Starving No More: Censorship is Opening Up New Avenues for Illustrators to Make Money In Asia

A Sketchy solution to a continued problem.
January 11, 2019, 11:00am
Shopee BLACKPINK controversy drawing Indonesia
Image courtesy Shopee / Instagram

It's a good time to be an illustrator in Asia. In a time when everyone has a high-end camera in their phone, companies and vendors are increasingly turning to illustrations instead to circumvent restrictive censorship laws.

In Indonesia, where a campaign for the e-commerce site Shopee featuring BLACKPINK drew the ire of the Muslim-majority country's conservative fringe over the women's "vulgar" outfits (you could see their legs—shocking!) the company responded by redrawing the girl groups' lower bodies—to awkwardly hilarious results.

And in China, a new e-commerce law aimed at reining-in daigou is making work for illustrators as well.

Daigou—which literally translates to "buying on behalf of"—are personal shoppers for mainland Chinese customers who want to buy goods that are either unavailable or very expensive in China. It's a massive industry, but it's one that's also cost the Chinese government an estimated 100 billion yuan in missed taxes last year.


Daigou has also been one of the easiest industries to break into, especially if you're a Chinese citizen—or anyone really who can speak Chinese—and you live overseas. Sandra Lee, a Chinese expat living in Australia, told the BBC that the practice had become a "global phenomenon."

"This job doesn't require you to speak any English, as long as you sell authentic products at a reasonable price," Lee told the BBC. "You basically sell all these products to your friends, relatives or your friends' friends. It's a trust-based business."

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The way daigou works is sellers in overseas countries take advantage of price differences and a lack of value added taxes—which are added to imported goods—to earn a living. The best daigou sellers can bring in as much as $100,000 USD a year in profits as long as they can stay ahead of the Chinese censors.

Chinese tech sites have banned daigou resellers amid pressure from the government over loss tax revenues. To get around the ban, sellers have resorted to using foreign languages in product descriptions or, you guessed it, drawing the products instead.

"If I use actual photos of my products in my WeChat advertising, their logos will be recognized by algorithms designed by relevant government agencies," Liu, a professional daigou told the Global Times. "If I draw my products, I can avoid supervision."


The results can now look like a bizarre, almost outsider art version of an online marketplace.

Others have gone to even stranger lengths to obscure what, exactly, they are selling. To outsmart the algorithm, these resellers instead post cryptic descriptions, like:

"You could use your face to illuminate the entire room during a power outage. I have a light bulb that is just reserved for you, making your face brighter than the light bulb."

That reseller was pushing a SK-II skin brightening cream, but trying to pass it off as a light bulb.

The government is trying to make daigou register as an official business in both China and the country they're sourcing goods from, and pay taxes in both, according to Cheng Jiuyu, a finance lawyer at the Zhongwen Law Firm. But doing so would also kill the market, Cheng said.

"This law is making an effort to regulate all e-commerce business,” Cheng told Caixin Global. “[Those daigou who don't pay taxes] will lose their edge, and those who didn’t have many clients will find it hard to survive.”

So the more lucrative answer seems to be to find new ways to dodge the government entirely. Which is good news for daigou, and great news for entrepreneurial illustrators too.