Celebrity culture in China is harsh. The authorities want to change this.

For years, Chinese online censors have relentlessly silenced political dissidents, #MeToo activists, liberal intellectuals, satirists, and anyone else who threatens to disrupt digital peace.

Now its Internet keepers have turned their attention to “stan” culture.

The Chinese government has taken a series of measures in recent days to curb celebrity worship and fan clubs, as officials increasingly fear the relentless pursuit of online attention is poisoning the minds of the youth. from the country. Friday the Chinese cyberspace administration banned the ranking of celebrities by popularity. The authority called for more regulation of what it called the “chaos” of fan clubs and the power they wield over music, movies and television programs.

The government has also attacked the celebrities themselves. A regulator accused an actress, Zheng Shuang, of tax evasion, fined her more than $ 46 million and ordered broadcasters to stop broadcasting the content in which she appeared. Ms. Zheng had been mired in a scandal this year over surrogate babies. Online video and social media sites also erased references to Zhao Wei, one of the best Chinese 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, adding that she felt “very remorseful and guilty” in a letter posted on her social media account.

Chinese video sites quickly aligned with the government’s crackdown. Popular video platform iQiyi canceled its idol talent show this week, a move its chief executive said was “to draw a clear line on unhealthy trends in the industry.” The show came under fire this year after fans of various competitors bought milk from sponsor Mengniu Dairy to earn more points for their idols, then dumped large amounts of it down the drain.

Authorities have also criticized other protests for what they call “crazy”Fandom. Some superfans of Kris Wu, a popular Canadian singer who was arrested on suspicion of rape, have tried to raise money for his legal costs. On social media, Mr. Wu’s fans have posted and started discussion groups promoting a “rescue mission,” apparently to help him escape detention.

“I have a plan to save my brother”, a Weibo user wrote. “I watched ‘Prison Break’. I know how to do it. “

Celebrity fan clubs have become extremely lucrative for large corporations that hire well-followed stars to promote their brands. But clubs and some of the platforms that host them also make money by charging fans a membership fee to view high-definition footage of their idols, or by encouraging fans to spend money on it. advertising and promotional activities.

For many brands, more than half of their marketing budget is now spent on online celebrities, according to Mark Tanner, managing director of China Skinny, a Shanghai-based marketing and research agency.

“You have this really lonely generation, and they find company through these virtual relationships. It helped, ”he said. “From a branding perspective, you can’t underestimate the power of it. These fans buy whatever products their idols endorse, so all you have to do is get some Ambassador form.

The decision to clean up unruly fan clubs and discipline celebrities is the latest example of the increasingly assertive role the Chinese Communist Party led by authoritarian leader Xi Jinping wants to play in regulating culture. Xi said in 2014 that art and culture should be created in the service to the people, and in the years that followed, the entertainment industry became an ideological battleground, whether in censoring themes deemed to be pernicious or limiting the influence of celebrities.

The crackdown on celebrities follows recent regulatory action against some of China’s biggest tech companies and its private tutoring industry. Just as Beijing has restricted other industries that have long been widely privileged, regulations are starting to catch up with online fan culture in China, said Hung Huang, a popular blogger and magazine publisher in Beijing.

“I believe that the problems facing China and abroad are the same, that is, the advancement of its technology has overtaken it,” said Ms. Hung. “Law enforcement procedures cannot keep up with the development of new technologies. Fan clubs are therefore a new technology and a little monster created by social networks. “

The crackdown on fan clubs is a reversal of Beijing’s view of the industry just a year ago. State media praised fan culture for promoting spontaneous ‘positive energy’, citing a fan club in 2019 that was created around a fictional character who came to defend Beijing’s policies at protests in Hong Kong.

More recently, authorities have been alarmed by more extreme behavior on fan forums, such as stampede between rival fan clubs and doxxing, which involves digging up individuals’ personal data and posting it online.

They are also targeting a secondary economy that has grown out of these fan clubs, which encourage fans to buy the products their idols represent.

“Such behavior has tainted a clean internet ecosystem, exerted a negative influence on the physical and mental health of adolescents, and generated strong public opposition,” the internet regulator said in a statement this year.

To keep celebrities online, authorities also quickly demonstrated how easily they can erase a celebrity’s presence from the Internet. The erasures take place with seemingly little or no recourse and sometimes no apparent reason, as was the case with Ms. Zhao, the best actress.

Ms. Zhao’s account on Weibo, the social media platform, remained accessible on Friday, but many of the movies, shows and videos she had starred in were taken offline, as was a major online forum where fans have posted about it. Her name was even removed from the actual works in which she had performed.

The silence of the authorities has left many of his fans perplexed.

Sherry Fan, 26, a film producer in Beijing, said she was shocked when browsing online articles about Ms. Zhao, her favorite childhood television actress and a model.

“She has always had a good public image,” said Ms. Fan, who collected posters of Ms. Zhao and set up her first batch of internet accounts on Chinese social media platforms to follow her. “It’s hard to believe that a successful actress and director like her gets stuck in this situation.”

In an opinion piece published by the main Communist Party newspaper on Friday evening, the authorities clarified one thing: there is no more room for celebrity misbehavior.

“If you want to pursue a career in the performing arts,” he said, “you must always respect the rule of law, keep the bottom line of morality.

Otherwise, once you hit the red line of law and morals, “he added,” you will reach the ‘finish line’ of the performing arts route. “

Claire Fu, Liu Yi and Albee zhang contributed research.

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