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China cracks down on fan groups, bans celebrity rankings as Beijing targets stars' influence

The country's top internet watchdog has said it will bar platforms from publishing lists that rank celebrities and will also regulate the lucrative industry of fan merchandise sales.
Actor Ryan Zheng Kai takes a selfie with fans on the red carpet during the opening ceremony of the 1st Hainan International Film Festival on Dec. 11, 2018, in Sanya, Hainan province, China.
Actor Ryan Zheng Kai takes a selfie with fans on the red carpet during the opening ceremony of the 1st Hainan International Film Festival on Dec. 11, 2018, in Sanya, Hainan province, China.Visual China Group via Getty Images file

HONG KONG — China's increasing effortsto regulate society have led Beijing to a new target: celebrity culture and the often raucous fan groups surrounding it.

The country's top internet watchdog has said it will bar platforms from publishing lists that rank celebrities and will also regulate the lucrative industry of fan merchandise sales.

Last week's announcement is a doubling down on Beijing’s efforts to curtail the “chaotic” influence of the entertainment industry after a series of controversies involving celebrities.

Online celebrity fan clubs have become a widespread phenomenon, with the country's "idol economy" thriving.

But they have also been criticized for their influence over minors and for deviating from the Communist Party’s desired social order.

Competing fan clubs regularly clash on social media and trade online abuse in "fandom wars" over lists that rank popular celebrities or other points of fan contention. Some spend large amounts of money to vote for their favorite stars on idol competition programs.

Although this type of fan culture has become common across Asia, in China the government is taking notice — and moving to exert its influence over what has been a largely unregulated space for digital expression.

Chinese-Canadian pop star Kris Wu, seen here on a magazine cover, saw fan groups leap to his defence after he was detained on suspicion of sexual assault.Ng Han Guan / AP

“This policy is an attempt to regulate the pop culture market rather than the culture itself,” said Jin Vivian Zhan, Associate Professor of Politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“Many organizers of the fans' communities are not really fans but economic actors who seek business opportunities in supporting/cultivating idols and make profits out of it.” she said.

The internet regulator began a two-month campaign in June in an effort to address the phenomenon and on Friday it said that while it had made some progress, it would now unveil new guidelines for local authorities across the country.

Platforms will no longer be able to publish lists of popular celebrity individuals and fan groups must be regulated, the watchdog said.

It also moved to stop variety shows from charging people to vote online for their favorite acts and spoke out against enticing young fans into buying celebrity merchandise.

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Regulators need to "increase their sense of responsibility, mission and urgency to maintain online political and ideological security," the Cyberspace Administration of China said in a statement.

Carol Sun, a 22-year-old student from Beijing and a fan of the online sensation Xiao Zhan, told NBC News that she thinks the crackdown could help young people realize the risks in fandom culture. “Although in the long term, oversight alone is unlikely to solve the problem” she said.

Celebrities in China have access to an unrivaled base of fans, but are also no strangers to public backlash or government scrutiny.

According to Reuters, in late July, around 64 Chinese celebrities attended a government-arranged course where the content included Communist Party history and the responsibilities that public figures have.

Hugely popular actress Zheng Shuang was given a $46 million tax evasion fine on Friday by Shanghai tax authorities after a probe that followed a surrogacy controversy which engulfed Shuang in January.

Actress Zheng Shuang, one of many domestic celebrities to face Beijing's ire of late.AARON TAM / AFP - Getty Images

Separately, Chinese video platforms on Friday took down films starring or directed by Zhao Wei, one of China's biggest stars, citing "relevant laws and regulations," which prompted widespread online speculation over the reason. Her name was also removed from online casting lists.

Chinese celebrities have been subjected to such treatment in the past when they have fallen foul of the authorities or public sentiment.

In 2017 the country's biggest female star, Fan Bingbing, disappeared from the public eye for months before re-emerging to apologize and accept paying $129 million in overdue taxes and fines.

Dawn Liu and Reuters contributed.