Chinese social media was agog last week over a ranking from Fortune magazine that outlined the salaries of the country’ top livestreamers. It showed that Viya was still the biggest e-commerce livestreamer, raking in as much as Rmb5.7 billion ($882.3 million) between 2019 and the first three quarters of this year (for our first mention of Viya see WiC448). Lipstick king Li Jiaqi came in second, earning Rmb4.6 billion over the same period. Third and fourth places went to singer-turned-livestreamer Feng Timo and food and rural life influencer Li Ziqi, who made Rmb2.5 billion and Rmb2.2 billion, respectively.
With the earnings ranking circulating widely online, Fortune then issued a statement denying that it had published such a list. Other influencers came forward to rubbish the numbers too. Luo Yonghao, a livestreamer on Douyin (eighth on the purported list with income of Rmb1 billion), was furious. “Who tabulated these numbers? You have all been misled. I don’t know about other people’s figures but mine is definitely nonsense,” he claimed on Sina Weibo. “If I made that much money, I’d have paid off all my debt and still have enough to produce my own smart devices,” the former smartphone tycoon insisted.
The source of the influencer report is still a mystery, although there is plenty of scope for mischief- making at the moment. China’s entertainment stars are under unprecedented scrutiny for any sign of misbehaviour, while the more outlandish of their commercial contracts don’t sit well with the “common prosperity” message coming from Beijing.
It was also telling that so many netizens took the numbers in the report at face value. The enormous earning power of the country’s biggest influencers is widely known, which is why so many celebrities have tried to get similar deals themselves. As an example: early this month the actor Li Yapeng put out a series of new videos that suggested his own pivot towards an influencer career. In the most recent upload, the former husband of pop icon Faye Wong visits a friend with a herb garden. Another video sees him explaining the art of tea drinking. The clips are well produced, with a soundtrack of traditional Chinese music. Netizens noted they bore more than a passing resemblance to material from rural influencer Li Ziqi (see WiC480), querying whether he had poached her production team.
By contrast, Li Ziqi has been largely absent from public view in recent months. The influencer has been strangely quiet, choosing not to upload any new content since July and staying off her her social media account for some time. On YouTube, her subscribers have been wondering about her whereabouts: “Been two months since her last update, does anyone know the reason why she is not updating and if she is ok? Hope she and her grandma are healthy,” one worried fan wrote.
Li started making short videos in 2016 after struggling to find steady work. She went back to her hometown in the countryside of Sichuan province to look after her ailing grandmother. But she also took the opportunity to film herself living a more rural, peaceful life, with videos that drew heavily on the stories behind local foods, culture and the natural environment. Before long she had garnered a strong online following. Even state broadcaster CCTV was a fan, pleased by the fact that Li’s videos “don’t boast about China, but simply tell Chinese stories well”.
In late August, Li briefly returned to the public eye, posting a photo of herself filing a police report. In a reply to a comment beneath her post, she wrote: “Have asked lawyers to keep a record, this is so scary! Capital indeed has its good tricks!” [‘Capital’ is generally shorthand for big businesses in China.]
Two weeks later, one of Li’s assistants mentioned on social media that she had been on a break from commercial activity because of a falling out with her management company Weinian. The influencer (who rarely gives media interviews) first signed with Hangzhou-based Weinian back in 2017 as she started to get national attention. She is said to have been impressed by the agency’s founder Liu Tongming, who advised her to avoid tainting her brand with too many online ads.
Of course, Weinian found other means to capitalise on Li’s sudden popularity. In 2018, the two launched a Li Ziqi ready-to-eat food brand, offering simple culinary delights such as luosifen (see WiC488 for more on this snack). Sales on Tmall, Alibaba’s e-commerce site, raked in Rmb1 billion in 2020. Li’s commercial success also caught the attention of Bytedance: in July, the parent company of TikTok and Douyin bought a 1.5% stake in Weinian.
Speculation in the sector is that the relationship between Li and Weinian has faded, however, with Chinese media saying the influencer felt that Weinian had hijacked her brand. News portal Huxiu reports that 51% of the shares in the company behind the Li Ziqi branding effort are owned by Weinian, with Li holding the rest. But clearly, there are differences in how the partners want to proceed. “Leveraging Li Ziqi’s IP [intellectual property] and her internet content as marketing material is the quickest way to make a lot of money. However, the negative reputation caused by shoddy quality could be damaging to the IP and even to Li Ziqi herself,” Huxiu cautioned.
Li wouldn’t be the first influencer star to try to cut ties with an agent. “Many content creators, after reaching a certain level of popularity, often think about going it alone,” Xu Feng an executive at a multichannel network, told Huxiu, adding that uneven distributions of profits between the networks and the stars are commonplace. Xu seemed more sympathetic to Weinian’s position, however. “Capital is not only capital investment, but it also means a market-oriented operating model. Without Weinian, could Li Jiajia’s [Li Ziqi’s real name] talent and creativity have been translated into the brand it is today?” he asked. “Without Weinian, Li would only be known as one of the influencers that make outstanding videos on rural food.”
Weinian also seems ready to play hardball in how it handles the row. “It would be a pity for us if Li leaves the company as it owns the brand Li Ziqi,” its founder Liu was reported as saying by the Global Times.
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