Chinese woman sits in front of a video camera attached to her computer. After introducing herself and saying hello to her viewers, she begins to sing, her long eyelashes, brightly-painted lips, and demure smile the clear focus. Then, the digital gifts start pouring in. Wealthy patrons donate money, jewelry, and makeup via the streaming platform, while her poorer, but no less dedicated, fans offer up compliments and proclamations of love. Her arresting performance ultimately earns her several thousand dollars from admirers in a matter of minutes, with the whole thing taking place on a purely virtual stage. This isn’t a scene from a dystopian drama, however—just another day in the life of a successful Chinese livestreamer.
The booming livestreaming economy in China (that’s created thousands of fledgling social media stars like the woman in the anecdote above), is the focus of the new documentary People’s Republic of Desire, in theaters Nov. 30. And from the beginning, the documentary makes it easy to understand the appeal of livestreaming on social media in China. Popular platforms, such as the ubiquitous YY, are easy to use and democratic—nearly anyone, regardless of social standing, gender, or income, can livestream themselves doing just about anything. But what started as a mere social media fad has quickly morphed into a lucrative microeconomy featuring massive exchanges of capital and ostentatious displays of wealth, the film reveals.
Making a lucrative career from livestreaming is, unsurprisingly, more difficult than it looks. Livestreamers, referred to as “hosts” or “hostesses” within the livestreaming community, don’t need to be particularly talented, a host manager explains early in the doc. They just need to have loyal, dedicated fans who eventually become generous patrons, donating money and gifts to the host or hostess of their choice.
“Every patron begins as an ordinary fan,” a host manager named Dabao explains to an eager group of young women she’s recently taken under her wing. “Then he may start to buy you gifts and later patronize you exclusively. Only you can make that happen.”
The livestreaming world in China is dizzying, and the documentary does well to focus on only up-and-coming livestreamers: Big Li, an abrasive yet endearing host who quickly gained followers for his comedic talk shows, and Shen Man, a striking young woman who formerly worked as a nurse before captivating audiences with her singing and flirty banter. Shen Man’s livestreamed performances, during which she sings, flirts with her audience, and engages them in conversation, earn her about $40,000 a month. Comments during her performances range from the idolizing (“My goddess!”) to the lewd (“How big are your breasts?” “Take off your clothes!”). Yet Shen Man takes them in stride—it’s all in a day’s work as a popular hostess.
The platform used by many of the hosts and hostesses in the documentary is called YY, and it functions as a YouTube/Instagram Live/MySpace hybrid. Hosts or hostesses livestream themselves singing or talking, while comments posted by users watching appear in real time. Users can also digitally donate sums of money or lavish gifts, with the most generous getting a special call-out from the host or hostess in question. These wealthy users are part of a hierarchy of fans, with the lowest being the diaosis, or lower-income users. A diaosi typically can’t afford to donate much, if anything, to the host or hostess of their choice, and instead limit themselves to commenting, and watching wealthier patrons shell out huge sums of money.
As People’s Republic so deftly explains, the livestreaming trend in China straddles the line between democratic art form and capitalism at its most voracious; hosts or hostesses can experience a surge of social mobility that wouldn’t be ordinarily possible. A diaosi fan of Big Li admits that “in real life, things may be beyond your reach. But online, they are all possible.” Indeed, most hosts or hostesses have humble origins: for instance, Shen Man was a nurse struggling to take care of her bankrupt father before she made it big as a livestreamer.
But corporations have sensed the potential profits of livestreaming, and are quickly transforming it from easily accessible digital pastime to a monstrous exchange of capital. Rich patrons, the documentary explains, love to show off their wealth to the diaosis by gifting hosts with money or jewelry. These same patrons often form “agencies,” such as the one where Dabao works, to train, sponsor, and promote hosts on platforms like YY. And during YY’s annual host competition, it’s these agencies who purchase the most “votes,” thereby ensuring their favorites receive accolades.
If it all seems a bit excessive, that’s sort of the point. “Money dictates everything on YY,” a livestreamer says, and he’s not wrong. Despite their number of fans, most hosts rely on wealthy patrons to ensure their success. As Shen Man so baldly explains, “People worship you if you’re rich. Nobody gives a damn if you are poor.”
The documentary concludes with the downfall, so to speak, of the previously beloved Big Li and Shen Man. After their 15 minutes of fame gave way to a waning fan base, loss of patrons, and lackluster performances, both decide to take a break from the livestreaming game. Shen Man, especially, was forced to deal with a particularly vitriolic double standard. Her livestreams, while always demure, were primarily watched by men with, let’s just say, unsavory intentions. But when it came to light that Shen Man had engaged in relationships with a few of her wealthier patrons, she was quickly decried as a “whoring slut” and lost hundreds of followers, not to mention a substantial portion of her income.
As Shen Man’s demise suggests, hosts and hostesses primarily cater to the fantasies of rich and poor alike. At a time when people are increasingly isolated by their dedication to their phones and social media, platforms like YY present an intriguing solution: Why not come together in the virtual world, if you’re unable to do so in the real one? It’s part of what makes YY so successful, the documentary explains, and the main reason why hosts can make thousands of dollars a month from simply livestreaming themselves.
“I’m not lonely,” an avid YY user explains to filmmakers toward the ends of the documentary. “I can watch Big Li on my computer every day.”