China’s official news agency has criticized local government officials for using live-streamed shopping events as publicity stunts to try and improve their own image, pointing out that the original purpose of the ecommerce initiative was to help small merchants and farmers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some officials, who jumped on the live-streaming bandwagon to sell local products on behalf of farmers, were even paying viewers to praise their good looks and personalities during their live broadcast sessions, according to a commentary published on one of Xinhua’s WeChat public accounts on Sunday.

Farmer Chen Jiubei helped lift her family and village out of poverty through live streaming sales on Alibaba's Taobao. (Picture: Handout)

Xinhua quoted an anonymous government employee in western China on details about the misuse of live-streamed ecommerce sessions by some local officials, who asked colleagues to join as audience members and set a minimum spending level to boost views and sales.

Some sold products at a loss or even made up fake orders that were canceled after the show, according to Xinhua.

“Live-streaming ecommerce was meant to be a new way for the government to resume operations and to help eliminate poverty, and ultimately it aims to be a sales channel for local products, especially agricultural products,” Xinhua said in the commentary.

“The self-deceiving flamboyance has deviated from the initial intention and has became the new formalism and bureaucracy.”

The live-streamed sales sessions were conceived as a way for governments to help reverse dampened consumer sentiment amid the coronavirus pandemic and as a way to revive the economy, which recorded its first contraction in nearly three decades in the first quarter of this year.

A number of Chinese government officials, tech industry leaders and entrepreneurs have since become live-streaming stars, eager to cater to the population’s appetite for online shopping in the world’s second largest economy.

Last month Chinese President Xi Jinping visited a Taobao Live studio in Shaanxi province which was set up to sell black fungus, a local specialty. Xi praised the delicacy and said “ecommerce is very important in promoting sales of agricultural products.”

Taobao Live is the live-streaming platform of Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba Group, the parent company of the South China Morning Post.

Live-streaming has become a “hot trend” in ecommerce, China’s vice-minister for commerce Wang Bingnan said at a briefing earlier this month. The number of live-streamed sales campaigns doubled during the five-day national holiday earlier this month, with some events recording sales of as much as 140 million yuan (US$19.8 million), he said.

Wang added that the volume of sales from live-streams over the recent Labor Day holiday was 4.7 times that of the same period last year.

China’s live-streaming market was worth 433.8 billion yuan in 2019 and is expected to double in size this year, according to a report issued in February by data analysis firm iiMedia Research.

However, trouble is also brewing for live-streamed campaigns after the country’s consumer rights watchdog received a surge of complaints about product quality, fake goods and lack of after-sales service during the recent holiday.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post.)