Intellectuals in China may finally have found a way to boost their incomes that in some cases could surpass the earnings of top movie stars: moving their classes, speeches or question-and-answer sessions online for paying subscribers.
Some professors and experts have already tasted success in the lucrative business of the knowledge-sharing economy, a trend that experts said is driving by a combination of factors: increased demand for knowledge, an improved awareness of intellectual property (IP) protection and convenient online payment platforms.
An article titled "Peking University professor's income catches up with celebrities" made the rounds of the Internet in China on Wednesday. The article from the Economic Daily newspaper claimed that an economics professor at the top university is now worth nearly 35 million yuan ($5.3 million) because of his online column.
Xue Zhaofeng, who teaches economics at the prominent National School of Development at Peking University, has been posting a 10-minute recording of an economics lesson daily and answering questions online since 2010. Now, Xue's column has more than 170,000 subscribers who each pay 199 yuan per year.
The article drew a comparison between Xue's worth to that of some top celebrities, saying while the professor's income is still far behind that of top celebrities, it is catching up fast. It also included an image of the paycheck of a professor in Shanghai, who only made about 8,000 yuan per month.
The article quickly sparked online debate, as the incomes of celebrities and professors are hotly debated issues. Many in China have long argued that movie and music stars are paid too much while intellectuals are not paid enough.
"We should give intellectuals just compensation," one netizen commented on a post on people.cn on Thursday. Several more users also hailed the news as a positive development showing respect for intellectuals and knowledge, while others renewed their attacks on "overpaid" celebrities.
However, some questioned if it was right for a professor to use his knowledge outside the school to make economic gains.
"How many professors are still focused on the job of teaching these days? So many are focused on making money through tutoring services and lessons outside of the schools," one netizen wrote on people.cn. But the netizen added that actors who have high incomes are "worse."
In any case, more people in China are ready to pay for knowledge-based content, according to experts.
"Paid knowledge-sharing has been around for over a decade now, but it has just become a hot industry recently," Liu Dingding, a Beijing-based independent Internet analyst, told the Global Times on Thursday.
The trend is also reflected in the rising number of knowledge-sharing platforms in China, with at least half a dozen popular ones such as Zhihu, Fenda, Wenka and Weijian.
On Zhihu, or a Quora-like Q&A site, users can subscribe to many columns for a monthly or annual fee or ask a question for a single fee, in areas such as psychology, medical and real estate. The fees vary among columns and users.
Liu said cases like that of Xue are extremely rare.
"Most intellectuals don't make any money. I tried to launch a column on Weijian, but so far I only made 5 yuan," he said.
Men Changhui, a senior analyst of Beijing-based Internet technology firm InnoTREE Co, said most of the platforms are still dependent on using celebrities to make money.
But Men said the trend is also a positive development in China's efforts to protect IP. "It's definitely a good sign that people are getting used to paying for content," he said, adding, along with government policies, the trend could help China strengthen the protection of IP rights.
Yan Yuejin, a well-known expert in the real estate business, certainly feels the demand rising for more professional, customized information online, especially for a hot industry like property.
Yan, who is a research director at Shanghai-based E-house China R&D, has often posted screenshots of Q&As with homebuyers, who generally ask whether or where they should buy houses.
"The paid knowledge-sharing model reflects that, with too much information online, more and more users hope to find accurate information," he said, adding such a platform could help educate homebuyers about the real estate market and made informed decisions.