SHENYANG, China — Yu Li is ready for his close-up. Hair: poofed. Face: powdered. Any minute now, he will be live on camera, raking in the cash.
From a studio in the northern city of Shenyang, Yu, who goes by Brother Li, spends hours a day broadcasting on YY, a social network. When he cracks a joke (which is often) or gives a shout out (ditto), fans send him “virtual gifts,” which represent real money.
His show is a mix of chitchat, music and humor, all steeped in “dongbei,” or “northeast,” culture. He also founded and runs a talent agency, Wudi Media, which trains and promotes wannabe online stars.
On the other side of the screen are people brushing their teeth or getting through the last minutes of a long shift. Some are aspiring celebrities hoping to parlay their voice, looks or facility with boob jokes into online fame. For a cut of their earnings, Yu will help them out. To the tens of thousands who tune in to Yu’s show each night, his life is the stuff of legend, the very embodiment of President Xi Jinping’s favorite slogan: the Chinese dream.
Although live-streaming is popular many places, including the United States, China’s broadcasting boom, like much here, is bigger. About half of China’s 700 million Internet users have tried live-streaming apps — that’s more than the population of the United States.
In America, social media influencers make money off of ads and endorsements. Some Chinese stars do, too, but most of the money comes directly from fans in the form of gifts — sort of like a virtual tip jar. China’s live-stream market was worth at least $3 billion in 2016, up 180 percent year over year, according to iResearch. The sector will soon generate more money than the Chinese movie box office, analysts predict.
The pace of change tracks explosive growth in the country’s tech space, part of a government push to shift from manufacturing and resource extraction to a service economy powered, in part, by the Web.
While U.S. firms such as Facebook and Google remain blocked in China, Tencent and other local companies are thriving. YY started as a gaming portal but has grown into a social communication platform that is a leader in live-streaming.
As a Rust Belt kid who built a digital firm backed by Big Tech, Yu could not be more on message. But his experience also shows the limits of the state’s tech-utopian plans.
China’s new economy, it turns out, looks a lot like the old one. Same face, new filter.
Watching Yu’s nightly broadcasts, what’s most striking is not the streaming speed, but how status quo things feel, from the sidelining of women, to the push and pull between censors and creators, to the difficulty of spreading the benefits beyond the few.
Yu comes from a hardscrabble stretch of the North China plain, the region once known as Manchuria. By 16, he was hustling for mechanic gigs in a small city. When he wasn’t fixing trucks, he visited Internet cafes. That’s all there was to do.
While playing video games, he started experimenting with a vocal style known as “hanmai,” or “microphone shouting.” When streaming started to take off, he developed his own show.
In 2014, he founded Wudi. Between his show and the business, he now often brings in more than $100,000 a month, he said.
To keep the agency growing, he needs a constant supply of rookies, so Yu is all about proteges. Spend a day with him and you’ll meet a half-dozen. Each, in turn, has proteges of their own, forming a protege pyramid of sorts.
Among them: Lu Yongzhi, 26, a cattle-trader-turned-live-streamer whose farmer stepfather doesn’t watch his show because he doesn’t own a computer and can’t use a smartphone.
“I told the village my son made money doing this and they didn’t believe me,” his stepfather, Lu Guofu, said.
Now they do. When the younger Lu started out, he was sleeping on a friend’s floor and broadcasting eight hours a day, often for pocket change. A couple of years after signing with Yu, he eats breakfast in Balenciaga sneakers and pulls in thousands a month, he said.
And that’s what keeps the newbies coming. It’s free to open a live-stream account but it is tough to get viewers. Streamers like Lu spend a portion of their shows giving shout-outs or stage time to hopefuls further down the pyramid — exposure, usually for a price.
On a recent broadcast, Yu showcased two young, female prospects. One was in her early 20s and so nervous she could barely sing her song — a ditty about wanting to “eat, eat, eat” but not get fat.
The second performed confidently, listening patiently as Yu gave her tips.
At one point, he cracked a joke about breasts. They sang on.
The rise of stars like Yu has turned the streaming boom into a digital gold rush. Teenagers quit school to strike it rich; farmers leave their land to try their luck.
The lure of fast, easy money brings out the odd and extreme: a woman known as Gourmet Sister Feng made her name by eating goldfish and glass, among other things.
Aspiring stars ask surgeons to give them an “online star face”— high forehead, round eyes, long nose, thin jaw — and use creams to keep their skin a cadaverous shade of white.
Yu is often asked to weigh in on plastic surgery. “It is normal to want to be beautiful,” he said. “As long as you don’t do big surgeries, Botox, injections, fillers and skin whitening are fine.”
With looks playing a big role, China’s censors try to draw a line between sexy and sexually suggestive. Last year, amid a crackdown on live content, they banned the “seductive” eating of bananas.
Some live-streamers worry that ever-changing rules will make it tough to make money, but the real problem, it seems, is the pay structure.
For every $1,000 in virtual gifts you earn, you might see a few hundred dollars, streamers said, with YY taking 50 percent and your agency or manager taking 20 to 30 percent more.
The lifestyle, meanwhile, can be grueling.
Lu Mingming, a 25-year-old rookie, spends four hours a day alone in a studio packed with plush toys. The hardest part of her new job, she said, was mustering the energy to appear cute and happy for hours on end, often seven days a week.
“They want to see you singing from the heart,” she said.
While they broadcast, messages from viewers flash across the screen in real time. Some comments are encouraging, others are not. Fans tend to want the same old songs again and again, Lu said.
Several streamers said it was tough to come up with fresh material when they spent most of their waking hours inside, alone. Lu Yongzhi, the former cattle trader with the flashy sneakers, calls his new life “very boring.”
Even Yu, sitting in a home heavy on chandeliers, living the live-stream dream, was skeptical.
When he started streaming it was the Wild West of China’s Internet. He felt free to say what he wanted, he had fun.
“In the past, even though I didn’t have money, I could do whatever I wanted. Now, I have to watch every word I say,” he said.
His advice to newcomers was to focus on developing their talent rather than trying to get famous fast by making a scene. “Don’t put fireworks in your pants,” he said.
Luna Lin reported from Shenyang and Gongzhuling.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the YY social network is run by the tech giant Tencent. The article has been updated.