Zhibo is a weekly column in which Beijing-based American Taylor Hartwell documents his journey down the rabbit hole of Chinese livestreaming app YingKe. If you know nothing about the livestreaming (直播; “zhibo”) phenomenon in China, start here.
I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but a few weeks ago the world almost came to an end.
I was walking and streaming, as I will, and someone asked me if foreigners *know about* Mobike and Ofo — the dockless bike share services that make scarlet fever look like an underachiever:
I get a lot of questions along the lines of Can foreigners do/understand [insert incredibly obvious/simple thing here], so this didn’t strike me as something worth the spike in blood pressure over. I just laughed, said something along the lines of “Have we ever!?!?” and unlocked one of the million or so bikes scattered across the sidewalk (seriously, they’re everywhere). I wasn’t actually planning on attempting to ride a bike and stream at the same time, but I hopped on and joked a bit about how I didn’t think Beijing traffic was dangerous enough so it was time for an upgrade.
Yeah, sure, whatever. Get through the 国贸 bridge at rush hour and I’ll be impressed.
Within seconds, the stream cut off. I didn’t think to screenshot the pop-up, but it was something straightforward about how my stream had been unexpectedly stopped. Then, around a minute later, I got a message that — roughly translated — went something like this:
Dear Yingke User, you have violated the app’s rules and your account has been temporarily suspended. Our moderators are reviewing your case and will update you shortly. Thank you for understanding.
Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit.
[It’s not good when a transcription of your thought process looks like a teenager who just got access to Twitter for the first time.]
So I waited with bated breath for my fate to be handed down from Mt. Yingke-lympus, knowing full well that if they told me I was banned, I was banned. I’ve actually met a few Yingke higher-ups and moderators who I could probably go to in the case of a problem since then. But at the time, I was alone in the darkness, praying that the streaming gods would take pity on me. China is not, after all, particularly well known for being a land of due process when it comes to deciding what to ban and/or censor.
Thankfully, I ended up just being blocked from streaming for an hour — what I’ve since learned is the lightest possible form of Yingke punishment.
Imagine heavenly choirs singing
Of course, this has nothing to do with it being a Chinese app. There’s an obvious reason for having rules about streaming and biking — or streaming and driving, for that matter. Beijing traffic is already a nightmare full of morons staring at their phones and streaming apps would be responsible for a lot of collisions if they didn’t strictly enforce a no-streaming-and-driving policy.
But it is a Chinese app, and my brush with digital death made me curious about the official rules of Yingke. We’ve joked before (in this column’s very first article, in fact) about the infamous banana ban. What other rules might Yingke have about what you can and can’t broadcast to millions of people?
As it turns out, quite a few.
I had a rush of excitement as I realized that figuring out all the rules and banned behaviors would make for a fun and informative article. Unfortunately, the source of that fun information takes the form of Yingke’s Terms of Service Agreement. Imagine the iTunes stuff you always skip through, but in Chinese.
Actually, you don’t need to imagine it:
Here’s a light sampling
So for all you aspiring 网红’s (wang hong, literally “net red” — slang for internet celebrity) out there, I’ve parsed through the mountains of forbidden behavior and language, and summarized the key points for you here. Shocker of shockers, it turns out there’s quite a bit you’re not supposed to do on Yingke – so we’ll be breaking this into two posts.
1. Don’t Do Traitorous Things
Unsurprisingly, the rules get straight to what’s most important — making sure that goofy people in their bedrooms aren’t using their platform to undermine the PRC. This is sentence one of paragraph one after the standard legalese:
严禁 (strictly forbidden) 进行 (carry out) 反党 (anti-party) 反政府 (anti-government) 或 (or) 带有 (to have or involve) 侮辱 (insult/humiliation) 诋毁 (slander/defamation) 党 (party) 和 (and)国家 (country) 的行为 (actions/behavior)
- Don’t violate the principles of the Chinese Constitution.
Oh great, now I have to read an even LONGER terms of service agreement?
- Don’t endanger national security or give out state secrets.
Don’t think I’m the targeted threat here. Check.
- Don’t hurt the honor or interests of China.
All I do is gush about Chinese food and the mysteries of the language. Check.
- Don’t be racist or instigate ethnic “hatred.”
I repeat the “all people are just people no matter where they’re from” mantra a thousand times a day on Yingke. Check.
I want to make a snarky joke about how clearly this doesn’t apply to any non-Chinese ethnic groups, but I’ve seen nasty anti-foreigner comments disappear from my videos moments after posting, so I’m inclined to give Yingke the benefit of the doubt.
- Don’t go against the country’s religious policies and don’t promote cults or superstitions.
This one is worth looking at the actual language for: 破坏国家宗教政策，宣扬邪教和封建迷信的. The first part is pretty straightforward: breaking/destroying – country – religion – policy, but the second part is more interesting to me. Don’t spread or propagate (宣扬) evil teachings (邪教, meaning cult or heretical religious sect), or feudal (封建) superstitions (迷).
To be honest, I’m a little surprised they’re not more specific that you can’t start preaching your religious text of choice, though perhaps 邪教 covers any religion, no matter how mainstream.
Either way, the closest I ever get to religious discussion on Yingke is making fun of zodiac signs, so I think I’m safe.
- Don’t spread rumors or undermine social order/stability
Based on some of the private messages (and pictures) I receive, I’m a little worried my presence might have damaged a few relationships. Other than that, check.
- Don’t spread violence or terror or crime.
- Don’t incite gatherings/mobs/protests/demonstrations/etc.
I actively beg people not to try to find me in real life. Check-plus.
- Don’t discuss any other topics that might have negative political consequences.
Check. The only problem I have with this is that you made me look up all the words I didn’t know in the first eight rules when this could have covered all of them.
2. Don’t Do Crime Things
Fair enough, I suppose. If you want a slice of that sweet, sweet zhibo pie, you need to abide by the following rules:
- Don’t drugs.
That’s not a typo — do nothing relating to drugs in any way. Don’t do drugs. Don’t show drugs. Don’t explain how drugs are made (讲解毒品制作过程), and certainly don’t try to explain that heroin and opium are one kind of thing and that certain other green things are what your grandpa has happily puffed away on for decades. Don’t argue about what constitutes a “drug.” Don’t die on this hill — what’s good enough for the current USA-DOJ is good enough for you (in this and only this situation).
- Don’t scam people or promote pyramid schemes.
You mean I can’t sell my NutriBoost Herbal Solutions™ packages (a $189 value now yours for just $29.99!!!) on Yingke? Harrumph-check.
- Don’t show gambling or prostitution or anything of a related nature.
There’s a Casablanca *I’m shocked, shocked!* joke in here somewhere, which eludes me. But still, check.
- Don’t show overly erotic stuff.
Does my soothing voice count? (Sex stuff has its own section(s), so we’ll come back to this in Part 2.)
- No green screens or mosaics.
I have no f@#ing idea. No one has been able to explain this to me yet. Send help.
- Don’t show disabled people or soldiers.
This is not the last time Yingke mentions not streaming either disabled people or soldiers in one item. I can see the logic of both — avoiding exploitation and political sensitivity, respectively — but why they’d want to connect the two is beyond my feeble understanding. Nonetheless, check — unless my Chinese counts as a disability.
3. Don’t Do Dangerous Things, You Fame-Hungry Idiots
Given how I ended up on this topic, this was of particular interest to me. Turns out that riding a bicycle is NOT the extent of Yingke’s safety concerns. Here’s what you can’t do, for safety reasons:
- Don’t have knives or guns or other life-threatening tools
Fair enough. Check.
- Don’t do things that endanger/hurt others.
No public beatings makes enough sense, I suppose (spoilsports). Check.
- Don’t do things that endanger YOUR safety.
This is probably one of the most significant rules on Yingke, and justifiably so. People will do anything to get famous, and Chinese live-streaming is no exception. I’ve talked a lot about all the positives of zhibo — social interaction, potential for extra income, plain old fun, etc. — but as with any multi-million-dollar industry, there’s an ugly and exploitative side to it.
You won’t find much about the actual deaths on Google (at least, I haven’t — shoot me a link if you do!), but there are stories out there on Chinese social media of hosts pulling dangerous stunts (usually extreme binge drinking) at the requests of their fans. There was one incredibly hard-to-watch video that circulated a while back of a woman actually passing out after drinking too much — my understanding is that she died. There are less tragic (but no less horrifying) stories of people eating live rats, chugging hundreds of raw eggs, and doing just about anything else to get those likes and follows.
So, knowing that, I fully understand why simply sitting on a bike could get me in trouble. With millions of users, Yingke doesn’t have time to pick and choose what’s *properly* dangerous. If it could lead to a story that opens with “…….dies while live-streaming,” it’s a no-go.
(The specific issue of alcohol will be addressed in Part 2.)
- Don’t hurt/kill/abuse animals
See above rat-eating concerns. I also imagine this takes into consideration how China is viewed worldwide when it comes to animal cruelty (don’t think they want the Yulin Dog Meat festival being live-streamed). I tend to do my animal-slaughtering AFTER streaming, so… check.
- Don’t do anything else that might be dangerous.
Gotta cover all your bases.
So far, so good — come back next week and we’ll talk about sex, drinking, and marketing.
Cover illustration by Marjorie Wang