How does China’s livestreaming economy operate?

Webcam on tripod (Photo by yoppy, CC BY 2.0)

Project team

  • Chan Ka Yi
  • Law Hiu Ching
  • Pang Chun Ni

Project supervisor

Tom McDonald

Approach to project

  • Theoretical inquiry

Project theme(s)

  • economy
  • media/communication

Project work

Research topic

Live streaming platforms have grown rapidly on the Chinese Internet. By December 2016, there were 344 million live streaming users in China, with an increase of 20 million users within one year. The proliferation of live stream has been considered as a business opportunity because of its profitability. It is reported that Bigeve Cheung, a famous Chinese live streaming celebrity earned more than 300 million RMB dollars in 2016. For this reason, many livestreaming companies have been established to support this industry.

While the proliferation of livestreaming platforms and users have been predominantly and economically considered as a business opportunity, they have also created some impacts on society. Hence, as sociology students, we are interested to know how China’s live streaming economy operates and how its operation impacts Chinese society. We are interested in several issues, for example, the gift-giving practice on the livestreaming platforms, the relationship between the livestreamers and the viewers, and their perception of gifts or money.

We, therefore, set three research questions. They are:

  1. Why and how do people give and receive gifts on the live streaming platforms?
  2. Do transactions taking place on the live streaming platform encompass a moral economy?
  3. How do different people on the live streaming platforms perceive the morality of money?


In order to answer the research questions, we adopted two methodologies. They are (1) online ethnography and (2) interview.

(1) Online ethnography
We participated in the online chats on the livestreaming platforms in order to
understand the interaction between the live streamers and the audience, for example, how the live streamers responded to his/ her fans’ request and in what situation did the fans give him/ her gifts. We recorded the live streams because it helped us not to miss anything important when we got the chance to watch back the video later on.

(2) Interview
We interviewed three live streamers broadcasting game and sports shows, two viewers watching live streams, and an investor of a livestreaming company. We conducted the interviews through Wechat as this was a popular Chinese communicative tool. By doing interview, we understood more about the psychological thought and feelings of different parties towards the live stream and compared the data generated from the online ethnography to see whether they were complementary or contradictory to each other.

We did online ethnography first and then interviewed different parties. As none of our group members had previously participated in livestreaming, this ordering of research methods allowed us to have a broad overview in the first place so we could acquire an in-depth understanding of the industry. Also, the online participation provided us some new insights so we could ask more related questions in the interviews later.

Major findings

After conducting the online ethnography and interviews, we gained two findings.

The first finding is about the “morality of money”. Simmel suggested that “money simultaneously exerts both a disintegrating and a unifying effect”. The responses of game show and sports show live streamer reflected that they believed in money’s disintegrating effect. During the interviews, they insisted that money was not what they wanted or what they were concerned about, distinguished themselves from other live streamers, especially the live streamers in the “appearance” category and criticized other live streamers for some reactions with the purpose of making money. These evidence showed us that they held a negative attitude towards the money on the live streaming platforms, and had moral authority over other live streamers. From their point of view, money was bad in the sense that it would pollute their intention of doing live stream as well as the ideal “friendship”.

However, on the other hand, the viewers had a contrasting view; they believed in money’s unifying effect. From our observation and interviews, we found that those viewers giving a lot of expensive gifts had an expectation that the money they spent could facilitate their relationship with the live streamers. Some live streamers, especially those in the “appearance” category encouraged the viewers to have such belief so as to receive more gifts. For example, they said “if you love me, then give me 520 highlighters (gift)” and “thank you, GorGor (call a viewer giving her a rocket which is the most expensive gift brother)” after receiving expensive gifts from the male viewers.

The second finding is that there is no free gift in reality. The viewers’ expectation actually reflected that they conformed to the cultural norm of reciprocity, and this reminded us of another anthropological idea that “no gift is free”. Although the term “gift” is defined as “something acquired without compensation”, the act of gift-giving on the platform, especially on the “appearance” platform was not that case. The act of gift-giving on the platform seemed to show no difference from normal economic transaction; the receivers were always expected to pay the givers back. For example, if the viewers gain enjoyment after watching a live stream, they will give gifts to the live streamers. However, when they send out gifts, they actually expect the live streamers to give them special rewards/ responses such as a kiss in return for their expensive gifts. The expectation of the viewers for returns and the obligation of the live streamers to repay have been institutionalized as a special practice particularly in the “appearance” category.

Final work description

Our final work was a live stream on the Facebook page of the Department of Sociology. Our live stream consisted of three parts. Firstly, we introduced our project including our project topic, reasons for choosing the topic, and the research questions. Secondly, we introduced our methodologies and our interviewees. Thirdly, we presented our findings by providing evidences we collected.

We live streamed on the department’s Facebook page because it already had a basis of followers and the followers were believed to be interested in Sociology, which allowed us to have interaction with appropriate audience during the presentation. Also, considering the fact that most of the followers on this Facebook Page were local people, we did the live stream in Cantonese instead of English or Mandarin.

We uploaded our live stream on Youtube and added English subtitles to it.

Knowledge integrated

  • Capstone fair: Preparing for the capstone fair was a great challenge for us. We did not have any experience of designing leaflet, poster and banner. But our capstone fair needed all these materials. We had no choice but to learn Photoshop again.
  • Live stream: One of the skills we got from this project is how to do a live stream. Before this, we thought it would be simple and easy. But turns out there could be a lot of technical problems especially three of us are not really good at computers. As we did not want the live stream to be another boring presentation, we decided to add a lot of fun elements in it. We edited a previous TVB news clip as a short introduction before we started talking about our findings. We also edited a video and added subtitles to it in order to show how the live streamer seduced the audience to buy her gifts. Apart from adding videos to our live stream, we screencapped the pictures, which are the interview we did with a fan on the live streaming platform. As the video recording our interviews were soundless, we solved this problem by letting two of our group mates play the interview once again in the live stream.

Students’ reflections

We are glad that we chose to present our final work in the format of live stream, which is what we have been working for this whole semester. We totally failed when we first attempted. We did not have any audiences when we did our first live stream on Douyu, which is a famous live streaming platform in China. We realized that a lack of audiences would be a big problem. No matter how great we present, we want someone to hear it. We struggled a bit and not sure whether doing our final work in the format of live stream would be a good idea or we should turn to our Plan B, the video indeed. But we are glad that we still opted for the live stream. We would not call it a big success but we could proudly say we got improvement and it was so much better than the last time.

We all agree that doing a live stream is never easier than writing a long essay paper, or it is even more challenging because this is something we all have never done before this project. We had a lot of our “first time”. Although it is a hard work and rather the most unpredictable format of presenting a final work, we are glad and proud that we finished it. We are applying all we have learned from sociology in the past 3 years and put those theories and thoughts into reality.

Photo by yoppy (CC BY 2.0)

Teacher’s comment

This capstone project provides a detailed account of into the inner workings of China’s monetised livestreaming platforms, revealing a number of remarkable insights into the motives and justifications users have for initiating exchanges on the platform. Choosing to livestream the findings of the project constitutes a particularly original attempt to share sociological knowledge.

See Tom McDonald’s profile

The content on this page is created by our students and does not necessarily represent the views of HKU.

What is Capstone?

The above capstone project has been entirely produced by undergraduate students’ majoring in a sociological discipline, and is the culmination of their undergraduate programme in HKU Sociology.

Find out more

Office opening hours adjustment