Cyber celebrities cashing in on China’s lonely masses

By Qi Xijia Source:Global Times Published: 2016/8/4 18:38:39

Illustration: Lu Ting/GT

Zhang Dayi, one of China's best-known wanghong, reportedly earns 300 million yuan ($45.26 million) per year, far succeeding Chinese actress Fan Bingbing, who according to Forbes earned only $21 million last year.

What's a wanghong? It refers to a growing group of Chinese "cyber celebrities" who have garnered fame and fortune from their online Web channels.

Though not as globally famous as movies stars, wanghong have somehow managed to enchant hundreds of millions of netizens across China.

No, wanghong don't star in million-dollar productions or pose nude. They simply sit in front of their Weibo Web cams chatting with their audiences, most whom are lonely young people who just want someone to talk to.

Because of their rising influence, wanghong have turned their Web presences into a burgeoning micro-economy that is quickly rivaling the salaries of most A-list actors, musicians and athletes.

Once they have attracted a verified following of at least a couple hundred million viewers, there are two primary ways for wanghong to cash in.

One is to get endorsed by a clothing brand and wear the clothes during their webcasts. The other is to convert clicks into cash. By monetizing their video channels, advertisers and social media platforms are willing to pay wanghong handsomely.

This enormous earning potential has led to a rapid rise of wanghong training centers across China, where aspiring Web celebs can learn how to do all the things it takes to attract a following and transform one's self into an Internet sensation.

Yiwu, a city of 1.2 million in Zhejiang Province, used to be known for its small commodity trade. Today, it has become famous for leading the country in its cultivation of the next big wanghong.

According to, Yiwu Industrial and Commercial College has started a new course for hopeful wanghong. Since it was launched last fall, 32 students from other disciplines such as hotel management and real estate have attended the course. After three years, students will be awarded with an associate degree.

But many wanghong watchers believe that commercializing the wanghong phenomenon is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, it potentially offers a lucrative shortcut in life for unskilled, uneducated Chinese. Indeed, a recent poll found that 54 percent of post-1995s Chinese consider wanghong their "ideal job."

On the other hand, turning wanghong into an industry will destroy everything that originally made wanghong so cool, such as their unique outlooks on life, their quirky personalities and bizarre daily routines.

Luo Yufeng, one of China's very first wanghong, gained attention in 2009 for her high expectations and conditions in seeking a boyfriend. "He must be an elite with a degree in economics or similar from Peking University or Tsinghua University and must also be 176 to 183 centimeters tall and good-looking."

What made her requirements so funny was that Luo herself was only a cashier at a supermarket and of average looks. Nonetheless, her audacity made her very popular among other Chinese women of similar backgrounds.

But not all wanghong are destined for easy street. What the courses don't tell their trainees is about the hardship and the poor quality of living that most wanghong have had to endure during their quest to become famous.

Wanghong basically have to spend their every waking moment in front of computers and Web cameras entertaining their audiences.

According to insiders, the average life span of an ordinary wanghong is not three years or even three months but three DAYS!

Due to the recent over-saturation of wanghong on Chinese social media platforms and the competitive nature of their profession, pausing one's live broadcast even for a few hours (to run errands or attend to family matters) can instantly cost a wanghong thousands of followers who will just switch to a new channel. Most aspiring wanghong can't handle that kind of commitment.

There is also the concern that wanghong training courses are purposely spreading false information to directionless youth that by enrolling in their schools they are guaranteed to make quick fortunes and profitable endorsement deals.

The harsh reality is that only a very small minority of already-established wanghong, like comedian Papi Jiang, who made headlines recently for her outlandish commentary, have what it takes to rise to the top and catch the attention of corporate executives.

Taking all that into account, it's statistically easier to become a doctor or lawyer than a successful wanghong.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.

Posted in: TwoCents, Metro Shanghai

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