Chinese commercial livestreamer caught selling counterfeit bird’s-nest soup, reigniting criticism of delicacy

Society & Culture

A popular livestreaming pitchman who once sold $57 million worth of goods in a single day has stirred up a double-layered controversy about a traditional Chinese medical tonic.


Top-level Chinese ecommerce livestreamer Xīnbā 辛巴, who is considered the “sales king” on short-video app Kuaishou, has been exposed for hyping a bogus nutritional drink that he claimed contained bird’s-nest soup, a Chinese delicacy with alleged health benefits according to theories of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

The drink first came under public scrutiny earlier last month, when a number of consumers made complaints, accusing Xinba of falsely advertising it as a nutritional supplement, whose main ingredient is edible birds’ nests. They said they were convinced to purchase the beverage after watching Xinba peddle it in a livestreaming session on October 25. But after trying out the drink, they suspected that Xinba’s claims about the product’s nutritional value were “fraudulent,” and that the drink was nothing but “a mix of syrup and water.”

On Taobao, China’s biggest ecommerce site, the drink is advertised as “flavored, precooked bird’s-nest soup.” Sold in tiny, gold plastic bowls, the alleged “soup” is priced at roughly 40 yuan ($6) per unit.

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As the complaints piled up, Xinba initially denied knowingly hawking bogus supplements. To substantiate his claims, the pitchman livestreamed himself using a skimmer to extract gelatinous components from the drink, which he said were proof of “real” bird nests. He also shared a quality inspection certificate for the product with his followers while threatening legal action over any “defamatory” comments about his credibility.

However, his defense of the product earned him the attention from Wàng Hǎi 王海, one of China’s best-known professional fake-goods investigators. Wang makes a living by purposefully buying counterfeit or potentially dangerous products and then demanding compensation from the companies that sell them.

Wang took to Weibo (in Chinese) on November 19 to reveal results of a laboratory analysis of Xinba’s “bird’s-nest soup,” which showed that the drink didn’t contain any protein or amino acids, which would have been responsible for most of the health benefits that it claimed to have. Instead, carbohydrates and sugar, two common and cheap ingredients in regular beverages, were found to be dominant ingredients in the “drink,” which Wang called nothing but “a basic syrup.”

“If we take into account all the costs related to the ‘soup’ — from manufacturing to ingredients to packaging to transporting — one small bowl of the drink probably only costs less than 1 yuan [$0.15] to make,” Wang wrote.

Following the revelation, Xinba’s team quickly responded with promises to provide full refunds for customers who had issues with the drink. The livestreamer also stressed that while he earned a 12.6% commission on the sales of the product, he was not aware that the health claims made by the manufacturer were flat-out lies.

Xinba, whose real-life name is Xīn Yǒuzhì 辛有志, is one of the best-known faces of China’s ecommerce livestreaming boom. With more than 37 million fans on Kuaishou, the Tencent-backed video platform, Xinba has a tremendous influence on people’s purchase decisions. According to the South China Morning Post, during the November 6 Kuaishou shopping festival last year, the platform’s equivalent of Alibaba’s Singles’ Day shopping bonanza, Xinba sold products worth more than 400 million yuan ($57 million) in one day.

However, the rapid growth of the industry has been plagued by questionable business practices, such as misleading advertising and the sale of substandard and hazardous goods and services. In an effort to bring more order to the market, the China Advertising Association (CAA) issued a set of guidelines in July, which were designed to curb illegal advertising on livestreams. Last month, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) published draft regulations that would require real-name registration from individual livestreamers.

Xinba’s controversy has also sparked renewed skepticism of bird’s-nest soup, an expensive TCM treatment created by swiftlets using solidified saliva spat out by the tiny birds. While the delicacy has been harvested for human consumption in China for hundreds of years, the near-magical properties that it is alleged to have — from slowing down aging to curing cancer — have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years.

Even if birds’ nests do have medicinal properties, many of the products sold as bird’s-nest soup don’t actually contain any: In 2018, Ccreport, an independent Chinese media outlet, tested six brands of canned bird’s-nest soup and revealed in an article that they were mostly made of syrup and water.