Beijing resident Xuchen Li, 30, left his job as a senior analyst with global accounting firm Ernst and Young to be a full-time “host” on Inke, one of China’s largest live streaming platforms, where he has earned more than 3 million yuan ($624,000) since 2015.
For at least two hours every night, he films himself singing and discussing news and current affairs on his channel, which at the height of its popularity had more than 600,000 fans watching at the same time from across China.
Rather than earning a set salary from the platform, Li receives tips in the form of virtual gifts — such as fireworks, Porsche cars and lollipops — worth up to 13,140 yuan ($2,733) from his fans every day.
The sequence of numbers — 1314 — phonetically sounds similar to “forever” in Chinese, so a gift of that value is known as “true love forever”.
Li is just one of a growing number of people cashing in on the booming live streaming industry in China in recent years.
According to statistics from the China Internet Network Information Centre, there were 425 million live stream users back in July 2018.
Live streaming services surveyed for the latest Statistical Report on Internet Development in China included sport broadcasting, host live shows, live game streaming, and live concert streaming.
According to Inke, the platform alone has more than 200 million registered users, including more than 26 million monthly active users.
From monitoring kitchen hygiene to live stream shopping
Shenshen Cai, a lecturer in Chinese studies at Swinburne University of Technology, said live streaming has become one of the most popular online social entertainment activities in China.
“Through various live video streaming platforms, the audience is able to watch different kinds of [entertainment and] … events including conferences, teaching, weddings, cooking shows,” she said.
Chinese personal shoppers — known as “daigous” — are also live streaming their shopping to prove the authenticity of the product they are buying for their clients.
Meanwhile, restaurants in some cities like Hangzhou in the eastern Zhejiang province are being encouraged by the local government to offer live streaming of their kitchens to allow customers to monitor food preparation.
A report from state-owned Xinhua media last December said the request for kitchen live streaming was made in an effort to “alleviate food safety concerns that shroud China’s booming takeout services”.
There are reportedly more than 150 restaurants in Hangzhou that offer the service on a popular takeout app.
With live streaming being quickly taken up by businesses and individuals, consultancy firm Deloitte last year predicted China was likely to remain the largest market for live streaming in 2018, with a forecast revenue of $US4.4 billion ($6.2 billion) — a 32 per cent increase over the previous year.
Revenue is largely driven by viewers donating money in the form of virtual gifts to performers as they sing or dance. Live streaming platforms usually also take a portion of the revenue.
Li said his fans were predominately young women in their mid-20s.
“In general, people are more likely to be emotional at night so we usually live stream then,” he said.
“Users would gradually develop a certain type of attachment to you after watching you live stream for a long time.
“When it was my birthday or during a festive season, or even when my fans were happy, I can receive gifts valued at about 10,000 yuan ($2,080).”
And as Li’s popularity grew on the online platform, he also received opportunities to appear on popular TV shows in China.
Live streaming opens doors for ‘innovative career path’
Dr Cai said host live streaming shows — like Li’s — were one of the most popular trends, which usually involved attractive and vivacious young women who perform and chat to their audiences.
“Many young Chinese women have set as their life goal to become an internet celebrity, as this will not only [give] them fame but also fortune,” she said.
“The emergence of these young female internet celebrities in China signifies a new socio-cultural trend which provides opportunities for some young women to follow a new and innovative career path.”
This was the case for Zhihui Ma, another popular host on Inke who is known for her funny imitations and jokes.
Before her live streaming debut, the 31-year-old from China’s inner Mongolia typically earnt about 2,000 yuan ($416) a month from doing a variety of jobs including guiding tours and waitressing.
The internet celebrity is now frequently recognised on the street and more than 90,000 people on average tune into her show daily. She has earnt nearly 3 million yuan ($624,000) in the past three years.
However, being a popular live streamer does not always bring positive attention.
Ma said people sometimes commented on her appearance and suggested she should have plastic surgery because she was not pretty enough.
She said being a live streamer was also easier for beautiful women, who did not necessarily have to work hard to prepare as many props and jokes for their audience to avoid repetition.
“Sometimes I get really speechless after running a live streaming show, because I have been talking and singing too much, like I was crazy,” Ma told the ABC.
“Sometimes I also feel a bit sad, given that [what I receive] from working so hard can’t even match [the amount] received by girls just acting cute.”
Australia lags behind China in smartphone use: Deloitte
While live streaming has also taken off on platforms like YouTube and Twitch in other parts of the world, analysts believe the scale of the industry in China could be related to the uptake of smartphones.
Citing Deloitte’s 2018 Mobile Consumer Survey, Kate Huggins, a partner at the consulting firm, told the ABC that Australia was still “far behind” China in terms of general mobile use, and using mobiles to watch videos in particular.
“One reason is that many Chinese consumers leapfrogged the PC and went straight to the smartphone as their primary internet device,” she said.
“The dominance of mobile platform WeChat in China is also an important factor: in China we have seen greater integration of chat, social, entertainment and payment features in a single mobile platform, which is very different to the way PC-born digital platforms in the West have evolved.”
However, Ms Huggins said recent government intervention and consumer concerns around smartphone addiction could impact the growth rate of smartphone use.
In recent years, the Chinese Government has clamped down on content it deemed inappropriate — such as hostesses wearing revealing outfits — on a number of popular live streaming platforms.
Concerns have also been raised over children squandering large sums of money to buy virtual gifts for live streaming hosts without their parents’ approval.
Last year, a 24-year-old man from China’s central Hunan province reportedly disappeared from the family home after he was suspected to have taken 1.7 million yuan ($354,000) from his parents to spend on live streaming websites.