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Exploited: The Price of Being a Livestream Star in China

What’s it like to work for a business that designs every aspect of your life, then has you broadcast it all day?

Credit: The New York Times/

What’s it like to work for a business that designs every aspect of your life, then has you broadcast it all day?

Jin He is a 24-year-old livestreamer based in Shanghai. Each day, she performs for her fans while her agent, Emma Wen, monitors her broadcasts. 

“Thank you for the generous gift!” Jin says, smiling at her camera. Jin’s fans are mostly men in their teens and thirties; they reward her with virtual gifts or by posting messages. 

Once the cameras are off, Emma arranges Jin’s bedroom. She uses hollow books and empty furniture to make the set look realistic. Jin yawns with exhaustion. 

In this short documentary, The New York Times captures the daily life of a livestream star in China. 

One would think the experience is authentic— until they look behind the camera.

A Live-ly Industry

Livestreaming has become an increasingly popular career in China. In 2020, China’s livestream industry amassed an audience of 617 million subscribers, while 130 million users declared they worked as livestreamers online. 

According to The New York Times, successful livestreamers earn a living in direct donations. Many earn thousands of dollars from fans, while those at the top make millions— in addition to winning sponsorships or signing contracts. 

For example, while Jin He began with a minimum salary of 120 dollars a month, she now earns between 30,000 to 45,000 dollars in gifts and donations each month. Meanwhile, in 2018 China’s biggest livestream saleswoman Viya reportedly earned an estimated 30 million yuan (over 46 million dollars) by broadcasting full-time online.

Being an internet celebrity has become an appealing career path in China. However, like any other deal with the devil, choosing celebrity comes with a price. 

The “Love Factory”

An exposé by Beijing News, a Chinese news media company, revealed the downsides to the livestream industry: meager wages, no rest, and poor living conditions. 

Aspiring livestreamers, many often women, are manufactured inside “livestreaming mills.” These “mills” or “factories” are essentially agencies that host live broadcasters; they train young women how to dress, put on makeup, and use livestreaming platforms. They also monitor their livestreamers and own dance and recordings studios to hone on their creative talents— anything to attract an interested audience. 

According to the Jing Daily, it takes large sacrifice to gain a following and earn more than $10,000 a month: 

“One must ‘be online at least eight hours per day and keep it up for at least three months.’ [This means] it typically takes 720 hours of ‘hard work’ in the beginning.”

Meanwhile, livestream agencies make it more difficult by charging their livestreamers weekly/ monthly fees. Many livestreamers resort to sleeping less to keep up with their responsibilities. Some companies even discourage their broadcasters from sleeping. Livestreamers are offered rooms to live in. Each room comes with a computer, light, and a desk; however, no beds. If livestreamers want to rest, they can only do so on the floor or in a chair. 

Many livestreamers have ambitions to become “real-life” celebrities, while others only strive to make a comfortable living. Making a living is important, and fame can be tempting, but is giving your entire life a fair price?

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