For years, China’s online censors have relentlessly silenced political dissidents, #MeToo activists, liberal intellectuals, satirists and anyone else who threatened to disrupt digital peace.
Now the internet watchers have turned to the “Stan” culture.
The Chinese government has taken a number of steps in the past few days to curb celebrity and fan club worship amid growing concerns among officials that the relentless pursuit of online attention is poisoning the minds of the country’s youth. On Friday, the Cyberspace Administration of China banned celebrity ranking by popularity. The agency called for greater regulation of the so-called “chaos” of fan clubs and their power over music, films and television programs.
The government has also scrutinized celebrities itself. A regulator accused an actress, Zheng Shuang, of tax evasion, fined her over $ 46 million, and ordered broadcasters to stop showing content she appeared on. Ms. Zheng was embroiled in a baby loan scandal that year. Online video and social media sites also removed references to Zhao Wei, one of China’s top actresses, for reasons that remained unclear.
Ms. Zhao did not respond to a request for comment on Friday. Ms. Zheng apologized and said she would pay the fine.
Chinese video sites have adapted quickly to government policies. Popular video platform iQiyi canceled its Idol talent show this week, a move that its CEO said was aimed at “drawing a clear line on unhealthy trends in the industry.” The show came under fire this year after fans of various contestants bought milk from Mengniu Dairy, a sponsor, to earn more points for their idols, and then dumped large amounts of it down the sewer.
Authorities have also criticized other displays of what they call “crazy” fandom. Some superfans of Kris Wu, a popular Canadian singer who was jailed on suspicion of rape, tried to raise funds for his legal expenses. Mr. Wu’s fans posted on social media and set up chat groups promoting a “rescue mission,” apparently to help him escape detention.
“I have a plan to save my brother,” wrote one Weibo user. âI saw ‘Prison Break’. I know, how it works.”
Celebrity fan clubs have become extremely lucrative for large companies that hire stars with large following to promote their brands. But the clubs and some of the platforms they host also make money by collecting membership fees so fans can see high resolution pictures of their idols, or by encouraging fans to spend money on advertising and promotional activities.
According to Mark Tanner, general manager of China Skinny, a marketing and research agency based in Shanghai, many brands today spend more than half of their marketing budget on online celebrities.
âThey have this really lonely generation, and they find camaraderie through these virtual relationships. That helped, âhe said. âFrom a brand perspective, you can’t underestimate the power. These fans buy any product their idols endorse, so all you have to do is get some kind of ambassador. “
The move to clean up unruly fan clubs and discipline celebrities is the latest example of the increasingly assertive role China’s ruling Communist Party under Xi Jinping, an authoritarian leader, is seeking to play in regulating culture. Mr. Xi said in 2014 that arts and culture should be at the service of the people, and in the years since then, the entertainment industry has become an ideological battleground, whether it be censoring issues that are considered harmful or curbing prominent influence .
The crackdown on celebrities follows recent government action against some of China’s largest tech companies and their private tutoring industries. Just as Beijing has curbed other industries that have long gone wide, regulation is beginning to catch up with China’s online fan culture, said Hung Huang, a popular blogger and magazine publisher in Beijing.
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“I think the problems China and overseas are facing are the same – that is, the advancement of its technology has surpassed them,” said Ms. Hung. âLaw enforcement processes cannot keep up with the changes in new technology. So the fan clubs are indeed a new technology and a little monster created by social media. “
The crackdown on fan clubs is a reversal of Beijing’s view of the industry a year ago. State media praised fan culture for promoting spontaneous “positive energy,” citing a 2019 fan club founded around a fictional character defending Beijing politics during the Hong Kong protests.
More recently, authorities have been alerted to more extreme behavior on fan forums, such as mud fights between rival fan clubs and Doxxing, in which individuals’ personal information is unearthed and posted online.
They also target a secondary economy that has emerged from these fan clubs that encourage fans to buy the products their idols stand for.
“Such behavior has tainted a clean Internet ecosystem, had a negative impact on the physical and mental health of teenagers, and received strong public opposition,” the Internet regulator said in a statement this year.
Also, to keep celebrities updated, authorities have quickly shown the ease with which they can delete a celebrity’s presence from the internet. The deletions are seemingly done with no or no recourse and sometimes for no apparent reason, as was the case with Ms. Zhao, the top actress.
Ms. Zhao’s account on Weibo, the social media platform, remained accessible on Friday, but many of the films, shows and videos she starred in have been taken offline, as has a large online forum that lets fans know about her posted. Her name was even removed from the actual works in which she starred.
The silence of the authorities has confused many of their fans.
Sherry Fan, 26, a film producer in Beijing, said she was shocked to go through the online posts about Ms. Zhao, her favorite childhood television actress and role model.
“She always had a good public image,” said Ms. Fan, who collected posters of Ms. Zhao and set up her first internet accounts on Chinese social media platforms to follow her. “It’s hard to believe that such a successful actress and director as she would get stuck in this situation.”
In an opinion article published in the main Communist Party newspaper on Friday evening, the authorities made one thing clear: there is no longer any place for celebrity misconduct.
âIf you are to pursue a career in the performing arts,â it said, âyou must always obey the rule of law and keep morality on balance.
“Otherwise, as soon as you touch the red line of law and morality,” she added, “you reach the ‘goal’ of the path of the performing arts.”
Claire Fu, Liu Yi and Albee Zhang Research contributed.