Recently, Chinese social media platforms have been hotly debating whether 79 RMB (US$11) is considered too expensive for an eyebrow pencil.
There were at least ten search terms on Weibo related to this eyebrow pencil over the past week, with more than a billion views in total. The company that produced the eyebrow pencil certainly did not expect such hype. Even the host, Austin Li, who promoted the eyebrow pencil on e-commerce platforms, did not expect to be embroiled in a public opinion storm as a result.
On 10 September, Li was promoting a 79 RMB eyebrow pencil made by Chinese brand Florasis on a livestream. Upon seeing netizens’ comments that the brand was getting more and more expensive, Li retorted by saying, “How is this expensive? It’s been this price for years, don’t spout nonsense. Local brands really have it tough.”
Even as the assistant host looked uncomfortable, Li added, “Sometimes you should reflect on yourself to find out why your salary hasn’t gone up after years of work. Have you been working hard enough?”
The short clip of less than 30 seconds raced to the top of Weibo’s search list.
...dubbed the “ace salesperson”, [Li] had an annual net income of 1.85 billion RMB, or 5.08 million RMB per day, two years ago.
That same night, Li posted an apology on Weibo, admitting that he had “said some inappropriate words that made everyone uncomfortable”. However, netizens remained unmoved, and Li lost 63,000 followers overnight.
A top-liked comment on Li’s post wrote, “Your earnings come from the money of the average person, and yet you now mock the average person for being poor.”
Netizens were quick to find out that Florasis’ eyebrow pencil cost on average more than 980 RMB per gram, which is even more expensive than those produced by big international brands, and “costs more than two grams of gold”. It was also pointed out that Li, dubbed the “ace salesperson”, had an annual net income of 1.85 billion RMB, or 5.08 million RMB per day, two years ago.
Netizens commented, “There is no place for the average consumer in the eyes of someone who’s been in the upper echelon for a long time.”
As someone who relies on “talking” as a core skill, Li landing in hot water for inappropriate comments points towards his arrogant attitude and penchant for speaking bluntly. The huge response arising from such a topic also closely relates to the changes in the environment at large. Li is no longer the poor boy who built his fortune from nothing, and China’s economy and society have also undergone a great transformation over the past few years.
Li, who is 31 this year, landed his first job as a cosmetics retail assistant after graduating from university in 2015. He shone in a livestreaming competition organised by Taobao the following year, and was signed by a social media company. He then moved from Nanchang, Jiangxi, to Shanghai to embark on his career as a livestream salesperson. In just a year, his Taobao fans grew to hundreds of thousands, and he was honoured as one of the top livestreamers at Taobao’s livestream ceremony.
Li’s fame and popularity also coincided with the heyday of China’s internet sector.
In 2018, Li made a name for himself after he sold 14,000 lipsticks in one minute during a livestream, while also setting a world record for “the most lipstick applications to models in 30 seconds”. During the Singles’ Day shopping festival that year, he even appeared on a livestream with Taobao founder and e-commerce bigwig Jack Ma in a lipstick-selling competition — Li completely trounced Ma with little effort.
It only took Li two years to reach his current level of fame. His rapid rise is not only thanks to his daily livestreams that lasts over six hours, where he tries nearly 100 lipsticks each time, but also inseparable from the rapid development of e-commerce and the mushrooming of local Chinese brands at the time.
Li’s fame and popularity also coincided with the heyday of China’s internet sector. While the post-95 generation youths were landing their first jobs at major internet companies, the post-90s who entered the workforce earlier have already settled down and bought a home in major cities. Along with the rise in house prices, there is also a demand for non-essential products such as luxury goods.
The dividends of the internet era propelled Li from a retail assistant earning a monthly salary of a few thousand RMB to an internet celebrity earning a daily salary of millions of RMB. However, many of his frequent patrons did not jump to the next social class like he did, but instead suffered a series of dramatic changes over the next few years, such as the pandemic and industrial policy adjustments.
Even if the price of the eyebrow pencil has stayed the same at 79 RMB for many years, it naturally feels pricier to consumers with stagnant income and low expectations.
The changes China experienced in the past three years since the start of the pandemic can be seen from the following aspects: on the one hand, just as a record 11.58 million graduates are expected to enter China’s workforce this year, officials stopped publishing its youth jobless data last month. On the other hand, property prices in first-tier cities, which have always remained stable, are also falling, while various e-commerce platforms kept mum about their sales figures for this year’s 618 sales extravaganza.
Unable to find jobs, China’s “involuted” generation of youths are now “lying flat”. Employees who used to be “sophisticated" white-collar workers have been laid off from major enterprises, and are now downgrading their spending habits. Even if the price of the eyebrow pencil has stayed the same at 79 RMB for many years, it naturally feels pricier to consumers with stagnant income and low expectations.
Undoubtedly, it wasn’t just the seemingly high price of the eyebrow pencil that drew flak, but also Li’s condescending questions. A few years ago when the economy was flourishing, asking people if their salary has increased or if they are hard workers could be taken as an unsavoury quip. But amid the grim economic situation, asking the same question feels just as uncomfortable as hearing the phrase “let them eat cake”.
Li’s outburst shows that he has taken for granted that hard work pays off and leads to a pay raise. While he certainly achieved success through hard work, he may not understand that too many people have seen their efforts go to waste over the past few years, unable to escape being tipped over by the waves of the times no matter how hard they worked.
As China progresses through its first year after emerging from the pandemic, boosting consumption has become a top priority for the government and businesses alike. Officials have introduced a slew of measures to promote consumption and expand domestic demand over the past month, while businesses are hoping to open up sales channels amid a sluggish market through the help of livestreamers.
But judging from the “eyebrow pencil saga”, it is almost impossible to raise consumption by relying on Li now — it’s already a win if consumers are not riled up themselves.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “一支眉笔引发的舆论风暴”.
Related: Unemployment woes abound even for graduates from China’s top schools | China's youth unemployment situation could be far worse | China’s economy lacks foundation for expanding consumption | China experiments with livestream recruitment to fill job vacancies after Covid-19 | Solving China’s soaring youth unemployment