Austin Li Jiaqi, one of China’s biggest influencers, was peddling snacks to some of his 64 million followers on the e-commerce site Taobao when he inadvertently touched on a forbidden topic.
His livestream on Friday night was abruptly cut off after Li and his co-host presented a layered ice cream cake in the shape of a tank, with cookies as wheels and a chocolate stick as its gun.
It was a touchy symbol because on that night 33 years ago, the ruling Communist Party deployed troops and tanks in central Beijing to crush pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, resulting in bloodshed that ran into the early hours of the next day. Since then, June 4 has become the most sensitive date on the Chinese political calendar, a chapter Beijing has sought to scrub from its history by banning any commemoration or discussion.
“Li Jiaqi’s fiasco occurred because his team weren’t even aware of the June 4 incident in 1989 and thought it was any other ordinary day,” Eric Liu, an analyst tracking censorship at China Digital Times, a U.S.-based news website, told VICE World News. “This by itself highlights how successful China’s censorship apparatus is.”
Every year as the anniversary nears, Chinese censors double down on their efforts to remove any expression that is perceived to be related to the bloodshed. Over the weekend, to preempt people from obliquely commenting on the Tiananmen Square crackdown, social media companies banned users from changing their usernames. Users making coded references also saw their posts disappear in minutes.
Beijing’s campaign to erase the tragedy from people’s memories has been so successful that many among Li’s generation are oblivious to the tragedy. And as a result, Li’s debacle inadvertently sent many of his young fans on a search for answers, flooding the Chinese social media site Weibo with questions about the cause of Li’s suspension.
“Weibo’s current strategy is to stop the Streisand effect,” said Liu, who was previously a content moderator for Weibo. The site did not ban Li Jiaqi’s name outright, which could draw more attention and prompt curiosity. Instead, it is deploying enormous manpower to screen content and delete sensitive answers. Only posts deemed politically correct remain on the site.
“It’s better to play mute, deaf and dumb,” one user concluded.
On Friday, shortly after the suspension, Li blamed it on a technical malfunction and urged viewers to wait. Hours later, close to midnight, he issued an apology on Weibo and said the livestream would not resume. He has not posted any update since. The influencer, who typically broadcasts every day, missed a scheduled event on Sunday. He turned 30 on Tuesday but did not respond to any of the many birthday wishes from his fans left under his social media posts.
MeiOne, Li’s marketing agency, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Li’s meteoric rise came in 2019, where he made a name for himself as the Lipstick King, selling beauty and skincare products. He set himself apart in a competitive field with his perceived authenticity and honest reviews. In November, during an annual shopping festival similar to Black Friday, he sold some $1.7 billion worth of goods in a 12-hour livestream that garnered 250 million views.
But in China, where breaching the government’s political lines often come at a hefty cost, an errant cake could be all it takes to tank someone’s career.