November 4, 2016, by Tony Hong

Smile! You’re on camera

By Tony Hong,

PhD Candidate from the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, UNNC.

I had a strange request asked of me a few days ago while working in my office – “You need to watch this guy! He’s hilarious!” Expecting to see a short humorous video, I was instead treated to some guy attempting to make jokes while eating his lunch. This is my first and probably last encounter with the phenomenon of live-streaming (zhibo) in China. Needless, to say the guy wasn’t that funny and was also a distraction from my own daily digest of Youtube videos and Facebook posts. While these global internet companies are blocked in the PRC for years, China’s own homegrown social media has taken over. Live-streaming seems to be the latest craze that has struck the young and tech savvy Chinese. There are literally hundreds of domestic apps such as Douyu, YY and Yingke that provide this service. According to CCTV, who quoted a recent survey:

‘30%-40% of the broadcasters are students, 77% of the viewership was from male users.’

The popularity of live-streaming has also made it into a money making enterprise . The most popular stars are watched by millions and they have effectively become internet celebrities. If you’re a fan and you want to express your appreciation, you can send them cute little virtual stickers for a price.

So how do you broadcast yourself and win millions of adoring fans? Well, apparently you just have to talk about your daily life, review products or movies, play video games for your fans or do an innumerable amount of other activities. This is what passes off as entertainment for Chinese millennials these days. However, it must be said that the most popular form of entertainment available on live-streaming platforms are young women flirting live and acting seductively for their fans.

One trend that was quickly censored by the authorities were live streams of young women erotically eating bananas (if you don’t believe this, click on the link). To deal with inappropriate content, the Cyber Administration of China (CAC) issued stricter controls on user content. As is normally done in China, this content management has been delegated to the companies that own the platforms. It is their responsibility to ensure that content meets certain guidelines. The BBC reports that the CAC has asked these platforms to:

‘”strengthen security evaluation of new products like live broadcast”. It also said the new requirements would apply to “bullet-screens” – where online user comments pop-up on top of live videos.’

Such measures by the CAC are done in order to protect social morality. But it may also be a way to censor potential political messages that disturb the peace. In any case, this shows the extent to which the Chinese authorities are quick to manage and control the spread of inappropriate online content. A demonstration of this management was when the regulator in April of this year, ordered the popular online comedian Papi Jiang to clean up her occasional use of foul language in her videos. Now, several months later, the Chinese authorities have released full regulations concerning live-streaming, which is to be enforced from December 1st.

“Online live streaming has grown rapidly, but some streaming platforms have been found to disseminate pornography, violence, rumors and fraud, which run counter to socialist core values and adversely affect young people, a CAC official said” as quoted by the China daily.

The University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs has published a report on their reverse engineering of three of the most used live-streaming apps in China. They have concluded that content censorship is triggered by 19,464 keywords. These keywords are added according to circumstance and range from the sexually explicit to politically sensitive words. The most interesting finding is that there is no official list of keywords provided to these companies by the central authorities. Instead, it is up to the companies to adhere to the spirit of the regulations.

The clamping down of inappropriate content both online and offline, has been a trend for several years and this will no doubt continue.

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