Xi faces off against fan armies in crackdown on celebrity culture
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Chinese fans dedicated to Park Ji-min, one of the seven members of Korean boy band BTS, are among the latest victims of President Xi Jinping’s campaign to clean up China’s youth culture.
Jimin’s unofficial Chinese fan site was suspended for two months after a crowdfunding campaign raised enough money to emblazon a commercial aeroplane with the star’s image.
The group also planned to purchase advertising in the The New York Times newspaper featuring the star, complete with dangling earrings, lipstick and smokey eye shadow.
The clampdown by censors comes as Chinese authorities have embarked on a mission to tackle the “chaos” posed by fandom, an attack on the millions of devout followers of Asian celebrities who congregate in informal hordes online.
The campaign is part of a broader crusade on China’s entertainment industry that has already targeted several prominent stars and includes a broadside against the supposedly effeminate style and fashion choices of young men.
However, experts said the fan groups’ propensity for organisation and effective social action is the chief concern for Xi’s administration as China embarks on a sweeping reassertion of party and state control across the country’s technological, business and cultural landscape.
“They see the potential to organise, to mobilise. For the government, that is a very big concern,” said Yun Jiang, a China expert and former policy adviser to the Australian government now with the Australian National University.
“Why did they crack down on ‘cults’ like Falun Gong? It was not merely because they were religious. They could have turned a blind eye to that. But once they started to mobilise, when they appeared in Tiananmen Square, that is when they really started to crack down,” she added, referring to the 1999 protests that led to the group’s evisceration in China.
This week, Weibo, one of China’s biggest internet platforms, suspended 22 social accounts run by K-pop fans for what it described as “irrational star-chasing behaviour”.
Defending China’s actions, its embassy in Seoul said: “[The campaign] targets words and deeds that run counter to public order and good manners, and violate laws and rules.”
The fans of BTS — a loose collective known as an “army”— exemplify the plethora of leaderless groups that spontaneously organise campaigns. Typically, the groups’ activities are dedicated to celebrating or honouring bands or individual members.
But in the US such groups have become increasingly political and have demonstrated a cunning ability for online political activism. Last year K-pop fans were credited with disrupting a Trump rally by organising mass pre-registrations and not showing up.
The BTS “army” also fundraised in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and helped block a police campaign that was gathering data on protesters by flooding the police website with images and videos of celebrities.
In a bid to control fan behaviour and shift responsibility on to the companies — and away from regulators — Chinese authorities are now heaping pressure on celebrity agencies and media production companies.
Over recent months Beijing’s cyber space watchdog has tried to “create a clean internet environment for star-struck web users”. Officials have scrubbed more than 150,000 pieces of what they describe as “harmful information” from online platforms and removed shows focused on celebrity rankings.
The moves have also reignited nationalistic fervour. Zhang Zhehan is an example of those targeted. The 30-year-old actor has been hit by official boycotts after four-year-old photos emerged online showing him near Tokyo’s contentious Yasukuni shrine, where the remains of Japanese soldiers, including war criminals, are interred.
Chinese officials have taken umbrage at the prominence of male stars who display what they see as less traditional masculine tendencies. The so-called effeminate fashion and style trends have emanated from Seoul’s influential music, film and television scene where young men embrace beauty products and grooming regimens once confined to women.
Inside China’s creative industries, some warn that the crackdown, especially fears of retroactive punishments and fast-changing standards of permissible content, is having a deeply chilling effect on the country’s artists and media professionals.
“Back in 2008, the joke was: whatever you did, if it’s illegal today, don’t worry, because it will be legal tomorrow. And now, of course, that’s been completely reversed,” said one China-based professional, who asked not to be named.
“Everyone is terrified. The warning is, even if it’s legal today, it might become illegal tomorrow.”
However, Cecilia Yau, who leads PwC’s China entertainment and media practice, played down the severity of Beijing’s efforts.
She said companies in China’s “mature creative ecosystem” have become adept at carefully managing artists and at producing content that complied with regulators’ fast-changing standards.
Yau added that Beijing’s “conservative approach” to male body image, just like recent strictures reducing the hours that children are allowed to play online games, have public support. “If you look at their policy, that actually responds to the majority,” she said.
Hyun-joo Mo, a Seoul-based anthropologist and expert on youth culture in Asia, said that in some ways China’s entertainment companies were paying the price for trying to replicate the growth of South Korea’s K-pop and K-beauty “image industries”.
Pointing to the case of Kris Wu, a Canadian-Chinese K-pop star who was detained by Beijing police on allegations of sexual assault last month, Mo said China was experiencing similar problems that stemmed from narcissism and misogyny that also plagued the industry in Seoul. These extended beyond those faced by stars to their millions of fans who stoked an often-toxic online culture.
“There is a serious mental health problem in the K-pop industry and K-pop culture,” she added.
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