China Targets Extreme Internet Fandoms in a New Crackdown

China Targets Extreme Internet Fandoms in a New Crackdown 1
Measures aimed at influencer and celebrity culture will reach into the screens of young people. 

Youth with You was a popular streaming show in China, in which clean-cut young men sang and danced, guided by established pop star mentors, as they competed to form a new boy band. To vote for a contestant in the latest season this past spring, viewers needed to scan a QR code on the bottle from a particular brand of milk and yogurt. Superfans did just that, buying millions of dollars of dairy.

Accusations started circling that much of the milk was being resold or even wasted. In April, a viral video appeared to show voters dumping liters of dairy down the drain. The ensuing outrage, culminating in a scathing May 4 editorial by the state-run Xinhua news agency, caused filming to be suspended.

Western stars like Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj have devoted, at times toxic, fan bases. But in China, even relatively obscure internet celebrities or talent show contestants attract rabid fans who pool their time and money to support a particular idol—sometimes to extremes.

Last year, devotees of actor Xiao Zhan provoked authorities to shut a fan fiction site by complaining it was “pornography,” the BBC reported; fans were upset that a piece depicted the actor as a cross-dressing teen pining over a male celebrity. Followers of the site then called for a boycott of Xiao Zhan-endorsed products, and both sides were accused of doxing and cyberbullying the other. Even more notoriously, a group of fans mused online about ways to spring Kris Wu, a China-based Canadian singer who’s being held on suspicion of rape, from detention.

In August, Chinese officials said they had had enough. The government issued expansive guidance to control the “chaos” of celebrity culture and fan clubs. The Cyberspace Administration of China banned the ranking of celebrities by popularity on social media and told platforms to control the participation of people younger than 18. Platforms were told not to induce fans “to consume” or require people to buy something to vote in talent shows. Management companies were directed to control fan groups and stem squabbles between rival factions.

The measures aimed at the entertainment industry come amid Chinese president Xi Jinping’s “common prosperity” campaign. Previous actions have taken aim at the education sector, real estate, food delivery apps, and big tech companies. The focus on celebrity culture reaches into the devices of young people, aiming to control the cultural, political, and moral content of what appears on their screens.

American parents may wish that their children would spend less time watching influencers like Addison Rae on TikTok and buying her beauty products. And US government officials have called on TikTok to do more to police the content served to minors, such as the “devious licks” challenge, in which students posted videos of themselves trashing school property. (TikTok banned the term and took down many of the videos.) But China’s measures stand out for their specificity, and the speed with which they emerged.

“If you look at how the government is trying to regulate different aspects of the internet, they always have a vision about how society and the internet should evolve,” says Lizhi Liu, a professor at Georgetown. Then it launches campaigns to sweep away bad behavior and promote what it sees as positive influences.

In September, the National Radio and Television Administration warned TV broadcasters that the actors and guests they book should be selected based on “political accomplishment, moral conduct, artistic level, and social evaluation”—and broadcasters should not, for example, cast the children of celebrities in reality shows. The regulator also said broadcasters must not promote “sissy” men.

Critics say these restrictions are too extreme, and could hurt young Chinese fans seeking out community and exploring their identities through fandom. This is especially true of fans who flock to male Chinese pop stars who are seen as too effeminate or gender nonconforming, says Hongwei Bao, a scholar of LGBTQ issues and art in China and author of Queer China: Lesbian and Gay Literature and Visual Culture Under Postsocialism. “These draconian cultural policies are bound to alienate a younger generation in China who grow up in urban, popular, and celebrity cultures and who see them as part of their identity,” Bao says. He says the regulations reflect age and rural-urban divides between upwardly mobile citizens and graying officials.

Streaming apps responded quickly to the new guidance. TikTok parent company ByteDance created a “youth mode” on its Douyin video app that limits users under 14 years of age to 40 minutes per day between 6 am and 10 pm. NetEase’s Cloud Music and Tencent’s QQ Music nixed all artist rankings unrelated to songs’ stream counts. iQiyi said it would stop hosting popular talent competitions including Youth With You and The Big Band, a kind of madcap, heavily sponsored game show plus American Idol-style competition for rock bands.

Liu Hao, bassist for one of the participating bands, Joyside, says the show gave underground rockers a big platform to reach wider audiences. “There are so many great young bands waiting to be discovered in China,” Liu says.

The crackdown is driven, in part, by the particular economics of celebrity in China. Many celebrities, musicians, and influencers rely on endorsements and sponsorships for the bulk of their income, rather than touring or streaming revenue. Relatively small-scale notables—say, a contestant in an online competition—might sign with a talent management agency that handles tasks from arranging sponsorships to artist development to legal services, in return for a cut of up to 80 percent of the artist’s income.

As agencies seek to capitalize on their investments, online fan groups are a prime target. Anthony Y. H. Fung, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says they’ve essentially “turned fans into dollar signs.” Fans—often in their teens or early 20s—are lured to pay for exclusive content like high-definition photos and mobile wallpapers or to buy a product so they can vote in a talent show.

Fans, sometimes in concert with an idol’s agency, also pool their money on over-the-top birthday greetings and gifts. In 2016, fan clubs for Mandopop megastars TFBoys forked over enough to buy a Times Square billboard to celebrate member Wang Junkai’s 17th birthday. When he turned 18, groups hired skywriters in China and launched hot-air balloons in Turkey.

At its most extreme, the devotion to a celebrity can be “like an online addiction,” says Fung. In a 2019 article, he describes a symbiosis between online fan groups and streaming programs. His research assistant spent four months following the Tencent Video pop-group creation show Produce 101, and participated in fan groups on Tencent’s platform, Doki. Fans are encouraged to log in each day because those visits are factored into an idol’s rankings; some pay for promotions and rally votes. The research assistant’s participation in a paid online fan circle and her efforts to rally support for a contestant ultimately earned her an invitation to join a VIP fan group and a ticket to the show’s finale, where scalped tickets were going for more than $400 online.

These young people, often only children, face grueling academic demands and pressure from parents and grandparents to succeed. Celebrity fandom offers an escape, says Zhao, who helps handle social media for a popular singer-songwriter, and asked to be identified only by her surname.

Zhao says that for some participants, fan groups “may be the first and only communities they take the initiative to join.” The clubs allow them to commune virtually with people they otherwise would have no access to—such as “the manager of the fan groups who may be a Harvard graduate or daughter of the mayor.”

But the extreme devotion worries some Chinese parents, says Grace Zhang, a parent and former editor at a family-themed magazine called JingKids. “The pursuit of fame and money has become the goal of life for some young people, rather than pursuing the true meaning of their lives,” she says.

Xia Wei, the parent of a middle-school-aged girl in Shanghai, favors these laws because she worries Chinese youth would otherwise “blindly worship stars all day. It’s bad for their studies.” Wang Jun, the mother of a preteen in Beijing, says the money lavished on stars is offensive, because these idols ”already have high incomes, and are not worth parents’ hard earned wages.”

With the new rules, the government hopes to curry favor with parents like these, says Perry Link, a professor at UC Riverside. He says the ruling Communist Party does not care much about young people wasting time and money chasing idols, nor the moral character of those idols. But if parents believe the party is on their side, it helps solidify its power.

The rules promise to shake up China’s cultural scene. Zhao, the social media manager, says traditional singers and actors may regain popularity lost to performers with rabid fan groups who pushed their favorites with frenzied online activity. Brands may also “think about whether they rely too much on celebrity effects and fan club culture, while ignoring their own DNA and brand image,” says Sophia Dumenil, cofounder of The Chinese Pulse, a Paris-based creative consulting agency that studies trends in fashion and luxury markets.

Luxury, fashion, and beauty brands will likely pivot to more endorsements from straight-laced Olympic athletes or even collaborations with virtual influencers, she adds. Online video platforms like iQiyi and Tencent Video may suffer without their widely watched idol pop shows, but they may look to develop new forms of programming—and some feel the idol-competition format was getting stale. Neither platform responded to questions.

The rules’ impact may be muted, because Chinese internet users are savvy at working around restrictions, and young people will likely find ways to seek out their favorite stars. That’s happened before. In 2018 hip-hop culture and tattoos were barred from TV, which led broadcasters to digitally scrub ink and gold chains from some actors’ bodies. But hip-hop shows continue across China. In August, Chinese authorities restricted minors’ video game play time to three hours a week; kids reportedly adapted by switching to watching streams of other people playing games.

In the talent shows’ heyday, unconventional contestants sometimes became fan favorites. In his paper, Fung describes the surprise success on Produce 101 of Wang Ju, whose tanned skin, muscular build, and “nonconformist” attitude contrasted with the other girl-group contestants, who fit a more traditional image of Chinese female beauty. She was criticized by the judges and nearly voted out three times, only to be rescued by a devoted fan base, mostly of urban Chinese women. “For online fans, the discussion framed Ju as a role model for any real Chinese urban female who confidently declares her own ‘financial independence’ and ‘spiritual independence,’ claiming to be one of the few who can be herself,” Fung wrote.

Like young people all over the world, Chinese fans will likely gravitate to celebrities they admire or identify with, not those the government deems good role models. AJ Song, former director of business development and events at pioneering Beijing LGBTQ bar Destination, doubts the regulations can “eliminate ‘effeminate male idols’ by creating more ‘macho men idols.’ We all know that’s not gonna happen.” Still, he thinks it may alter some behaviors. “Creating a celebrity has never been so easy and so fast—and the same goes for ruining one,” he says. “It’s a new thing for everyone, including the regulators. These new restrictions might not be perfect, but hopefully they will drive celebrities to become ethical idols.”

Dumenil, the fashion consultant, says the rules are rooted in China’s authoritarian political system. “This can be considered going too far in a democratic system,” she says. “But the Chinese government is actually reinforcing its political anchorage and values in communism.”


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