Zhou Liqi spent four years in prison for stealing electric bikes. When the 36-year-old was released this month, he found himself faced with a strange situation: He was offered up to 3 million yuan (US$423,519) to become a live streamer.

Zhou gained fame in 2016, when comments in an old local media interview went viral. In the 2012 video interview, he was seen detained at a local police station with one hand chained to a window, proudly stating that he would never work for anyone in his life -- and that he had enjoyed his previous jail time. 

Internet users soon started to jokingly hail him as a “spiritual leader,” with viral posters portraying him as Che Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary leader. He was even given the nickname “Qie Guevara” -- Qie means “steal” in Chinese and is pronounced the same as “Che.” 

It helps that Zhou and Che Guevara have (sorta) similar hairstyles. (Picture: Weibo)

The year Zhou became famous also saw the explosive growth of live streaming in China. And now that Zhou is free, the market has only reached new heights thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. With so many people being confined to their homes, millions started watching live streams not just for entertainment, but for other reasons too -- like shopping. The lucrative market has drawn everyone from technology company executives to state media news anchors to sell products during live streams.

According to local media, people from live streaming talent agencies waited outside the prison gate for Zhou’s release, trying to sign him with generous offers. Zhou’s brother reportedly said that more than 30 companies have approached Zhou’s family, with some offering up to 3 million yuan (US$423,519).

In one video report from local media, a talent agency worker said that they want to “correct his thoughts” about never working for other people, and said that they will treat Zhou “as a boss.”

But it appears that Zhou is still living by his principles. In an interview with local media, Zhou said that agreeing to sign means that he’d be working for someone else, and that he won’t break his promise of never working for other people. 

In a video released by local police, Zhou says that he regrets the things he’s done. (Picture: Naning Xingning Police/Bilibili)

Not surprisingly, the news has drawn backlash from authorities. In a commentary piece, the state-run People Daily slammed the agencies that offered millions to sign Zhou, saying that they are “sick.” The Cyberspace Administration of China’s Chengdu arm criticized a company that claimed that they had signed Zhou for 15 million yuan (US$2.12 million). The government-run China Association of Performing Arts also said that talent agencies who have approached Zhou have been put on an industry blacklist. 

But the talent agencies may have a reason to think that it could work. In 2017, an ex-prisoner named Zhao Jinlong, who spent a two-year jail time for an unsuccessful robbery, became a popular live streamer after he was released. 

Zhao, who was addicted to cough syrup before attempting the robbery, was also famous because of his funny comments during a media interview when he was arrested. He racked up some 625,000 followers on Kuaishou, but Zhao’s account doesn’t appear to be active after September 2017.