Rural Chinese YouTuber Li Ziqi incommunicado amid reports of business dispute

Chinese Youtuber Li Ziqi, whose carefully crafted videos of idyllic farm life in rural Sichuan have gained a worldwide following, has been on hiatus for three months, amid reports of a dispute with her marketing company.

Before she fell silent, Li had posted regular videos of flower-picking, cooking, tea brewing and other scenes depicting “good stories about China,” with an emphasis on traditional Chinese culture that made her the darling of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s propaganda department.

Li’s videos feature her hoeing vegetables in rustic, flowing clothes and waist-length hair, wearing a traditional cheongsam dress to cook delicacies, and picnicking with her beloved grandmother on the edge of a nearby cliff, all amid stunning scenery.

Produced by a videography team and marketed by Hangzhou Weinian, her content appeals to some 100 million fans around the world, many of whom have been living through restrictions or hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

She has also won plaudits from state media at home, and was named as one of the top 10 Women of China in 2019.

But all appears far from well in Li’s Sichuan paradise.

Local media reported that Li’s Sichuan Ziqi Cultural Communications had filed a lawsuit against Weinian and its boss Liu Tongming on Oct. 25, 2021, in a dispute over shares and dividend payouts.

The popular Youtube page of Li Ziyi, 31, hasn't posted any new content since July. Credit: Li Ziyi
The popular Youtube page of Li Ziyi, 31, hasn’t posted any new content since July. Credit: Li Ziyi

No new content since July

Weinian has since confirmed that it is the subject of a lawsuit, and will respond accordingly.

Li, 31, who hasn’t posted any new content since July, posted at the end of August that she had “filed a police report”, while her Weibo account said she was dealing with matters she hadn’t previously paid attention to.

Cultural and aesthetics expert Song Yongyi said the images of rural idyll offered by Li’s output chime in well with the CCP’s own images of a communist utopia.

When late supreme leader Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), he wrote a document titled the “May 7 instructions,” which Song said had its roots in the rural idyll depicted in the work of the “peach blossom” utopias of poet Tao Yuanming (365–427), whose denizens farm for a living and get drunk on home-made wine.

According to Song, Mao drew on these images from Chinese literature to paint a picture of an ideal land to incite secondary school students to fight for their political ideals, preferably against Mao’s rivals.

“[CCP leader] Xi Jinping is the political heir to Mao Zedong, and it was Xi’s propaganda department that launched Li Ziqi,” he said.

“Looking at her work, one has to wonder how many people it took to create those images? Who gave her all of the makeup, scripts and so on to make the videos?”

“The moment we see her stuff, we see this image from the Mao era, straight out of the May 7 utopia; it’s impossible to hide it, because we’ve all been immunized by the Cultural Revolution,” he said.

Right note for the CCP

But Li’s star would have to fall sometime, Song said, adding that the lawsuit could be a cover story for her disappearance from the public eye.

“Maybe more scandal will emerge as that battle continues,” he said.

Ho Tsung-hsun, chairman of the Taiwan Citizen Participation Association, said Li’s content had inadvertently ticked a number of the CCP’s propaganda boxes, and cited the poorer quality of her earlier videos.

Later videos saw a clear improvement in production values, however, and struck exactly the right note for the CCP, because they avoided any mention of politics and focused only on showing the beauty of her part of China.

But Li may now have run afoul of tighter controls on internet celebrities and bloggers, Ho said.

“Online censorship and control of public speech is very strict, and if they want to exclude her, they can just block her and let her evaporate,” Ho said. “That is easily done inside China, but it may not help its international image.”

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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