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Influencers jailed for selling fake products

By Wang Xiaoyu | China Daily | Updated: 2024-01-02 10:01
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Nine people in Sichuan province, including two livestream influencers, have been given sentences ranging from eight months to more than three years in prison for advertising counterfeit agricultural products worth more than 10 million yuan ($1.4 million), according to local police.

The ruling was announced by a court in Zhaojue county in the Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture on Thursday, cybercrime officers in Sichuan said on Friday.

According to the ruling, the two online hosts were sentenced to eight and 10 months in prison. The owner of the agency that propelled the duo and several other influencers to stardom, surnamed Zhang, was sentenced to three years and two months in prison.

The two livestream sales hosts, a male and a female in their 20s, rose to popularity in August 2022 due to a clip on short-video platform Douyin that described their chance encounter at a remote village in Liangshan.

Riding the wave of popularity, the duo began selling walnuts, honey and other agricultural products online. As of May last year, both had attracted more than two million followers on their accounts and had together launched more than 40 online sales sessions.

In one session, the female host said: "These walnuts are indeed from Liangshan, and we would not do things against our conscience. We do authentic business," reported, a local news outlet.

Liangshan used to be one of the most impoverished regions in China, partly due to its far-flung and mountainous location. Like many other rural areas, selling agricultural products to urban consumers through e-commerce platforms has become an important way of increasing the incomes of local villagers.

However, the trend has also given rise to an illegal practice where media agencies nurture online influencers with millions of followers as a means to sell counterfeit items.

The two online hosts were among the first such cases exposed by public security authorities in Liangshan during a news conference in September.

Police said they began investigating the case in May and had so far arrested 54 suspects, including 11 well-known online hosts, and busted five agencies engaging in such illegal transactions.

According to the police, an agency first approached the duo — who were both running their own private businesses in Liangshan — in July 2022, and started framing them as naive and simple-minded villagers through scripted videos and livestreaming. Their videos were intentionally set up against demolished or deserted homes to give the sense of an underdeveloped, unpolluted countryside.

After gaining a large number of online followers, the agency purchased honey, walnuts and other food products from outside Liangshan, put fake labels on them and sold them as Liangshan-originated products to online shoppers.

These counterfeit products were sold to more than 20 regions across China, involving over 10 million yuan.

The two online influencers earned more than 700,000 yuan within seven months. The owner of the agency that recruited them gained over 3 million yuan, said local police.

Lu Xiaomei, deputy director of the public security bureau in Liangshan, said that a whole industry chain from creating fake online personas to shooting videos and reaping benefits through selling fraudulent products had been detected.

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