On Feb. 29, Chinese users of the popular fan fiction site Archive of Our Own (AO3) discovered the site was no longer accessible in the Chinese mainland. The likely reason? Angry fans of 28-year-old Xiao Zhan had organized a campaign to report the platform to the authorities after a user had posted a racy novel series depicting the actor as a trans woman in a relationship with a high school student.
Frustration at the antics of China’s overzealous fanquan, or “fan circles” has been brewing for some time: Their immaturity, anti-intellectualism, zealousness, and blind obedience is by this point well known. For anything members find objectionable, they often display a hair-trigger response — cyberbullying, doxing, and reporting their “enemies” to platforms or even the authorities.
The Xiao Zhan incident was merely the spark that lit the fire. Outraged AO3 users organized a boycott against the idol, and organizers of the takedown campaign were forced to backpedal.
Fandom has always been an aspirational pursuit, in which idols represent a gateway to a better world of beauty, talent, wealth, and success. So why have so many contemporary fan circles drifted away from that ideal and into internecine feuding?
The descent often begins with members’ choices to cut themselves off from anything that runs counter to their preferred fantasies about their idol. Rather than welcome a diversity of views and fandoms, fanquan are passionate about sealing out any ideas or words that diverge from in-group canon.
I have a good relationship with the ringleader of a fanquan for the idol Cai Xukun. She once told me that if a scandal involving Cai broke online, her first step — even before assessing the story’s authenticity — would be to bury that information and kill its chance of reaching other fans or the public. As soon as a story broke, she would privately call upon core die-hard fans to report related posts to platforms or regulators — a highly effective strategy in China’s ever-sensitive cyberspace. Even if they knew the allegations to be true, the primary goal of the fanquan would still be to keep the news from spreading among other fans.
This kind of long-term brainwashing naturally leads members to a kind of blind faith in their idols: Everything they do is right, while all of their scandals are simply slanders spread by people with agendas. Even if they do stumble accidentally upon a true scandal, it elicits only a conditioned disgust that someone would stoop to spreading such rumors, or even an outright refusal to accept the facts.
Sites like social media platform Weibo’s popular “Super Topics” community page reinforce this effect. When you open a celebrity’s Super Topic page, all you see is comment after comment of nearly homogenous sentiments: “Wow, our man is so handsome!”; “He has such a beautiful voice!”; “His performance was stunning!”; and on and on.
It’s an echo chamber in which members are inundated with information that aligns with their own interests or beliefs. And if you dare express the wrong sort of view on a celeb’s page, their fans will instantly swarm and harass you until you delete it.
I once posted a critical review of an idol drama series on the pop culture-focused social networking site Douban. When the idol’s fans saw it, they rushed to condemn me, insisting I was a paid agitator, even trotting out what they considered irrefutable evidence of the show’s quality — a screenshot of a positive review by a well-known foreign critic. When I looked for the original, however, I found that not just the review, but the critic himself was completely fabricated.
It’s not enough to suppress negative information and boost positive news. No true celebrity can survive long without drama: In social media fandom, not being talked about is worse than being a subject of popular disgust. Agencies and fanquan leaders will sometimes concoct groundless accusations against their idol and manufacture “enemies” as a way of eliciting feelings of sympathy from fans and rallying them to defend their idol.
Among those in the know, this practice is referred to as “purification.” Fanquan influencers invent appropriate, controlled rumors about their idols’ pitiable circumstances that are designed to stir up the fans’ feelings of sympathy and protectiveness.
Doing so requires the existence, real or imagined, of “antis” — enemies of their idol committed to lowering his or her star. The fanquan ringleader I spoke with told me she had once organized a mass campaign to upvote and boost her idol, but the fans’ response was lukewarm, so she released a fake message saying that fans of the idol’s rival were mobilizing to crush him. Votes from her fan circle shot up instantly.
A screenshot showing Xiao Zhan ranked first on the Weibo SuperTopics page in February. From Weibo
As soon as an enemy is manufactured or appears naturally, conspiracy theories surface to explain the enmity. These generally follow one of a few models: “Our idol got in the way of someone else, so that person hired antis and paid for bots to slander and vilify him” or “Our man is honest, pure, and steers clear of bad elements, so the corporations have banded together to sabotage him.”
The existence of perceived enemies justifies almost any behavior, turning everything from cyberbullying to reporting other users to authorities into righteous, even inspiring acts. In fanquan, loyalty to your idol is a far greater virtue than conscientiousness or morals. Instead of being shamed, the most fanatical reactions are seen as a display of sincerity and passion.
Of course, fanquan hardly have a monopoly on online misbehavior. Within China, many of the techniques they have weaponized existed long before them. Many Wechat and Weibo social media users give in to the same impulse to report views they disagree with, for example.
More worryingly, these attitudes seem to be leaking back into the non-virtual world. In recent years, officials have increasingly sought to co-opt and utilize fanquan techniques and attitudes to attract young Chinese. The Communist Youth League even briefly attempted to debut idol-like mascots for the purpose.
It’s worth emphasizing that not everyone, or even all fans, have completely abandoned reason. For many, their chosen idol is not some static, infallible deity who must be defended, right or wrong, but an encapsulation of their dreams of a better life, with all the struggles, mistakes, and triumphs getting there entails. Open, nurturing, and positive spaces for fans can be a beautiful thing. I just wish there were more of them.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Fans of Xiao Zhan take photos of a billboard featuring their idol in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, Oct. 5, 2019. Li Yaohui/IC)