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Governing social eating (chibo) influencers: Policies, approach and politics of influencer governance in China



Using the governance of social eating (chibo) influencers as a case study, this article demonstrates the policies, practices, discourses, and politics of China's state‐centric model of influencer governance. We argue that influencers in China are in a relatively precarious position due to various regulations and restrictions imposed upon them by the state, platforms, and industry associations. They are frequently targeted in China's internet governance campaigns “for a more sanitary internet” and coerced to participate in social governance “for the creation of a better socialist society.” They are therefore vulnerable within China's state‐controlled digital economy, caught between risks and opportunities this governance affords. Their position in this governance regime has consequently enabled their creativity, flexibility, and resilience to “play on the edge” of recurring platform crackdowns and capricious government policies to survive in the ever‐changing influencer industry. The coevolution of regulatory policies and focuses, and the shifting performativity of influencers, also makes China's influencer culture fast evolving and the governance itself more complex than elsewhere.
Received: 22 August 2022
Accepted: 26 August 2022
DOI: 10.1002/poi3.318
Governing social eating (chibo)inuencers:
Policies, approach and politics of inuencer
governance in China
Jian Xu
|Lina Qu
|Ge Zhang
School of Communication and Creative Arts,
Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia
Department of Linguistics, Languages, and
Cultures, Michigan State University, East
Lansing, Michigan, USA
School of Creative Media, City University of
Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Hong Kong
Ge Zhang, School of Creative Media, City
University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Hong
Using the governance of social eating (chibo) inuen-
cers as a case study, this article demonstrates the
policies, practices, discourses, and politics of China's
statecentric model of inuencer governance. We argue
that inuencers in China are in a relatively precarious
position due to various regulations and restrictions
imposed upon them by the state, platforms, and
industry associations. They are frequently targeted in
China's internet governance campaigns for a more
sanitary internetand coerced to participate in social
governance for the creation of a better socialist
society.They are therefore vulnerable within China's
statecontrolled digital economy, caught between risks
and opportunities this governance affords. Their posi-
tion in this governance regime has consequently
enabled their creativity, exibility, and resilience to
play on the edgeof recurring platform crackdowns
and capricious government policies to survive in the
everchanging inuencer industry. The coevolution of
regulatory policies and focuses, and the shifting
performativity of inuencers, also makes China's
inuencer culture fast evolving and the governance
itself more complex than elsewhere.
chibo, inuencer governance, politics, precarity, statecentric
The recent uptake of eating livestreamsor chibo in China illuminates the globallocal
cultural nexus in digital capitalism. Originating from Korean livestreaming platform Afreeca
TV around 2009 (Hu, 2015), mukbang (literal translation eating show) soon went viral on
Policy Internet. 2022;116. © 2022 Policy Studies Organization.
YouTube and Twitch under the category of social eating.Through broadcasting binge
eating of large meals, mukbang intimates vicarious satisfaction and parasocial interaction
for viewers and swept across the internet as a popular genre of livestreaming content after
2014. Chibo in China emerged amidst this global trend. The original localization of mukbang
on the Chinese internet was credited to cyberpreneur Chen Leialso known as the Virgo
Foodie”—who launched the rst domestic mukbang channel Chinese eating broadcast
(zhongguo chibo) on the video streaming platform YoukuTudou in May 2015 (Yu, 2018). In
the Chinese context, mukbang was appropriated by China's consumer culture, wherein
newly acquired afuence was celebrated and exhibited through images of excessive and
ostentatious food consumption on social media (Qu, 2021).
The chibo trend was especially accelerated after the growth of China's livestreaming
industry since 2015. According to the 2020 annual report by the Online Live Performance
Division of China Association of Performing Arts, total users of livestreaming services have
reached 617 million, and over 130 million veried channels have been registered across 23
leading platforms (iiMedia Research, 2021). Riding the livestreaming hype, chibo has
undergone explosive growth since 2016. In its current iteration, chibo are no longer limited
to the performances of binge eating which originally made the genre popular. Instead, it has
become an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of foodthemed video content (both
videoondemand and livestreams), from cooking tutorials and food vlogs to food tours and
restaurant reviews on Chinese social media platforms. Nevertheless, up until the 2020
crackdown, many chibo streamers still emphatically promoted binge eating, the most (in)
famous spectacle of mukbang, as the face of chibo: they were popularly referred as big
stomach kings(daweiwang). Big stomach kingsubsequently became a highly searched
foodrelated hashtag as well as a metonym for chibo. Take Douyin for example. By August
2020, over 1.26 million chibo videos had been posted on the platform generating 33.2 billion
views. Among those, 7.1 billion views were associated with the hashtag big stomach king
(People's Daily, 2020b). Similarly, Kuaishou's 2019 White Paper on Gourmet Food
Verticalsalso named big stomach kingas an example of topselling vertical content
(Ceci, 2019). Thus, many big stomach kingpersonalities quickly rose to the status of
wanghong (literal translation internet famous [people])orinuencer,with millions of
followers across platforms, such as Mizijun, Mini, Langweixian.
These inuencers work with
multiple stakeholderssuch as multichannel networks (MCNs), retail markets, and digital
platformsfor maximum monetization, and have made chibo one of the most protable
sectors of China's lucrative wanghong economy.
However, since 2019 big stomach kinginuencers have become the main targets for
regulation and governance in China's wanghong industry under a series of stateinitiated
internet cleanupcampaigns
and the campaign against food waste. Successively
criticized for fake and harmful eating, vulgar online performance, and wasting food by the
state media and authorities, big stomach kinginuencers, their channels and platforms
experienced multiple crackdowns and rectications in the past 3 years. In turn, this has
severely impacted the performances of these social eating inuencers and the chibo
mediascape as a whole.
Intheemergingareaofmukbang studies, scholars have examined mukbang culture, its
inuencers, gender politics and inuence on audiences in and outside South Korea. Some
argue that mukbang reects the transformation of sociality and intimacy in societies with
increasing singleperson households and indicates new modalities of companionship via digital
media (Donnar, 2017;Hong&Park,2018;Kim,2018). Mukbang inuencers on streaming
platforms utilize microcelebrity strategies to conduct inuencer marketing (Hakimey &
Yazdanifard, 2015; Pereira et al., 2019). Some scholars have suggested that the fetishization
of female binge eating in mukbang is a manifestation of the gender politics of eating in a
patriarchal society (Abidin, 2016; SchweglerCastañer, 2018). Empirical data also shows that
binge eating in mukbang can exert both positive and negative inuences on audiences who
suffer from eating disorders (Kircaburun et al., 2021; Strand & Gustafsson, 2020).
This article contributes to the scholarship of mukbang studies by studying the regulation
and governance of its culture and its inuencers in China. Using the governance of social
eatinginuencers as a representative case studya specic cohort of inuencers that have
received extensive regulatory actions and have experienced a rise, fall, and transformation
in the last few yearsthe article will illustrate how social media inuencers are regulated
and governed in China and provide critical insights to understand the precarity of China's
wanghong industry as well as the politics of its inuencer governance. We will rst identify
the agencies, agendas, and models of inuencer governance in China through a policy
review and analysis. We will then analyze the case study on the governance of social eating
inuencers to demonstrate the mechanism, model, and consequences of inuencer
governance. Finally, based on the ndings of the case study, we will discuss the precarity
of being an inuencer as well as the politics of governing inuencers in China.
In Chinaa country that boasts the world's largest internet population, a fastgrowing digital
economy, as well as the most elaborate and rigorous system of internet censorship
inuencers have become focal points in the increasing tensions between the cultural
politics and economic ambitions of digital China(Craig et al., 2021, p. 30). The inuencer
economy now constitutes one of the most important sectors of China's booming platform
market and is therefore welcomed and promoted by the central government to boost e
commerce, consumption, and employment. On the other hand, since these popular content
creators and new internet celebrities (often dubbed KOL or key opinion leaders) have
millions of followers on social media with a huge inuence over public opinions, the state is
also deeply concerned with the ideological messages and value orientationof the content
they produce. As Xu and Zhao (2019) succinctly put it, inuencers are expected to achieve
both economic and sociocultural benets in China and are compelled by the dual Party
logic(to become the political role model) and the market logic(to seek economic gains)
in everyday practice. Therefore, inuencer culture and economies are arguably more
regulated in China than in other nationstate. Despite this scale, the mechanisms and
models of inuencer regulation and governance are still underexamined in the burgeoning
eld of Chinese inuencer studies.
To better understand the agencies involved in inuencer governance, what aspects of
inuencer culture and economy are targeted for regulation, and what governance model is
adopted in China, we conducted a systematic document analysis of regulations, notices,
and guidelines related to inuencer governance, released from 2016 to 2021. Document
analysis allows us to systematically review and evaluate relevant documents, elicit the
meaning of the data, gain further understanding and develop empirical knowledge of a
particular topic (Bowen, 2009; Corbin & Strauss, 2008). We selected 2016 as a starting point
because it was dubbed by Chinese media as the rst year of wanghong(wanghong
yuannian) in China (Xinhua News, 2016). We collected policy data by searching the Chinese
keywords wanghong,”“zhubo,”“wangluo biaoyan(online performance), and wangluo
zhibo(online livestream) individually with guanli(management) and guifan(regulation)
on Baidu, China's most popular search engine. In total, 32 regulatory policies were collected.
This policy data was coded rstly by regulatory agencies. Then, we categorized the
regulatory agencies into three levels, as discussed below. Finally, the policy data under
each level was later coded by regulatory areas to identify the governing focuses of different
levels and the connections among regulatory agendas across different levels. Based on this
policy review and analysis, we were able to comprehensively map the Chinese model of
inuencer governance.
State regulators
From 2016 to 2021, 12 regulatory policies have been independently or jointly issued by
nine central governmental regulators in China, including the Ministry of Culture and
Tourism (MoCT), the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the National Radio and
Television Administration (NRTA), the National Ofce Against Pornography and Illegal
Publications, the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Industry and Information, the
State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR), the Ministry of Commerce and State
Taxation Administration. Among the nine regulatory agencies, MoCT released the most
regulatory policies (seven) independently or jointly, followed by NRTA (ve), CAC (four),
and SAMR (three).
MoCT is responsible for the administration of China's cultural and artistic affairs. It plans,
makes guidelines for and regulates China's cultural and artistic industry. From the regulatory
policies issued solely or jointly by MoCT, we can see that it views inuencer practices as
online performance(wangluo biaoyan) and mainly issued policies to regulate the content
of inuencersonline performances, specify the responsibilities of inuencers and
administrative measures of MCNs that work with inuencers, and detail supervisory and
punitive measures for violations.
NRTA is a ministrylevel executive agency under direct leadership of the Publicity
Department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that issues mandatory guidelines to
regulate media content (from radio, television, lm, to the internet). It primarily views
inuencers as content producersof audiovisual programs. Its regulatory policies mainly
revolve around the values, moral orientation, and aesthetic taste of content produced by
inuencers as well as the responsibilities of livestreaming platforms that host inuencers
this includes human censorship, algorithmic recommendation, sorting of different types of
content, real name registration for inuencers and users, and so on.
CAC is the central internet regulator, censor, and supervisory agency in China. It
independently or jointly issues regulatory policies that mainly specify the responsibilities of
livestreaming platforms, including content censorship, protection of minors, blacklist
management systems, supervisory measures, and so on.
SAMR is responsible for regulating and supervising market competition and
monopolies as well as maintaining market order. It primarily views inuencer practices
as branding and marketingecommerce activities. The policies it has released mainly
aimed to regulate the monetization of inuencers by specifying responsibilities and
obligations of advertising endorsers as well as managing the measurement of their
marketing activities during livestreams.
The involvement of multiple state agencies in the regulatory process accords with the
fragmented nature of China's control and regulation of the internet (Sohmen, 2001). Various
state regulators compete but sometimes collaborate to assert control over inuencer culture
and the economy within their respective remits. From the governance approaches of the 12
regulatory policies under consideration, we can see that inuencer practices are largely
regulated as new digitally enabled cultural performances which simultaneously generate
media content and boost ecommerce. They are therefore predominantly governed by
NRTA and CAC that regulate media content and online platforms, and SAMR that regulates
the digital economy. Both the cultural and economic attributes of inuencer practices have
been emphasized by state regulatory agencies. However, the cultural aspect is arguably
more underscored than the economic, as the three regulatory policies issued by SAMR in
2020 and 2021 are just onethird of the policies issued by other governmental agencies
since 2016, which largely concentrate on regulating online performance and the content
production of inuencers. For the Chinese state, inuencers are mainly seen as a new form
of celebrity and an emerging cultural phenomenonwho can generate online content and
cultural artefacts that can inuence opinions, values and behaviors. Inuencers are
therefore scrutinized by NRTA and CAC which monitor and censor content production from
both traditional media sources and the internet. This cultural phenomenon has also given
rise to a new market or economythe inuencer economy”—as a byproduct, which falls
into the regulatory scope of SAMR. The cultural and political implications of inuencers
usually outweigh their economic contribution when agency's devise and apply regulatory
policies, as demonstrated in the following case study.
Platforms as regulators
From 2016 to 2021, we identied 15 regulatory policies issued by the major livestreaming
and short videosharing platforms to regulate inuencer practices, including community
guidelines and concrete selfgovernance measures. While it is impossible to cover all self
governance policies at the platform level due to the large number of short video and live
streaming platformsthe 15 selected regulatory policies sufciently demonstrate the role of
platforms in inuencer governance.
First, these platforms update their community guidelines according to the regulatory
policies issued by central governmental agencies to implement the statelevel regulations.
For example, Kuaishou, one of the most popular short video and livestreaming platforms in
China, referred to the Provisions on the Administration of Internet Livestreaming Service
(hulianwang zhibo fuwu guanli guiding) issued by CAC in November 2016 as a baseline to
draft its community guidelines (, n.d.). These community guidelines usually
contain a very detailed code of conduct for inuencers, set requirements on a wide range of
inuencer practices from content production, livestreaming performance, dress code,
language, fan gifting, endorsement, and marketing. Moreover, the guidelines also detail
punitive measures for violationsfrom a textual warnings in chatrooms, immediate
termination of channels, freezing platform income, temporarily or permanently banning an
account, and even reporting illegal behaviors to judiciary authorities.
Second, many platforms have taken concrete selfgovernance measures beyond
community guidelines to outline the duties of platforms themselves as regulators. On the
one hand, platforms greatly increased the number of human moderators to audit video
content, live channels, and comments as well as improved algorithmic recommendations to
prioritize positive and uplifting content. On the other hand, some platforms more actively
pursued ideological and political education of inuencers, coaching them to consciously
promote positive energy(zheng nengliang).
For example, Kuaishou had been running six
ofine training classes for its top inuencers under the guidance of China Federation of
Internet Societies (CFIS), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) supervised by CAC. The
training classes invited government ofcials from CAC, the National Ofce Against
Pornography and Illegal Publications, the United Front Work Department, and even
scholars from public universities to give lectures on Xi Jinping's key speeches on
propaganda work and relevant laws and policies in the industry. The training aims to
enhance the ideological and political literacy of inuencers so they can better selfregulate
themselves, proactively pass on positive energy,and play exemplary roles (Sohu, 2019).
Our reading of these platformlevel regulatory policies and actions shows that platforms
selfregulation is largely in response and adaptive to governmentlevel regulatory policies as
well as ofcial warnings and punishments for past indiscretions. In China's statesponsored
platformizationwhich has a distinct Chinese political logic,the Party lineis the bottom
line(Yang, 2021, p. 7), and platforms have to follow the Party's call for the platform
economy to pursue content for good(neirong xiangshan), trafc for good(liuliang
xiangshan), and algorithms for good(suanfa xiangshan) as guiding principles for self
regulation and selfdevelopment. Only by aligning to the Party's call and related regulatory
policies, can these platforms sustainably grow in China's marketoriented but Party
controlled digital economy.
Industry associations as regulators
In addition to governmental agencies and platforms, industry associations have also
proactively participated in the governance of inuencer culture and its economy. From 2016
to 2021, we identied ve relevant policies issued by three national industry associations:
the China Association of Performing Arts (CAPA), the China Netcasting Services
Association (CNSA), and the China Advertising Association (CAA). They are supervised
by three central governmental organizations respectively: MoCT, NRTA, and SAMR, which
issued the most statelevel regulatory policies on inuencer practices. The ve policies
issued by CAPA (two), CNSA (two) and CAA (one) focus on the regulation of online
performance, content production, and marketing of inuencers respectively, which align well
with the governing areas of the policies issued by statelevel supervisory agencies
discussed earlier.
In China's state corporatism,”“where the weight of power in relations between
associations and the state lies heavily on the side of the state(Unger & Chan, 2015,
p. 180), industry associations govern inuencers by playing a mediator role in promoting,
interpreting, supplementing, and rening the policies issued by their statelevel supervisory
agencies. For example, CAPA issued the Management Specication for Warning
Livestreamers and the Comeback of Tainted Livestreamers(wangluo zhubo jingshi yu
fuchu guanli guifan) in 2021. The document extended the regulatory policies issued by the
MoCT regarding online performances of inuencers and provided useful policy references
for platforms to update their community guidelines to deal with misdeeds or breaches.
Moreover, industry associations proactively coordinate members to practice industry
selfdiscipline(hangye zilv), and collectively boycott and penalize tainted inuencers. For
example, Beijing Internet Culture Association initiated the release of the Beijing Online
Livestreaming Industry Selfdiscipline Pact(Beijing wangluo zhibo hangye zilv gongyue)
together with more than 20 partner platforms, in which platforms promised to enhance self
regulation and undertake responsibilities to promote a harmoniousand healthyinternet
culture (,2016). CAPA's Online Performance (Livestreaming) Division already
released nine blacklists for taintedinuencers by November 2021. In total, 446 tainted
inuencers had been named in these blacklists and they were banned by more than 100
livestreaming platforms and MCNs, all members of the CAPA's Online Performance
(Livestreaming) Division (Xinhua News, 2021).
Promoting industry selfdisciplinehas become a key objective of industry associations
as well as a new trend of governance in China's media and cultural industries. Industry
associations as regulatory intermediaries have become a substitute for coercion,
propaganda, and central planning to maintain hegemonyof the state (Dickson, 2000,
p. 532). They activate the energy of social organizations and transform stateindustry
relations from direct state controlto indirect state coordination(Gallagher, 2004, p. 420),
while maintaining the dominant power of the state.
Chinese model of inuencer governance
The review and analysis of the regulatory policies above shows that China's inuencer
governance has adopted a statecentric model. The model emphasizes the leading role of
state agencies in setting regulatory agendas and making guiding policies, as well as the
complementary roles of commercial platforms selfregulate, and for industry associations to
promote industry selfdiscipline.The statelevel regulations are usually ad hoc and keen
jerk reactions to the emerging problems in the inuencer industry. The regulations at the
levels of platforms and industry associations are largely responsive to statelevel policies of
selfrectication and selfdiscipline. The model is not dissimilar to the traditional model used
by the CCP to regulate its domestic internet infrastructure and content (Miao et al., 2021;
Negro, 2017). Rule by directive(Zhu, 2012)the approach used to regulate China's
television content and industryis also applicable to the governance of inuencer culture
and its economy. This statecentric and ad hoc policy model usually goes handinhand with
stateled intermittent internet cleanupcampaigns to ensure the intensity and efciency of
the regulations in a relatively short time, which will be further unpacked in our case study.
The focus and models of inuencer governance in China are divergent with those in
liberal and democratic nationstates, such as the United States, United Kingdom, or
Australia. In these countries, the regulation of social media inuencers largely concentrates
on the marketing practices, demanding obligations of this cohort to disclose paid
endorsements and sponsorships (MBA Lawyers, 2020; Stein & Boucher, 2019). These
regulatory policies are mainly issued by industry associations which are independent from
the state organizationssuch as the Australian Association of National Advertisers, the
Australian Inuencer Marketing Council, and the Advertising Standards Authority in
the United Kingdomin the form of advertising guides and codes of ethics and practice.
The industry associations play the most important role in inuencer governance while digital
platforms play a complementary role content moderation and adjusting algorithms where
necessary (Dwoskin, 2019; Liffreing, 2021). The state agencies, which play the most crucial
role in China, are seldom involved in regulation within liberal and democratic nations.
In the following section, we will use the governance of chibo inuencers as a case study
to contextualize and critically examine the Chinese model of inuencer governance. The
case study allows us to look at the entire process of inuencer governance, including
the selfgovernance and selfresilient strategies of chibo inuencers themselves, as well as
the transformation of chibo culture in the aftermath of stateled regulations. The policy
analysis above and the following case study on the lived experiences of inuencers during
and after the governing campaign helps us better understand an inuencer ecosystem with
the Chinese characteristics.
With tightening regulations of inuencer culture and its economy since 2016, various types
of socalled vulgarinuencers in the ofcial denition, who broadcast obscene,
pornographic, violent, superstitious, or gamblingrelated content to attract online trafc,
have been ned, banned, or even jailed in rare cases. Their vulgarities are deemed harmful
to core socialist values,
public morals, and the psychological wellbeing and values of
minors. Targeted inuencers, to name a few types, include hanmaiinuencers (Xu &
Zhang, 2021), social shaking danceinuencers (The Paper, 2018), fake charity
inuencers (Xinhua News, 2017), underage expectant motherinuencers (National
Business Daily, 2018), as well as the social eatinginuencers who have arguably received
the most attention from the media, state, and the public.
In March 2019, People's Daily Online (renminwang), the online news portal of the CCP's
mouthpiece, rst spotlighted the controversial chibo phenomenon and criticized two types of
chibo inuencers—“big stomach kings(daweiwang) and I can eat anything(wusuobu-
chi). The critical commentary argued that attentionchasing chibo content can only lead to
the further development of vulgar aestheticsand will negatively inuence the social
environmentin the long run (People's Daily Online, 2019). Subsequently, big stomach
kinginuencers received extensive criticism from state media due to their high popularity
and the impact of chibo culture. Criticism mainly revolves around two aspects. First, these
inuencers were accused of cultivating a vulgar taste in foodrelated entertainment,
misleading the public about the science of healthy diets, and manipulating viewers to
purchase substandard food and health products. Second, the authenticity of their binge
eating was seriously questioned. They were accused of fake eatingby playing the editing
tricks to hide the behindthescenes process of eating and purging (,2020;
Xinhua News, 2020a).
The scrutiny of big stomach kinginuencers by the state media soon made them
targets of China's annual internet cleanupcampaign against online vulgarity. At the same
time, the crackdown on this cohort was also coopted by the stateled campaign against food
waste. On August 11 and 12, 2020, state media outlets issued President Xi Jinping's
important instructions to stop food waste, in which he urged for the creation of a social
environment in which wasting food was shamed and thriftiness in food use was championed,
launching the national campaign against food waste (People's Daily, 2020a; Xinhua
News, 2020b). In the ensuing days, a highprole topdown campaign against food waste
swept the country, popularly referred to as the Clean Plate Movement 2.0(Tidy, 2020).
Between August 11 and August 30, China Central Television (CCTV) aired ve Clean
Platecampaign special programmes, in which, big stomach kinginuencers were
condemned for wasting food and popularizing unhealthy eating habits (The Paper, 2020).
Their irresponsible and unethical food consumption was further magnied by the global and
ongoing ght against poverty and hunger.
Big stomach kinginuencers were at the forefront of media and public criticism in the
campaign against food waste due to their high visibility and popularity on social media,
rather than the supposedly paramount gravityof their moral offense in reality. In fact, the
longexisting issue of food waste in Chinese society can be more commonly spotted in the
everyday practices of overordering at restaurants and overspending public funds in
banqueting. Targeting big stomach kinginuencers as a scapegoat was designed to coopt
their inuenceto mobilize public opinion and support the stateled campaign. In this sense,
big stomach kinginuencers have been strategically shamed and governed to do internet
governance (antivulgar online content and culture) and social management (antifood
waste) simultaneously.
Targeted by two concurrent campaigns, big stomach kinginuencers have received
more stringent regulations than ever. On August 13, 2020, CAPA's Online Performance
(Livestreaming) Division issued a notice to its members:
It is imperative to further strengthen the regulation of livestreaming content,
especially the gourmet foodverticals. To cultivate a correct view on food
consumption, it is necessary to prohibit fake eating, purging, exotic food, binge
eating, and the advertisement of any forms of ostentatious consumption in
livestreams (Sina News, 2020).
According to the notice, host accounts on livestreaming platforms that are associated
with fake and binge eating content would be blacklisted, following the blacklist management
system for livestreaming performers, which had been implemented by the Notice on
Strengthening the Management of Online Livestreaming Servicessince 2018.
In response to the campaign, Douyin announced an ofcial statement on 13 August: We
encourage the masses to cherish food; any behaviors of wasting food, once identied by the
platforms, will be punished accordingly as soon as possible(The Paper, 2020). Leading
livestreaming/video platforms including Douyin also swiftly censored big stomach king
content: not only were tags and videos of big stomach kingquickly removed, but any
searches of big stomach kingand chibowould prompt a message reminding the viewer
to cherish food, stop food waste.The platformscommunity guidelines were amended
overnight to penalize and ban livestreaming accounts for hosting big stomach kingcontent.
At the same time, the CCP's Mass Line(qunzhong luxian)that is, methods of
domestication and peer surveillance(Jacobs, 2020, p. 339)was mobilized by the
campaign. The public were encouraged to supervise online content and to report antiwaste
violations to the authorities or platform censors. The reporting centre of the CAC is a primary
channel for tipoffs on any illegal and vulgar online content.
Even though different platforms have different manual and algorithmic moderation
practices, from our observation on Douyin and Kuaishou, the two most popular platforms
that host the majority of chibo inuencers, we found that the immediate platformlevel
rectication and guidance following ofcial orders are roughly the same. The chibo
inuencers on the two platforms also share similar selfcensorship norms. To accommodate
the new regulations posed by the state and platforms, many big stomach kinginuencers
had to proactively selfcensor their own accounts. They had to delete their bingeeating
videos and remove their big stomach kingtagline from their usernames (e.g., from big
stomach king ah lunto ah lun eat eat) to avoid being censored or blocked. Some even
added headlines such as reasonably eat and say no to wasteto their video cover images,
as a protective charmto evade content ltering run by platform algorithms or human
censors. Some controversial inuencers even temporarily deleted most of their videos,
which previously had millions of views. For example, on August 14, 2020, one of the top
chibo inuencers, Langweixian, temporarily removed most of her Douyin videos depicting
her gluttonous appetite, which was what made her famous in the rst place. Furthermore,
marketing campaigns planned for big stomach kingpersonalities by their MCNs and
associated brands were also subsequently canceled.
Different from regulating other inuencers, the regulation of bingeeating inuencers
against the backdrop of a national campaign against food waste has resulted in an array of
legislation at local and central levels. On October 29, 2020, Guangzhou passed a regulation
to ban food waste in the hospitality industry which also explicitly prohibits fakeeating
(jiachi), purging(cuitu), overeating(baoshi) in any eatingrelated video content (Xinhua
News, 2020c). At the national level, the Standing Committee of the National People's
Congress enacted the AntiFood Waste Law (fan shipin langfei fa) in April 2021. Article 30
specically regulates media representation of food overconsumption:
In violation of the provisions of this law, if radio, television stations, and online
audiovisual service providers produce, publish, and disseminate programmes
or audiovisual information that promote food waste such as overeating, binge
eating, etc., the radio, television, and network information administrations shall
follow their respective regulatory responsibilities to issue warnings and orders
for corrections. Those who refuse to make corrections or when the
circumstances are grave, shall be ned at least 10,000 CNY (1600 USD) and
up to 100,000 CNY (16,000 USD), and may be ordered to suspend their
businesses for rectication.
The legislation further forbids the creation of bingeeating content for media producers
and broadcasting platforms, which has almost entirely removed big stomach king
inuencers on Chinese social media.
Looking at the aftermath of this campaign in retrospect, the brand big stomach king”—
which used to attract millions of viewsis now effectively dead on Chinese platforms,
though some inuencers still using the brand migrated outside the Great Firewall (to
YouTube, e.g.). However, it must be noted that new videos about the culinary in general and
new subgenres involving food consumption in front of a cameraoutside the format of big
stomach king”—continue to develop. Initially the campaign reportedly made many social
eating inuencers anxious about xianliuor limiting the internet trafc of their content by
updated algorithms (Tan, 2020). A year later, at the time of writing (October 2021), similar
food consumption content, as well as the same online personalities, persist under different
labels and tags such as gourmet food(meishi) and exploring restaurants(tandian). The
main visual difference is that the amount of food on display is being carefully negotiated and
administered between content creators and their platforms. For example, following the same
inuencers who used to operate under the label big stomach king,their revamped content
usually displays much less food: slowly tasting a normalsized bowl of noodles served in a
restaurant instead of binging a massive platter with abnormal portions comparative to their
body size in a home studio.
And here lies a constantly shifting but never resolved tension between the platform
governance and economic interests of both platforms and inuencers in China. In the case
of chibo, the platforms and inuencers must comply with governmental campaigns for
survival even if the drastic changes damage their economic interests in the short term.
However, to maintain their economic interests in the long term, affected platforms have to
adjust their algorithms, selfcensorship, and community rules to adapt to the new regulations
and governance. Inuencers also must be exible and adjust their presentations,
performances, and narratives to accommodate to the changing platform policies and
governance. The modied practices of platforms and inuencers, that cater to political
commands on the one hand and pursue continuing economic benets on the other, usually
generate new inuencer practices and cultures and new issues for future regulation and
governance. This neverresolved tension sets in motion a cycle of regulationadaptation
emerging issuefurther regulationfor both platforms and inuencers.
Langweixian now runs a media company in Hangzhou and continues to produce video
content related to food and local restaurants, in which she orders a full dining table of various
After COVID, tandian as a genre was especially justied as efforts from food
inuencers helped promote local restaurants and revitalize the economy. Another inuencer,
Mizijun, also adapted her content to be more like travel vlogs, in which she explored local
restaurants, but food consumption was only part of the videos. Another trend is chibo
inuencers becoming active in charity and propaganda work, some directly collaborating
with governmental agencies, to obtain more political capital by aligning to ofcial ideologies.
One prominent case is 29yearold Paopaolong, who died due to fatigue while lming anti
scam promotional videos for the police(Daihuopai, 2021) according to the ofcial obituary.
In addition, multiple chibo inuencers who garnered millions of fanssuch as
Kuaishou's Maomeimeishifted towards daihuo (literally selling commodities) livestreams
that mainly sell food or cookingrelated items. The format of daihuo livestreams is not unlike
teleshoppingbut more interactive and the purchase process is often built into the
livestream platform itself. The shift of chibo inuencers towards daihuo livestreams was not
only a direct result of the crackdown but a response to the postCOVID restructuring of the
livestreaming sector. These sales livestreams gained so much traction that even top
celebrities also participated (Ming, 2018). Just like Langweixian, established chibo
inuencers now often simultaneously serve manager roles or act as entrepreneurs
managing small MCN companies.
From the above examples, we can clearly observe that after regulation many chibo
inuencers previously associated with big stomach kingrefashioned their brands, adjusted
their performance and video formats, and shifted marketing and monetization strategies.
The other noticeable trend is that the ban of big stomach kingpropelled new kinds of
performativity involving food and drink, as well as novel forms of binge consumption,
demonstrating the fast evolution of China's inuencer practices and cultures under perpetual
governance and recurring waves of crackdown. The cycle can be summarized as: once one
category of performancesuch as binge eatingis banned, it respawns as other similar
categories of performance, which themselves become popular until being noticed and
regulated by the governing bodies again. For instance, after big stomach kingand binge
eating were scrutinized and banned, binge drinking (alcohol) livestreams”—aptly dubbed
hebo following chibostarted to emerge on various livestreaming platforms, especially
Kuaishou. After being exposedby multiple newspapers as more harmful than chibo due to
alcohol's addictive nature(Mo, 2021), the platforms quickly took actions to address the
issue and prohibited drinking alcohol on livestreams.
One major difference between chibo and hebo was that hebo was often staged during
livestream competitions or pk(player killing). Pkwas originally a videogame term, but is
now widely adopted in everyday Chinese language, to express a competitive situation. In the
case of livestreaming platforms, two livestreamers will be matched to compete or pkon
something mutually agreed upon and they encourage their viewers to donate virtual
currency for each competitor, and the livestreamer gifted with the most virtual currency wins.
Following the cycle of governance and revamp, the drinking game persisted but now alcohol
has been replaced with water, and beer bottles replaced for water dispensers. This example
demonstrates the agency of inuencers in the face of multilateral governance, as well as
their creative adaption and tenacity in adverse environments.
Another kind of creative performativity that received public attention during the overhaul
of the chibo industry was the case of foodless chiboa livestreamer performing a mime of
eating imaginary food with empty boxes, bowls, utensils, and other props, as a parody of the
regulation of big stomach kinginuencers. We've seen how the display and waste of
exorbitant amounts of food in big stomach kingcontent was deemed vulgar by state media.
Reversing this logic to the extreme, foodless chibo demonstrates the virtues of thrift and
moral good, albeit in a satirical way. Food, along with the idea of food as necessity, is
entirely absent from these performances. What is left is pure signication, rituals, advertising
packages, and above all highly performative bodily reactionsfrom facial expressions of
pleasure and disgust to crunchy sounds of biting, chewing, swallowing, and spitting. In a
harmless and nonpolitical gesture, foodless chibo was less of a protest or ridicule of the
2020 crackdown and more of an involuntary discovery of a new subgenrenovel at rst but
quickly rendered banal and abandoned after failed efforts of commercialization.
A survey of 2000 young Americans conducted by Morning Consult shows that 86% want to
become social media inuencers (Min, 2019). Similarly, being an inuencer has arguably
become the most popular career choice for young Chinese people. It is reported that half of
university graduates born after 1995 want to become inuencers due to the exible working
hours, fun, as well as the fame and money it could potentially bring (Caijing, 2017). Many
inuencer incubators and training centres have sprung up across the country to assist these
young people realize their inuencer dream. However, as shown in our case study, in
China's statecontrolled internet and cultural industries, being an inuencer is more
precarious than for their counterparts elsewhere. In addition to some common challenges
global inuencers are facing, such as quality and stability of content production, market
competition, and the periodicity of the attention economy, inuencers in China also need to
be constantly morally calibratedto ensure they pass on positive energyand stay away
from vulgarity.In this sense, they are in a similar situation to idols and stars in the
traditional entertainment industry, who are expected to pursue professional excellence and
moral integrity(deyi shuangxin) and set good examples for young people (Xu &
Yang, 2021).
As public gureswith millions of followers, inuencers are subject to socialist moral
expectations and responsibilities since role models and celebrities and are under scrutiny of
the media and the public. In the meantime, as digital entrepreneursheavily relying on
livestreaming and other social media platforms, they are also subject to the changing
regulations and policies of these platforms which have to accommodate everchanging
statelevel internet governance and industry selfdiscipline.Indentured by the Party and
market ideology, inuencers must selfgovern through various adaptive strategies, as shown
in our case study, to ensure sustainable visibility and economic development. The dynamic
interplay among the state, platforms, industry associations, and inuencers has created an
inuencer ecosystem with Chinese characteristics.In this ecosystem, opportunities and
precarities coexist, and inuencer types, practices, and cultures keep evolving within and
beyond regulations and restrictions.
Inuencers are the public face of China's social media entertainment industry and
digital economy. The governance of this cohort of rich and famous ordinarypeople is
political in nature. As the most visible users and the most protable content providers on
social media platforms, inuencers have become a popular target of China's stateled
internet governance, especially the intermittent internet cleanupcampaigns against
online vulgarity. Naming, shaming, and punishing established inuencers has a chilling
effectamong ordinary internet users and digital platforms that host inuencers. These
practices help save the cost of regulation and enhance the impact of internet
governance. Moreover, as the most crucial aspect of China's (livestreaming) e
commerce industry, regulating inuencers also aims to regulate China's evergrowing
digital economy. For example, Weiya, China's QueenofLiveStreaming,was ned
$210 million USD for tax evasion in late December 2021. Her accounts on Weibo, Douyin
and Taobao were also subsequently blocked. This is widely seen as a warning shot over
China's growing but underregulated livestreaming ecommerce industry (Shen
et al., 2021).
Inuencer governance in China has two intertwined dimensions: governance of the
inuencerand governance by the inuencer,culminating in a specicpoliticsof
inuencer governance in the Chinese context. As shown in our case study, the
crackdown of chibo inuencers is not only a part of internet governance but is also used
as a pretext to promote the national Clean Plate Campaignagainst food waste. The
trend of inuencer philanthropy also demonstrates governance through the inuencer.
As shown in our examples, some previous big stomach kinginuencers have already
started to embrace philanthropy as an adjustive strategy to accommodate the
government's call for positive energyinuencers. Similarly, to respond to
the government call to help achieve common prosperity(Kharpal, 2020), China's large
digital platforms gave backto society, for example through poverty alleviation [via]
ecommerce(Peng et al., 2021) and various other microphilanthropy projects (Xu
et al., 2021). Inuencers based on these platforms are encouraged to actively participate
in these philanthropic activities to promote a positive public image on the one hand, and
to help platforms realize their social responsibilities on the other. In this way, the fame
and inuence of inuencers have been harnessed for the public goodto support social
In the article, we illustrated how the statecentric model of inuencer governance
works and how inuencers react to this governance using chibo inuencers as a case
study. We argued that inuencers in China are in a precarious position due to various
regulations and restrictions imposed upon them by the state, platforms, and industry
associations. They are frequently targeted in China's internet governance campaigns for
a more sanitary internetand harnessed to perform social governance for the creation of
a better socialist society.They are therefore vulnerable within China's statecontrolled
digital economy, caught between risks and opportunities this governance affords. Their
position in this governance regime has consequently enabled their creativity, exibility,
and resilience to play on the edgeof recurring platform crackdowns and capricious
government policies to survive in the everchanging inuencer industry. The coevolution
of regulatory policies and focuses, and the shifting performativity of inuencers, also
makes China's inuencer culture fast evolving and the governance itself more complex
than elsewhere.
Jian Xu
Lina Qu
Ge Zhang
In this article, we take the Chinese terms wanghongand zhubo(broadcaster or livestreamer) as equivalent to
the English term inuencerdue to the common features they possess, including their heavy reliance on social
media platforms, regular production of social media content and interaction with followers, datadriven
measurement of their popularity and inuence, and monetization of their inuence through brand endorsement
and livestreaming ecommerce. We, therefore, use the term inuencerto refer to wanghong and zhubo
throughout the paper for the purpose of consistency.
The internet cleanupis a national, annual and intensive (usually 26 months) campaign launched in 2011 by
the National Ofce Against Pornography and Illegal Publications, Ministry of Public Security, Cyberspace
Administration of China and a few other statelevel regulatory bodies to regulate the online dissemination of
harmful and illegal information, including pornography, online rumor, fake news, vulgar online content, terrorism,
extremism and so on.
Positive energy(zheng nengliang) is a popular political discourse widely used by the Xi Jinping ofce, which is
meant to encourage people to be optimistic, love the country, society, and life, and do good things
(Bundurski, 2015). This political catchphrase has been widely used in the regulation and governance of digital
media in the Xi era. Passing on the positive energyto positively inuence their audiences has become an
obligation of content producers and inuencers.
Core socialist valuescomprise a set of moral principles summarized by Chinese Communist Party as
prosperity, democracy, civility, harmony, freedom, equality, justice, the rule of law, patriotism, dedication,
integrity, and friendliness. It was ofcially proposed at the CCP's 18th Party Congress in late 2012 and was later
promoted nationwide for citizenship and moral education (China Daily, 2017).
Our own translation. The ofcial document in Chinese can be found at
While we do not nd any videos unequivocally display an obscene amount of food, what is considered normal
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Paopaolong's untimely death also led to many public discussions on the adverse effects of overeating. According
to his viewers, who warned him of his deteriorating health condition, his morbid obesity and eventual death were
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Policy & Internet,116.
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The diffusion of e-commerce has played a significant role in recent rural economic development in China. E-commerce is also considered as an efficient channel to alleviate poverty in rural China. Voluminous studies have investigated the contribution of e-commerce to agricultural development, yet it is lacking empirical evidence as to the effects of e-commerce on rural poverty alleviation. Since the year of 2014, in order to develop rural e-commerce, Chinese government launched the National Rural E-commerce Comprehensive Demonstration Project. This gradual involvement policy offered a natural experiment for evaluation of e-commerce. Based on village-level survey data from rural China and Heckit method, our study finds that rural e-commerce has a significantly positive effect on rural income. Moreover, the effect is inverted U-shaped for the relative-poverty villages. The estimation of the propensity scores matching model confirms that the results are robust. The following policy recommendations are proposed: (1) policy support to rural e-commerce should prioritize the poverty-stricken villages. By doing so, the marginal income effects of e-commerce will be maximized. (2) Investment in internet infrastructure and establishment of human resources for e-commerce in rural areas will have spillover effects, increasing rural income through the “digital dividend”.
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“Wanghong as Social Media Entertainment in China is the very first academic book that systematically theorizes the phenomenon of internet celebrification in China’s changing cultural economy.” - Professor Anthony Fung, The Chinese University of Hong Kong “Wanghong as Social Media Entertainment in China unravels the multi-layered ecosystem of intermediaries that is reshaping communication in the world’s biggest media market.” - Professor Michael Keane, Curtin University “This book offers a systematic and comprehensive analysis of China’s social media entertainment industries through cultural, creative and social perspectives.” - Associate Professor Haiqing Yu, RMIT University In Chinese, the term wanghong refers to creators, social media entrepreneurs alternatively known as KOLs (key opinion leaders) and zhubo (showroom hosts), influencers and micro-celebrities. Wanghong also refers to an emerging media ecology in which these creators cultivate online communities for cultural and commercial value by harnessing Chinese social media platforms, like Weibo, WeChat, Douyu, Huya, Bilibili, Douyin, and Kuaishuo. Framed by the concepts of cultural, creative, and social industries, the book maps the development of wanghong policies and platforms, labor and management, content and culture, as they operate in contrast to its non-Chinese counterpart, social media entertainment, driven by platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitch. As evidenced by the backlash to TikTok, the threat of competition from global wanghong signals advancing platform nationalism.
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Mainland Chinese pornographies on the internet and social media platforms have emerged amidst hardline strategies of government surveillance and censorship. This article examines a new tide of government-sponsored surveillance technologies regarding how they affect new sex and porn industries, which are systematically being closed down and leave the industry, on the whole, in a perpetually ‘smouldering’ state. The Chinese Communist Party has, since its inception, involved a ‘Mass Line’ [qunzhong luxian, 群众路线] style of governance, or ordered ‘the masses’ and peer communities to set up mechanisms to report on sexual behaviours and underground porn circuits. Steyerl predicted in 2013 that online peer surveillance globally would encourage a new era of ‘invisibility politics’ or a paradoxical thrust towards sexual self-expressivity and self-annihilation. To query this point, the article highlights the impact of peer surveillance on Chinese pornographies and erotica since 2009. It includes a discussion of contemporary live-streaming sex industries and features an interview with an employee from a tech company closed down in 2017. The article ends with a discussion with queer artist and pornographer Fan Popo about the crackdown on his own work and the difficulties in producing and defending pornography under mainland Chinese surveillance.
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Mukbang is a recent Internet phenomenon in which video recordings of hosts eating large amounts of food are streamed on an online video platform. It originated in South Korea around 2014 and has since become a global trend. The aim of this study was to explore how viewers of mukbang videos relate their audience experiences to symptoms of disordered eating. A qualitative analysis of YouTube comments and Reddit posts on the topic of mukbang and disordered eating was performed, employing a netnographic approach. Two overarching themes were identified: a viewer perspective, by which users discuss mukbang without describing any personal involvement, and a participant perspective, by which users describe their own experiences of affects and behaviors in response to watching mukbang. Several topical categories emerged, describing how watching mukbang can both limit and increase eating, reduce loneliness and guilt, and become self-destructive. For some, mukbang appears to be a constructive tool in increasing food intake, preventing binge eating, or reducing loneliness; for others, it is clearly a destructive force that may motivate restrictive eating or trigger a relapse into loss-of-control eating. Notably, watching mukbang is not necessarily experienced as either helpful or destructive, but instead as simultaneously useful and hurtful.
This article investigates Chinese social eating livestreams ( chibo ) in the context of China’s 2020 campaign against food waste. It argues that the subgenre ‘big stomach kings’, a target of the campaign, evinces the moral implications of Chinese affluence, of which food waste is exemplary. The emerging affluence in China has normalized conspicuous, wasteful consumption and given rise to a local form of flaunting wealth called ‘ xuanfu ’. Chinese social media are inundated with xuanfu images, a symptom of the necessary psychosocial adaptation to affluence. Isolating the ‘big stomach kings’ livestreams from the social context of xuanfu , the anti-waste campaign glosses over the underlying social issue of the vast wealth gap between the affluent and the poor. To expose the ethical controversy of these livestreams, the article also analyzes their gender politics by parsing the mystifying image of female ‘big stomach kings’, whose slim bodies are in stark contrast to their enormous appetites.