China’s Celebrity Culture Is Raucous. The Authorities Want to Change That.

China’s online censors have for years relentlessly silenced political dissidents, #MeToo activists, liberal intellectuals, satirists and anybody else who has threatened to disturb the digital peace.

Now, its internet minders have turned their attention to “stan” culture.

The Chinese government has taken a series of steps in recent days to rein in celebrity worship and fan clubs, amid growing concerns among officials that the relentless quest for online attention is poisoning the minds of the country’s youth. On Friday, the Cyberspace Administration of China banned the ranking of celebrities by popularity. The authority called for greater regulation of what it called the “chaos” of fan clubs and the power they wield over music, movies and television programs.

The government also took a swipe at celebrities themselves. A regulator accused an actress, Zheng Shuang, of tax evasion, fined her over $46 million and ordered broadcasters to stop showing content that she has appeared in. Ms. Zheng had been mired in a scandal this year over surrogate babies. Online video and social media sites also scrubbed references to Zhao Wei, one of China’s top 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 have quickly fallen in line with the government’s crackdown. The popular video platform iQiyi canceled its idol talent show this week, a move that its chief executive said was aimed at “drawing a clear boundary on unhealthy tendencies in the industry.” The show came under criticism this year after fans of various contestants bought milk from Mengniu Dairy, a sponsor, to earn more points for their idols, then dumped large quantities of it into sewers.

The authorities have also criticized other displays of what they describe as “crazed” fandom. Some superfans of Kris Wu, a popular Canadian singer who has been detained on suspicion of rape, tried to raise money for his legal costs. On social media, fans of Mr. Wu posted about and started chat 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 hugely lucrative for big companies that hire stars with large followings to promote their brands. But the clubs and some of the platforms that host them also make money by charging membership fees for fans to view high-definition images of their idols, or by encouraging fans to spend money on advertising and promotional activities.

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

“You’ve got this really lonely generation, and they find companionship through these virtual relationships. That has contributed to it,” he said. “From a branding perspective, you can’t underestimate the power of it. These fans are buying every product that their idols are endorsing, so all you need to do is get some form of ambassadorship.”

The move to clean up unruly fan clubs and discipline celebrities is the latest example of the increasingly assertive role that China’s governing Communist Party under Xi Jinping, an authoritarian leader, wants to take in regulating culture. Mr. Xi said in 2014 that art and culture should be made in the service of the people, and in the years since, the entertainment industry has emerged as an ideological battleground, whether it is in the censorship of themes deemed pernicious or in reining in celebrity influence.

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 reined in other industries that were long given wide berths, regulation is beginning to catch up to China’s online fan culture, said Hung Huang, a popular blogger and magazine publisher in Beijing.

“I think the problems facing China and abroad are the same — that is, the progress of its technology has surpassed it,” Ms. Hung said. “Law enforcement procedures cannot keep up with the changes in new technologies. So the fan clubs are indeed a new technology and a little monster created by social media.”

The crackdown on fan clubs is a reversal of Beijing’s view of the industry only a year ago. State media outlets used to praise fan culture for promoting spontaneous “positive energy,” citing a fan club in 2019 that was created around a fictitious character who came to the defense of Beijing’s policies during the protests in Hong Kong.

More recently, the authorities have been alarmed by more extreme behavior on fan forums, like mudslinging between rival fan clubs and doxxing, which involves digging up personal details of individuals and publishing them online.

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

“Such behavior has stained a clean internet ecosystem, exerted a negative influence on teenagers’ physical and mental health and received strong opposition from the public,” the internet regulator said in a statement this year.

To keep celebrities in line, the authorities have also been swift to demonstrate how easily they can essentially wipe a celebrity’s presence off the internet. The erasures take place with seemingly little or no recourse and sometimes no apparent reason, as was the case for Ms. Zhao, the top 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 posted about her. Her name was even removed from the actual works that she had starred in.

The silence from the authorities left many of her fans confused.

Sherry Fan, 26, a film producer in Beijing, said she was shocked when going through the posts online about Ms. Zhao, her favorite TV actress in childhood and a role model.

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

In an opinion article published on Friday night by the Communist Party’s main newspaper, the authorities made one thing clear: There is no longer any room for celebrity misbehavior.

“If you want to pursue a career of performing arts,” it read, “you must always follow the rule of law, keep bottom-line of morality.

“Otherwise, once you touch the red line of law and morality,” it added, “you will reach the ‘finish line’ of the road of performing arts.”

Claire Fu, Liu Yi and Albee Zhang contributed research.

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