Highly organized and well-trained fandom in China becomes an industry

By Shan Jie Source:Global Times Published: 2019/3/6 17:23:40

○ In East Asia, fans have to be tough in order for their idols to survive the harsh entertainment industry 

○ Fans have formed assembly lines to boost their idols' popularity

○ Cultural experts call for supervision on negative phenomena such as fake view counts and stalking 

Fans celebrate at the fifth anniversary concert of TFBoys in August 2018 in Beijing. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Every morning, Huang Yi (pseudonym) receives a notification in her chat group about her pop idol.

The message, sent from an administrator, tells every member to complete "eight tasks" to lift their idol's popularity, such as posting tweets tagged with her name and buying her "flowers" on social media platforms.

Her idol, 24-year-old singer Li Zixuan, was a participant in Produce 101, one of the most popular reality talent shows in China in 2018, produced by Tencent.

The chat group was set up by Li's fan group specifically for the purpose of voting and lifting her ranking in billboards and social platforms.

Huang still remembers the first time she applied to join the group, which has 500 members. She was asked to give evidence of her being a fan of Li, so she showed her Weibo account, in which the latest posts were all about the pop singer. She also showed her record of buying Li votes.

Huang was one of the thousands of Li's fans who volunteered to vote as much as they could for her. 

The global rise of K-pop over the last two decades has had a great influence on Chinese young generation. In recent years, China's entertainment industry has also seen massive growth.

With the growth of the industry, a unique fan culture has come into being in China and nearby regions - fans are highly organized and skilled, and are willing to pay good money to see their idols succeed.

Gao Xiaosong, a cultural critic, said in an interview in July 2018, "We East Asian groups always want to have a model to follow…" He added that unlike the masculine heroes in the Western entertainment industry, Asian idols are often "pale and skinny," which makes fans want to protect and spend money on them.

Bumping up

The Western music industry first learned about East Asian fans' massive power in November 2018, when Canadian-Chinese pop rapper Kris Wu had seven songs in the Top 10 of the US iTunes, beating Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga.

However, it turned out that the majority of Wu's songs had been downloaded by devoted Chinese fans who made multiple purchases per person, thereby manipulating the iTunes algorithms into bumping the songs up into the top tier.

In another case, a post by Chinese pop singer Cai Xukun on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo was reposted 100 million times.

The platform has 370 million users, which meant that one-third of them apparently reposted the tweet.

However, an investigation by China Central Television found that the celebrities who seem so wildly popular on social media platforms may have been paying for these results.

The CCTV report quoted Cao Yongshou, an employee from a data company, as saying that software could be used to generate the data. 

Such services can easily be found on Taobao, China's e-commerce platform. Ten yuan ($1.5) can buy 400 followers on Weibo or 100 reposts, the report showed.

Nowadays in China, websites, video sites, television stations and cinemas all blindly pursue view counts, said Beijing-based film critic Shi Wenxue.

"This behavior goes against industry regulation. Good content has been flooded out of public sight due to the lack of a comprehensive and objective assessment system," Shi said.

"Behind the celebrities' fake data is a 'black internet industry,' which is directly related to a benefit chain of online numbers being converted into money," he said, "The phenomenon should be supervised by the government."

Assembly line

Last June, during the final stage of Produce 101, Huang's voting group was in a frenzy.

In order to increase Li's votes in the show, fans had to buy Li's special Tencent virtual membership card, each costing 30 yuan and equivalent to 121 votes. With the card, they could vote 11 more times.

Fans pooled money to "buy votes," and an assembly line of voting for the idol was built - some fans paid for the cards, and other fans were responsible for activating the cards and voting. 

Since each card was tied to a phone number, the fans used a website that could generate virtual phone numbers and receive texts.

There were at least eight such groups for voting, each with more than 500 members, Huang told the Global Times on Sunday. "Chatting is actually forbidden in the group. It is only for voting," she said. 

"I bought a lot of cards, costing several hundred yuan," Huang said. "I could see the calculations in the group, and the fans at the top had spent more than 100,000 yuan on cards. In total, I can say that we have spent millions."

"She was really good at dancing and singing, so we wanted to help her," Huang said.

At the end of the show on June 23, 2018, the 11 candidates with the most votes were chosen to become members of the new group Rocket Girls 101. 

Li ended up 12th.

"At that moment, I felt I had been deceived by Tencent," Huang said. "I cried all night long."

The final tally for all 11 members' votes broke the 1.3 billion mark. Among them, singer Meng Meiqi received 185,244,357 votes to become the leader of the group.

Fans of Yang Chaoyue, a candidate of Produce 101 and now a member of the Rocket Girls, promote their idol before a fan meeting in June 2018 in Hangzhou, East China's Zhejiang Province. Photo: VCG

Division of labor

Zhang Mo, a veteran fan who has been involved in several fan groups, told the Global Times that in order to promote their idols, fans were strictly regulated, organized and given different jobs, including voting, writing, making pictures, running social media accounts and controlling comments on the internet. 

"Some of them were even responsible for quarreling with fans of other idols," she said.

Raising funds is also a very common practice. 

The money is used not only to lift idols' rankings, but also to celebrate their birthdays, promote them online and offline and to send treats to their co-workers.

In past years, fans of Karry Wang, a member of pop band TFBoys, splashed out on a month-long advert that covered an elevated train in Southwest China's Chongqing Municipality for his birthday, while bandmate Jackson Yi saw his name in lights on an LED billboard in New York's Times Square, qq.com reported in September.

Fan-made TFBoys puppets are handed out outside the fifth anniversary concert. Photo: Li Hao/GT

However, expensive ways of supporting idols have long been criticized by the public, so fans are seeking more acceptable methods.

For instance, Chinese actor Zhu Yilong's fans donated 2,400 pairs of new shoes to children in rural areas to "answer the country's call on targeted poverty alleviation," chinadevelopment.com.cn reported in February.

"After all, it is to increase the exposure of your idols," Yuka, a K-pop fan, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

'Site sisters'

Wherever there are popular idols, there are people with cameras. They are not paparazzi, but fans, who are usually called "site sisters," as they run fan sites posting photos on social media platforms.

"They are a group of rich kids who have nowhere to spend their money," said Zhang Mo. "They prefer to suffer cold and hunger waiting for their idols by the street all day long."

Even during Chinese Lunar New Year, the "site sisters" were still working hard outside a film set in Langfang, North China's Hebei Province, Yinyue Xiansheng, a music blogger, wrote. Some of them provide photos for their own fan sites, while some sell the pictures and videos to other fans.

According to Yinyue Xiansheng, "site sisters" can make big profits by making and selling photobooks, or PB. Last year, PBs on Zhu Yilong and Bai Yu, two popular actors, sold more than 16,000 copies, bringing in 2.6 million yuan.

Crossing the line

While the mainstream fans participate in idols' public activities under official and fan club organization, there is a more extreme version of fans who are more interested in their idols' private lives and are a source of annoyance for celebrities and their agencies.

Sina Entertainment quoted South Korea media as saying in December 2018 that several fans of K-pop group Wanna One bought first-class flight tickets so that they could meet their fans on a plane in Hong Kong. After taking close-up photos of their idols, the fans asked to get off the plane and eventually received full refunds. The flight was delayed for one hour because of their behavior.

Such people are called "sasaeng fans" in Korean, and are known for intruding into their idols' private lives.

Meanwhile, celebrities' personal information can easily be found online.

"Forty yuan for an ID number of a TFBoys member, 70 for two," one seller of such information on Sina Weibo told the Global Times reporter, who asked under the guise of being a fan. Passport number, hukou information and even the young idols' account in video game Playerunknown's Battlegrounds could also be bought from her.

Fans with celebrities' ID numbers will match with them on flight apps, so they can find out what flights their idols will take, and what seats they are in.

"No matter what the goal is, it is illegal to sell and obtain other people's personal information," Shi said. "It will not be tolerated just because it was to do with celebrities."

"Since East Asian countries share similar cultures, Chinese young people will easily accept South Korean and Japanese fan culture," Jiang Haisheng, head of the Journalism and Communication Department at Shandong University of Political Science and Law, told the Global Times.

"However, fanatic social morality should be controlled, led and mediated, as it could have a negative influence on teenagers' personality growth. Even related government departments should pay attention to this phenomenon," Jiang noted.


Newspaper headline: Fan Power


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