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Xi clashes with armies of fans to quell celebrity culture

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Chinese fans dedicated to Park Ji-min, one of the seven members of Korean boy band BTS, are among the latest victims of President Xi Jinping’s campaign to cleanse the culture of Chinese youth.

Jimin’s unofficial Chinese fan site has been suspended for two months after a crowdfunding campaign raised enough money to sport a commercial plane featuring the star.

The group also planned to purchase The New York Times newspaper ad featuring the star, with dangling earrings, lipstick and smoky eye shadow.

The crackdown on censors comes as Chinese authorities embark on a mission to tackle the “chaos” posed by fandom, an attack on the millions of ardent Asian celebrity followers who flock to informal hordes online.

The campaign is part of a larger crusade against the entertainment industry in China that has already targeted several prominent stars and includes an offensive against the supposedly effeminate style and fashion choices of young men.

However, experts said the propensity of fan groups to organize and carry out effective social action is the main concern of the Xi administration as China engages in a radical reaffirmation of party control and social action. the state over the technological, commercial and cultural landscape of the country.

“They see the potential to organize, to mobilize. For the government this is a very big concern, ”said Yun Jiang, a Chinese expert and former Australian government policy adviser now at Australian National University.

“Why did they suppress ‘sects’ like Falun Gong? It wasn’t just because they were religious. They could have turned a blind eye to it. But once they started to mobilize, when they appeared in Tiananmen Square, that’s when they really started to crack down, ”she added, referring to the protests. of 1999 which led to the group’s evisceration in China.

This week, Weibo, one of China’s largest internet platforms, suspended 22 social accounts run by K-pop fans for what it described as “irrational star-hunting behavior.”

Defending China’s actions, its embassy in Seoul said, “[The campaign] targets words and actions that go against public order and good manners, and violate laws and rules.

Fans of BTS – a loose collective known as the “army” – exemplify the plethora of leaderless groups who spontaneously mount campaigns. Typically, group activities are dedicated to celebrating or honoring groups or individual members.

But in the United States, these groups have become increasingly political and have shown a cunning skill for political activism online. Last year, K-pop fans were credited with disrupting a Trump rally by organizing mass pre-registrations and not showing up.

© Léa Millis / Reuters

The BTS ‘army’ also raised money to support the Black Lives Matter movement and helped block a police campaign that collected data on protesters by flooding the police website with images and videos of celebrities.

In an effort to control fan behavior and shift responsibility onto corporations – and away from regulators – Chinese authorities are now putting pressure on celebrity agencies and media production companies.

In recent months, the Beijing cyberspace watchdog has attempted to “create a clean internet environment for blown Internet users.” Officials have cleaned more than 150,000 items of what they describe as “bad news” from online platforms and removed shows focused on celebrity rankings.

These measures also rekindled nationalist fervor. Zhang Zhehan is an example of targeted people. The 30-year-old actor has been hit with official boycotts after four-year-old photos emerged online showing him near the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the remains of Japanese soldiers, including war criminals, are buried.

Chinese officials have taken offense at the importance of male stars who display what they see as less traditional male tendencies. So-called effeminate fashion and style trends emanate from Seoul’s influential music, film and television scene, where young men embrace the beauty products and skincare regimes once reserved for women.

Within China’s creative industries, some warn that the crackdown, especially fears of retroactive sanctions and rapidly evolving permissible content standards, has a profound chilling effect on artists and media professionals in the country.

“In 2008, the joke was: whatever you do, if it’s illegal today, don’t worry, because it will be legal tomorrow. And now, of course, it’s completely reversed, ”said a China-based professional, who asked not to be named.

“Everyone is terrified. The caveat is that while it’s legal today, it could become illegal tomorrow.

However, Cecilia Yau, who heads PwC’s entertainment and media practice in China, downplayed the seriousness of Beijing’s efforts. She said companies in China’s “mature creative ecosystem” have become adept at carefully managing artists and producing content that meets rapidly evolving standards from regulators.

Yau added that Beijing’s “conservative approach” to male body image, as well as recent restrictions reducing the number of hours children are allowed to play online games, benefits the government. public support. “If you look at their policy, it actually responds to the majority,” she said.

Hyun-joo Mo, a Seoul-based anthropologist and expert on youth culture in Asia, said that, in a way, Chinese entertainment companies were paying the price for trying to replicate the growth of the “image industries. K-pop and K-beauty in South Korea. .

Highlighting the case of Kris Wu, a Chinese-Canadian K-pop star who was arrested by Beijing police on sexual assault allegations last month, Mo said China has similar problems due to narcissism and the misogyny that also plagued the industry in Seoul. . These extended beyond those encountered by stars to their millions of fans who fueled an often toxic online culture.

“There is a serious mental health issue in the K-pop industry and K-pop culture,” she added.

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