Jing Qi, a part-time presenter on Chinese live-streaming platform Huajiao (花椒直播), last month underwent cosmetic surgery to improve her chances of becoming an Internet celebrity.
After five hours of rhinoplasty and facial fat injections that left her with gauze covering her nose, eyes, forehead and cheeks, the 27-year-old said she felt “even worse than dead.”
However, the suffering was worth it.
Jing is among tens of thousands hoping to find online stardom as an anchor on the live video-streaming phenomenon sweeping China’s media.
The fastest-emerging Internet sector barely existed in China three years ago, but last year produced more than 30 billion yuan (US$4.35 billion) in revenue and, according to an estimate by China Renaissance Securities (華興資本), is set to more than triple that by 2020.
That puts it on track to overtake movie theater box office receipts in a few years.
“I want more people to watch me, to spend Huajiao coins on me,” Jing said, referring to the virtual gifts her online followers buy that she can later redeem, in part for cash.
“In the end, I’ll be able to marry a tall, handsome and rich man,” she added.
The rapid growth of live streaming in China has attracted a rush of investment, led by China’s tech heavyweights, Tencent Holdings Ltd (騰訊), Alibaba Group Holding Ltd (阿里巴巴) and Baidu Inc (百度). They hope live streaming can boost existing services in e-commerce, social networking and gaming.
Tencent, the country’s biggest online gaming and social networking company, is backing a slew of streaming and interactive entertainment firms, including gaming platform Douyu (鬥魚網).
Alibaba’s Taobao (淘寶) marketplace early last year launched a live-streaming platform, allowing sellers to promote products directly to online viewers in real time.
The lure is about 344 million Chinese netizens — more than the population of every country other than China and India — who were watching live-streaming sites in December last year, and that was only about 47 percent of all Chinese Internet users.
There are about 150 live-streaming platforms, most producing entertainment shows.
The importance of live streaming in lower-tier cities is greater than elsewhere in China. Access to the Internet via a mobile phone is the major, if not the only, gateway to shopping and entertainment, Jefferies Hong Kong equities analyst Karen Chan said.
Live streaming has also bolstered the growth of ancillary businesses, including agencies looking to find the next live-streaming star, consumer loans and even cosmetic surgery.
Deng Jian, chairman of Three Minute TV, an agency that provides 1,000 trained anchors to more than three dozen platforms, said his business operates a “militarized” production machine to feed the live-streaming industry.
At an office building in a suburb of Beijing, dozens of Deng’s female anchors work around the clock each day in three shifts. Each anchor sits in a small booth, decorated to appear like a girl’s bedroom, facing a computer.
They sing and flirt with fans, encouraging them to buy virtual gifts, like a rose, sports car or villa. The cash for the gifts is split by the platforms, agencies and the anchor.
Three Minute TV also arranges cosmetic surgery at partner hospitals for its anchors, arranges small bank loans for the surgery, photographs and markets the anchors and helps them find acting opportunities, Deng said.
After the spurt of growth in live streaming and the rush of platforms it spawned, the arrival of tech giants is pointing to consolidation in the sector, analysts said.
“Live streaming has always been a ‘cash-burning’ industry,” said a Douyu executive, who declined to be identified.
“After an industry growth spurt, very few live-streaming platforms can survive until B round,” the executive said, referring to the next stage of a company’s financing.
Authorities have also clamped down on streaming sites that provide illegal content, adding to the consolidation risk, iResearch Consulting Group (艾瑞諮詢集團) analyst Tina Zhang said.
The Chinese Ministry of Culture in July last year announced that it had shut down 4,313 online show rooms, firing or punishing more than 18,000 anchors.
Twelve platforms, including heavyweights Panda TV (熊貓直播), 6.CN (六間房) and Douyu, were punished and ordered to make changes after offering illicit content that “promotes obscenity, violence, abets crime and damages social morality,” the ministry said.
Still, the prospect of change in the sector has not faded the hopes of thousands of young Chinese who want to become Internet stars.
Jin Xing (金星), the founder of cosmetic surgery app Soyoung (新氧), said he estimates that 95 percent of anchors have undergone cosmetic surgery to improve their looks.
The app connects cosmetic surgery centers with prospective clients.
“Live streaming cannot be faked and cosmetic surgery increases the chance of getting a virtual gift,” said Jin, who reckons about one-fifth of Soyoung customers come from the live-streaming universe.
Jing said her goal was to become famous enough as a streaming anchor to open her own online e-commerce store.
“Using 72 hours of pain in exchange for three to five years of good looks is totally worthwhile,” Jing said following her cosmetic surgery.
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