A prominent Chinese live streamer who may have drawn government scrutiny for showing off a tank-shaped cake ahead of the 33-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre suddenly reappeared this week following a three-month digital disappearance.
The streamer, “Lipstick King” Austin Li Jiaqi, reportedly returned to a channel on Alibaba’s Taobao Marketplace ecommerce platform where he went about business as usual, showing off home supplies, underwear, and other goods, according to The South China Morning Post. Viewers turned out in droves, with the Post estimating the streamer amassed some 50 million viewers within two hours.
Li’s warm welcome comes three months after his last show was allegedly cut short, mid-stream, over a piece of cake. In early June, just one day before the 33-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Li and his co-host held up a plate of ice cream with chocolate cookies on the sides and a chocolate stick that, if you squint enough, looks like a cartoon tank. The Livestream suddenly stopped, leading many to speculate whether or not Chinese government regulators stepped in to censor the streamer. Li, for his part, attributed the takedown to a technical error, according to Insider. Around 100 days of digital silence ensued.
Chinese regulators have spent decades scrubbing accounts of the Tiananmen Square massacre, where hundreds of protestors were killed on the streets of Beijing, in part by tanks. As The Citizen Lab notes, references to the massacre are one of the most strictly censored topics in the already broadly restrictive Chinese internet. Those efforts include keyword filtering as well as not uncommon social media takedowns sometimes passed off as “system maintenance.” VPN shutdowns, digital surveillance, and increased social media censorship all reportedly ramp up even further in anticipation of the massacre’s anniversary.
Some observers, like China Digital Times analyst Eric Liu suggest Li may not have even been even aware of the date’s significance.
“This by itself highlights how successful China’s censorship apparatus is,” Liu told Vice News in June.
Regardless of his intention, Li’s tank cake stream reportedly sent waves of his millions of followers searching on Weibo and other social media outlets for answers about his takedown. Liu says regulators never took the extra step to restrict Li’s name for search results, possibly to avoid creating a snowball effect of interest around the issue.
This isn’t the first example of a prominent Chinese public figure going radio silent after a perceived political controversy. In late 2020, Alibaba founder and mega-billionaire Jack Ma disappeared from the public spotlight not long after giving a controversial speech where he reportedly criticized the Chinese financial system. Ma, who had developed a reputation for speaking critically of the government, wasn’t heard from again for three months, leading some to wonder if he was even still alive.
For Li, the unexpected hiatus hasn’t seemed to damper his fans’ intensity. According to The South China Morning Post, the products featured on his live stream sold out so fast he had to tell his viewers to slow down and “shop rationally.”
“Please don’t buy the products just to support us,” Li reportedly said.