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Fan culture risks excess behavior without regulation

Xinhua | Updated: 2021-08-06 09:12
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Every morning, Chen Xue checks social media for the latest news about her pop idol Luo Yizhou and tunes in to his songs and music videos, which she has already listened to countless times, to help elevate his chart and social media rankings.

The 23-year-old, based in Northeast China's Liaoning province, has done this every morning since she developed a crush on Luo early this year when he was participating in a talent competition.

And Chen is not alone.

She has been actively involved in a 1,000-member-strong group chat on the social networking app QQ. The members, like Chen, are diehard fans of the star and are more than willing to spend big money to vote for him throughout the contest. They also post positive comments online, make multiple purchases of concert tickets and albums, and crowdfund for his billboards.

On Chinese social media, such fan groups are often referred to as fanquan, or "fan circles", highly organized groups of passionate, loyal fans who voluntarily use their time, money and expertise to make their idols, usually budding pop singers or actors, as popular and influential as possible.

The fan circle members are believed to be mostly of Generation Z born after 1995, and their number has grown significantly in recent years. In 2020, about 8 percent of China's 183 million younger internet users engaged in reputation-boosting activities for their idols, according to a recent report from the China Internet Network Information Center.

"The rise of fan circles is understandable because they meet the fans' needs for socializing and self-realization," says Zhang Sining, a scholar with the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences.

Zhang notes that fan circles allow fans to have a say in the making of idols, because, through their efforts, they are helping their idols earn fame and success.

"As fans, we want to do everything to help our idol realize his or her dreams, and that will make us happy," Chen says.

In reality, fans do help their idols blossom and thrive by lifting their rankings on social media and rating platforms. In China, high rankings usually help stars win competitions, land major roles in movies and TV shows, and secure better endorsement deals.

However, the zealous fan culture is a double-edged sword, as fan loyalty can become blind and toxic.

Incidents of celebrities being stalked by obsessive fans or being baited by other stars' fandoms have not been rare. There have also been reports of young, teenage fans stealing their parents' money and credit cards for frenzied buying sprees of products endorsed by their idols.

In May, videos surfaced online showing fans of the widely popular talent show, Youth With You, dumping out large quantities of milk, which had QR codes printed inside their bottle caps that allowed fans to vote for their favorite contestants. The clips drew strong public backlash, leading the Beijing municipal television authorities to suspend the show before its seasonal finale.

Wu Changchang, a communications professor from East China Normal University, says the milk-dumping scandal was closely associated with the show's capital operations.

"On the surface, the show gave fans the power to decide the winner of the contest. But in essence, it was about the platform and its sponsors making money," Wu says.

Zhang says: "When big platforms and money come into play, fan circles have become increasingly toxic, sparking antisocial behavior and, sometimes, even illegal activity. Regulations at the state level are necessary."

In June, the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country's cyberspace watchdog, launched a two-month campaign targeting rising problems related to fan circles, including online trolling, rumormongering and doxxing.

The administration stressed that it would clamp down on activities luring minors to vote for their idols or encouraging them to spend hefty sums and raise money to support stars.

The China Association of Performing Arts has also issued a notice warning people in the industry against raising money from fans for commercial purposes.

"The idols and their agencies should also guide fans to show how to provide rational support and abide by the law," Zhang says.

Zheng Ning, a professor from the Communication University of China, says more attention should be paid to the mental health of teenage fans. "We should provide them with more care, various activities and psychological consultation so that they can feel the warmth of life in the here and now," Zheng says.

Wen Ting (pseudonym), who used to work for an idol agency, says that she expects fan circles to play a more positive role once under better regulation.

"The highly organized and disciplined fan circles contributed a lot to the city of Wuhan's fight against COVID-19 after the outbreak last year, such as donating money and medical supplies," Wen says. "They will play a more important role in the future if well-managed and regulated."

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