When Kris Wu, a Sino-Canadian singer and K-pop star, was arrested on suspicion of rape last month, some of his fans immediately banded together online to hatch plans to get him out of prison.
“Girls, numbers are strong, let’s fly to Beijing and rescue him,” a fan posted on microblogging platform Weibo.
Others said they were prepared with shovels to dig tunnels and pliers to cut the prison’s wire fences.
But it didn’t take long for these discussions – as well as the accounts that shared them – to be deleted.
As celebrity fans in China, increasingly in love with their pop idols, continue to feature in reports for negative reasons, Chinese officials have made it clear that such behavior will no longer be tolerated.
“The chaos in celebrity fan clubs exposed by the ‘Kris Wu incident’ shows that bad fan culture has reached a critical juncture that must be corrected,” the country’s main disciplinary body said in an internet publication, adding that thousands of “toxic comments” and fan groups have already been excluded from the network.
Two weeks ago, China’s Internet watchdog published a 10-point plan that would prevent the spread of “harmful” information to celebrity fan groups, including gossip and verbal abuse.
Any platform that does not act to quickly remove this type of content can also be penalized by the government.
“There has to be a cap on the irrational pursuit of pop stars,” the document said.
For months, Beijing has stepped up efforts to rein in what it calls “chaotic fan culture,” a move considered “welcome” even among some celebrity fans.
A Weibo user who regularly posts entertainment news updates said: “Crazy fans have really given us a bad name. Even I get annoyed when I see those big groups of fans crowding the airport to see their idols.”
Many members of these groups are not just people harmlessly rooting for their favorite stars. In many cases their behavior has become toxic.
Organized fan groups have increasingly taken their “love” to the extreme: from stalking to cyberbullying, as well as rampant publishing of rumors, is common on Chinese social media.
Last year, a fan club of popular actor and singer Xiao Zhan managed to shut down a fanfiction site over a play portraying the artist as a teenage transvestite in love with another male idol.
Fearing that the story would “smear” Zhan’s image, the group denounced the site to authorities as “child pornography” – which quickly had the site taken down.
Censorship, in turn, infuriated the site’s loyal readers, and an army of “anti-fans” was born. This new group started a campaign to boycott the many brands for which Zhan was a poster boy.
Both sides were involved in a terrible cyber war: images and even addresses of rivals were posted on the internet without authorization.
In China, many fans have made the news because of extravagant spending on their idols: some students are even going into debt.
Last Sunday, Weibo suspended a fan club for singer Jimin – a member of the K-pop boyband BTS – on allegations that the group had raised funds illegally.
The account, which had more than 1.1 million followers, raised a record 1 million yuan (about R$813,000) in crowdfunding in just three minutes. The money was used to customize the exterior of an airplane in honor of Jimin’s 26th birthday.
The airline tickets and even the used cups on board the plane were also personalized just to say “Happy Jimin’s Day”.
The fans’ plan also included publishing full-page ads in the New York Times, in the United States, and The Times, in the United Kingdom, to mark the K-pop idol’s birthday.
In May, fans of the reality show Youth With You enraged audiences over a controversy surrounding food waste.
As part of the show’s marketing strategy – which pitted singers in training against each other – fans could vote more often for their idols if they used QR codes on milk bottle caps.
The promotion led fans to buy milk in bulk with no intention of consuming it. Images soon emerged of people pouring large amounts of milk down the drain after the vote.
While the obsessive fan culture is not unique to China, experts say the scale is larger in the country thanks to a huge young internet population that is also highly engaged.
“Participating in Chinese fandom culture is no longer simply a hobby, but a form of data work,” said Bai Meijiadai, an analyst at Liaoning University.
From celebrity ranking lists based on followers and engagement to TV singing contests that allow audience voting, fans have become active participants in feeding the idol worship machine like never before seen in the country.
In 2018, Kris Wu made headlines in the United States when he swept the iTunes music charts, earning not only #1 but also seven of the 10 most popular songs. For a singer virtually unknown in North America, it was a great achievement.
Although critics immediately thought the Wu fanaticism was the work of robots, investigations found that the noise on social media was in fact driven by legions of fans, who worked together to buy the albums and boost sales for the singer.
It is precisely this kind of organized campaign that worries Chinese officials, experts say.
“There is growing concern that fan clubs could mobilize, in person or online, protests for their favorite stars,” says Kerry Allen, BBC media analyst in China.
But there also seems to be a moral aspect to this repression.
Actress Zheng Shuang, for example, caused outrage after she was accused of abandoning two children born to foster mothers abroad. Then came news that she was evading taxes.
Since then, Shuang has been “erased” from the Chinese internet.
“If celebrities are supposed to be role models, then it’s natural that internet fan groups also need to be regulated to promote a healthy culture,” says Jian Xu of Deakin University, who researches Chinese media culture. “It’s an attempt to protect young people from being negatively impacted.”
End of the line?
As Beijing puts pressure on fan culture, some online groups may be feeling lost: their world of obsessive fanaticism has apparently changed overnight.
All major social media platforms have already responded to the Chinese government’s call, removing celebrity rating lists and closing some fan accounts. Idol competition reality shows, many of which feature fan participation, were also banned this week.
“The crackdown can make fandoms ‘boring’ for some individuals who were eager to put their idol at the top of the lists,” says Allison Malmsten, market analyst at Daxue Consulting in China.
But she notes that the government move hardly signals the end of the road for this culture — they’ll just be less visible online.
“Repression is not the end of celebrity worship, but rather a way to reduce uncivilized behavior resulting from celebrity worship,” he says.
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