Censors silence popular influencer around Tiananmen Square Massacre anniversary

foreignpolicy

June 4, the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre—in which People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces killed hundreds and perhaps thousands of protesters as well as crushing demonstrations across the country—is a fraught moment in China. In Hong Kong, the public once freely memorialized the massacre. This year, authorities again used the national security law passed in 2020 to block gatherings; six people were arrested.

In mainland China, the anniversary claimed an unexpected victim: e-commerce influencer Li Jiaqi, widely known as the “Lipstick Brother” or “Lipstick King.” During a livestream on June 3, Li was presented with a cake that resembled a tank. Censors promptly pulled the show offline, and it hasn’t returned, with Li’s team citing “technical difficulties.” Early June is a prime time for online shopping ahead of June 18, China’s second-biggest day for online sales. But Li’s name now returns blank results on search platforms, even on e-commerce sites.

Li and his team likely did not plan for the tank imagery to coincide with the Tiananmen Square anniversary. Military equipment is often cutely reproduced in China, with even playgrounds bearing pictures of armored personnel carriers or helicopters; a cake that looks like a tank isn’t an unusual idea. Li’s background also doesn’t suggest a willingness to burn down his online empire for a symbolic gesture. As his nickname suggests, Li specializes in selling cosmetics and became famous a few years ago for marathon sessions of lipstick application.

Streaming is a huge and competitive business in China. By 2019, Li was worth a few million dollars. But his popularity exploded during the coronavirus pandemic: He now has more than 40 million followers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, and he sold a record $1.9 billion of products via the major e-commerce platform Taobao in a single day last year. (It was Singles Day, the Chinese equivalent of Black Friday.)

Following the government line, in the last year, Li had turned away from promoting international products, doubled down on patriotic language, and encouraged his viewers to buy Chinese-made goods. It seems that the tank cake was an unfortunate coincidence leapt on by sensitive censors—a kind of paranoia that is common during tense times in Chinese politics. But that neither Li nor his team spotted the potential error speaks to the success of the silence around Tiananmen. Successful Chinese influencers are attuned to political dangers; Li hadn’t planned a livestream for June 4, suggesting he was at least aware it was a sensitive date.

However, many young Chinese are unaware that the Tiananmen Square massacre ever happened. On diaspora social media, some nationalists argue that the students and workers who were killed were terrorists or that the violence was justified. But even these pro-government arguments are censored within mainland China. Paradoxically, the censors’ paranoia may have made more people aware of the massacre, as they search on as-yet-uncensored forums or foreign websites for details of what happened to Li.

It’s unclear what will happen to the influencer. He may well return, chastened, to streaming in a week or two. But he was already vulnerable on other grounds, thanks to a homophobic push by the government that began last year. Li does not discuss his personal life, save for his five Bichon Frises. But in his public persona—a man selling feminine beauty products to an audience he addresses as “sisters”—he operates in an established but fragile space for entertainers who don’t conform to conventional masculinity.

Li had so far dodged the clampdowns on “unmasculine” performers and streamers. But in China under President Xi Jinping, the combination of tanks near June 4 and lipstick on men might bring down a marketing empire.

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