Some years ago, a 20-year-old lady on a dating show in China said 我宁愿坐在宝马车上哭，也不愿意坐在自行车上笑. In other words, she would rather be rich and unhappy than to be poor and happy. Wealth has become the sole indicator of a person’s worth in Chinese society. People are not ashamed to admit their shallowness.
In 2019, a convoy of luxury cars driven by Chinese protesters clogged the streets of Vancouver not long after Huawei’s princess Meng Wan Zhou was detained by the authorities. These protesters didn’t see it as a straightforward case of an executive of a company accused of breaking the law. They saw it as Westerners against ethnic Chinese. The legal system of any country governed by the rule of law will break down if all this is acquiesced to. That would be another story. People in China tend to look up to the wealthy and greet poverty with derision and mockery.
Nevertheless, a couple of years ago, there was a very popular social media star by the name of Li Zi Qi. She gained millions of fans by presenting rural life in a highly sanitised, aesthetic and romantic way. Many fans were attracted to this alternative lifestyle, unaware that it’s all unreal.
Li Zi Qi’s career came to a halt with a dispute between her and the production company supporting her. Gullible fans suddenly realised that the brilliant high resolution, superbly edited videos were all staged and scripted. The place where she did her cooking and harvesting was her stage and not her home. There’s a professional film production team behind her and there’s nothing artisanal about any of the products she sold.
When netizens realised that they had been fooled by Li Zi Qi, videos that did the exact opposite, showing the raw dirt, sweat and toil of the countryside quickly became popular.
卖惨 literally means sell misfortune. Well, misfortune sells if you know how to present yourself. I’ve said earlier how Chinese people despise those who are poor. Ironically, showing off one’s misfortune on social media is an effective way to gain attention and make money. Liang Shan is a remote location in Sichuan Province with sheer cliffs and rugged terrain. Most of the people living here are from the Yi ethnic minority group.
One of the most successful players in the field of 卖惨, is a 19-year-old girl who lives in Liang Shan and who is also from the Yi tribe. In her livestreams. She introduced her family of 5 orphans. She told her fans that her parents passed away when they were young. As the eldest child, she is responsible for her younger siblings. At the age of 14, she quit school and left the village to work in the city. There, she discovered live streaming as a way to make money. Thus, she opened an account with the profile name Liang Shan Meng Yang.
She returned to Liang Shan and used douyin videos to show her followers what life is like in her hometown. She would present herself as a gaunt and haggard girl with a mud-stained face, dressed in tattered clothes and with a carrying basket on her back loaded with hay, wood or potatoes. Sometimes she would show herself ploughing the fields with obsolete or even primitive equipment from a previous dynasty. Her videos also show her feeding pigs and preparing meals in the wilderness or standing in a field of snow. All in all, it’s a picture of a simple, innocent girl living a tough life that few people on social media had ever encountered.
In spite of the difficulties, Meng Yang appeared as if she didn’t know what the outside world looked like. Within days of the launch of her douyin account, she had over a million fans. When you have a number like that, there are bound to be suckers amongst them. Meng Yang then started selling products on her live streams. Instead of mockery, Meng Yang earned sympathy. Her fans sent gifts and bought goods from her. As it turned out, many of the goods she sold were not even from her area and were overpriced to boot. Meanwhile, her fans grew to over 3 million and she became flooded with orders.
Perhaps Meng Yang believed that her fans would always remain online. Who would bother to pay her a visit? Well, some of them did and they found to their surprise that Meng Yang is not as poor as she made herself out to be. For starters, she had lied about being an orphan. Her parents are still very much alive. Their family is actually one of the wealthier ones in that village. Just like Li Zi Qi, the crumbling hut which appeared to be her home in the videos was really her stage. Her family actually resides in a nearby house that is fairly well-furnished.
Yes, there are poor people in China who live a life similar to that of Meng Yang’s online persona, but they don’t draw much attention in their unattractive, unembellished state. It’s only people who have a talent to put up a good show who attract all the attention and sympathy. After her cover was blown, social media went wild with two factions, one which supported her and one which vilified her. Meng Yang tearfully denied that she had been untruthfully but the authorities stepped in and had Meng Yang arrested.
Prior to being busted, she was earning at least 6 figures from every live stream. That’s many times more than what her sympathisers earned. Investigations revealed that apart from Liang Shan Meng Yang, she had another social media account in which she flaunted her wealth just like the other influencers.
As for the online persona of Liang Shan Meng Yang, the whole thing was scripted and produced by a video production team not very different from that which directed Li Zi Qi, except that their videos must be rough and rustic. Just like in Li Zi Qi’s case, distributors signed contracts with Meng Yang to promote agricultural products at inflated prices. The products are not from her village and have been made to look artisanal. No doubt, Meng Yang started off quite legitimate, but as her wealth grew, the former Cinderella had to put in greater and greater effort to maintain that piteous image.
Eagle-eyed netzens near her hometown had spotted her eating at restaurants. According to her close friends, she has a tattoo on her right shoulder. She was also rumoured to have many boyfriends.
So what’s wrong with all this? Don’t businesses employ actors to play a certain role to entice customers to buy their products? Why is Li Zi Qi’s modus operandi not considered criminal. Well, that’s because Li Zi Qi presented the kind of positive energy promoted by the government. The trouble with Meng Yang’s videos is that they actually threatened to debunk the myth of poverty alleviation which the Chinese government is so proud of. With the latest crackdown, the popularity of 卖惨 videos should fade away. What would they think of next?