26/09/2017 11:23 AM AEST | Updated 26/09/2017 11:35 AM AEST

Young People Are Finding Fun Ways To Get Around The Great Firewall Of China

And the Government is nervous.

Reporting some stories makes me feel old.

But never more so than when I filmed Guo Kaiwen twitching and jerking on his bedroom floor in a provincial town not far from Beijing, stuttering into his webcam like a drunk having a seizure.

A few thousand people were watching Kaiwen's slapstick antics online -- many were leaving comments and some were even sending him virtual presents. The computer screen was a dazzling kaleidoscope of scrolling Chinese characters and colourful emojis -- butterflies and dinosaurs, Lamborghinis and lipsticks. Twenty-six year old Guo used to be a truck driver, but now he makes more money in two hours from bantering into a webcam in his bedroom than he did hauling cargo for a week.

Welcome to China's wacky world of live streaming.

It felt like pretty much everything I heard and saw in Guo's bedroom was lost in translation, and not just because it was in a foreign language. I realised then that I find sectarian politics in Iraq far easier to grasp than something that millions of young Chinese do for fun.

SBS Dateline/ Amos Roberts
Live streamer Guo Kaiwen catching up on some sleep

I'd seen live streaming used in the United States to broadcast the awful aftermath of a police shooting and protests against an oil pipeline. I wasn't surprised that in China, a repressive state cordoned off by a 'Great Firewall', a technology allowing you to communicate with a vast audience instantly and in real time doesn't get used by citizen journalists.

I was surprised to learn that more than 344 million people in China use live streaming apps, and that an industry worth billions of dollars had doubled in size in the past year alone. Celebrity streamers have millions of fans and can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. It offers something for everyone -- singing, dancing, sport, comedy and even makeup tutorials.

Some of the most successful are 'talk show streamers', whose jokey banter with other streamers and fans reminded me of FM radio breakfast shows. Although the content is mostly inane, it's easy to be impressed by the staggering scale of China's latest online trend. But to me, seen as a story about entertainment or technology, it also seemed boring. What did it all mean?

That's a question I could only begin to answer once I finally understood what was driving the live streamers and their audience. There are a couple of Chinese words often used to describe them that turned out to be important clues.

SBS Dateline/Amos Roberts
Wang with SBS reporter Amos Roberts in the background.

Guo Kaiwen, like many streamers and their fans, identifies himself as a zhai nan and diaosi. A zhai nan is a homebody -- someone who prefers to interact with people online rather than in real life. Guo describes a diaosi as "someone who's not just aimless, but a loafer who eats the bread of idleness". Both terms have come to define a generation of geeks who spend much of their time on computers.

Originally used to insult online gamers, the labels have ended up being embraced by them (the same phenomenon exists in Japan, where they're known as otaku). The gaming connection is significant --many of the first live streaming platforms began by streaming footage of online multiplayer games, and streamers like Guo started out as gamers.

Live streaming, like gaming, provides a sense of community and entertainment to people who crave both -- but its reach, because of its sheer diversity, is many times greater.

China's recently abandoned one-child policy has meant most young people don't have siblings. They grow up in a society that's ruthlessly competitive (Communist in name only) and which, thanks to a cooling of the economy, is churning out far more graduates than it is creating new jobs. Hence the rise of the zhai nan and diaosi.

As Jonathan Kaiman, the Los Angeles Times Beijing bureau chief told me:

"It's much harder to gain a professional foothold than it was even a few years ago and so people have time, they don't have much money, and like anybody they're looking for social outlets.

And now with these live streaming platforms you can have this social interaction. Something that feels real at the push of a button".

Interaction between streamers and their fans, especially in the form of virtual gift giving, is at the heart of the live streaming economy. Fans send presents in the form of emojis, which streamers redeem for cash, after the streaming platform takes its cut. This is the technological innovation that underpins the live streaming culture in places like China and South Korea, but its implications for the social economy are far more interesting than its contribution to the country's GDP.

As Kaiman argues, the popularity of live streaming "has risen on the back of this functionality, as a way for these lonely young people to connect".

Fans give gifts not just as a token of their appreciation for their favourite streamers, but as a way to get their attention. Streamers reward fans' generosity by publicly thanking them, and sometimes even chatting to them. The gifts are visible to everyone watching, so big donors also attract respect and prestige from other fans. Fans leave comments in real time as they watch, to which the streamer often responds, and they also chat among themselves. These are the building blocks of a community -- one in which fans are engaged participants rather than passive consumers of entertainment, and where their idols are approachable.

One fan I met described his favourite live streamer as, "like a friend you can talk to".

He's not like some celebrities that you know but are hard to reach."

In the world's most populous nation, where young people are expected to knuckle under and conform, it's a cheap and easy way to ensure sure you're noticed. As Jonathan Kaiman puts it:

"The pressures on individuals in China right now are so great that it's difficult to overestimate how much it means to have a persona and an audience.

To get any attention from somebody is just a sign that you exist, in a very difficult environment."

So yes, I found Guo Kaiwen's live streaming performance as baffling as anything I've filmed. But armed with a better understanding of its appeal, I can see it as something familiar rather than foreign, underpinned by human urges I recognise all too well. It's not so wacky after all.

Watch the full report -- China's Web Celebs on Dateline, Tuesday 26 September at 9.30pm on SBS.

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