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China’s top online shopping celebrity suspended after tax fine Alibaba hit hard after Viya fine$120m

Influencer Viya says she is ‘deeply remorseful’ and will co-operate with all the fines and punishments © Oriental Image/Reuters

China’s biggest online shopping celebrity has vanished from Alibaba’s ecommerce platform Taobao after authorities fined her for tax evasion, in a big blow to the ecommerce giant’s fight to dominate the growing market of livestream shopping.

Huang Wei, known online as “Viya”, had her account on Taobao taken down after being fined Rmb1.34bn ($210m) by the tax office of the city of Hangzhou on Monday for under-reporting income made from promoting goods to her 13m online fans.

With the suspension of Viya, “Taobao has just lost its core competitiveness in livestream ecommerce” said Li Chengdong, head of the internet think-tank Haitun, adding that many shoppers tune into Taobao livestream shopping platform just to buy products the influencer recommends.

Viya wrote in a statement on Monday that she felt “deeply remorseful” and would co-operate with all the fines and punishments.

The closure of Viya’s account also cuts off an important marketing channel for western brands including Tesla and Procter & Gamble, which have both hired the star to promote their products in the Chinese market.

For Alibaba, the suspension has come after slowing revenue growth in its core ecommerce business in the face of rising competition from domestic players such as Pinduoduo, Douyin and Kuaishou.

Alibaba relies on a handful of top-tier internet celebrities such as Viya and the “lipstick king” Austin Li, who have been trained at internet celebrity or wanghong schools and have the backing of professional talent agencies.

Viya and Li collectively sold Rmb19bn worth of goods during this year’s Singles Day, China’s equivalent of Black Friday. “Livestreaming represents the future of ecommerce and Taobao risks being taken over by Douyin and Kuaishou,” without the draw of these high-profile celebrities, said Li.

PingAn Securities predicts that the value of goods sold through livestreams will double this year to Rmb2tn, while more traditional online shopping grows at 15 per cent.

“It’s very unlikely that Viya will return to Taobao after having her account closed,” says Li, pointing out that another top influencer, Zhu Chenhui, known online as Xueli Cherie, has not returned to livestreaming after being slapped with a similar fine in November.

Viya is the most high-profile case of a celebrity being erased from the internet as authorities seek to clean up misbehaviour online and enforce President Xi Jinping’s vision of cyber space being a “spiritual garden”.

China’s internet watchdog, the Cyberspace Administration, last week announced it had taken down 20,000 influencer accounts this year for “disseminating misguided content and polluting the internet environment”. Among their listed offences are disrespecting Chinese history, tax evasion and posting pornographic and incendiary content.

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