Known for depicting an image of delicious home cooked meals, crafty inventions, and idyllic rural serenity in her wordless yet expressive videos, Li Ziqi has become a cultural sensation both in her home country China and around the world. The star amassed over 16 million subscribers since she posted her first video in 2017 and has since been featured on the Guinness book of world records for most subscribers in a Chinese-language channel on Youtube.
YouTube is blocked in China, but the star’s account on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, has a staggering 55 million followers.
However, since July, Li has not posted any new videos after saying she had filed a police report but did not elaborate on the context. The native of southwestern China’s Mianyang city used to post at least one new video every month.
South China Morning Post reported on Oct. 28 that Li had decided to sue her managing agency, Hangzhou Weinian Brand Management Co, prompting TikTok owner ByteDance to pull out its stake and investment from the company.
Performing a role similar to a Hollywood talent agency, the company reportedly had clashes with Li over content direction and asset control. The star, who according to her small production staff, had always valued her independence, may have been reluctant to over-commercialize her online presence.
On Nov. 1, Weinian responded by denying any suspicion of disguised control of Li’s account. The company also said that they attempted to communicate with Li many times prior to her launching the lawsuit. On Nov. 3, the court ruled to freeze Weinian’s 51 percent stake in Li Ziqi’s company. On the same day, Weinian said that the freeze was a normal judicial procedure.
While many fans praised her integrity for wishing to remain autonomous in the content she creates, others said the star should uphold her end of the deal as per the terms of her contract.
“There have been similar disputes between first-tier influencers and their agents,” said Li Chengdong, chief executive of e-commerce consultancy Dolphin Think Tank.
“It’s understandable that creators want more independence and benefit after gaining popularity, but they should also attribute their success to the agencies’ expertise and resources. They need to stick to the spirit of the contract.”
“Sister Qi please update soon,” a fan said in September on Chinese social media site Weibo, where she has more than 27 million followers. “We urgently need some comfort.” Li’s videos have captured the hearts of fans far and wide, with many saying it provides them with a cherished respite from the bustling stresses of city life.
Another fan from Australia commented on her most recent video saying, “I am very sad to hear that she has been taken advantage of by a big company. Her videos are a huge source of comfort and inspiration, but I fully support and respect her decision not to post more until she has control back of her brand and money. Much love from Australia!”
Telling the ‘China story’
Li had become a global sensation and soft ambassador for Chinese culture and tradition, even receiving praise from state-run media. Many Youtubers in China have since followed in Li’s footsteps, posting similar videos depicting tranquil scenes of farm life and rolling lush hills.
In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) appears to have taken note of Li’s popularity, with state media praising her for improving China’s image “without saying a single word.” Some Chinese observers have noted that she did more to “tell the China story” — as Party leader Xi Jinping instructed the media to do in 2016 — than the regime’s multi-billion-dollar propaganda apparatus.
According to a profile by Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, Li was raised by her grandparents in rural Sichuan, a province that lies in mountainous southwest China and boasts a population similar in size to Germany. At the age of 14, she dropped out of high school and began making a living by working as a waitress and then as a DJ at a nightclub.
In 2012, she returned to her hometown to help care for her ailing grandmother and opened an online shop to make ends meet. In 2016, she started making short videos to help promote the products and began sharing her everyday lifestyle while she worked on the farm, tending to animals, cooking and making crafts.
According to Li, she used to do all the filming and editing by herself before recruiting a small team a few years later to assist her with the growing popularity of her videos.
Through an account on Oasis, a smaller social platform, Li has kept her fans updated by posting pictures and videos of herself recording songs at a music studio, picking vegetables at her farm and even playing with bumper cars at an amusement park.
The star, however, has not commented on the nature of her lawsuit or explained why she has refrained from posting new content on her massively followed Youtube and Douyin channels.
Li’s last YouTube video may be seen here.