Influencers on Chinese social media frequently experience an incredibly steep rise in fame. Li Jiaqi became famous overnight in 2019 because, as a young man, he managed to market lipsticks with high credibility on his livestream. The ease with which Li promoted the products in self-test in front of the camera made him a perfect advertiser for many companies.
Cosmetics was just the beginning. He also whips frying pans, pillows, food or consumer electronics through his infomercials. Even foreign companies like Apple or Shisheido use Li’s popularity.
The high point of his career so far came in October last year at the start of Alibaba’s so-called Singles Day. The Chinese equivalent of Black Friday in the US is a sales marathon that promises consumers super bargains. During the duration of a single stream within twelve hours, Li generated sales of $1.7 billion. His stream was viewed 250 million times that day.
Steep rise, sharp fall
The chances that Li Jiaqi will break this record again have sunk deeply since last weekend. For as steeply as his career led him to the top, his path may now be leading him downhill again. Last Friday, June 3, the influencer broke the country’s biggest political taboo. Li introduced an ice cream cake in the shape of a tank on his show. With this, the Influencer referred to the bloody events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 just before the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre.
What followed were classic reflexes of Chinese censorship. The stream stopped shortly after and was not continued. Li later apologized on Weibo for the fact that there had been technical problems. Since then, his 64 million followers have been waiting for another message. Li did not go live with his otherwise almost daily livestreams in the following days, nor did he thank them over the weekend for the numerous birthday wishes that reached him on Weibo.
There is now speculation that Li himself may have been completely unaware of what he was showing his viewers. Perhaps he was even lured into the trap by disgruntled employees who were envious of his success. By his own account, he now employs around 100 people. He has long since stopped deciding on his own what to advertise and what not to. His team checks the quality of the products in advance and picks out the most lucrative from the mass of offers. His reaction gives the impression that he himself was surprised by an ice cream cake in the shape of a tank, and apparently did not attach any value to the deeper meaning. “What, a tank?” he asked in surprise.
Surprised reaction indicates unawareness
It is quite conceivable that Li did not directly associate a tank and June 4. Born in 1992, he belongs to a generation that was systematically kept away from information surrounding the tragic events. Chinese parents also put a cloak of silence over the massacre to prevent their children from starting to talk about it unthinkingly. His on-camera assistant, on the other hand, who handed him the plate with the tank, seemed to understand immediately. “Let’s see if Li Jiaqi and I will still be here at 11 PM,” she said.
So far, Li has not contacted the world since the stream was interrupted. What happens next for him is completely unclear. Numerous advertising partners are likely to be following with great interest whether their top salesman returns to the screen. In the global influencer scene, it is common to sign longer-term contracts with companies to regularly feature their items. Because partnerships pay off for both sides, e-commerce giant Alibaba had already invested in an incubator for key opinion leaders (KOL) several years ago. There, aspiring influencers receive training in optimal marketing strategies.
Marketing an ice cream cake tank right before June 4 proved to be a clever strategy for possible string-pullers in the background of Li Jiaqi’s livestream. Whoever wanted to commemorate the tragedy of that time instigated a lively discussion among young people on social media, some of whom are now wondering what this tank is all about. Marcel Grzanna