BEIJING -- Twelve million people watched as Kim Kardashian West opened a mah-jongg set on screen, displaying the domino-like tiles of the popular Chinese game.
"My friends play all the time," Kardashian said. "I'm the only one who doesn't know how to play. ... Now I have to learn."
The Los Angeles-based reality TV celebrity was speaking on a livestream channel run by Chinese influencer Viya, a spunky, bright-eyed woman in her 30s with more than 9 million followers on China's e-commerce platform Taobao, many of whom are die-hard fans who call themselves "women of Viya."
Every night, the livestream shopper hawks cosmetics, purses, apparel and snacks online, speed-talking and showcasing everything from Gucci purses to Chinese spice packages for sour fish soup.
This is what's known in China as "social commerce," a full fusion of social media and online shopping. In China's online ecosystem, where e-payments, livestreaming and e-commerce are fully integrated -- as if Amazon, Instagram and Paypal all existed on one platform -- influencers such as Kardashian have become a major driver of consumption.
That drive is ramping up as Nov. 11, China's "Singles' Day" and the largest shopping day of the year, approaches. It raked in more than $30 billion on that day last year on Alibaba's two online platforms, Taobao and Tmall, alone. That's five times the online sales for Black Friday in the United States last year.
This year, Chinese sales are expected to increase, despite the Chinese economy's slowing growth rate, inflated pork and other food prices, and the impacts of the U.S.-China trade war. But as Kardashian's appearance demonstrates, American products -- and celebrities -- still have cachet here despite heightened tariffs and geopolitical tension.
One consulting company found in a survey this year that 78% of respondents thought their consumption of U.S. brands would be affected by the trade war. More than half of them said "national loyalty" would be their main reason for not buying American brands. But it seems unlikely that such patriotic consumption habits will materialize into a broader boycott of U.S. brands during Singles' Day, analysts said.
"Typically, they will say something patriotic or nationalistic," Shaun Rein, business analyst and founder of the China Market Research Group, said of the Chinese survey respondents. "But when it comes to actually buying something, they don't care about that so much. They care more about quality, price, and value."
Tmall Global, an online shopping platform owned by Alibaba, the internet giant that also owns Taobao and Alipay, announced Wednesday that it plans to recruit and train 2,000 influencers in a "Global Influencer Ecosystem" to sell international goods to Chinese consumers. It already has 500 recruits from 10 countries, Kardashian included.