Celebrities Disappear From Internet as China Moves Against Fan Culture

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China announced further steps to control celebrity fan culture, which regulators say has become “chaotic.” The moves came as one of China’s most prominent stars Vicki Zhao Wei was scrubbed from the internet and another star, female actor Zheng Shuang was punished for a tax scandal.

The Cyberspace Administration of China on Friday issued a pair of connected notices. In one, it said that it would take punitive action against the spread of harmful information in celebrity fan groups. Discussion channels may be shut down.

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In the second move, the CAC announced draft regulations for internet recommendation algorithms. It wants to halt algorithms that encourage users to spend large amounts of money or spend money in a way that “may disrupt public order.” Internet companies must make it harder to create fake user accounts and make it easier for users to turn off recommendation systems.

Recommendation algorithms are used by home shopping services, news sites, social media and by streaming platforms. The draft is open to discussion until mid-September.

Chinese regulators, across a multitude of ministries and departments, are in the midst of a months-long campaign to reign in the country’s tech giants. They regard them as having grown too big, having infringed on user privacy and encouraged vulgarity, individualism and pop culture.

Celebrities have been especially targeted by the crackdown. Superstar singer-actor Kris Wu has been arrested following rape allegations, and, as a consequence, his internet presence has been largely deleted.

Another star, Zhang Zhehan who is accused of hurting Chinese feelings after posing for photos at Tokyo’s notorious Yasukuni Shrine recently saw his films and TV series deleted by broadcasters and streaming platforms. The state-owned Global Times newspaper reported that Zhang has been “forced out of the entertainment industry.”

Now, Variety’s sister publication WWD reports that Zhao, a film and TV star who has appeared in “Shaolin Soccer” and “Red Cliff,” is also being banished. Her name is being edited out of the 1990s-made and still hugely popular TV series “My Fair Princess” by video platforms including Tencent Video, iQiyi and Youku.

WWD says it is unclear why Zhao, the face of Italian fashion brand Fendi in China, is currently being canceled. It speculates that her fate may be linked to ongoing investigations into Zhou Jiangyong, a senior official in Hangzhou, the city that is home to Alibaba. Zhao is also close to Jack Ma, the co-founder of Alibaba who has endured nearly a year of state-orchestrated attacks after publicly criticizing China’s financial regulatory system.

Zheng, who was at the center of a storm over surrogate babies earlier in the year, has now been fined RMB299 million ($46 million) over unpaid income tax liabilities and excessive earnings. Though little known overseas, the 29-year-old Zeng is one of the highest paid actresses in the world. She was reportedly paid $24.6 million (RMB160 million) for 77 days of filming — $320,000 a day — for her role in the upcoming 50-episode series “A Chinese Ghost Story.”

Being brought to heel over tax payments has clear echoes of the 2017 downfall of Fan Bingbing, China’s biggest female star.

Fan’s $100 million fines led to a film and TV production hiatus as companies rushed to clean up their tax affairs, rewrite contracts with performers and halt the use of domestic tax havens. China’s authorities have previously also sought to cap celebrity pay packages for TV series, handed out exemplary punishments to celebrities who have used prostitutes or drugs, and threatened others with lifetime bans.

Streaming platform iQiyi this week said that it had has cancelled plans for talent contest shows, which create celebrities. The company’s CEO Gong Yu said that the shows are “unhealthy.”

The latest crackdowns on tech and celebrities appear also have a political context. The Communist Party of China may be eliminating all other sources of power and influence in civil society – wealth, technology, media and fame – other than its own.

Zhao has flirted with trouble in the past. In 2018, she and her husband were banned from securities markets for five years after giving false information in a corporate takeover. She has also criticized for amassing a fortune reported to be over $1 billion, in part through her early purchase of shares in film company Alibaba Pictures on the personal recommendation of Ma. In 2016, she was accused of supporting Taiwanese separatism by appearing in a film with Leon Dai (and in which Alibaba Pictures was a minority investor), while in 2001 she was severely criticized for wearing a dress that appeared to be made from a Japanese military flag.

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