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China Top Livestream Star Austin Li Still Missing After Apparent Political Insensitivity

It's believed that he triggered China's censorship system, as he promoted an ice cream, decorated to look like a tank, one day before the 33rd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

LONDON — China’s top livestream star Austin Li, dubbed the “lipstick king” in the West for selling 15,000 lipsticks in five minutes, is still missing since his livestreaming session on Taobao was abruptly interrupted on June 3.

It’s believed that he triggered China’s censorship system as he promoted the Viennetta ice cream, decorated to look like a tank, one day before the 33rd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Still considered unspeakable in China, any mention of or association with the protests, no matter how remote or vague, will most likely result in being censored or prosecuted.

Li explained on Weibo immediately after the interruption that it was caused by a “technical issue,” and the rest of the products scheduled to be featured will be available in the near future.

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His social media account hasn’t been updated since, and his whereabouts were still unknown as of Monday, two weeks after he withdrew from the public eye.

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According to industry sources, Li had been lined up for a slew of commitments with beauty brands including L’Oréal, Estée Lauder, YSL, Armani Beauty, Jo Malone, Bobbie Brown, Fenty Beauty, Olay, Decorté, Nars, Aupres, Clé de Peau, Olaplex, Kiko, Moroccanoil and Caudalie, for the 618 shopping festival, which logged its slowest growth to date, as well as a series of celebration collaborations for his 30th birthday on June 7. He didn’t show up to any of them.

China's top livestreamer Austin Li and Viya
China’s top livestreamer Austin Li and Viya. AP

Since the fall of his major competitor Wei Huang, better known as Viya, due to tax evasion last December, Li has been the sole leader in China’s booming livestreaming sector. He has more than 64 million followers on Taobao, 30 million followers on Weibo, and 44 million followers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.

He generated 10.65 billion renminbi, or $1.56 billion, in gross merchandise value, the equivalent to what several physical retailers make in a year combined, during last year’s Single’s Day shopping festival. Beauty and skin care sales were 8.26 billion renminbi, or $1.24 billion.

Internet spectators speculate that Li was put on a temporary ban as a punishment for his political insensitivity, as his social media pages are still visible, even though millions have unfollowed him since the incident. Those who commit severe misconduct in the eyes of Beijing usually would have their social media presence wiped out completely immediately, which happened to be the case for Huang.

Others suggest that Li is too valuable for China’s e-commerce ecosystem to be removed for one political misstep. His rise has become synonymous with the success of China’s digital economy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Any public punishment for him would occur during a time when China faces waves of lockdowns, a high unemployment rate, and retail sales contraction.

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