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A game of whack-a-mole where a mallet with the Chinese flag on it smacks down images of men with earrings and boys kissing.
China has tried to crack down on bad fan behavior, but fandom keeps slipping through the cracks.
Matt Dunne for Vox

The Chinese government’s unlikeliest standoff is with … fandom

Xi Jinping versus the stans.

Celebrity, in any country, comes with its fair share of hardship. In exchange for fame and stardom, stars give up normal levels of privacy; endure invasive scrutiny from fans, paparazzi, and the media; and mold themselves to inhuman standards of beauty and perfection in order to climb the ladder of success.

In China, however, those stressors pale beside the unique pressure of being a star in a hyper-consumerist culture that’s also tightly controlled by a state autocracy. Stars are expected to be poster children for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — to be wholesome, promote good values, avoid vice, and never, ever, get involved in a major scandal. At the same time, celebrities are virtually required to monetize their brands through sponsorships with huge corporations: The more products they can sell, the more they earn their spot on the A-list.

That incessant need to compete in the entertainment marketplace extends beyond the celebrities to their fans — and this is where things get thorny. While content can be controlled and celebrities can be taught to mold themselves into model citizens, human behavior remains wildly unpredictable. And in China, fans who’ve been trained by corporate interests to see fandom as a competition can be the most wildly unpredictable creatures of all.

To ensure their favorite is the best and biggest star of all, Chinese fans have built an entire industry-adjacent system of competition. Most have learned to gamify rankings and competitions, with many regularly buying hundreds of items they don’t intend to use, just to boost their idol. Some fans empty their bank accounts for the cause of proving their idol can sell the most products. An entire online cottage industry exists to bolster competing fandom rumors, with gossip-mongers and superfans getting paid by shady sources to smear their idol’s rivals — and such rumors can develop into real, reputation-ruining scandals.

In recent years, China’s online fandom and the chaotic lengths fans go to in order to promote their celebrities have increasingly drawn the attention of the Chinese government. The CCP has heightened restrictions on fans, from banning crowds to eliminating celebrity rankings, restructuring fan clubs, and censoring queer fan-friendly media.

But fandom is never easy to negotiate, and fandom in China is especially complex. Fan communities are known as “rice circles” — a name conjuring an image of a group eating from one another’s dinner plates, hinting at the complicated codependency between fan groups and celebrities. The CCP’s efforts to regulate online fandoms — known as its Qinglang, or clean and clear, initiative — are really part of its larger efforts to wrangle a complex online ecosystem of celebrity culture, social media influence, queer media, and what it perceives as pernicious foreign corruption. Individually, these things might seem trivial, but collectively they’ve presented persistent complications to President Xi Jinping and undermined his vision for an idealized China — even as he consolidates his power and secures an unprecedented third term.

To understand why the CCP wants to control all these things is to understand the fascinating paradox of China’s growing cultural currency and why zealous fan bases might be one of the peskiest thorns in the government’s side.

Nationalism, masculinity, and the ultimate enemy: K-pop

To understand how we got here, we have to jump back a few years — specifically, to 2016, when the Chinese government first cracked down against a baffling enemy: K-pop. The Chinese government has utilized media censorship as a cultural tool for decades. In recent years, however, the rise of K-pop has proven to be a cultural wild card for the state.

The growth of Korea’s idol culture has been closely intertwined with China’s own. In idol culture, pop stars, whose personas are created with the help and reach of studios, cultivate intense dynamics with their fans, who in turn consume the idols’ content and their sponsored products in staggering numbers. Think Disney using its networks to cultivate a long string of stars from Justin Timberlake to Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato, developing their fandoms from childhood. Now magnify that by an entire country’s entertainment industry, and you have the model for studio star systems across East Asia. Many studios have cultivated dual-language idol groups and sent would-be Chinese K-pop stars to train in Seoul. In 2016, however, China formally banned K-pop, abruptly cleaving these relationships. The ban, ironically, turned many former K-pop stars back into Chinese celebrities whose K-pop influence is still being felt.

2020 iQiyi All-star Carnival In Beijing
The group TFBoys (Wang Yuan, Wang Junkai, and Yi Yangqiangxi) was created in 2013 as a wholesome alternative to K-pop boy bands.
VCG/VCG via Getty Images

The K-pop ban both is and isn’t about Korea. It began as a response to a US-Korea missile deal, but really embodied disapproval of three things the Chinese government perceived as tied to K-pop culture: the encroaching influence of US individualism, over-zealous fanbases, and effeminate men.

That last one is a major part of the K-pop ban, which forbids men from wearing earrings and excessive makeup on live TV. “Little fresh meat,” the derogatory Chinese nickname for androgynous pop idols, came under increased scrutiny through the ban, alongside censorship of queer content on television. Simultaneously, the government has begun steadily encroaching on gay rights, especially scrutinizing and targeting openly gay college students. Surprisingly, the bans coincide with a period of evolving transgender rights in China, which offers legal gender recognition to trans people who’ve had gender reassignment surgery. This contradiction underscores that the CCP’s focus on keeping men masculine is less about suppressing trans identity and more about reinforcing its broad military and political agendas.

Dan Chen researches authoritarian politics at the University of Richmond. She told Vox that the CCP’s fixation on masculinity is a recent byproduct of Xi’s growing nationalism — because “nationalism is a very masculine ideology.” Framing foreign influences like K-pop as anti-masculine plays right into Xi’s narrative of an idealized China that’s strong physically as well as economically and politically. Toward this end, the government has worked to eradicate effeminacy in schoolchildren and promoted images of strong, muscular soldiers as the masculine ideal.

Xi has consistently echoed Mao Zedong’s declaration that the creative arts should serve to advance Chinese socialism; in 2014, he described China’s artistic industries as a form of cultural competition with other countries, which ideally should “disseminate contemporary Chinese values, embody traditional Chinese culture and reflect Chinese people’s aesthetic pursuit.” A widely distributed pseudonymous 2018 opinion in the state media outlet Xinhua explicitly connected this policy to masculinity, and masculinity to nationalism: “Whether a country embraces or rejects (effeminate men),” the author wrote, using a slur that equates to “sissy,” “is ... a grave matter that affects the nation’s future.” The subtext underlying all of this emphasis on manliness is that China needs strong men to defend the nation.

For male former K-pop stars who found themselves shunted back to China following the K-pop ban, one of the best ways to continue growing their celebrity was to align themselves fully with the goals of the CCP and present themselves as a bastion of physicality, masculinity, and party loyalty. But banning K-pop didn’t solve Xi’s issues with fandom and (what he considers) subversive culture.

Xi’s fixation on masculinity is offset by a growing public interest in queer-coded Chinese pop stars and media. This has coincided with growing global interest in Chinese celebrities and danmei, the Chinese literary contribution to the boys’ love, or BL, medium (which is, as you might imagine, stories about boys in love). Danmei has helped fuel a wave of sensitive, careful queer subtext onscreen. But as these stories’ popularity has increased, so has the CCP’s anxiety about restricting their influence. In succession, the three biggest of these series, 2018’s Guardian, 2019’s The Untamed, and 2021’s Word of Honor, all drew significant international attention and made stars of their lead actors, several of whom had begun their careers as Korean-influenced idols. They represented everything the CCP railed against.

In 2021, all of this growth led to an inevitable convergence: The CCP sought to curb the growth of foreign idol culture and its emasculating influence, as well as to rein in extreme fandom culture and its accompanying extreme social media activity.

Spilled milk and hyper-commercialization

In the mainland Chinese entertainment industry, a star’s level of success is only partly measured by the typical metrics — say, how much money their films make at the box office or how many people tune in to their TV show. That’s all well and good, but what really matters in advancing a career is gaining high-profile corporate sponsorships and getting millions of zealous fans to buy whatever the entertainer is selling. Fans flaunt the number of sponsorships their idols have; the biggest stars have lucrative corporate partnerships, with some holding over 30 or 40 brand contracts at once.

These corporations fully market the star as much as their own product. Many brands organize livestreams and fan events for their idols; companies also often release teaser trailers for the big reveal of their new brand spokesperson, ensuring that the reveal itself is an event. The sponsors also frequently design elaborate ad campaigns around the celebrity: The coffee company Tasogare, for example, recently produced a three-minute film pairing actor Xiao Zhan with legendary auteur Wong Kar-Wai.

In exchange for this attention, the star’s fans maximize their purchasing power, doing whatever they can to give their celebrity the edge. Much as K-pop fans systematically gamify streams and sales to make sure their idols outsell everyone else, Chinese fans engage in endless competition. They have to prove their idol can top every magazine poll and online ranking, outsell every other idol, and get the highest ratings, no matter what.

In May 2021, popular idol show Youth With You ran a campaign where fans could vote for their favorite contestant by purchasing a carton of milk. Shortly after, a video surfaced showing adult fans buying huge supplies of milk— then dumping it out without consuming it. The video went viral in China, drawing attention to the enormous amounts of money fans spend on voting competitions — a textbook scenario of suspiciously fey idols influencing wasteful fan behavior. It led to Youth With You’s immediate indefinite suspension, just days before its season finale.

Four young Chinese men in matching blazers.
Youth with You contestants Tang Jiuzhou, Luo Yizhou, Yu Jingtian, and Lian Huaiwei in May 2021, shortly before the show was suspended.
VCG via Getty Images

The milk scandal epitomized the kind of fandom behavior the government wanted to rein in. Just days after the Youth With You scandal, the government introduced the Qinglang initiative focused on policing problematic celebrities and toxic fan behavior. The rules targeted a broad range of sins including fans who make fake accounts, vote too often in online celebrity polls, buy too much merchandise, harass and gang up on other fans, and spread toxic rumors.

In August, following a string of new scandals, the CCP announced even more fandom and celebrity restrictions, banning things like celebrity ranking contests, fan group fundraising, and anything deemed vulgar, lowbrow, or politically deviant. “Artists with incorrect political views who have discord with the Party and the country will be resolutely banned,” the regulations stated. The rules tasked social media sites like Weibo with implementing the changes, promising heavy fines for any website that failed to carry them out quickly.

Overall, the restrictions significantly altered the dynamics of fandom, holding idols directly responsible for their fanbases’ behavior and inversely making fans directly responsible for not making their idols look bad. Crucially, as Chen noted, it also co-opted celebrities “to be agents of the state.”

This all might seem to be much ado about nothing; after all, we’re used to thinking of fandom in the US as a subculture rather than a booming part of the mainstream, and China is no different. “Despite all the attention, fandom is still a niche thing,” one fan based in Beijing told me. “Sure, the average person watches dramas and shows, but the vast majority of Chinese people aren’t in fandom and don’t care or really know about Qinglang.”

It’s difficult to write fandom off as minor, however, when you factor in scale. In China, a “niche” community can still be huge. For example, on Weibo, China’s largest social media platform, fan forums for fandoms considered small may still have millions of members. That’s a mighty social and economic force: One 2019 estimate found China’s “fan economy,” in which fans support their idols by buying their advertising products and consuming their media, could be worth up to 90 billion RMB ($13 billion). Fans flock to online ranking systems in order to vote for their idols. Celebrity endorsement rankings — how much product sales an idol can push — have become contests of consumerism for fans to gamify. Fans also push TV shows and web dramas to enormous popularity through rewatches and repeated streaming, which further generates traffic and profit for producers and advertisers.

Or at least they did all this until the government stepped in.

An online forest full of wolves

The CCP’s attempts to control fandom feel, to some degree, like Wile E. Coyote trying to outwit 100 million Road Runners — many of whom are also trying to outwit each other. Chinese social media is a dense forest of industry gossip, manipulation, and misinformation, all weighted in favor of whichever celebrity can afford to buy the best rumor mills and cultivate the most loyal fanbases. To some degree, being a celebrity in China also seems to require being able to buy your way out of any scandal you might be embroiled in, by weaponizing the Chinese internet’s vast misinformation resources to work for you and against your enemies.

“Only government agencies have the authority to correct rumors,” Chen told me. “So that creates an environment where anyone who says anything, regardless if it’s true or not, will attract attention.” Among her friends in China, she says, “It’s become unofficial wisdom that before you say anything online, just wait — things will unfold several times.”

Take, for example, the case of Kris Wu, a former member of the hugely popular K-pop band EXO. In 2021, Wu’s former girlfriend came forward to accuse him of rape, sex trafficking, and abuse. She was widely discredited as a fame-seeker, including by police. After she gathered more than 30 allegations from other women, however, a proper criminal investigation finally took place. In July 2021, Wu was arrested on dozens of charges of sexual abuse and sex trafficking; he was held in detention for nearly a year and tried secretly in June. The court reportedly held the trial in secret to protect the privacy of victims and did not publicize the verdict.

Ironically, it’s partly a result of the CCP’s own authoritarianism that it has such a huge online misinformation problem. An independent free press could clarify which rumors are true and which are false. The dearth of independently verifiable knowledge also means the facts of this system are derived, like everything else, from hearsay and collective assumptions.

Most communities, like Weibo fan forums and fandom websites, are benign, but tabloid bloggers known as yingxiaohao (营销号), or YXH, frequently create chaos. YXH get paid by unknown third parties to spread malicious rumors about celebrities. The third parties are generally assumed to be the agencies of other celebrities who are trying to ruin their rivals’ careers. The negative gossip created by YXH typically gets amplified by brigades of anti-fan accounts called “water armies,” often containing bots and other fake accounts run by troll farms. These all work together to manipulate trending searches on Weibo, create and dispel scandals, and ruin or elevate careers.

There’s a third arm of this system: Weibo itself. If you’re a celebrity targeted by any of these rumor mills, your best option is to privately pay off Weibo — which functions much like Twitter — to bury the gossip. Sources say Weibo rakes in profits from this kind of backchanneling, which gives it little encouragement to police misinformation on its own. The lack of independent journalists to sort out the truth from the lies plays havoc with fandoms, which frequently fight over rumors and create competing narratives that often resemble conspiracy theories.

Such a rumor-based online economy might begin with the entertainment industry and fandom, but it obviously applies to everything else happening on social media as well — which might explain why the 2022 Qinglang regulations have focused on expanding the restrictions that began with fandom and applying them to broader social media. The rules are both wide-ranging and highly specific, targeting everything from badly designed mobile apps to social media users who flaunt their wealth or post “superstition.” The regulations attempt to curb platform extremification, fake news, rumors, and disinformation campaigns on social media platforms like Weibo. In most cases, citizens who spread misinformation or practice defamation face harsh fines; in worst-case scenarios, they can spend months or even years in jail. Celebrities who get caught in the crossfire could face a temporary or permanent social media ban, and at worst lose their entire careers.

Most of the Qinglang regulations aimed at social media design and user extremism are useful and beneficial — similar to but much more effective than what platforms like Twitter and Facebook have done to curb disinformation. However, those benefits are impossible to uncouple from Qinglang’s byproducts of homophobia and censorship. Nearly all the sources Vox spoke with for this article — including Chinese journalists, fans, and academics — requested anonymity, with several citing fear of government retaliation. As the restrictions increased, their chilling effects played out in real time. Now, over a year into the Qinglang restrictions, those chilling effects may be the policy’s lasting legacy.

Has anything changed?

While the CCP’s fandom regulations have been billed as a success a year after the most intense Qinglang regulations dropped, things largely seem to have gone back to normal. Fandom communities are once again at each other’s throats, and fans are once again mobbing their idols despite crackdowns on gathering in public. Weibo recently brought back a version of its celebrity supertopic rankings — a sign some of the Qinglang rules may be relaxing.

“The policies have made certain toxic behavior worse,” one fan told Vox. “Having higher [behavioral] standards for artists just means it’s easier for people to show that they don’t reach the standards, whether it be by exposing small scandals or spreading rumors and slander.” Instead of curbing the behavior, she argued, bad actors can now use the new regulations “to bring down artists they don’t like,” often by “purposely encouraging other fans to participate in toxic behavior.”

She added that WeChat recently added an option to report someone for “irrational fandom behavior,” which toxic fans now frequently abuse. When news of this reached Twitter, she noted, many foreign fans reacted with glee, hoping fans of artists they didn’t like would be punished — “which is honestly very fucked up.”

The most lasting consequences seem to have fallen on the celebrities themselves. Idols still have to be on their best behavior, and recent trends in celebrities being censured for tax evasion, for example, show no sign of slowing. And celebrities whose major scandals coincided with the height of Qinglang so far seem unlikely to make a comeback.

Then there’s the ongoing oppressive impact of Qinglang’s gender politics. Amid the new wave of regulations targeting “effeminacy,” entertainment organizations urged the industry to stop producing danmei adaptations. At the time, around 60 such series were reportedly either in production or wrapped and about to air. One year later, all of them appear to be dead.

Nevertheless, danmei and their adaptations are becoming more mainstream internationally despite the government’s best efforts. The Untamed and Word of Honor are both on Netflix. The pseudonymous author of The Untamed’s source novel recently hit the New York Times bestseller list thrice over. Jinjiang, the main danmei publishing platform, is launching an English-language platform with translations for international fans.

Fans of Word of Honor gather in Suzhou outside of a concert themed after the show in May 2021.
AFP via Getty Images

Chinese stars are also going global. Former K-pop star Jackson Wang recently played Coachella. Rakuten Viki, which streams Korean and Chinese dramas for global audiences, recently shared with Vox that its subscriptions increased by 41 percent in 2021, fueled in part by hit Chinese series like Oath of Love and You Are My Glory. This growth suggests no matter how much the CCP might restrict access to Chinese cultural exports, fans will be fans, seeking and finding access to media across all borders.

Fans, locally and abroad, are motivated by deeply personal, often byzantine motivations that no amount of outside interference — even from the Chinese government — can moderate. If anything, its attempts to do so only remind us how universal the problem of controlling uncontrollable social media has become. In a way, it’s as though the Chinese government has engaged in a game of whack-a-mole: The more it attempts to crack down on extreme fandom behavior, the more creative fans get at dodging its regulations and the more extreme that behavior becomes.

In a strange twist, the very fandom communities the CCP is most concerned about may also be the ones that are unexpectedly helping to spread its political agenda. A recently published study from researchers at Concordia University and York University, conducted between January 2020 and October 2021, looked at the way danmei fans online interacted with the CCP’s restrictions. They found that in the absence of clarity around many of the restrictions, the fans themselves, through a mix of speculation and “accusatory reporting” — that is, reporting or threatening to report each other to authorities for perceived transgressions — were doing a more efficient job policing themselves than the government ever could. In essence, the fans who tried to conduct their subversive fandoms within the parameters of the regime “strengthened the political authority’s practice and narrative.”

Ultimately, the biggest irony of the Qinglang campaign is that it may have ensured the communities the government wanted to “clean and clear” are messier than ever. “In my friend circle, we often say the only people ‘cleaned’ are the normal fans,” one fan told me. “The toxics are completely unaffected.”

Channing Huang contributed reporting and translation to the article.

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