Cashing in on China's live-streaming wave

Above: Online host Zhang Xiaoxi starts her day every day in front of her mobile phone talking to hundreds of online viewers, including taking them through her daily routine of putting on make-up. The former model has been doing this full-time for nea
Beijinger Chang Feifei in a live-streaming session at a recent event for an online game. With over 3.9 million fans on her Yizhibo live-streaming account, the former model earns 200,000 yuan (S$40,600) a month, mainly from sponsorship and events. On weekends, she also takes her viewers around the capital to check out the sights and the best eateries.PHOTOS: CHANG FEIFEI, ZHANG XIAOXI
Above: Online host Zhang Xiaoxi starts her day every day in front of her mobile phone talking to hundreds of online viewers, including taking them through her daily routine of putting on make-up. The former model has been doing this full-time for nea
Online host Zhang Xiaoxi starts her day every day in front of her mobile phone talking to hundreds of online viewers, including taking them through her daily routine of putting on make-up. The former model has been doing this full-time for nearly a year.PHOTOS: CHANG FEIFEI, ZHANG XIAOXI

More young people eye a slice of billion-dollar industry, even as Beijing moves to rein it in

Every day at around 11am, Ms Zhang Xiaoxi starts to doll up and create her "look of the day".

She then has lunch - take-outs or something she whips up herself.

The long-haired lass in her 20s does all this in front of a mobile phone set up to stream her actions live to strangers - who number from 100 to 1,000 at any given point in time. She also chats with them, often dishing out dating advice.

"My online persona is that of an older sister who is always there to lend a listening ear to viewers," Ms Zhang, a former model who has been doing this full-time for nearly a year, told The Sunday Times.

Ms Zhang, who declined to say how much she earns, live-streams for up to eight hours a day and hopes to become a social media influencer, which can lead to sponsorship from fashion and cosmetic brands.

She is among a growing number of young Chinese who make a living from live-streaming, which has spun off an industry consisting of live-streaming platforms, Internet celebrity agencies and online hosts who hope to make a quick buck.

  • A QUICK GUIDE

  • POPULAR PLATFORMS AND APPS

    • Yizhibo and Yingke, for singing, dancing and chats

    • Huya, YY and Douyu, for gaming

    • Taobao and Moguji, for online shopping

    POPULAR LIVE-STREAMING INTERNET CELEBRITIES

    • Papi-jiang and Tongdao Dashu, for humour

    • MC Tianyou, for rap and singing

    • Eve (Zhang Dayi) and Cherie (Xueli ), for fashion and e-commerce

    • Momo (Zhang Mofan), for cosmetics and e-commerce

Live-streaming platforms have become the darlings of venture capitalists. In May, Panda TV, a prominent example, announced it had garnered investments of one billion yuan (S$203 million). Other platforms such as Huajiao and Huya have also received up to 100 million yuan in investments in recent months.

The market value of China's live-streaming sector climbed from nine billion yuan in 2015 to 15 billion yuan last year, according to a report released last month by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The Beijing think-tank estimates the figure will hit 100 billion yuan by 2020.

According to the report, 344 million Chinese netizens have watched in real-time as strangers ate, sang, told jokes or just got on with their lives. That is nearly half of all netizens in China - and exceeds the total population of the United States.

Some young Chinese no longer aspire to be doctors, lawyers or teachers - they want to be Web celebrities. That includes 8 per cent of the 13,000 students born after 1995 who were polled by Chinese Internet giant Tencent last year.

Beijinger Chang Feifei, 26, has succeeded in this dream. She told The Sunday Times she now makes 200,000 yuan a month, a tenfold increase from what she earned before as a model, she said.

"My income is predominantly from sponsorship and events," said Ms Chang, who has more than 3.9 million fans on her Yizhibo live-streaming account.

Most online hosts earn money from tips in the form of virtual presents such as stars, flowers or cars, which appear onscreen as stickers. They range in value from a few cents to several hundred yuan, and can be turned into cash after profit-sharing with the platform.

"It is a lot of hard work if you depend on tipping (dashang in Chinese) for income. Some of my friends do live-streaming six to eight hours a day in order to make 10,000 yuan or at most 20,000 yuan a month," said Ms Chang.

She does a show on weekend afternoons, which takes viewers around Beijing to sight-see and try out cafes and restaurants. She also does live-streaming at events for online games, cars and digital products, garnering around 400,000 viewers each time.

Internet celebrity agencies, which manage online hosts and pay them a basic wage, want a slice of the live-streaming pie as well.

The public got a glimpse of the less glamorous side of this industry in a recent Beijing News report. A 19-year-old online host named Er Xuan told the newspaper she had to spend six to 15 hours singing and chatting with viewers from a cramped room in her agent's office, all for just 5,000 yuan a month.

The increasingly influential industry has since attracted greater scrutiny from the government, which has passed new rules aimed at controlling content.

Last month, it shut down three major live-streaming services - one owned by Sina Weibo and two by Phoenix Television - for broadcasting without a licence, and streaming news and current affairs shows.

Analysts and industry players say this move signals the start of consolidation within the industry.

"Just like any major industry in China, eventually, the live-streaming industry will end up with several major players that dominate," said Mr Zhao Chong, 32, who is founder and chief executive of Microdream, a Beijing-based Internet advertising and marketing firm.

Mr Shen Jun, 27, who is founder and CEO of an advertising and Internet celebrity agency with 100 "personalities" aged 18 to 25 in its fold, said viewers will demand better content as the industry develops.

"The barriers to entry will become higher. It will get increasingly harder for someone to just come in and become an Internet celebrity," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 16, 2017, with the headline 'Cashing in on China's live-streaming wave'. Print Edition | Subscribe