Received: 22 August 2022
Accepted: 26 August 2022
Governing social eating (chibo)inﬂuencers:
Policies, approach and politics of inﬂuencer
governance in China
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) inﬂuen-
cers 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 posi-
tion 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.
chibo, inﬂuencer governance, politics, precarity, state‐centric
The recent uptake of “eating livestreams”or chibo in China illuminates the global–local
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;1–16. wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/poi3 © 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 Lei—also known as “the Virgo
Foodie”—who launched the ﬁrst domestic mukbang channel “Chinese eating broadcast”
(zhongguo chibo) on the video streaming platform Youku‐Tudou in May 2015 (Yu, 2018). In
the Chinese context, mukbang was appropriated by China's consumer culture, wherein
newly acquired afﬂuence 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 veriﬁed 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 food‐themed video content (both
video‐on‐demand 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 king”subsequently became a highly searched
food‐related 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
Verticals”also named “big stomach king”as an example of top‐selling vertical content
(Ceci, 2019). Thus, many “big stomach king”personalities quickly rose to the status of
wanghong (literal translation “internet famous [people]”)or“inﬂuencer,”with millions of
followers across platforms, such as Mizijun, Mini, Langweixian.
These inﬂuencers work with
multiple stakeholders—such as multi‐channel networks (MCNs), retail markets, and digital
platforms—for maximum monetization, and have made chibo one of the most proﬁtable
sectors of China's lucrative wanghong economy.
However, since 2019 “big stomach king”inﬂuencers have become the main targets for
regulation and governance in China's wanghong industry under a series of state‐initiated
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 king”inﬂuencers, their channels and platforms
experienced multiple crackdowns and rectiﬁcations in the past 3 years. In turn, this has
severely impacted the performances of these social eating inﬂuencers and the chibo
mediascape as a whole.
Intheemergingareaofmukbang studies, scholars have examined mukbang culture, its
inﬂuencers, gender politics and inﬂuence on audiences in and outside South Korea. Some
argue that mukbang reﬂects the transformation of sociality and intimacy in societies with
increasing single‐person households and indicates new modalities of companionship via digital
media (Donnar, 2017;Hong&Park,2018;Kim,2018). Mukbang inﬂuencers on streaming
platforms utilize microcelebrity strategies to conduct inﬂuencer 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; Schwegler‐Castañer, 2018). Empirical data also shows that
XU ET AL.
binge eating in mukbang can exert both positive and negative inﬂuences 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 inﬂuencers in China. Using the governance of “social
eating”inﬂuencers as a representative case study—a speciﬁc cohort of inﬂuencers that have
received extensive regulatory actions and have experienced a rise, fall, and transformation
in the last few years—the article will illustrate how social media inﬂuencers 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 inﬂuencer governance. We will ﬁrst identify
the agencies, agendas, and models of inﬂuencer governance in China through a policy
review and analysis. We will then analyze the case study on the governance of social eating
inﬂuencers to demonstrate the mechanism, model, and consequences of inﬂuencer
governance. Finally, based on the ﬁndings of the case study, we will discuss the precarity
of being an inﬂuencer as well as the politics of governing inﬂuencers in China.
REGULATING SOCIAL MEDIA INFLUENCERS IN CHINA:
AGENCIES, AGENDAS AND MODEL
In China—a country that boasts the world's largest internet population, a fast‐growing digital
economy, as well as the most elaborate and rigorous system of internet censorship—
inﬂuencers 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 inﬂuencer
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 inﬂuence over public opinions, the state is
also deeply concerned with the ideological messages and ‘value orientation’of the content
they produce. As Xu and Zhao (2019) succinctly put it, inﬂuencers are expected to achieve
both economic and socio‐cultural beneﬁts 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, inﬂuencer culture and economies are arguably more
regulated in China than in other nation‐state. Despite this scale, the mechanisms and
models of inﬂuencer regulation and governance are still underexamined in the burgeoning
ﬁeld of Chinese inﬂuencer studies.
To better understand the agencies involved in inﬂuencer governance, what aspects of
inﬂuencer 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 inﬂuencer 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 ﬁrst 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 ﬁrstly 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
POLICY AND INTERNET
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
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 Ofﬁce 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 (ﬁve), 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 inﬂuencer practices as
“online performance”(wangluo biaoyan) and mainly issued policies to regulate the content
of inﬂuencers’online performances, specify the responsibilities of inﬂuencers and
administrative measures of MCNs that work with inﬂuencers, and detail supervisory and
punitive measures for violations.
NRTA is a ministry‐level 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, ﬁlm, to the internet). It primarily views
inﬂuencers as “content producers”of audio‐visual programs. Its regulatory policies mainly
revolve around the values, moral orientation, and aesthetic taste of content produced by
inﬂuencers as well as the responsibilities of livestreaming platforms that host inﬂuencers—
this includes human censorship, algorithmic recommendation, sorting of different types of
content, real name registration for inﬂuencers 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 inﬂuencer practices
as “branding and marketing”e‐commerce activities. The policies it has released mainly
aimed to regulate the monetization of inﬂuencers 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 inﬂuencer culture
and the economy within their respective remits. From the governance approaches of the 12
regulatory policies under consideration, we can see that inﬂuencer practices are largely
regulated as new digitally enabled cultural performances which simultaneously generate
media content and boost e‐commerce. 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 inﬂuencer practices have
been emphasized by state regulatory agencies. However, the cultural aspect is arguably
XU ET AL.
more underscored than the economic, as the three regulatory policies issued by SAMR in
2020 and 2021 are just one‐third of the policies issued by other governmental agencies
since 2016, which largely concentrate on regulating online performance and the content
production of inﬂuencers. For the Chinese state, inﬂuencers are mainly seen as a new form
of celebrity and an emerging “cultural phenomenon”who can generate online content and
cultural artefacts that can inﬂuence opinions, values and behaviors. Inﬂuencers 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 economy—the “inﬂuencer economy”—as a by‐product, which falls
into the regulatory scope of SAMR. The cultural and political implications of inﬂuencers
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 identiﬁed 15 regulatory policies issued by the major livestreaming
and short video‐sharing platforms to regulate inﬂuencer practices, including community
guidelines and concrete self‐governance 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 platforms—the 15 selected regulatory policies sufﬁciently demonstrate the role of
platforms in inﬂuencer governance.
First, these platforms update their community guidelines according to the regulatory
policies issued by central governmental agencies to implement the state‐level 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 (Kuaishou.com, n.d.). These community guidelines usually
contain a very detailed code of conduct for inﬂuencers, set requirements on a wide range of
inﬂuencer practices from content production, livestreaming performance, dress code,
language, fan gifting, endorsement, and marketing. Moreover, the guidelines also detail
punitive measures for violations—from 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 self‐governance 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 inﬂuencers, coaching them to consciously
promote “positive energy”(zheng nengliang).
For example, Kuaishou had been running six
ofﬂine training classes for its top inﬂuencers under the guidance of China Federation of
Internet Societies (CFIS), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) supervised by CAC. The
training classes invited government ofﬁcials from CAC, the National Ofﬁce 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 inﬂuencers so they can better self‐regulate
themselves, proactively pass on “positive energy,”and play exemplary roles (Sohu, 2019).
Our reading of these platform‐level regulatory policies and actions shows that platforms’
self‐regulation is largely in response and adaptive to government‐level regulatory policies as
POLICY AND INTERNET
well as ofﬁcial warnings and punishments for past indiscretions. In China's “state‐sponsored
platformization”which has a “distinct Chinese political logic,”the “Party line”is 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), “trafﬁc for good”(liuliang
xiangshan), and “algorithms for good”(suanfa xiangshan) as guiding principles for self‐
regulation and self‐development. Only by aligning to the Party's call and related regulatory
policies, can these platforms sustainably grow in China's market‐oriented 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 inﬂuencer culture and its economy. From 2016
to 2021, we identiﬁed ﬁve 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 state‐level regulatory policies on inﬂuencer practices. The ﬁve policies
issued by CAPA (two), CNSA (two) and CAA (one) focus on the regulation of online
performance, content production, and marketing of inﬂuencers respectively, which align well
with the governing areas of the policies issued by state‐level supervisory agencies
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 inﬂuencers by playing a mediator role in promoting,
interpreting, supplementing, and reﬁning the policies issued by their state‐level supervisory
agencies. For example, CAPA issued the “Management Speciﬁcation 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 inﬂuencers 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
self‐discipline”(hangye zilv), and collectively boycott and penalize tainted inﬂuencers. For
example, Beijing Internet Culture Association initiated the release of the “Beijing Online
Livestreaming Industry Self‐discipline 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 “harmonious”and “healthy”internet
culture (CAC.gov.cn,2016). CAPA's Online Performance (Livestreaming) Division already
released nine blacklists for “tainted”inﬂuencers by November 2021. In total, 446 tainted
inﬂuencers 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 self‐discipline”has 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 hegemony’of the state (Dickson, 2000,
p. 532). They activate the energy of social organizations and transform state‐industry
relations from direct “state control”to indirect “state coordination”(Gallagher, 2004, p. 420),
while maintaining the dominant power of the state.
XU ET AL.
Chinese model of inﬂuencer governance
The review and analysis of the regulatory policies above shows that China's inﬂuencer
governance has adopted a state‐centric 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 self‐regulate, and for industry associations to
promote “industry self‐discipline.”The state‐level regulations are usually ad hoc and keen‐
jerk reactions to the emerging problems in the inﬂuencer industry. The regulations at the
levels of platforms and industry associations are largely responsive to state‐level policies of
self‐rectiﬁcation and self‐discipline. 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 industry—is also applicable to the governance of inﬂuencer culture
and its economy. This state‐centric and ad hoc policy model usually goes hand‐in‐hand with
state‐led intermittent “internet clean‐up”campaigns to ensure the intensity and efﬁciency of
the regulations in a relatively short time, which will be further unpacked in our case study.
The focus and models of inﬂuencer governance in China are divergent with those in
liberal and democratic nation‐states, such as the United States, United Kingdom, or
Australia. In these countries, the regulation of social media inﬂuencers 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 organizations—such as the Australian Association of National Advertisers, the
Australian Inﬂuencer Marketing Council, and the Advertising Standards Authority in
the United Kingdom—in the form of advertising guides and codes of ethics and practice.
The industry associations play the most important role in inﬂuencer 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 inﬂuencers as a case study
to contextualize and critically examine the Chinese model of inﬂuencer governance. The
case study allows us to look at the entire process of inﬂuencer governance, including
the self‐governance and self‐resilient strategies of chibo inﬂuencers themselves, as well as
the transformation of chibo culture in the aftermath of state‐led regulations. The policy
analysis above and the following case study on the lived experiences of inﬂuencers during
and after the governing campaign helps us better understand an inﬂuencer ecosystem with
the Chinese characteristics.
GOVERNING CHIBO INFLUENCERS: A CASE STUDY
With tightening regulations of inﬂuencer culture and its economy since 2016, various types
of so‐called “vulgar”inﬂuencers in the ofﬁcial deﬁnition, who broadcast obscene,
pornographic, violent, superstitious, or gambling‐related content to attract online trafﬁc,
have been ﬁned, banned, or even jailed in rare cases. Their vulgarities are deemed harmful
to “core socialist values,”
public morals, and the psychological well‐being and values of
minors. Targeted inﬂuencers, to name a few types, include “hanmai”inﬂuencers (Xu &
Zhang, 2021), “social shaking dance”inﬂuencers (The Paper, 2018), “fake charity”
inﬂuencers (Xinhua News, 2017), “under‐age expectant mother”inﬂuencers (National
Business Daily, 2018), as well as the “social eating”inﬂuencers who have arguably received
the most attention from the media, state, and the public.
POLICY AND INTERNET
In March 2019, People's Daily Online (renminwang), the online news portal of the CCP's
mouthpiece, ﬁrst spotlighted the controversial chibo phenomenon and criticized two types of
chibo inﬂuencers—“big stomach kings”(daweiwang) and “I can eat anything”(wusuobu-
chi). The critical commentary argued that attention‐chasing chibo content can only lead to
the further development of “vulgar aesthetics”and will negatively inﬂuence the “social
environment”in the long run (People's Daily Online, 2019). Subsequently, “big stomach
king”inﬂuencers 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
inﬂuencers were accused of cultivating a vulgar taste in food‐related 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 eating”by playing the editing
tricks to hide the behind‐the‐scenes process of eating and purging (CCTV.com,2020;
Xinhua News, 2020a).
The scrutiny of “big stomach king”inﬂuencers by the state media soon made them
targets of China's annual “internet clean‐up”campaign against online vulgarity. At the same
time, the crackdown on this cohort was also co‐opted by the state‐led 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 high‐proﬁle top‐down 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 ﬁve “Clean
Plate”campaign special programmes, in which, “big stomach king”inﬂuencers were
condemned for wasting food and popularizing unhealthy eating habits (The Paper, 2020).
Their irresponsible and unethical food consumption was further magniﬁed by the global and
ongoing ﬁght against poverty and hunger.
“Big stomach king”inﬂuencers 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 gravity”of their moral offense in reality. In fact, the
long‐existing issue of food waste in Chinese society can be more commonly spotted in the
everyday practices of over‐ordering at restaurants and over‐spending public funds in
banqueting. Targeting “big stomach king”inﬂuencers as a scapegoat was designed to co‐opt
their “inﬂuence”to mobilize public opinion and support the state‐led campaign. In this sense,
“big stomach king”inﬂuencers have been strategically shamed and governed to do internet
governance (anti‐vulgar online content and culture) and social management (anti‐food
Targeted by two concurrent campaigns, “big stomach king”inﬂuencers 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 food”verticals. 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
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system for livestreaming performers, which had been implemented by the “Notice on
Strengthening the Management of Online Livestreaming Services”since 2018.
In response to the campaign, Douyin announced an ofﬁcial statement on 13 August: “We
encourage the masses to cherish food; any behaviors of wasting food, once identiﬁed 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 king”quickly removed, but any
searches of “big stomach king”and “chibo”would prompt a message reminding the viewer
to “cherish food, stop food waste.”The platforms’community guidelines were amended
overnight to penalize and ban livestreaming accounts for hosting “big stomach king”content.
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 anti‐waste
violations to the authorities or platform censors. The reporting centre of the CAC is a primary
channel for tip‐offs 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 inﬂuencers, we found that the immediate platform‐level
rectiﬁcation and guidance following ofﬁcial orders are roughly the same. The chibo
inﬂuencers on the two platforms also share similar self‐censorship norms. To accommodate
the new regulations posed by the state and platforms, many “big stomach king”inﬂuencers
had to proactively self‐censor their own accounts. They had to delete their binge‐eating
videos and remove their “big stomach king”tagline from their usernames (e.g., from “big
stomach king ah lun”to “ah lun eat eat”) to avoid being censored or blocked. Some even
added headlines such as “reasonably eat and say no to waste”to their video cover images,
as a “protective charm”to evade content ﬁltering run by platform algorithms or human
censors. Some controversial inﬂuencers even temporarily deleted most of their videos,
which previously had millions of views. For example, on August 14, 2020, one of the top
chibo inﬂuencers, Langweixian, temporarily removed most of her Douyin videos depicting
her gluttonous appetite, which was what made her famous in the ﬁrst place. Furthermore,
marketing campaigns planned for “big stomach king”personalities by their MCNs and
associated brands were also subsequently canceled.
Different from regulating other inﬂuencers, the regulation of binge‐eating inﬂuencers
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 “fake‐eating”
(jiachi), “purging”(cuitu), “overeating”(baoshi) in any eating‐related video content (Xinhua
News, 2020c). At the national level, the Standing Committee of the National People's
Congress enacted the Anti‐Food Waste Law (fan shipin langfei fa) in April 2021. Article 30
speciﬁcally regulates media representation of food overconsumption:
In violation of the provisions of this law, if radio, television stations, and online
audio‐visual service providers produce, publish, and disseminate programmes
or audio‐visual 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 ﬁned 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 rectiﬁcation.
POLICY AND INTERNET
The legislation further forbids the creation of binge‐eating content for media producers
and broadcasting platforms, which has almost entirely removed “big stomach king”
inﬂuencers on Chinese social media.
Looking at the aftermath of this campaign in retrospect, the brand “big stomach king”—
which used to attract millions of views—is now effectively dead on Chinese platforms,
though some inﬂuencers 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 camera—outside the format of “big
stomach king”—continue to develop. Initially the campaign reportedly made many social
eating inﬂuencers anxious about “xianliu”or limiting the internet trafﬁc 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
inﬂuencers who used to operate under the label “big stomach king,”their revamped content
usually displays much less food: slowly tasting a normal‐sized 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 inﬂuencers in China. In the case
of chibo, the platforms and inﬂuencers 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, self‐censorship, and community rules to adapt to the new regulations
and governance. Inﬂuencers also must be ﬂexible and adjust their presentations,
performances, and narratives to accommodate to the changing platform policies and
governance. The modiﬁed practices of platforms and inﬂuencers, that cater to political
commands on the one hand and pursue continuing economic beneﬁts on the other, usually
generate new inﬂuencer practices and cultures and new issues for future regulation and
governance. This never‐resolved tension sets in motion a cycle of “regulation‐adaptation‐
emerging issue‐further regulation”for both platforms and inﬂuencers.
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 justiﬁed as efforts from food
inﬂuencers helped promote local restaurants and revitalize the economy. Another inﬂuencer,
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
inﬂuencers becoming active in charity and propaganda work, some directly collaborating
with governmental agencies, to obtain more political capital by aligning to ofﬁcial ideologies.
One prominent case is 29‐year‐old Paopaolong, who died due to “fatigue while ﬁlming anti‐
scam promotional videos for the police”(Daihuopai, 2021) according to the ofﬁcial obituary.
In addition, multiple chibo inﬂuencers who garnered millions of fans—such as
Kuaishou's Maomeimei—shifted towards daihuo (literally selling commodities) livestreams
that mainly sell food or cooking‐related items. The format of daihuo livestreams is not unlike
“teleshopping”but more interactive and the purchase process is often built into the
livestream platform itself. The shift of chibo inﬂuencers towards daihuo livestreams was not
only a direct result of the crackdown but a response to the post‐COVID 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
XU ET AL.
inﬂuencers 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
inﬂuencers previously associated with “big stomach king”refashioned 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 king”propelled new kinds of
performativity involving food and drink, as well as novel forms of binge consumption,
demonstrating the fast evolution of China's inﬂuencer practices and cultures under perpetual
governance and recurring waves of crackdown. The cycle can be summarized as: once one
category of performance—such as binge eating—is 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 king”and binge
eating were scrutinized and banned, “binge drinking (alcohol) livestreams”—aptly dubbed
hebo following chibo—started to emerge on various livestreaming platforms, especially
Kuaishou. After being “exposed”by 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). “Pk”was 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 “pk”on
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 inﬂuencers 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 chibo—a 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 king”inﬂuencers. We've seen how the display and waste of
exorbitant amounts of food in “big stomach king”content 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 signiﬁcation, rituals, advertising
packages, and above all highly performative bodily reactions—from 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 subgenre—novel at ﬁrst but
quickly rendered banal and abandoned after failed efforts of commercialization.
PRECARITY OF BEING INFLUENCER AND POLITICS OF
INFLUENCER GOVERNANCE IN CHINA: A CONCLUSION
A survey of 2000 young Americans conducted by Morning Consult shows that 86% want to
become social media inﬂuencers (Min, 2019). Similarly, being an inﬂuencer 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 inﬂuencers due to the ﬂexible working
hours, fun, as well as the fame and money it could potentially bring (Caijing, 2017). Many
inﬂuencer incubators and training centres have sprung up across the country to assist these
POLICY AND INTERNET
young people realize their inﬂuencer dream. However, as shown in our case study, in
China's state‐controlled internet and cultural industries, being an inﬂuencer is more
precarious than for their counterparts elsewhere. In addition to some common challenges
global inﬂuencers are facing, such as quality and stability of content production, market
competition, and the periodicity of the attention economy, inﬂuencers in China also need to
be constantly “morally calibrated”to ensure they pass on “positive energy”and 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 &
As “public ﬁgures”with millions of followers, inﬂuencers 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 entrepreneurs”heavily 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 ever‐changing
state‐level internet governance and “industry self‐discipline.”Indentured by the Party and
market ideology, inﬂuencers must self‐govern 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 inﬂuencers has created an
inﬂuencer ecosystem “with Chinese characteristics.”In this ecosystem, opportunities and
precarities co‐exist, and inﬂuencer types, practices, and cultures keep evolving within and
beyond regulations and restrictions.
Inﬂuencers are the public face of China's social media entertainment industry and
digital economy. The governance of this cohort of rich and famous “ordinary”people is
political in nature. As the most visible users and the most proﬁtable content providers on
social media platforms, inﬂuencers have become a popular target of China's state‐led
internet governance, especially the intermittent “internet clean‐up”campaigns against
online vulgarity. Naming, shaming, and punishing established inﬂuencers has a “chilling
effect”among ordinary internet users and digital platforms that host inﬂuencers. 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 inﬂuencers also aims to regulate China's ever‐growing
digital economy. For example, Weiya, China's “QueenofLiveStreaming,”was ﬁned
$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 e‐commerce industry (Shen
et al., 2021).
Inﬂuencer governance in China has two intertwined dimensions: “governance of the
inﬂuencer”and “governance by the inﬂuencer,”culminating in a speciﬁcpoliticsof
inﬂuencer governance in the Chinese context. As shown in our case study, the
crackdown of chibo inﬂuencers is not only a part of internet governance but is also used
as a pretext to promote the national “Clean Plate Campaign”against food waste. The
trend of inﬂuencer philanthropy also demonstrates “governance through the inﬂuencer.”
As shown in our examples, some previous “big stomach king”inﬂuencers have already
started to embrace philanthropy as an adjustive strategy to accommodate the
government's call for “positive energy”inﬂuencers. Similarly, to respond to
the government call to help achieve “common prosperity”(Kharpal, 2020), China's large
digital platforms “gave back”to society, for example through “poverty alleviation [via]
e‐commerce”(Peng et al., 2021) and various other micro‐philanthropy projects (Xu
et al., 2021). Inﬂuencers based on these platforms are encouraged to actively participate
in these philanthropic activities to promote a positive public image on the one hand, and
XU ET AL.
to help platforms realize their social responsibilities on the other. In this way, the fame
and inﬂuence of inﬂuencers have been harnessed for the “public good”to support social
In the article, we illustrated how the state‐centric model of inﬂuencer governance
works and how inﬂuencers react to this governance using chibo inﬂuencers as a case
study. We argued that inﬂuencers 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 internet”and harnessed to perform 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 co‐evolution
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
Jian Xu https://orcid.org/0000-0003-2798-0996
Lina Qu https://orcid.org/0000-0003-0791-262X
Ge Zhang https://orcid.org/0000-0001-8317-4185
In this article, we take the Chinese terms “wanghong”and “zhubo”(broadcaster or livestreamer) as equivalent to
the English term “inﬂuencer”due to the common features they possess, including their heavy reliance on social
media platforms, regular production of social media content and interaction with followers, data‐driven
measurement of their popularity and inﬂuence, and monetization of their inﬂuence through brand endorsement
and livestreaming e‐commerce. We, therefore, use the term “inﬂuencer”to refer to wanghong and zhubo
throughout the paper for the purpose of consistency.
The “internet clean‐up”is a national, annual and intensive (usually 2–6 months) campaign launched in 2011 by
the National Ofﬁce Against Pornography and Illegal Publications, Ministry of Public Security, Cyberspace
Administration of China and a few other state‐level 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 ofﬁce, 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 energy”to positively inﬂuence their audiences has become an
obligation of content producers and inﬂuencers.
“Core socialist values”comprise 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 ofﬁcially 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 ofﬁcial document in Chinese can be found at http://www.npc.gov.cn/npc/c30834/
While we do not ﬁnd any videos unequivocally display an obscene amount of food, what is considered normal
amount of food is often not explicitly deﬁned. In videos of restaurant scenes, the camera angle deliberately
avoids a full view of the entire table and implies that food was going to be consumed by others out of frame.
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
largely due to the long eating livestreams in which he consumed abnormal amounts of food.
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