Jinying Li on Live Streaming Culture in China

Jinying Li is Assistant Professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, where she teaches media theory, animation, and digital culture in East Asia. Her essays have been published in Film International, Mechademia, the International Journal of Communication, Journal of Chinese Cinemas, Asiascape, Asian Cinema, and Camera Obscura. She co-edited two special issues on Chinese animation for the Journal of Chinese Cinemas, and a special issue on regional platforms for Asiascape: Digital Asia. She recently completed her first book, Geek Pleasures: Anime, Otaku, and Cybernetic Affect and began her second book project, Walled Media and Mediating Walls. Jinying is also a filmmaker and has worked on animations, feature films, and documentaries. Two documentary TV series that she produced were broadcasted nationwide in China through Shanghai Media Group (SMG). She is one of the co-writers of animated feature film Big Fish and Begonia (Dayu Haitang, 2016).
Shanil Verjee CMC '21 interviewed Dr. Jinying Li on September 22, 2020.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Jinying Li .

China's society is evolving to accommodate the prominence of live streaming in so many different industries. To your knowledge, when did live streaming become popular in China and how significant is it in terms of its reach and cultural influence today?

I think it's very difficult to pin down a specific time. The live streaming we see today probably began to emerge around 2014 and 2015. By 2016, people already noticed quite a substantial number of users. But I would say that we couldn't and we shouldn't see live streaming as something entirely new or unique because if you look at the live streaming sites or platforms that are very popular today, a lot of them have existed for quite a long time. Some emerged as early as the 2000s, while the latest ones probably established themselves as some other kind of social media platforms around 2010. This means that live streaming was only the latest form of this much wider and longer phenomenon of what we call the platformization. This is partially the rise of social media platforms, and also partially the consolidation of digital communication and digital commerce that are concentrated in several companies. A lot of the live streaming platforms are part of bigger media conglomerates in China. The significance of live streaming is not unique to this particular form of media communication. You may see it as part of this longer and broader phenomena of platformization. We see this in the rise of WeChat, and WeChat has definitely been around much longer than a lot of live streaming platforms. You can look even earlier, for example, WeChat is owned by Tencent, which started with QQ in the late 90s, which was one of the earliest social media apps in China. Live streaming is just the latest stage of this development process, and they're owned by several of the biggest companies that have been doing social media since the late 90s. These new forms of social media—you now have TikTok or similar platforms—are not fundamentally different from Facebook, QQ, WeChat, or even earlier social platforms. It's just a new kind of format for a slightly different generation of audiences.

Do you think that the rising live streaming culture in China specifically or even the kind of platformization you were speaking about is impacting censorship in the country? And if so, how?

I don't think it has a very dramatic impact because the censorship struggling with digital content has been going on forever, ever since the establishment of the so-called information highway in China from the late 80s and into the 90s. We saw the rise of the Great Firewall, which has been there for quite a long time. Different formats of the digital content probably generate different kinds of problems for censorship. For example, with live streaming video, the questions are: how do you censor moving images, how do you censor spoken words, how do you censor pictures? It is creating different technicality issues with censorship. The central logic of censorship maintains, because the social media platforms are all owned by several major companies that have the incentive to follow the censorship. What you see is probably not fundamental change, but rather the distributed structure of censorship instead of centralized official censorship. You might find more instances of self-censorship. For example, with live streaming you might find that the platform companies hire a lot of moderators, sometimes visible, sometimes invisible. The use of moderation strategy to self-censor proves more effective than centralized censorship by the government. Therefore, it is just a different strategy of censorship and probably a more distributed structure of censorship. But the censorship maintains its logic and fundamental structure. If the government wants to censor, there are many different strategies, and the platform companies are willing to cooperate. You even see censorship on TikTok, which is operating internationally. Content moderation is commonly practiced on media platforms. How Chinese platforms conduct moderation is closely tied with governmental policy of censorship, and that policy won’t change just because of a new form of communication coming in.

So it's not that censorship is being decreased, but rather that it's being distributed among smaller companies that have the incentive to maintain government censorship?

The distributed censorship has been going on since much earlier than live streaming. What is changing is just a different strategy, but the level of censorship and the policy of censorship are not going to be impacted. And actually, the policy has more to do with the political situation than with media technologies. You rarely see new technologies have any fundamental impact on censorship. But what you do see is that governmental policy sometimes corresponds to the political atmosphere. Sometimes the government may want to relax the censorship because the political atmosphere requires so. It has very little to do with the technology of the media, but it has a lot to do with the political situation.

I'm wondering, do you see the increase in Internet celebrity culture through live streaming as China adopting elements of Western culture? Or do you feel that the ways in which live stream celebrities have emerged is very specific to China's cultural and social context?

I wouldn't describe celebrity culture as something specifically Western or Chinese. What you witness in today's celebrity culture is a modern phenomenon correlated with the rise of modern mass media. This started from newspapers, magazines, and cinema which was probably one of the most important media in generating stardom. Is the streaming celebrity culture different from Hollywood stardom? Of course, they look more like everyday people. But the celebrity culture as such is rooted in the rise of modern mass media. Instead of thinking of it as China adopting Western culture, it’s the effect of the global expansion of modernity. It's not just China. It's not just the US. It's global.

China has had its own celebrity culture for a long time. There were stars in Peking Opera and in early Shanghai cinema of the 1930s. There were even film stars in the socialist era. Madam Mao was a movie star before she married Chairman Mao. Media culture in socialist China produced its own heroes and celebrities. A lot of them were movie stars playing revolutionary heroes in socialist movies. This stardom culture transformed into a more sexualized and glamorized version in later consumer culture in the 90s and continues today as online celebrity culture. This celebrity culture is a result of modern mass media rather than Eastern or Western orientations.

If we think about celebrities in a historical view, and if we don't specifically define celebrity culture as a modern phenomenon, there is something probably similar to celebrity culture in many ancient, pre-modern cultures as well. In Chinese history, there had been some very famous poets, musicians, and writers who established a kind of celebrity status among certain people. But because there was a lack of massive penetration of the modern media, the question is to what extent this old form of celebrity culture could be popularized back then. Without the very expansive, penetrating modern media, fame couldn’t be widespread and sustained. I would say that the kind of celebrity culture that is closely tied to media infrastructure is an utterly modern phenomenon, and that we shouldn't consider it either Chinese or Western, because every cultural heritage, of course, has a tendency to produce famous people. But the level of fame and visibility of today’s celebrity culture is a modern phenomenon and we should understand it as a result of modern mass media.

What possible positive and negative economic and social effects might you foresee as a result of rising live streaming culture in China?

It's probably too early to say right now. It's very difficult because it's still an emerging phenomenon, even though it's already been a couple years. In terms of the socioeconomic effects, it’s premature to really form a conclusion. There are several possibilities. For example, there is some observation that live streaming provides a more democratic expression, particularly for minorities and for the underprivileged such as the rural population. There is a rise in popularity among the rural population who may express themselves through celebrity live streaming. I have noticed a lot of people doing cooking videos, and a lot of them are rural. There seems to be some obsession with how rural people cook. There are also certain fashion videos among immigrant workers where they show how they dress themselves, and this could be something very fascinating for urban people to see. There are probably some benefits for previously disadvantaged groups or previously subdominant groups. These groups now have a voice, which is also creating some economic benefits for them because the more popular their videos are, the more money they make.

Of course, there are negative effects as well. Capitalist media infrastructure creates inequality between people of different income levels. The live streaming culture in China is tied to monetization. You can give monetized virtual gifts to the celebrities, which is the basic economic structure of live streaming platforms. Every single smile, every single thing you do is about how much money you can make on the internet, and people are draining their own income to support celebrities. Of course, this sense of how money dictates everything creates social problems. That's not unique to China or anywhere; it’s a symptom of capitalism. Even in the positive sense of the celebration of rural culture, how much of that is genuine? How much of that is just urban people trying to get voyeuristic pleasure through a glimpse of “what do rural people look like?” This creates artificial economic incentives. A lot of people pretend to be rural, even though they may have already moved to the city. They pretend to have this authenticity of a rural sensibility that is manufactured. In that sense, even though there is the positive effect that live streaming does create opportunities for a lot of previously disadvantaged, socially marginalized groups, the disadvantage, of course, is the general problems of capitalism, the creation of economic inequality, the monetization of everything, and the financialization of everything.

The positive effects are not just for rural groups, but a lot of previously invisible groups. For example, there are people celebrating their queer identity. Even though sometimes their streaming content might be censored, there could be enhanced visibility for them. The platform does give a voice to a lot of people who were previously silenced and virtually invisible on popular media. They would never be shown on national television or be reported in a newspaper. But you can see them on live streaming websites because there's some sense of self-expression there. There certainly is a sense of democratization in terms of providing voice and visibility to previously subjugated communities.

Speaking of the negative effects of monetization, we see that these live stream celebrities are able to make a lot of money and receive a lot of gifts. Do you think there is a potential for live stream celebrity to become a real long-standing profession in China in the future? Or do you view it as a phase?

Again, it's still premature to answer that. The extent to which it is possible for it to become a long-standing profession also depends on how this platform of live streaming will eventually be integrated and converged with other media formats. And that's something we witness in previous celebrity culture in mass media. For example, reality TV stars. People have questioned to what extent people like the Kardashians are going to continue their success and stardom economically and socio-culturally. The sustainability of their celebrity status as a profession is not entirely tied to reality TV. It is also tied into merchandising and other media. For example, social media is certainly very influential for reality TV stars, as well as cinema, television, and commodity culture in general such as the fashion and cosmetics industries. I think the extent to which a live streaming celebrity could have a long-standing career depends on how live streaming as a platform will be integrated with other industries and other platforms. For example, we do see that for a lot of live streaming celebrities, their income does not only come from virtual gifts, but also through advertising or selling certain products. I see a lot of female celebrities doing cosmetic endorsements or advertising, and that could be a very profitable career and profession for generating sustainable income. Therefore, if you ask me how long-standing this kind of profession would be, that depends on individual cases. But if you look at the core platform in general, you probably should consider how live streaming platforms could be integrated with other industries and other media channels. Now you see that a lot of live stream celebrities have begun performing on film and television, starring in commercials, advertising for big brands, and even starting their own brands with their own products. These, of course, are all strategies to sustain the profession. Their profession is no longer just being a live streaming celebrity, but rather a profession that is already integrated with something quite “traditional,” like selling things, creating your own products. Selling a commodity, that is, the commodity culture, is after all the modern foundation of celebrity culture in the first place.

Where do you see live streaming headed in China in terms of its content, style, and also impact in the coming years? 

It is difficult to say. I’m probably more familiar with the overall design of the platform architecture rather than the content and style of individual live streaming videos. But I noticed that the sense of “liveness” in live streaming is borrowed from television, the live TV broadcasting. Of course, the “liveness” with live streaming is more personalized. It creates more intimate feelings and a new sensibility. That is, intimate private life can be shared in a live manner with other people. For example, I remember there was a style that was very popular for a moment, which was people live streaming their eating. It certainly takes the form of live broadcasting, but traditional TV broadcasting would never broadcast people just eating their dinner. There’s a sense of intimacy being generated, new cultural sensibilities and feelings that can be articulated by this particular kind of media communication (maybe a sense of loneliness in this particular case). It may have a therapeutic effect on this postmodern alienation that could be considered positive. It creates the effect of being part of something bigger than yourself. But on the other hand, it's symptomatic. It is not going to really solve the problem of alienation. It simply just mediates it, foregrounding the symptom that is partially generated by digital media in the first place.

I think the very fact that China right now has this phenomenon of rural people becoming online celebrities is actually a symptomatic indication that rural life is disappearing and displaced. Rural popularity is moving to cities as migrant workers, leaving elderlies and children behind in the villages. Village life is largely being destroyed. That probably tells you why those streaming videos of rural life become popular, because they create alternative rural images through imagination—as if the countryside still exists as this romantic natural surrounding or some kind of escape from urban problems. Rather than focusing on the style and content of live streaming, let’s consider the social and political problems in society right now. You will see those problems sometimes being manifested to a certain degree on this social media format. The style or the content on live streaming in China is possibly an indication of where the society is heading right now. Maybe you should ask in broader terms, where do you see China headed in the next few years? What I can observe is social media and live streaming as a window for a glimpse of the social and political issues that China is facing today.

I think the piece you said about alienation is so incredibly magnified in the circumstances of COVID-19, because you can't have that physical social interaction with your friends. Things like live streaming, digital platforms, and social media are becoming so much more important and relied upon.

Exactly. I think that's another important issue in why there are more live streams of people cooking and eating, because they cannot go to restaurants anymore. The sense of social life that surrounds collective eating is gone. In the positive sense, it creates a different kind of solidarity. Especially when you’re isolated in a pandemic, solidarity is more important, particularly because you cannot physically hug anymore, you cannot physically comfort each other. The online community becomes more important than before. I have to say, for me, seeing live streams of people cooking and living everyday life can be heartwarming. It does create a sense of solidarity for people like me, living alone and cooking instant noodles at home instead of having a great meal outside. There is something romantic, intimate, comforting, and encouraging in those moments of banality. 

Shanil Verjee CMC '21Student Journalist

Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

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