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    Is China’s Entertainment Industry Having a Reckoning?

    Authorities are targeting celebrities and their fan groups to curb issues ranging from tax evasion to backdoor finances.

    It’s not unusual for social media posts and accounts to disappear from the Chinese internet. But when works of popular actor Zhao Wei vanished overnight from leading online platforms last week, there was a conspicuous frenzy.

    Why one of China’s most celebrated celebrities, who rose to fame with hit television series “My Fair Princess” in the late ‘90s, has been targeted is unclear, but speculations that the authorities may be after her for finance-related issues have surfaced online. After all, the billionaire actor had a history of financial irregularities, including being banned from the securities market for misleading stock investors for providing false information in 2017.

    Just as the mysterious events surrounding Zhao went viral on social media Thursday, another bombshell dropped the following day. ​​Zheng Shuang, a high-profile actor previously investigated for contract fraud, had been slapped with 229 million yuan ($46 million) in fines and overdue taxes.

    The back-to-back incidents involving two of China’s A-list celebrities have many asking: Is the country’s entertainment industry facing a reckoning after tightening regulations on fintech, internet, and education sectors?

    Chinese celebrities have often been targeted by the authorities, as well as online nationalists, over the years. Pop star Kris Wu was arrested over rape allegations, actor Zhang Zhehan criticized for posing at a site honoring Japanese war criminals, and Fan Bingbing heavily fined for tax evasion.

    But the ultimate target this time is the behind-the-scenes “capital” from investors and shareholders propping up celebrity agencies, production companies, streaming sites, and social media platforms, industry insiders and lawyers told Sixth Tone. They said these methods of profit seeking have created problems, as many stars are now valued on their ability to generate online traffic instead of their talent.

    Jiang Yu, a researcher with the Development Research Center of the State Council, said in an interview published Tuesday that stars with high online traffic are “chosen” by capital to be visible and lure fans, especially younger ones, to consume. The trend has become so widespread that China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism has vowed to prevent cash inflow in the cultural and entertainment industry from “expanding wildly.”

    “The massive capital flow into the (entertainment) industry has created a bubble that can make stars popular overnight solely supported by money and without any hard work,” a celebrity agent surnamed Yan told Sixth Tone, using a pseudonym for privacy reasons.

    The capital flow in recent years, experts said, has been buoyed by fan groups spending large amounts of money to boost their idol’s rankings and social media profiles. The once nascent idol economy is now worth 130 billion yuan, and the fandom has turned so chaotic that internet regulators must frequently step in to tame overzealous fans, which they say is breeding a “harmful culture.”

    Wang Hailin, a prominent scriptwriter, told Sixth Tone that many television productions have favored stars whose massive fan groups can help drive the show’s online traffic. He said the trend ultimately hurts the quality of the works being produced.

    “The whole industrial chain is swayed by traffic and algorithms that drive it; from the value of the intellectual property, production, sales, to marketing and promotion,” Wang said. “Ultimately, high traffic means ‘good.’ Low means ‘bad.’”

    Yan, the celebrity agent with nearly two decades of experience, said she is in charge of managing actors and usually oversees political and legal issues while assessing their scripts. However, she added that many new agents now tend to treat actors as fast-moving consumer goods and “take orders,” hardly even reading entire scripts.

    “Who can manage such ‘traffic celebrities?’” she said. “Their agents, to put it bluntly, serve as their servants. They tell agents what to do — not the other way around.”

    But as China’s entertainment industry is experiencing a thorough shakeup, many in the business are reconsidering their next step. Lawyers Sixth Tone spoke with said producers, streaming platforms, and brands, once in pursuit of online traffic, have become more cautious in partnering with traffic-generating stars with large fan bases and undertake additional due diligence when signing them.

    “Brands tend to attach greater emphasis to celebrities’ ethics, professionalism, and the number and quality of their works,” said Zhang Zongbao from Guangdong Weiran Law Firm. “This will provide a heavy blow to business opportunities and the market competitiveness of high-traffic stars with little work, which will cool the market and further lead to less output involving such celebrities.”

    Streaming sites and social media platforms are also doing their part after following heeds from the authorities.

    To deter unhealthy fan wars, video apps Douyin and Kuaishou, microblogging platform Weibo, and industry data research institutions including Vlinkage and DataWin have all taken down their influence ranking features. Meanwhile, iQiyi is suspending talent competitions on its platform and canceling online voting for shows.

    Industry insiders hope the latest wave of rectification will push the entertainment industry to produce quality works and take a step back from indulging in fan culture. Last month, the screenwriters’ committee of the China Television Drama Production Industry Association released an initiative calling for the industry to avoid producing works just for views.

    “Launch a project based on a story,” it read. “Set the price based on the content. Receive revenue based on real popularity. Ban fake ratings and fake traffic.”

    In the meantime, industry insiders like Wang, also chairman of the committee, and agent Yan believe the reforms won’t be easy to implement — but not impossible. The latter said government supervision could help the entertainment sector “work in a virtuous cycle,” where skills are valued over online popularity.

    “These days are just the beginning of a smaller climax in an ongoing process to achieve an ideal state where professionals do professional things,” Yan said.

    Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

    (Header image: Fans wait for an idol at a shopping mall in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Sept. 27, 2018. IC)