When Li Jiaqi implored his audience to work harder, netizens responded with anger and memes
Li Jiaqi is in hot water again. The makeup and beauty influencer, known as China’s “Lipstick King” for his skill at selling lipsticks via livestream, spent months offline in 2022. Within a year of his return, he’s now embroiled in more controversy after he chastised a viewer who complained that a Chinese-made eyebrow pencil Li sold was too expensive.
Li’s misguided lecture came during one of his signature livestream events on September 10: “How is it expensive? It has been this price for so many years. Don’t speak without thinking...79 yuan is really not expensive. It’s not easy for domestic products to survive nowadays...Sometimes, you should look at yourself: Have your wages increased in all these years? Have you been working hard. (哪里贵了？这么多年都是这个价格，不要睁着眼睛乱说……79元真不贵，国货很难的……有的时候找找自己的原因，这么多年了工资涨没涨，有没有认真工作？Nǎlǐ guì le? Zhème duō nián dōu shì zhège jiàgé, búyào zhēngzhe yǎnjing luàn shuō……Qīshíjiǔ yuán zhēn bú guì, guóhuò hěn nán de……Yǒude shíhou zhǎozhao zìjǐ de yuányīn, zhème duō nián le gōngzī zhǎng méi zhǎng, yǒu méiyǒu rènzhēn gōngzuò?)”
Li’s apparent indifference to his audience’s finances did not go down well. “Everything is rising in price over the last three years except for our salaries. Is it our fault for not working hard? (什么都在涨，唯独工资三年不涨反而降，是怪我们没努力工作吗？Shénme dōu zài zhǎng, wéidú gōngzī sān nián bù zhǎng fǎn’ér jiàng, shì guài wǒmen méi nǔlì gōngzuò ma?)” one netizen commented on Weibo.
“Eyebrow Pencil Gate (眉笔门 Méibǐ Mén),” as it has since been dubbed, has trapped Li in a social media storm: By the evening of September 11, over 848,000 of Li’s 30 million fans on Weibo had stopped following him according to Global Times.
The incident seemed to touch a nerve with young netizens who have faced uncertain economic prospects over the last few years—the urban unemployment rate for 16 to 24-year-olds was 21.3 percent in June this year, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics. Popular recent slang terms have often reflected young people’s workplace woes: They lamented their “996” work schedule, described themselves as “corporate livestock (社畜 shèchù),” and then detailed how they finally gave up the struggle to embrace the “lying flat (躺平 tǎngpíng)” lifestyle.
Li’s speech has become their latest source of memes. Netizens have playfully turned the character 里 (lǐ) into 李 (Li Jiaqi’s surname) in the phrase “How is it expensive (哪里贵了 Nǎlǐ guì le)” and applied it to describe people who are judged to have lost humility after achieving success.
Others have followed the pattern of Li’s speech to create spoof versions on various topics. For example, some netizens have paraphrased him to satirize housing prices, which have risen by over 50 percent in China since 2015 according to research by the OECD, an intergovernmental forum:
“The housing prices keep rising... How is it expensive? Just look at the costs of second-hand homes next door. Don’t speak without thinking...It’s not easy for real estate developers to survive nowadays. They’re not making any profit at all with these prices...Sometimes, you should look at yourself for the reasons: How much down payment have you saved over the years? Do you really belong to this social group? (房价越来越贵了……哪里贵了？你看隔壁二手房什么价格，不要睁着眼睛乱说。开发商很难的，他们这个价格根本就不赚钱……有的时候找找自己的原因，这么多年了攒了多少首付，配不配这种圈层? Fángjià yuè lái yuè guì le……Nǎlǐ guì le? Nǐ kàn gébì èrshǒufáng shénme jiàgé, búyào zhēngzhe yǎnjing luàn shuō. Kāifāshāng hěn nán de, tāmen zhège jiàgé gēnběn jiù bú zhuànqián……Yǒude shíhou zhǎozhao zìjǐ de yuányīn, zhème duō nián le zǎnle duōshǎo shǒufù, pèi bú pèi zhè zhǒng quāncéng?)”
Li’s crisis also affected the products he was promoting, leading to backlash against Florasis, the eyebrow pencil brand. One creative netizen did some calculations and claimed that the pencil costs over 980 yuan per gram—the same as two grams of gold.
Meanwhile, other 国货 (guóhuò, domestic products) brands (which have enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years) seized the opportunity to market their own 79-yuan bundles—the same price as Florasis’s pencil. Netizens dubbed this marketing frenzy a “team-building event for domestic brands (国货品牌团建 guóhuò pǐnpái tuánjiàn).”
Bee & Flower, a shampoo and conditioner brand founded in the 1980s, jumped on the bandwagon by advertising 2.5 kilograms of product for 79 yuan. Beverage brand Wahaha, hygiene company Vinda, and paper producer C&S Paper joined the pile-on with similar deals. C&S Paper even used the slogan “You can achieve tissue freedom without having to be diligent at work (不努力工作也能实现纸巾自由 Bù nǔlì gōngzuò yě néng shíxiàn zhǐjīn zìyóu),” seemingly a direct reference to Li’s words questioning his follower’s work ethic.
Amidst the raging public relations disaster, Li made a teary apology before the beginning of his latest livestream event on Monday, September 19. Addressing his mostly female fan base, Li sobbed: “It is the support and trust of all you girls that have led me to where I am today. No matter when, I should not forget where I come from, and certainly not lose myself. (是所有女生的支持和信任，让我一步步走到今天。无论什么时候，我都不应该忘记我来自哪里，更加不能迷失了自己。Shì suǒyǒu nǚshēng de zhīchí hé xìnrèn, ràng wǒ yí bùbu zǒudào jīntiān. Wúlùn shénme shíhou, wǒ dōu bù yīnggāi wàngjì wǒ láizì nǎlǐ, gèngjiā bù néng míshīle zìjǐ.)”
But some were in no mood to sympathize with Li, seeing him as blinded by his fame and riches. One sarcastic Weibo user summed up: “Making someone who [allegedly] earns 5.08 million yuan per day apologize to us low-income people...I’m so sorry to trouble him with that. (让一个日薪508万的人和咱们这种收入低的人哭着道歉真的委屈他了。Ràng yí gè rìxīn wǔbǎi líng bā wàn de rén hé zánmen zhè zhǒng shōurù dī de rén kūzhe dàoqiàn zhēnde wěiqu tā le.)”