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Special Report

Under the Influence

Rural livestreamers are a big hit, selling local produce to help farmers. But all is not what it seems. NewsChina investigates how the system works to trick sympathetic buyers into fraudulent purchases, prompting platforms to take action

By Liu Xiangnan Updated Oct.1

People sort walnuts, Yanyuan, Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, August 18, 2022 (Photo by VCG)

Villagers carry local agricultural products downhill to the local market, Zhaojue County, Liangshan, September 30, 2019. The area became famous in 2016 for a steep bamboo ladder residents had to use to get down the mountain to market or school (Photo by VCG)

In the summer of 2022, recalled La Luo, who lives in Gumo Village in a remote mountainous region of Sichuan Province, strangers arrived and asked to rent four buildings.  

The villagers told NewsChina they want instead to promote rural cultural tourism and the buildings will be reserved as visitor accommodation. La’s family owns one of them.  

Gumo, in Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, is in the southwest corner of Sichuan, bordering Yunnan Province. Though in one of China’s most impoverished regions, the bucolic village with its two-story houses made of brick and wood is set among mountains with a stream running through the center, and it has been used for movie shoots before.  

This is why the appearance of online influencers did not cause a big stir, at first. “I recognized some internet celebrities like Zhao Ling’er and Qu Bu among the group,” La Luo, who is in his 20s, said. 

Dramatic Arc 
Qu and Zhao became famous overnight in August 2022. The story goes that they met “accidentally” in Hagan Town, around 35 kilometers from Gumo. Qu Bu, from the Yi ethnic group, was a handsome herder when Zhao met him near his home in the mountains. Zhao, who did not previously have a substantial online following, comes from Huili, a city in southern Liangshan. When Zhao posted videos about Qu’s life on short-video platform Douyin (China’s TikTok), the reaction was instant. Qu shared stories about his family’s “miserable” life in impoverished Liangshan. Support and sympathy from hundreds of thousands of viewers flooded in. Qu’s good looks and air of unsophistication appealed to netizens. Now, Zhao and Qu each have over two million followers on Douyin, and the video of the two encountering each other has 2.49 million likes and 119,000 reposts.  

The pair then started leveraging their online fame to sell agricultural products through livestreams. A resident of Liangshan with knowledge of the business told NewsChina on condition of anonymity: “Every time they sell products online, they make sales worth millions of yuan.”  

Some viewers were skeptical. They questioned the authenticity of Qu’s story, guessing the videos were scripted and made professionally. Zhao defended their output on August 25, 2022, claiming the pair was not backed or funded by a company. She insisted the livestreams were filmed at Qu’s home.  

However, after NewsChina visited Gumo, it became clear that a video released by Zhao in mid-April was shot there. Residents had paid attention to the comings and goings of the outsiders. They went out in the day and returned to the rented properties at night. La Luo said he knew they were making videos and livestreaming, and had millions of followers. “They rented abandoned old houses in the mountains to shoot their videos. Sometimes they’d make a fire and cook there,” La said.  

Even though they stayed in the village over six months, the group kept to themselves. “They minded their own business, they rarely spoke with us,” La said. He said they occasionally donated some “charity” gifts to residents while livestreaming their show. After each show, they paid villagers who took part 100-200 yuan (US$14-29).  

It was stormy on April 14 when the reporter arrived in Gumo. Ah Liu, who said he works with Qu and Zhao, was very excited, explaining that the production team had planted a corn crop, but it would die without rain.  

Ah Liu said he had been in the village for over eight months producing videos. The team rented three buildings for 1,000 yuan (US$144) a month each. He admitted that they had produced videos for celebrities like Qu, and he said he stayed with him in Gumo. “But Qu’s been at home for the last couple of months to help on the farm,” said Ah Liu, claiming that a local girl had introduced Qu as a potential protagonist for their designed videos.  

Ah Liu complained that livestreaming is very competitive in Liangshan. “Many people come from big cities like Hangzhou or Chengdu. They all make similar videos, so they’re locked in fierce competition with each other,” he said.  

Ah Liu’s team has 30 people. They look for local suppliers for rural products, and facilitate screening, packaging and delivery. Ah Liu is responsible for marketing and attracting online traffic. Qu Bu, the newly emerged celebrity, was chosen and packaged by his team.  

The “accidental encounter” scenario is a common device used by livestream teams in Liangshan to hook people. Many of the videos make superficial changes then reuse the same scenarios.  

On August 19, 2022, Zhao Ling’er released a video of her “encountering” Qu Bu. She was invited to his home, introduced to his family and listened to stories about their lives. Qu said his father died when he was 8, and his mother brought him and his three younger sisters up alone. This video went viral, and Qu Bu became an overnight celebrity.  

An anonymous insider who works in the livestream business told NewsChina that these overnight success stories are mainly due to the setting in Liangshan, which was once China’s least developed area. Home to the 2.1 million people of the Yi ethnic group among a population of some five million, and with a reputation for an unspoiled natural environment and unique customs, Liangshan is considered a “natural hotspot for online traffic” and an “internet celebrity IP” that allows for quick exposure and gains netizens’ attention. Short-video producers took note and flocked to the region.  

Previously cut off from modern development, Liangshan was a particular target of China’s campaign to eradicate extreme poverty by 2020. It first became famous in 2016, when photos by a Chinese journalist of children clambering up a precipitous mountain on a rickety bamboo ladder to get to school went viral. There were 2,072 impoverished villages and 11 deeply impoverished counties in Liangshan identified when the campaign started in 2015, but by 2020, these were removed from the extreme poverty list, the Global Times reported. Still, earnings are below the national average, though much improved. In 2022, average annual per capita income in Liangshan was 18,000 yuan (US$2,470), while the average annual per capita national income was 36,900 yuan (US$5,059), according to government data.  

“A lot of people want to take advantage and gain personal popularity, so they come,” a business person in Liangshan told the reporter: “People think Liangshan is a poor, backward place and an ethnic area, so it’s easy to gain sympathy.” 

A storehouse for products sold on livestreams, Pujiang County, Sichuan Province (Photo by Liu Xiangnan)

A derelict house in the mountains of Gumo Village (Photo by Liu Xiangnan)

Know Your Onions 
Another Douyin celebrity account named “Liangshan Meng Yang” has 3.65 million followers. In 2018, Meng Yang, an 18-year-old Yi girl shot to fame. One of her early followers was San Bao from Beijing, who said she had seen a video of her in 2019 talking about her miserable life in the mountains. “She was very poor and had to take care of her brothers and sisters, so she had to drop out of school. She claimed her family was impoverished, and she only had potatoes for every meal,” San said. San felt sympathetic, and she and her friends donated money through Douyin. But in 2020, San went to Jiequ Village in Zhaojue County where Meng supposedly lived. When she arrived, she realized everything was staged. The rural backdrop for the videos was real, but in the village at the foot of the mountain, Meng Yang’s family owned new houses and enjoyed a pretty affluent life.  

On May 15, as NewsChina arrived in Jiequ, residents said they all knew Meng was an online celebrity, but her real name is Ah Er Mei Mei. Her aunt, who did not give her name, said Meng was working in Guangdong Province before she returned to set up her online video business. “She just shot some videos of the pigs and sheep on the mountains, then she became famous overnight,” the aunt said. “Meng’s parents are farmers and own sheep and cattle. The family is pretty rich in our village.” Villagers said her family also owns an apartment in the urban area of Zhaojue County.  

The main goal for these Douyin accounts is to earn through selling agricultural products. On April 11, Meng Yang released a new video which showed a stamped letter purportedly from residents of Baisha Village administered by Xichang, a county-level city, which claims they asked her to help sell onions. On April 16, NewsChina visited Baisha, 20 kilometers to the northwest of Xichang. Though this agricultural village is full of plastic-covered greenhouses, hardly anyone plants onions, residents said. The greenhouses are for grapes. No one had heard of inviting an online celebrity to help sell onions.  

Meng’s account lists “onions from Liangshan” under items she sells. The price is 16.9 yuan (US$2.4) for 2.5 kilograms and 26.9 yuan (US$3.9) for 4.5 kilograms. The supplier’s address is “Xichang City Xingsheng Yanbing Local Specialty Shop in Lianhe Village, Xichang.” On the road outside Baisha, there is a business called Liangshan Yanbing Agricultural Development Company, which NewsChina found was established in August 2019, and the legal representative is Ren Yanbing. The address of the company is the same as the specialty shop in Lianhe Village, around 25 kilometers from Xichang City.  

A source in Xichang who knows Ren Yanbing told NewsChina that Ren runs a company that supplies products for Liangshan influencers, including the “Baisha” onions. “The company is the intermediary and buys [products like] those onions from elsewhere and then sells them through these celebrities. Ren pays these celebrities commissions,” the source said. 

Pi Te and his wife Ah Mo, a couple from Zhongsuo County, Liangshan, were hired by an influencer known as Han Wen, to do livestream sales. Han, whose real surname is Liu, is under police investigation

Supply Chain 
According to NewsChina’s investigation, other Douyin celebrities in Liangshan work with Ren. Liangshan Ah Ze, an account with 529,000 followers, sells the same onions Meng recommends. Topping the product list on Qu Bu’s account are the same onions.  

“These internet celebrities claim they receive invitations to support farmers to sell their products, but what they sell comes from suppliers,” the Xichang source said. He said almost all the online celebrities in Liangshan are managed by a marketing and production team and a boss like Ren, who is in charge of product suppliers. These bosses mostly come from Pujiang, a city around 100 kilometers southwest of Sichuan’s capital Chengdu, which is a center for agricultural products logistics.  

The bosses who specialize in providing goods for online celebrities are most often employed by the celebrities, although they are likely the biggest financial beneficiaries. In this industry chain, the role of the online celebrity is to attract online traffic to promote sales and they receive a commission from a boss like Ren.  

The anonymous livestream industry source said they mostly collaborate in two ways: one is when the supply chain boss designs and facilitates the emergence of an existing influencer, and the other is the supply chain boss who scouts for new influencers and seeks them out if they have potential.  

The “protagonists” chosen by the boss should be visually appealing and have a “miserable” backstory to share. They should be eloquent too. “Whatever boy we pick to work with us should be good looking, he doesn’t have to be handsome, but he needs to have his own style so viewers will easily remember him,” producer Ah Liu said.  

The online celebrities get different amounts of commissions. The livestream source said that walnut sales attract some 18 to 20 percent commission, but honey garners 30 percent. “The more followers, the more sales, the higher the commissions,” the source said, adding the highest commission goes up to 40 percent. Meng Yang can make up to 500,000 yuan (US$71,856) a week selling walnuts online. “However, the biggest winner who gets the most profits is the supply chain owner. They can really make a fortune,” added the source.  

Many products Liangshan influencers sell come from Pujiang, some 360 kilometers away. The reporter bought some Liangshan green peppercorns from Qu Bu and Zhao Ling’er on Douyin, and the logistics information indicated the product was sent from Pujiang, not Liangshan.  

A supply chain boss based in Pujiang involved in “Liangshan” products surnamed Lin told the reporter that his company has deals with online celebrities across the country and sells dozens of products. He disclosed that some herbs like ginseng and saffron tagged with a Liangshan provenance are purchased from neighboring Yunnan Province, apart from a limited number of seasonal fruits that may be grown in Liangshan.  

Liangshan produce, due to the mountainous remote location, is of higher quality and tastes better, and therefore is more expensive. Suppliers buy cheaper products elsewhere, like walnuts from Yunnan Province.  

Some netizens have questioned the authenticity of the local specialties recommended by online celebrities. For example, netizens found Liangshan honey recommended by Qu and Zhao was sent from Nanjing, East China’s Jiangsu Province. As of April 15, this honey that cost 98 yuan (US$14) had 24,000 orders. The honey producer, Nanjing Jinran Food Company, was established in August 2016 and is registered in Liuhe District, Nanjing.  

“Some internet celebrities shot videos of them carrying baskets up to the mountains to collect local products like walnuts. It seems that what they sell comes from the mountains,” the livestream industry source told NewsChina. “In reality, this can’t possibly be true – they only collect a dozen kilograms of walnuts, but they sell hundreds of orders at once. The customers don’t question how much they really gather themselves. This is the chaotic situation of the livestreaming e-commerce industry.”  

One businessman in Liangshan told NewsChina he is very concerned about the sales of goods that allegedly come from Liangshan. “Eventually, there will be a real negative impact on the sales of real Liangshan products, and it will strip away all the benefits for people here.” A lawyer who spoke on condition of anonymity told NewsChina: “From the civil law perspective, these internet celebrities are conducting fraud, and if their fraud involves huge amounts of money, they are indeed suspected of conducting criminal acts.”  

Thanks to media attention, online platforms including Douyin have started to take action to regulate some of the livestreamers. NewsChina learned that since mid-June, Qu and Zhao’s Douyin accounts have been banned.

Farmers in Jiequ Village, Zhaojue County (Photo by Liu Xiangnan)