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From Tea Farmer to Online Influencer: Uncle Huang and China’s Rural Live Streamers

‘Cunbo’ aka ‘rural livestreaming’ is all the rage. A win-win situation for farmers, viewers, and Alibaba.

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This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, originally published in German by Goethe Institut China on Goethe.de: “VOM TEEBAUERN ZUM INFLUENCER: ONKEL HUANG UND CHINAS LÄNDLICHE LIVESTREAMER.” 

The past year has been super tumultuous when it comes to the topics that have been dominating Chinese social media. The Coronavirus crisis was preceded by other big issues that were all the talk online, from the US-China trade war to the protests in Hong-Kong, the swine flu, and heightened censorship and surveillance.

Despite the darker side to China’s online environment, however, there were also positive developments. One of the online trends that became popular this year comes with a term of its own, namely cūnbō (村播): rural livestreaming.  Chinese farmers using livestreaming as a way to sell their products and promote their business have become a more common occurrence on China’s e-commerce and social media platforms. 

mage via Phoenix News (iFeng Finance).

The social media + e-commerce mix, also called ‘social shopping,’ is booming in the PRC. Online platforms where the lines between social media and e-commerce have disappeared are now more popular than ever. There’s the thriving Xiaohongshu (小红书Little Red Book) platform, for example, but apps such as TikTok (known as Douyin in China) also integrate shopping in the social media experience.

Over recent years, China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba has contributed to the rising popularity of ‘social shopping.’ Its Taobao Live unit (also a separate app), which falls under the umbrella of China’s biggest online marketplace Taobao, is solely dedicated to shopping + social media, mainly mobile-centered. It’s a recipe for success: Chinese mobile users spend over six hours online per day, approximately 72% of them shop online, and nearly 65% of mobile internet users watch livestreaming.

Every minute of every day, thousands of online shoppers tune in to dozens of different channels where sellers promote anything from food products to makeup or pet accessories. The sellers, also called ‘hosts’ or ‘presenters,’ make their channels attractive by incorporating makeup tutorials, cooking classes, giving tips and tricks, chatting away and joking, and promising their buyers the best deal or extra presents when purchasing their products.                

Livestreaming on Taobao goes on 24/7 (screenshots from Taobao app by author).

Sometimes thousands of viewers tune in to one channel at the same. They can ‘follow’ their favorite hosts and can interact with them directly by leaving comments on the livestreams. They can compliment the hosts (“You’re so funny!”), ask questions about products (“Does this also come in red?”), or leave practical advice (“You should zoom in when demonstrating this product!”). The product promoted in the livestreams can be directly purchased through the Taobao system.

Over the past year, Alibaba has increased its focus on rural sellers within the livestreaming e-commerce business. Countryside sellers even have their own category highlighted on the Taobao Live app. Chinese tech giant Alibaba launched its ‘cūnbō project’ in the spring of 2019 to promote the use of its Taobao Live app amongst farmers. The most influential livestreaming farmers get signed by Alibaba to elevate Taobao Live’s rural business to a higher level.

One of these influential Chinese farmers who has made a name for himself through livestreaming is Huang Wensheng, a tea farmer from the mountainous Lichuan area in Hunan Province.

Uncle Huang livestreaming from the tea fields (image via Sohu.com)

Huang, who is nicknamed ‘Uncle Farmer,’ sells tea through his channel, where he shows viewers his work and shares stories and songs from his village. He is also known to talk about what he learned throughout his life and will say things such as: “It is important to work hard; not necessarily so much to change the world , but to make sure the world does not change you.”

With just three to five livestreaming sessions per week, ‘Uncle’ Huang reaches up to twenty million viewers per month, and, according to Chinese media reports, has seen a significant increase in his income, earning some 10,000 yuan (€1300) per week.

Huang is not the only farmer from his hometown using Taobao Live to increase their income; there are some hundred rural livestreamers in Lichuan doing the same.

Some random screenshots by author from rural livestreaming channels, where online shoppers get a glimpse of countryside life

The rural livestreaming category is significantly different from the urban fashionistas selling brand makeup and the latest must-haves: these hosts do not have the polished look, glamorous clothes, or stylish backgrounds. They usually film outside while doing their work or offer a glimpse into their often humble rooms or kitchens.

Viewers get to see the source of the products sold by these rural sellers; they often literally go to the fields to show where their agricultural products grow, or film themselves getting the eggs from their chickens or the oranges from the trees. From fruits to potatoes and flowers, and from fresh tea to home-made chili sauce – a wide range of products is promoted and sold through Taobao Live these days.

Some rural livestreamers are trying to stay ahead of their competition by coming up with novel concepts. A young farmer from Sichuan, for example, recently offered viewers the opportunity to “adopt” a rooster from his farm, allowing them to interact with ‘their’ rooster through social media and even throwing the occasional birthday party for some lucky roosters.

Image via sina.com.

Examples such as these show that although the countryside livestreamers usually lack glitter and glam, they can be just as entertaining – or perhaps even more so – than their urban counterparts.

Who benefits from the recent ‘cūnbōboom? One could argue that the rising popularity of livestreaming farmers is a win-win situation from which all participants can profit in some way. The commercial interests are big for Alibaba. The company has been targeting China’s countryside for years, as it’s where China’s biggest consumption growth will happen while mobile internet penetration is still on the rise. Alibaba earns profits from an increasing number of rural e-commerce buyers, as well as e-commerce sellers.

Alibaba’s early focus on the countryside as a new home for e-commerce has previously also led to the phenomenon of so-called ‘Taobao Villages,’ where a certain percentage of rural residents are selling local specialties, farm products or other things via the Taobao platform with relatively little transaction costs.

Many Chinese villages and farmers are profiting from the further spread of Taobao in the countryside. Not only does Alibaba invest in logistics and e-commerce trainings in rural areas, these e-commerce channels are also a way to directly boost sales and income for struggling farmers.

Chinese media predict that the rural livestreaming trend will only become more popular in the years to come, bringing forth many more influential farmers like Huang.

But besides the commercial and financial gains that come from the rising popularity of rural livestreamers, there is also a significant and noteworthy social impact.  At  a time in which China’s rapidly changing society sees a widening gap between urban and rural areas, these rural channels serve as a digital bridge between countryside sellers and urban consumers, offering netizens a real and unpolished look into the lives of farmers in others parts of the country, and gives online buyers more insight and understanding of where their online products came from.

Taobao Live is actually like a traditional “farmers’ market,” but now it is digital, open 24/7, and accessible to anyone with a mobile phone. It’s the Chinese farmers’ market of the 21st century.

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

This text was first published by Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Digital

Uh Oh, IP: Chinese Social Media Platforms Now Display Users’ Geolocation

From Weibo to Zhihu, Chinese social media platforms now display netizens’ geolocation to ensure a ‘healthy online environment.’

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Over the past few days, Chinese social media platforms have started to introduce a new function that displays the IP location of online commenters.

Weibo was the first platform to introduce the function on Thursday – the topic also became top trending on April 28 – and social media platforms Douyin, Toutiao, Xiaohongshu and others followed later. Zhihu announced the measure on April 30 (#知乎宣布全面上线显示用户IP属地#).

Weibo has experimented with the function since March 22 of this year before completely rolling it out on April 28. Whenever users post a reply or comment to a thread, their Internet Protocol (IP) address location will be displayed underneath their comment, right next to the post date and time information. The location will also be displayed on the personal account page of Weibo users.

According to Sina Weibo, the function was introduced to ensure a “healthy and orderly discussion atmosphere” on the platform and to reduce the spread of fake news and invidious rumors by people pretending to be part of an issue or city that they are actually not part of. To keep online discussions “authentic and transparent,” social media users’ specific region, city, province, or country will show up below their names. The function can not be turned off by users.

‘Refuting rumors’ is a priority for Weibo management and has only become more relevant during the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak in China and the recent Shanghai outbreak.

On Saturday, the hashtag “What Does It Mean That Platforms Are Unrolling the IP Function?” (#平台开放IP属地功能意味着什么#) was trending on Weibo, attracting over 170 million views.

The new measure has attracted mixed reactions on Chinese social media, where some users think it is useful that you can now discern users located abroad from those who are based in China, making it easier to draw conclusions on what is really going on in society (you can now spot trends that are particularly taking place within one region) and what is merely taking place in cyberspace.

But there are many users who think the new function is just another layer of control and does not really help to combat fake news or malicious rumors, since the IP location could actually still be changed.

Although the entire idea of displaying the IP location is to minimize the gap between cyberspace and reality based on one’s location, the location is merely the geographic location of the internet from the connected device and does not always correspond with the actual location of the social media user.

Once a person is connected to a Virtual Private Network (VPN), for example, internet traffic is sent through a server in another location, and the IP address will be replaced by the IP address of the VPN server in a different location from people’s actual address.

Some Weibo account are also not run by the persons themselves but by a social media or marketing company.

In this way, Bill Gates unexpectedly turned out to be located in Henan province, and Lionel Messi’s location showed up as Shanghai.

Others think that the new rule will only lead to more online polarization and self-censorship: “Who made this unsettling decision?! From now on, Chinese nationals who are studying or living abroad will be extra extra careful in what they write, otherwise, they’ll be labeled as ‘foreign forces.'”

Some people joked about the new function revealing their location, writing: “It made me so embarrassed. I’m pretending to be studying in the UK, while I’m actually in the mountains feeding the pigs.” Others were also surprised that their IP location was completely different from the place where they are actually living: “Weibo, what are you doing? I’ve never even been to Jilin,” one commenter wrote.

According to an online poll held by Fengmian News, 56% of the participants (nearly 300,000 at time of writing) said they supported the new function. 21% did not like the function, 17% said they did not care, and 6% were just curious to see their own IP location and if it matches their actual location.

“I’m gonna go and delete my more extreme comments,” one person wrote: “I don’t wanna give my hometown a bad reputation.”

Global Times commentator Hu Xijin (胡锡进) also gave his views on the new measure, saying that people’s viewpoints and values will always be more important than where they come from, and that all friends of China matter, no matter where they are based. However, he argued, it is also good to know where those who openly express anti-Chinese sentiments come from, exposing those ‘evil foreign force’ who are trying to disrupt social cohesion within the country.

Noteworthy enough, Hu Xijin’s own IP location was not displayed on his Weibo account, as some celebrities seem to have been excluded from this measure or can decide themselves whether or not they would like to display their IP location or not.

One Weibo user wrote: “Twitter can follow its own regulations in banning Trump, while Weibo can transcend its own regulations and not show Hu Xijin’s IP location.”

For recent articles Covid-19 topics on Chinese social media, check here.

By Manya Koetse

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©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China and Covid19

‘Voices of April’: The Day After

“The best way to make videos go viral is by censoring them.”

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On April 23, a day after the video ‘Voices of April’ briefly took over social media before it was censored, the trending topic of the day is a hashtag related to new Covid cases reported in Shanghai.

Shanghai reported higher Covid-19 cases and deaths on Friday than the five days prior, which showed a daily decline in new cases. Shanghai reported a total of 23,370 new cases (including 20,634 asymptomatic ones), the municipal health commission said Saturday. A related hashtag by Xinhua News received over 910 million views on Weibo on Saturday (#上海新增本土确诊2736例无症状20634例#).

Although the hashtag was initiated by state media to inform about the Shanghai Covid situation, netizens started using it to criticize Shanghai’s handling of the crisis, with more commenters questioning China’s zero-Covid strategy. Similarly, other state media-initiated hashtag places also became online spaces where Weibo users vented their frustrations earlier this month.

Besides the ongoing online criticism and vocal disagreement with China’s Covid handling and policies, there are also many who express shock at the recent crackdown of any form of protest or criticism regarding the situation in Shanghai.

“‘Voices of April’ has been shutdown all over the internet, I’m simply dumbfounded,” one person said about the popular video that contained real recordings of events that happened during the city’s lockdown.

“If you still can find the video anywhere, forward it,” another person writes.

Besides Voices of April (四月之声), there have also been other videos over the past week that are meant to expose the mishandling of the Covid situation in Shanghai.

One of them is titled Farewell, Language (再见语言), another one is Shanghai Late Spring (上海晚春).

Farewell, Language (再见语言) is a 42-second sound art video by artist Yang Xiao (杨潇), who used over 600 commonly used propaganda phrases from Chinese official channels and randomly broadcasted the audio in the community where he lives.

The anti-epidemic workers just continue their work and do not seem to notice anything out of the ordinary at all. The video shows how this kind of language has been so normalized that for most, it has just become background noise in their everyday life – without even noticing nor critically assessing its meaning or logic anymore.

The Shanghai Late Spring (上海晚春) video is a compilation of video footage from the Shanghai lockdown, showing people struggling to get food, violent altercations between anti-epidemic workers and residents, people living in deplorable conditions in quarantine centers, and more (link to video).

The video uses the song Cheer Up London by Slaves, its chorus being:

You’re dead, already, dead, dead, already-ready
Dead, already, dead, dead, already-ready
Dead, already, dead, dead, already-ready
Dead, already, dead
.”

One Weibo commenter responded to the video in English, using a text from Les Misérables: “Do you hear the people sing / Singing the song of angry men / It is the music of a people / Who will not be slaves again!” The phrase “do you hear the people sing” was also used by other social media users to address the situation in Shanghai and the censorship of related topics.

“The best way to make videos go viral is by censoring them,” one commenter replied.

Read our previous article about ‘Voices of April’ here.

For more articles on the Covid-19 topics on Chinese social media, check here.

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Miranda Barnes

Get the story behind the hashtag. Subscribe to What’s on Weibo here to receive our weekly newsletter and get access to our latest articles:

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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