Communist Party cancel culture targets internet celebrities

Communist Party cancel culture targets internet celebrities

by Lily White
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New rules restrict ads with stars, institute a blacklist and monitor fan groups

20211204 Wbp501

FANS OF HUO ZUN were dismayed in August when images of the pop star were blurred out during a performance on “Call Me By Fire”, a Chinese reality show. Mr Huo’s hands were visible for some sequences. But when he came into the frame it appeared as if he was standing in a puff of smoke enveloping his body. “Fogging”, as it is known, has become common on the Chinese internet. Censorship rules require actors who have committed crimes to be blurred out, or completely erased.

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Mr Huo’s offence was a public break-up with his girlfriend. He had violated no law. But that was enough for the government to deem him an unsavoury character. Internet users are increasingly affected by a spurt of Communist Party cancel culture targeting ever more innocuous behaviour. The broad aim of the campaign, which has been going on for the past six months, is to cleanse Chinese cyberspace of entertainment at odds with socialist values.

There appear to be two targets. The first is a business model with 4.9trn yuan ($769bn) of annual revenues: the fan economy, that has sprung up around web celebrities, fan groups and streaming platforms. In the most recent set of rules, issued in late November, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) said that brand campaigns featuring celebrities would be allowed to show ads only in designated spaces. From now on, China’s huge fan groups will be monitored by the authorities.

To aid the crackdown the CAC has been increasing its powers in recent months, even investing in internet firms. Further new regulations suggest that its objective is to stop China’s internet groups using highly-stimulating content to ramp up internet traffic, which is the driving force behind internet platforms’ ad revenues and live-streaming e-commerce. The latter was worth 1.2trn yuan last year, an 197% increase from the year before.

The second target of the CAC’s campaign is celebrity itself. The new rules create an official blacklist of celebrities that bans all mention of the names included. This will formalise the treatment that Mr Huo and others have received after committing social improprieties or wrongdoing such as tax evasion. On November 23rd the China Association of Performing Arts published a list of 88 internet celebrities who had committed some transgression. Weibo, a Twitter-like service, was forced to ban 145 celebrity accounts in August for infractions such as “insulting and slandering martyrs and inciting illegal gatherings”.

The tightening grip is ostensibly part of President Xi Jinping’s “common prosperity” initiative. It is an attempt to make the country more equitable after years of growth that created a vast digital economy dominated by several internet platforms, in particular e-commerce giant Alibaba and gaming and social-media group Tencent. Over the past year Mr Xi has made clear his plan to take control of the internet industry. The entertainment crackdown under way stems from the government’s desire to cap the “absurd financial gains” made by internet celebrities, says Enchi Chang, a digital marketing specialist. China’s Communist Party has also grown uncomfortable with the ability of huge internet stars and their fans to communicate beyond the scope of its control.

The upending of celebrity culture will have a big impact on China’s internet groups. The country’s fan economy, combining entertainment and consumption, was expected to be worth about $1trn by 2023. If the new ad rules are strictly enforced, companies such as Kuaishou and Bilibili, a video-streaming service, will be hit. Both groups enjoyed a rapid rise in their ad revenues last year, when total online ad revenues in China hit 767bn yuan.

How will the firms respond? The most outrageous internet stunts, attracting millions of viewers and generating strong e-commerce sales, have become increasingly important for groups such as ByteDance and Kuaishou. Now they will probably block much problematic content, says an executive. Internet traffic will fall.

A purge on programming is already under way. For example iQiYi, China’s Netflix, said in August that it will no longer feature talent shows or venues where fans can vote for stars. Its New York-listed shares have tumbled by almost 60% since mid-year. Douyin, Weibo, Kuaishou and other platforms have already shut down their celebrity-ranking lists, venues where fans often paid to buy products in order to support their favourite stars.

One internet executive says that the government’s moves do command public support. Many parents in China agree with the party’s view of online entertainment as vacuous and even dangerous for young people. Regulators around the world are grappling with how to deal with potentially harmful internet content. But Mr Xi’s drive is extreme. Mr Huo’s millions of fans will find few opportunities to voice their opposition to watching their favourite star disappear into a censorious mist.

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This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Cancel culture, Beijing-style”

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