Zeng, who asked to be referred to by her last name to avoid being identified, felt it was ridiculous. “I don’t think she has done anything unreasonable or morally corrupt in today’s standards. On the contrary, I think she’s doing something that can help everyone,” she says. Longfei’s account was eventually reinstated in June.
Livestreaming took off in China in 2016 and has since become one of the nation’s favorite ways to spend fragments of free time, with 635 million viewers. Top livestreamers command audiences in e-commerce, music, gaming, and comedy, and they make huge amounts of income from their millions of devoted fans. As a result, they can often possess as much influence as A-list celebrities.
But many streamers, like Lawyer Longfei, are grappling with the Chinese government’s increasing willingness to weigh in on what’s acceptable. A new policy document, Code of Conduct for Online Streamers, released by China’s top cultural authorities on June 22, is designed to instruct streamers on what is expected from them. Having managed to operate under the radar in recent years, livestreamers are now facing the full force of China’s censorship machine.
The Code of Conduct lists 31 categories of content that shouldn’t appear in online videos, ranging from violence and self-harm to more ambiguous concepts like religious teachings and showing off wealth. The guidelines also include rules on streamers’ looks, and it bans the use of deepfakes to crack jokes about China’s leadership.
“I think of it as an upwards integration attempt that aims to cover the whole country, all online platforms, and whatever genre of online streamers,” says Jingyi Gu, a PhD candidate studying Chinese streamers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. It replaces previous regulations that are patchy or provincial, and it also complements other regulations governing platforms and marketing companies. “[This one] addresses online streamers as a standalone occupation, just like actors,” Gu says.
It’s clear the Chinese government is in the process of taming an industry that has become too powerful to ignore. Over the past year, some of China’s top livestreamers fell from their thrones after being fined for tax evasion or triggering censorship around political events. But by putting restrictions down on paper, the Code of Conduct is paving the way for further interventions in the future.
‘The End of the Universe’
There’s a saying that’s popular in China right now: “The end of the universe is selling stuff on livestream.” It mocks the fact that these days, professionals from all occupations—lawyers, teachers, celebrities—seem to have become streamers making money as QVC-style product presenters.
“Americans and Europeans definitely don’t think of livestreaming as a mainstream channel for shopping, and probably not even as a mainstream channel for entertainment, but in China, it has reached extreme popularity,” says Gu.