China’s Celebrity Fan Culture in Hot Water as Beijing Widens Internet Crackdown

By Eva Fu
Eva Fu
Eva Fu
China Reporter
Eva Fu is a New York-based writer for The Epoch Times focusing on U.S.-China, religious freedom, and human rights.
August 29, 2021 Updated: August 30, 2021

For months, Chinese authorities have been cracking down on the country’s powerful internet sector, targeting an array of companies over issues from anti-trust to data security.

Now, online celebrity fan clubs are the latest to feel the heat.

The regime’s top internet regulator, in a bid to rein in what it described as China’s “chaotic” celebrity fan culture, on Aug. 27 barred platforms from ranking celebrities’ popularity and restricted sales of fan merchandise.

Restrictions are now slapped on celebrities’ public relations firms, social media accounts of fan clubs, and entertainment programs, with the Cyberspace Administration of China on Friday highlighting around a dozen behaviors that it considered off-limits.

Platforms are now barred from publishing lists of popular celebrities, and actors and artists will be restricted in how they promote their merchandise to fans.

Fan clubs face a potential shutdown if they spread what the authorities deem as “harmful information”—such as rumors, abusive words, and celebrity scandals, the Friday announcement said.

The measure on Friday was the culmination of a two-month-long campaign that has been gaining pace since June to “rectify” celebrity fan culture, leading to the purging of 150,000 “harmful messages” and over 5,000 accounts and groups it said were rule-breakers.

It also came amid a growing number of celebrity scandals rocking the country.

Police last month arrested Canadian-Chinese pop star, Kris Wu following rape allegations. His fan groups leaped to his defense on social media. Most of these fan accounts, along with Wu’s online accounts, were later shut down.

Earlier this week, the name and details of billionaire actress Vicki Zhao Wei, brand ambassador for Italian fashion company Fendi in China, vanished from the works she starred in for unspecified reasons. Another actor, Zhang Zhehan, also recently got de-platformed after a three-year-old photo of him posing at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo resurfaced online.

The regime’s escalating crackdown on entertainers and fan culture has sent a chill through the country’s “idol economy,” which is projected to be worth 140 billion yuan ($21.6 billion) by estimates from Chinese streaming platform iQiyi.

Mango Excellent Media, a state-backed multimedia firm in south-central China, saw its stock value dropping by 14 percent at one point on Friday in what some Chinese media described as an aftershock from the “entertainment circle earthquake.”

Dozens of actors have rushed to issue statements expressing their support for the regulator’s campaign, a gesture that has become commonplace in China as companies and artists seek to avoid being caught in Beijing’s crosshairs in its widening crackdown on the private sector.

A day ahead of the Chinese regulator’s announcement, iQiyi, a Netflix-like platform, halted popular “idol competition” programs that allowed viewers to vote for contestants by purchasing products.

Sign of Chinese video-streaming platform iQiyi Inc is pictured at the Beijing International Cultural and Creative Industry Expo, in Beijing
A sign of Chinese video-streaming platform iQiyi Inc is pictured at the Beijing International Cultural and Creative Industry Expo, in Beijing, China on May 29, 2019. (Reuters/Stringer)

‘Political Showpiece’

Beijing’s all-encompassing censorship machinery censors anything it deems as deviating from Chinese Communist Party values, whether it be video games, films, television programs, or music.

A months-long regulatory storm has put an end to for-profit tutoring and clipped the wings of tech behemoths such as Alibaba and Didi.

The day the internet regulator took aim at celebrity worship, it also launched another crackdown on the country’s freewheeling “self-media” industry. It accused those in the “self-media” sector,  social media personalities and current affairs commentators, of “interpreting economic policies in twisted ways” and “severely disrupting the spread of information online.”

Disciplining the entertainment industry is the regime’s latest move to control public discourse, said Gao Yu, a dissident and former Chinese journalist who has been repeatedly jailed over her reporting.

“The Chinese Communist Party grips a gun in one hand, and holds a pen in the other. This is how they took power and how they intend to solidify their ruling,” Gao told The Epoch Times.

For Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who seeks to secure his third term as paramount ruler, such measures serve to establish his political achievements to showcase at the 20th National Party’s Congress in the coming year, a twice-in-a-decade event to elect the CCP’s top leadership for the next five years, according to Gao.

Xi’s current ambition, Gao said, is to accomplish “common prosperity.” The regime has long been talking about “four big mountains”—unaffordable education, medicare, housing, and senior care—obstacles that weigh down Chinese society and are said to worsen a wealth gap.

“Xi Jinping wants to push down these four big mountains,” Gao said. “Whether or not he can make it happen is one thing, but this is his policy direction and what he hopes to be a political showpiece.”

RYE Music Festival - Day 1
Chinese rock fans wear protective masks as they enjoy a rock band performance at the RYE Music Festival in Beijing, China, on Oct. 17, 2020. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Squeezing the Rich

The term “common prosperity,” touted since the regime’s early years as the end goal of socialism, has been making noticeable reappearance over the past year, dovetailing with an expansive crackdown that has left the private sector badly shaken.

A day after Xi called for a curb on “excessively high income,” Chinese tech conglomerate Tencent set aside 50 billion yuan ($7.7 billion) for the cause. On Tuesday, e-commerce firm Pinduoduo pledged to donate its entire profit for the last quarter, about $372 million, to rural development projects. In July, smartphone maker Xiaomi’s chairman Lei Jun gave over $2 billion worth of company shares to charity.

“They are spending money to buy away disasters,” said Hu Ping, an exiled Chinese dissident in New York and the honorary editor-in-chief for the Chinese political magazine Beijing Spring. The regime, he added, “has ample ways to make you pay a higher price” if they refuse to comply.

The wealth amassed in the entertainment sector made them a natural target for Beijing, said Gao. “For starring in one show, they earn what people can’t hope to get in their lifetime,” she said, noting that by punishing public figures who have a huge following, Xi would be able to demonstrate the rigor of his campaign.

These measures are nonetheless not sustainable in the long run, said a former public servant in China and social media personality, who only gave his last name Chen.

“No one would feel a sense of security,” Chen told The Epoch Times. “Today he is a billionaire, tomorrow he may wind up in jail.”

The result, he said, “could only be common poverty rather than common prosperity.”

Luo Ya contributed to this report.

Eva Fu
Eva Fu
China Reporter
Eva Fu is a New York-based writer for The Epoch Times focusing on U.S.-China, religious freedom, and human rights.