The Shining Promise and Dashed Dreams of China’s Live Shopping Craze

Growing up, Taiping could hardly have imagined making a fortune by any means, let alone by talking into his phone. Born in the plains of Inner Mongolia, a region in northern China where temperatures can plummet to minus 20 degrees, he left school after fifth grade, working as a herdsman, security guard and truck driver. He hardly spoke Mandarin, China’s dominant language, as his schoolteachers had taught mostly in Mongolian.

In 2015, noticing that his town’s scenic grasslands were attracting tourists, Taiping, then 30 years old, decided to borrow $15,000 to make and sell his own beef jerky. But weeks later, the tourist season ended.

Then a friend introduced him to Kuaishou.

The app, pronounced kwai-show, started as China’s first short video platform, a place where users shared clips of themselves dancing, cooking or harvesting crops. Taiping quickly saw business potential: He began posting prerecorded videos about his jerky, shipping it to people who messaged him to buy.

Soon, a different opportunity arose. Kuaishou itself had also been looking for ways to make money, and around the time Taiping joined, it introduced livestreaming. At first, streamers earned money purely by performing, trying to attract fans who could send virtual tips; the platform took a cut. But before long, some streamers began staging outlandish stunts to lure viewers, like eating light bulbs, or discussing topics considered taboo, like teenage pregnancy.

Chinese officials, alarmed by what they called “vulgar” content, ordered the company to clean up. Kuaishou scrambled for a new direction — and, in 2018, landed on live sales. By encouraging streamers to sell products, it could still capitalize on the popularity of livestreaming, but in a more predictable context.

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