The People’s Republic of Desire: Inside China’s lucrative livestreaming craze

The SXSW award-winning film “People’s Republic of Desire” took the viewer into the world of YY.com, a NASDAQ-listed Chinese social media site focused on live video streaming. Photo courtesy Jing Daily

Editor’s note: A version of this post by Ruonan Zheng first appeared on Jing Daily, the leading digital publication on luxury consumer trends in China.

Last Tuesday, the winner of the prestigious South by South West Film Festival 2018 Grand Jury Award for documentary feature was screened in New York at an event co-hosted by our sister publication China Film Insider and Jing Daily. “People’s Republic of Desire” takes the viewer into the lucrative and exploitative world of YY.com, a NASDAQ-listed Chinese social media site focused on live video streaming.

As many luxury brands increasingly use livestreaming to attract fans and monetize that attention, they need to understand what’s driving the estimated $5-billion livestreaming juggernaut in China. Livestreamers can receive money from viewers—which has sent ordinary people on a quest to instant fame and fortune.

The film has gotten a wave of international attention as it races for the Oscar shortlist. Hollywood Reporter wrote: “Reckoning the cost of fame… a revealing examination of contemporary Chinese internet culture.” The film is also “provocative and unsettling as it brings us on a guided tour through the digital marketplace for something resembling human contact,” commented Variety.

Livestreamer Big Li is excited by the amount of expensive digital goods he has received. Courtesy Photo.

Fan comments. Courtesy Photo.

The film focuses on two main characters, 21-year-old Shen Man and 24-year-old comedian Big Li. Both had relatively humble upbringings and backgrounds—Shen studied nursing, while Li started as a construction worker in Beijing. A few years after stepping into their livestreaming careers, their overnight-riches stories have become idolized by fans.

The livestreamers hold a similar value to luxury brands—creating a sense of aspiration fulfilled that is craved by the people living in smaller cities, where unemployment is high and wealth is lower than the average for China. For example, while livestreamer Shen earns $40,000 a month from live streaming, one of her viewers earns less than $300 a month.

Fans of Big Li are entertained and inspired by his story. Courtesy Photo.

The virtual world reflects the real world situation, where the class and wealth gap continues to widen in China. The rich are called tuhaoused to describe the nouveau riche, overnight rich, who are likely big-brand luxury shoppers—whereas diaosi —the poor —dream about the life that livestreamers have made for themselves.

Director Hao Wu. Courtesy Photo

The director, Hao Wu, a former executive of internet giants like Alibaba and Yahoo!, was interested in the mechanism behind this money-making machine. The totalitarian nature of the livestream platform should serve as a reminder to brands that they are actively participating in the game.

“Livestream has developed a complicated virtual universe that took me years to unpack, a universe encompassing idol worshipping, conspicuous consumption, status seeking, and layers upon layers of profit-making,” said Hao Wu.

A virtual display of the number of fans and their worship of the livestreamer Shen Man. Courtesy Photo.

What’s driving the craze is the China’s current social landscape. The one-child policy and urban migration have shaped a lonely millennial generation, as many have turned to the virtual world for meaningful connection and emotional release; the livestreaming platform keeps them hooked.