China’s Lipstick King reappears, months after Tiananmen ‘tank cake’ row

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Top Photo Corporation/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Top Photo Corporation/Rex/Shutterstock

China’s leading shopping livestreamer, Li Jiaqi, has returned to online commerce platforms almost four months after his feed was suddenly cut, which viewers suspected was linked to the errant appearance of a tank-shaped cake.

Li, also known as the Lipstick King for his ability to move huge amounts of product on his sales channels, briefly appeared on Alibaba Group’s Taobao marketplace on Tuesday evening.

The two-hour appearance was unannounced but word quickly spread online about his return. From 7pm to 9pm the audience reportedly grew from about 100,000 to more than 50 million. Sitting alongside co-anchor Wang Wang, Li appeared more subdued than usual as he promoted a range of basic items including mobile phone holders, sneakers and cleaning products.

He began by welcoming viewers and thanking them for their support, urging them to spend “rationally”, before quickly moving on to the sales portion of the broadcast.

Related: ‘Oh my God, buy it!’ China’s livestream shopping stars risk being censored

“I feel like he is not opened up,” one commenter remarked. “They looked very cautious,” said another. “It’s so sad!”

Few comments discussed his disappearance but some made references suggesting a general air of caution. After one person asked: “What happened to Li Jiaqi?” Another replied: “It’s not his fault, but it’s better not to know. Who knows the inside story of his disappearance, and why did he return? Please give me more details, please!”

Li hasn’t been seen online since 3 June this year, when his feed was abruptly cut. He blamed technical issues but there was rampant speculation among viewers that the stream was deliberately ended by operators after a cake was presented on screen which resembled a military tank. Images of tanks are often used in reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre on 4 June 1989, and the date is highly sensitive in China.

Discussion of the incident, in which Chinese authorities killed unknown numbers of student protesters in Beijing, is banned, and censorship is so strict that many in China have little to no knowledge of the event. Ironically, the cutting of Li’s stream prompted many viewers to begin searching for the significance of the tank reference at the time. His return appeared to spark similar quests for clarity.

“What happened? I can’t find anything on Baidu,” one person noted on Tuesday. “Something can’t be said, Baidu can’t find it.”

Li was one of China’s top three shopping livestreamers, who have become national celebrities for their abilities to move mountains of products by anchoring broadcasts that resemble higher-tech versions of 1980s and 90s TV shopping channels.

On platforms such as Taobao and Douyin – China’s TikTok – billions of dollars are spent on the anchors’ interactive livestreams. Livestreaming accounts for 10% of Chinese e-commerce revenue, according to management consultancy firm McKinsey, and underpins major shopping and sales events.

Li’s management agency, Mieone, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin