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Strict measures: Livestreaming sessions by Li Jiaqi and Viya (left) seen on Alibaba’s e-commerce app Taobao. Viya was fined for tax evasion as China cracks down on the online streaming commerce arena. — Reuters

BEIJING: China’s biggest livestreaming and e-commerce platforms saw shares drop after the country slapped an unprecedented tax evasion fine on a top influencer, intensifying its crackdown on celebrities responsible for shifting millions in merchandise on the Chinese Internet.

Kuaishou Technology fell as much as 3.9%, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd as much as 2.2% and Bilibili Inc 8.8% yesterday morning in Hong Kong. Stocks had plunged in Monday trading in New York, where Alibaba fell 5.8%, Bilibili dived 11.6% and Joyy Inc slid 4.7%.

Huang Wei – a famous livestreamer also known as Viya – was ordered to pay 1.34 billion yuan (US$210mil or RM884mil) in back taxes, late fees and fines, the State Taxation Administration said.

By yesterday morning, her accounts had disappeared across platforms from Weibo to Alibaba’s Taobao.

“Viya’s fine for evading tax is a wake-up call. No matter how famous or popular you are, you can hardly evade punishment after tax evasion,” the official People’s Daily newspaper said in a commentary. “As a top livestreamer, she should have taken the lead in abiding by the law. To enjoy the systematic dividends brought about by the new business format, you should demonstrate a matching legal literacy.”

The episode is the latest step in a growing crackdown on online influencers who have seen their popularity explode in recent years, and may spook not just markets but the merchants and brands who rely on China’s homegrown livestreaming format to drive sales.

It signals that Beijing is turning its attention to the online streaming commerce arena, which has thrived with little regulation in recent years. President Xi Jinping has promised to clamp down on illegal sources of income as part of his “common prosperity” drive to close the wealth gap.

Viya’s fine shows that China is only half done in terms of its regulatory crackdown, said Justin Tang, head of Asian research at United First Partners.

There may continue to be more fines and other restrictions on livestreaming in particular and the tech sector in general in the coming year, he said.

Viya’s husband and business partner, Dong Haifeng, said in a post to his Weibo account that because the duo don’t have a professional understanding of tax regulations, they hired external tax consultancies to do “legal tax planning” and only later found out such practices have problems, without elaborating.

While China has gone after actresses like Fan Bingbing and Zheng Shuang for tax evasion, it’s increasingly focused on online influencers, whose popularity and ability to generate revenue from the country’s plugged-in consumers far exceed those in the West.


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