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For Love or Money

Gan Xiqi, or Nai Nai as she is known to her tens of thousands of fans, was a minor internet sensation in China, the world's most crowded social media environment. From 2018 until early 2020 the recent arrival in Shanghai, originally from Nanchang in eastern China, was live streaming her daily life to adoring, mostly young and male admirers who showed their appreciation by sending her 'gifts'. These range from airplanes (100 yuan - USD 15.50) to rockets (500 yuan - USD 77.30) or super rockets (2,000 yuan - USD 310), usually accompanied by a message. Her fans expected a response for their generosity. The more skilful the response, the more money the live-streamer makes.

Her former agency, the Shanghai Yuanqian Cluture Company Ltd., founded by Borix Xu in 2016, is a big player in China's live streaming market, thought to be worth around $ 9 billion a year. The agency takes 10% of all gifts received by repped live-streamers. Out of China's 829 million internet user base, some 425 million subscribers engage with the world of live-streaming. Zoe Dai, the company's CEO, compares this sector of the live streaming industry to the world of courtesans in imperial China where seduction is an art form honed through experience. Nai Nai's natural beauty and knack for talking to men was quickly recognised by the agency. The business model relies on the idea that desires fanned by online engagement are never fulfilled.

A live-streamer's life is can be relentless with six to eight hours of actual streaming before engaging in private conversations with the most generous benefactors. In 2019, however, Nai Nai's daily routine was blown off course when Jiang Bo, one of China's most popular live streamers, invited her to co-host a live segment for his 1.24 million fans. After a competitive Q&A between the two, Jiang asked Nai Nai out for dinner. While she wasn't swept off her feet by the young mega-star, she gained 12,000 new followers over the course of their evening. Over the coming weeks, against the advice of their respective agents, the two started an offline courtship that was to be her undoing.

A female live-streamer's currency is her sex appeal and the notion that she is unattainable. For Nai Nai's agent, her association with Jiang started to hit the bottom line and she was told to refrain. Before long, however, Jiang invited her to join him and a number of other top-earning live-streamers for a three day military-style bootcamp in the city of Wuhan. Nai Nai's agent grudgingly agreed and told her not to show any affection for her host online. At bootcamp, Nai Nai and her fellow live streamers sloshed through mud, marched through the night and pretended to 'fight' in an imaginary war. For the streamers' fans, the excitement lies in being able to make their idols perform 'punishments' such as pushups and squats. Jiang, being the most athletic of the team, came out on top while Nai Nai, less accustomed to physical exercise, visibly struggled. After a hard day's 'soldiering', Nai Nai snuck out of the women's dorm to be with Jiang, off-camera.

After their furtive courtship on the sidelines of the bootcamp, however things took a turn for the worse. With both live-streamers heavily dependent on their public image and their fans' perception of their imagined 'availability', something had to give. Jiang, known for his entourage of pretty young things in his online world, effectively decided the he couldn't destroy everything he had built up online by giving himself over to this particular pretty girl. Nai Nai, distraught at the breakup, decided to close her chat room and quit live-streaming. "Giving up live streaming feels for right" she said.

Her agents had other ideas, though, and reminded her of her contract and the 1.2 million yuan termination penalty she'd incur by quitting. The next day, seeing no alternative, Nai Nai was back online, greeting her fans and having the gifts rolling in. Three month later she found out that she had been dumped by her agency and her account had been sold. Her former employer refused to honour her backpay and too make matters worse, the Covid pandemic created a market boom for live streamers just as she was bumped out of her expensive apartment, without a job, live streaming account or boyfriend.

Her precipitous fall from online glory to invisibility made Nai Nai revisit her earlier choices. She decided that she wants to work with real people whom she can talk to and touch. Going back to her training in Classical Chinese dancing when she was a teenager, Nai Nai decided that she wants to become a dance teacher.

Nai Nai's experience encapsulates the vagaries of China's hyper-charged version of capitalism and it's inevitable pitfalls.

Writer and Photographer Justin Jin was by Nai Nai's side as the situation unravelled.
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