02. Lucrative with a capital L
Entertainment (Monetized Ver.)
Hi there. Welcome to Active Faults.
The last issue explained how and why the Chinese entertainment industry is given the opportunity to survive but only on conditions set up by the state.
Today, let’s complete the picture with capitalism.
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This article describing China’s crackdown on celebrities since 2021 mentions a key concept: mobilization. Once and still the core value of the party, mass mobilization is the origin story. As the author summarised, it is latent in CCP’s identity and central to the government’s legitimacy of rule.
Fanquan, meanwhile, represents a different kind of mass mobilization that “possesses tremendous power” and could potentially rival the party’s. According to People’s Daily, celebrities’ mobilization power has to be “utilized positively”.
They’ve come up with exactly two (2) ways of the so-called utilization. I’ve already talked you through one: recruiting celebrities into the propaganda machine and sweeping their fans on board.
The other is an age-old tale: it’s all about the money, money, money.
Entertainment in China is Lucrative with a capital L.
The total revenue generated by China’s entertainment and media industry stands at around $358.6 billion in 2021. That’s too big of a number to mean anything.
Another piece of stat is more interesting: in the past decade, the public became much more willing to spend money on cultural and educational entertainment. In 2021, the per capita spending increased by almost 28% compared to the previous year (Statista, 2023). And businesses feast on it. (or have they created the willingness in the first place?)
The Big 3 streaming platforms, iQIYI, Youku, and Tencent, all multi-billion yuan earning enterprises, are respectively backed by the famed tech giant trio also known as the BATs: Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent.
China’s largest artist-management company, YH Entertainment Group, went public this month and is backed by Alibaba as well as ByteDance, the parent company of Douyin and TikTok.
You can see the pattern here. Entertainment megacorps are also, surprise surprise, megacorps period. A selected few can dominate multiple industries, and that gives them leeway—if revenue is generated and it’s too big to mess with, the leash can be stretched and the overseers turn a blind eye.
Now you’ll be able to understand why fans dubbed Tencent Entertainment the “Nanshan Victor” (南山必胜客). Having its headquarters in the Nanshan district in Shenzhen, Tencent notoriously never loses a single lawsuit, despite its often in the spotlight for all sorts of “misconduct”.
In 2021, Tencent Entertainment aired the fourth season of its idol survival show, Produce Camp (创造营). If you want to know exactly what this is, read this incredible Chaoyang Trap episode about it.
For now, all you need to know is that the 11 winners are determined by audience votes, and the number of votes you can cast is technically unlimited as long as you pay for it. Fans can purchase products from the sponsoring company for more voting quotas, using money raised in fan crowdfunding.
Supporting fan clubs (后援会) tend to be the organizer of crowdfunding, which is normally achieved via mobile apps designed for this kind of fan activity such as Owhat and Taoba (桃叭). After the crowdfunding is closed, SFCs will publish the results to keep other fans informed.
You can imagine the cash flow when the show attracted over 550 million views. Brace yourself for these numbers: official statistics show that Produce Camp fans spent more than 150 million RMB on the show altogether. But, even this is a pitiful underestimation.
The competitive nature of idol survival shows (also known as xuanxiu 选秀) resulted in a culture of espionage between different fan groups. At most times, SFCs only disclose funds collected from what they call “on-the-record” crowdfunding weblinks (明链). In contrast, off-the-record weblinks (暗链) will only be available to trusted fans, and funds raised from them will be deliberately withheld from public disclosure. This is to ensure the opponents and their fan clubs are oblivious of their “armoury”. And xiufen (秀粉), fans of xuanxiu, accept this blatant lack of transparency because it’s for tactical reasons.
The table below contains unofficial statistics collected by xiufen, counting in both on and off-the-record funds after the show has ended. According to this, Produce Camp 2021’s contestant who ranked No.1, Liu Yu, got there because his fans may have spent over 244 million RMB to secure his place. That’s 10 times more than what the founder of YH Entertainment used to set up her business in 2009.
If you read closely, you can see that the announced rankings don’t actually align with the crowdfunding figures that correspond to the number of votes cast. This table was used by many fan groups to protest that Produce Camp was rigged, including the fans of Caelan Moriarty.
A contestant highly anticipated to be amongst the winners, Caelan didn’t make the cut in the disputed finals. His fans allegedly spent 9 million RMB purchasing voting quotas and casting votes, to ensure that Caelan overtakes his competitors and successfully debuts. Upon seeing the announced vote counts, Caelan’s fans claim that the numbers don’t match with internal records and the contestant suffered an injustice.
Later, Caelan’s SFC initiated a series of cross-platform campaigns. They have written and published an official statement fully detailing vote counts, records of accounts alongside other relevant statistics to show that Tencent manipulated the results. Hashtags were created and mass-reposting on Weibo ensued, attracting over 400 million views or so.
They were highly strategic as they went about their claim-making, having successfully “soberized” their claim and intentionally directed the discussions toward a much more serious end.
They asked whether this is a case of anomie where Tencent, by manipulating votes, fails to stand as an exemplar for young viewers because it is selling fake democracy. Most claimed that Produce Camp is indulging and actively baiting irrational consumerism in crowdfunding. They name-shame Tencent as a fraudulent corporation that violates fans’ rights after they made substantial investments in the show, an evil capitalist in a socialist country.
All of these are sore spots to hit. The condition of entertainment’s survival is precisely its provision of “correct guidance” to the public, and Caelan’s fans used this to their advantage by bashing Tencent’s malicious influence.
Although it might not be causally related (it kind of is), the Qing Lang Operation (清朗行动) started shortly after. This new purge on the Chinese internet specifically targeted “chaotic celebrity fan culture”, including corporate baiting of consumerism, crowdfunding, cyberbullying and inter-fan group clashes.
You’d think that this is a good thing. In reality, it’s the classic machete manoeuvre that China is so prone to make. (Complaining about lockdowns? Let’s do a 180, cut all restrictions at once and leave you begging for ibuprofen.)
Because all idol survival shows are now prohibited from airing after Qing Lang. The xuanxiu era has ended, for good. Sure, this is a blow to Tencent’s (and other show-hosting companies') revenue and they were allegedly fined as well, but this step forward is a step into another bind.
In a way, Qing Lang is a response to fans’ accusations as much as their act of accusing itself. It brought in more censorship, and fanquan might have legitimised the increased control. You’re dissatisfied - and you’re too loud about it. Might as well just shut everything down.
Many fanquan discussion forums got removed or temporarily suspended during Qing Lang, even the non-xuanxiu-oriented ones. Discursive liberties are once again restrained, and internal conflicts emerge where xiufen are blamed by non-xiufen for the tightened grip.
It seems like justice is served, but fans are simultaneously punished.
What Qing Lang did was essentially scapegoat fanquan and leave the profitable system intact. Just as how entertainment obscures the state, fanquan “madness” obscures the enterprises. Qing Lang addressed the consequences, not the root of the problem because megacorps go almost unscathed.
Corporate dominance and economism shape Chinese entertainment to the point where it’s the real “main-melody”. Fans take up the identity of the consumer, while celebrities and content are manufactured products with a price tag.
More importantly, I find that as much as fans are complicit with the system, the consumer identity is a stepping stone to so much more.
For young fans who are unarmed with political sensitivity or rights consciousness, fanquan can be a testing ground for claim-making from the premise that fans are consumers. It is no wonder that most Produce Camp fans justify their claim-making from the standpoint of a consumer experiencing false advertising.
The entertainment context is benign enough to be a safe haven for activism and intelligible enough for a lot of people to join in. Human rights obviously sound too harsh to the ears, but consumer rights? Everybody knows what that is. It’s familiar, and it’s a reference point. There is a televised gala every 15th of March themed around it.
I argue that the identity of the consumer is crucial to fanquan, both a weakness and a starting point of action.
The truth is in entertainment, only the rule-makers survive. The rest are stakeholders who struggle.
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Now you know enough to continue our bumpy downward spiral into fanquan. You’ve already met the protagonist of the next issue. I will walk you through how the lead actor of the Battle at Lake Changjin managed to unleash the dissatisfaction of a whole generation through job-hunting.
See you then!