China’s livestream queen is being erased from the internet over tax evasion

Viya (left) is China’s top livestreamer.
Viya (left) is China’s top livestreamer.
Image: REUTERS/Florence Lo/Illustration
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Last year, Viya sold billions of dollars worth of products, earning the internet celebrity the title of China’s “livestream queen.” But hours after the authorities announced a staggering fine for her tax evasion, she was penalized at the source of her income—almost all of her online accounts across different platforms, where she had amassed millions of lucrative followers, were shut down.

Shortly after the celebrity posted her apology for violating tax rules on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, her account on the platform was suspended late on Monday. In addition, her accounts on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, and on websites including Taobao live, a livestream commerce channel of the shopping platform under Alibaba, also went offline, according to Chinese finance media Caijing. Viya (or wēi yà, 薇娅), whose real name is Huang Wei, is managed by Qianxun Group, part talent management business and part logistics firm, which is helmed by family members.

The online cancellation is all the more striking because just months earlier the livestream star seemed to be in the government’s good graces for her efforts to help promote rural e-commerce, even featuring in state-run broadcaster CCTV’s Chinese New Year special, the Spring Festival Gala.

Huang Wei’s net worth and tax fine

On Monday (Dec. 20), tax authorities in Hangzhou, an affluent southern city that has cultivated a booming e-commerce scene, presented the 36-year-old with a bill of 1.3 billion yuan ($210 million) in overdue taxes and penalties. The growing wealth and influence of livestreamers like Viya, who earn millions of dollars mainly through commissions from companies, has drawn the attention of Chinese authorities tasked with realizing the country’s quest for “common prosperity.” In May, Huang and her husband appeared on a list compiled by Chinese finance magazine New Fortune as having an estimated net worth of 9 billion yuan ($1.4 billion), putting them among the country’s 500 richest people. However a different ranking, the Hurun Rich List, doesn’t yet include them.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping highlighted the importance of a more equitable distribution of the wealth from China’s economic liberalization in August. While exactly how it will be achieved is still unclear, tax authorities have begun responding to his cue that excessively high earners should be drafted into this effort. Local tax authorities recently fined other prominent livestreamers for tax evasion too, but hers is by far the largest such penalty yet. China’s central tax authority described the investigation into Huang as part of overall efforts to better tax the internet platform economy, and said she had avoided paying taxes of more than $100 million by concealing her earnings in 2019 and 2020.

Quartz has reached out to Huang for comment.

In recent years China has been going after celebrities for tax evasion more aggressively. In 2018, movie star Fan Bingbing vanished from public view for three months after a TV presenter accused her of not paying her taxes. She eventually remerged with an apology to the country and the Communist Party, and a roughly $130 million bill for back taxes and fines. But in contrast with Fan, who maintained her Weibo account while she was investigated, China has become much quicker to actively erase the online presence of celebrities who have violated laws or government rules. The accounts for two livestream celebrities who faced penalties last month also appear to have been shut down.

Chinese celebrities are losing their platforms

The phenomenon has become more common this year, according to Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor of journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “This could be an action taken by internet platforms as a way to protect themselves…if the authorities have already criticized those celebrities, then the websites certainly don’t want to be blamed for offering a platform for the figures who violated the country’s moral standards to voice their opinions, fearing potential punishment from the government,” said Fang.

Kris Wu, a Chinese Canadian pop star, had his songs, social media accounts, and fan forums either taken down or blocked by platforms including Weibo and film and book review site Douban in July, after he was arrested on rape charges. The case is still under investigation and Wu has denied wrongdoing.

In some cases, such as the mysterious wipeout of Chinese A-list star Zhao Wei from the Chinese internet in September, the reason for the punishment isn’t made clear, stirring mounting speculation as to what offense the celebrity may have committed. Searches of Zhao and Wu’s names on Douban currently yield a line that says there’s no result that can be shown according to “relevant laws and regulations.”

Although many internet users praised China’s crackdown on online celebrities, calling it a big step towards achieving common prosperity, many others expressed worry over the unchecked power of the government. “Whether it is for private tutoring, or stars and livestreamers, the government can always have the final say…I feel so insecure, I don’t know which industry will disappear overnight, or who will be erased forever for saying something,” said a Douban user.