SHENYANG, China — Yu Li is ready for his close-up. Hair: poofed. Face: powdered. Any minute now, he will be live on camera, raking in the cash.
From a studio in the northern city of Shenyang, Yu, who goes by Brother Li, spends hours a day broadcasting on YY, a social network. When he cracks a joke (which is often) or gives a shout out (ditto), fans send him “virtual gifts,” which represent real money.
His show is a mix of chitchat, music and humor, all steeped in “dongbei,” or “northeast,” culture. He also founded and runs a talent agency, Wudi Media, which trains and promotes wannabe online stars.
On the other side of the screen are people brushing their teeth or getting through the last minutes of a long shift. Some are aspiring celebrities hoping to parlay their voice, looks or facility with boob jokes into online fame. For a cut of their earnings, Yu will help them out. To the tens of thousands who tune in to Yu’s show each night, his life is the stuff of legend, the very embodiment of President Xi Jinping’s favorite slogan: the Chinese dream.
Although live-streaming is popular many places, including the United States, China’s broadcasting boom, like much here, is bigger. About half of China’s 700 million Internet users have tried live-streaming apps — that’s more than the population of the United States.
In America, social media influencers make money off of ads and endorsements. Some Chinese stars do, too, but most of the money comes directly from fans in the form of gifts — sort of like a virtual tip jar. China’s live-stream market was worth at least $3 billion in 2016, up 180 percent year over year, according to iResearch. The sector will soon generate more money than the Chinese movie box office, analysts predict.
The pace of change tracks explosive growth in the country’s tech space, part of a government push to shift from manufacturing and resource extraction to a service economy powered, in part, by the Web.
While U.S. firms such as Facebook and Google remain blocked in China, Tencent and other local companies are thriving. YY started as a gaming portal but has grown into a social communication platform that is a leader in live-streaming.
As a Rust Belt kid who built a digital firm backed by Big Tech, Yu could not be more on message. But his experience also shows the limits of the state’s tech-utopian plans.
China’s new economy, it turns out, looks a lot like the old one. Same face, new filter.
Watching Yu’s nightly broadcasts, what’s most striking is not the streaming speed, but how status quo things feel, from the sidelining of women, to the push and pull between censors and creators, to the difficulty of spreading the benefits beyond the few.
Yu comes from a hardscrabble stretch of the North China plain, the region once known as Manchuria. By 16, he was hustling for mechanic gigs in a small city. When he wasn’t fixing trucks, he visited Internet cafes. That’s all there was to do.
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