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Why a major Chinese influencer was taken offline – Foreign Policy

welcome to Foreign Police‘s China Brief.

This week’s highlights: China’s censors pull a ecommerce influencer offline for a perceived reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre, Western officials say China is secretly building a naval base in cambodiaand Chinese leaders are concerned about the agricultural sector after weeks of confinement linked to COVID-19.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.

welcome to Foreign Police‘s China Brief.

This week’s highlights: China’s censors pull a ecommerce influencer offline for a perceived reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre, Western officials say China is secretly building a naval base in cambodiaand Chinese leaders are concerned about the agricultural sector after weeks of confinement linked to COVID-19.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


Censors silence popular influencers

June 4, the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre – in which People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces killed hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters and crushed demonstrations across the country – is a difficult time in China. In Hong Kong, the public once freely commemorated the massacre. This year, authorities again used the national security law passed in 2020 to block rallies; six people were arrested.

In mainland China, the birthday has had an unexpected victim: e-commerce influencer Li Jiaqi, widely known as “Lipstick Brother” or “Lipstick King”. During a live broadcast on June 3, Li received a cake that looked like a tank. Censors quickly took the show offline, and it did not return, with Li’s team citing “technical difficulties”. Early June is prime time for online shopping ahead of June 18, the second busiest day in China for online sales. But Li’s name now returns blank results on search platforms, even on e-commerce sites.

Li and his team probably didn’t plan for the tank footage to coincide with the Tiananmen Square anniversary. Military equipment is often beautifully replicated in China, with even playgrounds bearing images of armored personnel carriers or helicopters; a cake that looks like a reservoir is not an unusual idea. Nor does Li’s track record suggest a willingness to burn his online empire for a token gesture. As his nickname suggests, Li specialized in selling cosmetics and rose to prominence a few years ago for marathon lipstick application sessions.

Streaming is a huge and competitive business in China. In 2019, Li was worth a few million dollars. But his popularity has skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic: he now has more than 40 million followers on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, and he’s sold a record $1.9 billion worth of products through the leading platform. Taobao e-commerce in a single day last year. (It was Singles Day, the Chinese equivalent of Black Friday.)

Toeing the government line, last year Li shied away from promoting international products, doubled down on his patriotic language and encouraged his viewers to buy Chinese-made products. It seems the tank cake was an unfortunate coincidence that sensitive censors pounced on – a kind of paranoia that is common during tense times in Chinese politics. But the fact that neither Li nor his team spotted the potential error speaks to the success of the silence around Tiananmen. Successful Chinese influencers are sensitive to political dangers; Li hadn’t scheduled a live stream for June 4, suggesting he was at least aware it was a sensitive date.

However, many young Chinese are unaware that the Tiananmen Square Massacre happened. On diaspora social media, some nationalists claim that the students and workers who were killed were terrorists or that the violence was justified. But even these pro-government arguments are censorship within mainland China. Paradoxically, the censors’ paranoia may have made more people aware of the massacre, as they search still uncensored foreign forums or websites for details of what happened to Li.

It is unclear what will happen to the influencer. It could well return, chastened, to streaming in a week or two. But he was already vulnerable for other reasons, thanks to a government homophobic push that began last year. Li doesn’t talk about her personal life, except for her five Bichon Frizes. But in his public persona – a man selling women’s beauty products to an audience he addresses as “sisters” – he operates in an established but fragile space for artists who do not conform to conventional masculinity.

Li had so far dodged crackdowns on “non-male” artists and streamers. But in China under President Xi Jinping, the combination of tanks around June 4 and lipstick on men could bring down a marketing empire.


Secret naval base. The Washington Post reports that Western officials say China is secretly building a naval base in Cambodia, a close ally. The facility would be only the second overseas base for the PLA, following the construction of the base in Djibouti in 2017; like Djibouti, it appears to be relatively small, with room for only two ships.

Beijing has long backed Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has cracked down on dissent since his government forcibly dissolved the country’s political opposition in 2017. That has raised fears among observers that Cambodia is too eager to appease China – a stark contrast to neighboring Vietnam, which stands at a distance from the government in Beijing.

Of course, Washington has little reason to criticize other countries for investing in overseas military bases or to chastise Cambodians for being skeptical of overtures from the United States, which has killed Cambodian civilians in campaigns. bombing sites during the Vietnam War. But the Chinese naval base is still likely to bolster military officials who fear Beijing’s expansion into Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Is Eileen Gu American now? Olympic freestyle skier Eileen Gu, whose decision to join the Chinese Olympic team caused a stir this year, announced this week that she would be an ambassador for Salt Lake City‘s bid for the Winter Olympics. This decision brings back the scrutiny of Gu’s nationality. Chinese law does not allow dual nationality, but it seems likely that the Olympian kept her American passport. This has prompted complaints of special treatment in China – a resentment that has already boiled over against Gu online.

Threads about Gu’s decision to back Salt Lake City’s bid have racked up hundreds of millions of views, with some commenters accusing him of using China for financial gain and then backtracking to take advantage of states -United. Gu said she felt American in the United States and Chinese in China; but for a public figure, this kind of dual identity is difficult to maintain in intensified nationalism.

Shanghai’s lockdowns aren’t over. Although Shanghai has announced its “victory” over COVID-19 and reopening on June 1, the city is still experiencing regular closures of residential complexes and new neighborhood restrictions, with hundreds of people at a time sent to facilities. centralized quarantine. As Eyck Freymann and Yanzhong Huang argue in Foreign Police, China’s zero COVID policy is unlikely to end anytime soon. Sudden shutdowns are expected to persist across the country.

Mass testing gets less attention than lockdowns, but it’s a big drain on people’s time. I recently received two calls from people in China interrupted by health care personnel who knocked on the door demanding that residents come in for testing. Meanwhile, leaving China has become increasingly difficult despite a huge increase in interest in emigration among Chinese citizens.


Bring in the harvest. Although much attention has focused on restarting manufacturing, China’s political leaders appear preoccupied with agriculture in the wake of COVID-19 shutdowns that have left fields fallow. With rising world grain prices following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the domestic harvest is even more critical.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, the contact person for logistics resumption, recently addressed wheat farmers via video and issued special instructions to prioritize harvesting, which begins as early as late May in the south. . China is unlikely to have food problems, but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is exceptionally sensitive to food price increases; Anti-food waste campaigns are one of Xi’s flagship initiatives.

Housing woes. Real estate continues to be a silent disaster for the Chinese economy despite numerous government efforts to boost the sector. New home sales have fallen for 11 consecutive months and hit a nadir in May, falling 56% from a year earlier. This has destroyed the fortunes of many developers and threatens to disrupt the economy; real estate accounts for about 29% of China’s GDP.

The crisis has political ramifications. The wealth of China’s top political families is deeply tied to the real estate sector, one of the areas where it is easiest to trade political attraction for economic gain. Between 2004 and 2016, companies linked to central CCP members were able to obtain discounts of around 55% on land compared to unconnected companies; local party secretaries who offered the discounts were more likely to rise to power.

Whose family fortunes are crumbling and who can make the best deals from the wreckage will largely depend on who wins the struggles to come as Xi cements his third term.

Inflation revives tariff fights. There are serious debates within the Biden administration over former US President Donald Trump’s China tariff waiver, prompted in part by serious corporate lobbying that argues the measure would boost the economy and would help fight inflation. But the unions argue otherwise, and while US President Joe Biden has expressed some openness to the idea, the arguments seem unlikely to be resolved anytime soon given the other crises.

Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion