Fanning controversy

How the protests of fans over an online novel backfired on pop star

Xiao Zhan-w

Xiao flanked by Li Qin, the co-star of his recent movie Jade Dynasty

Before Liu Bang established the Han Dynasty, his most trusted adviser and friend was Xiao He (257 to 193 BC). Xiao subsequently came across a young man named Han Xin and quickly recognised his military talent, recommending him to his leader. However, Liu wasn’t impressed and granted Han a lowly position managing supplies. Discouraged, Han decided to leave. Not giving up, Xiao chased after Han to convince him to stay. Trusting Xiao, Liu relented and promoted Han to the position of his leading general.

True to Xiao’s prediction, Han was hugely instrumental in helping Liu bring down the Qin Dynasty. But over time, Liu became highly suspicious of Han, worried that he would try to usurp his throne. So his right-hand man Xiao lured Han into the palace and killed him, before executing most of his extended family for “treachery”.

The story of Han Xin later inspired the proverb: “The success is from Xiao He and the downfall is from Xiao He.” (For more on Liu Bang’s background, see D for Dragon Throne in our recent book An A-Z of Chinese History, which is available on our website.)

Last week heartthrob Xiao Zhan learned the proverb still has resonance today. The Xiao He in his case: the die-hard fans of the 28 year-old actor and singer.

The incident started in late February, when a netizen published two links on weibo to a piece of fan fiction entitled Falling, which depicts the male idol Xiao as a cross-dressing teen falling in love with another well-known idol named Wang Yibo. Xiao and Wang featured together last year in the web series Untamed, which turned the two stars into an overnight sensation. The drama series also played up an overt sexual tension between the two men.

However, Xiao’s fans (predominantly female) were furious that their idol’s identity was featuring in homoerotic literature, complaining that it was “tarnishing Xiao’s image”. They quickly vented their anger on the platform where Falling was published, reporting the fictional content to Chinese authorities as “underage pornography”. They justified their action by saying that they wanted to “safeguard all the celebrities who have seen their reputations being trampled upon,” adding that, “there should be a limit to the freedom of speech”.

As a consequence of their collective action to brand Falling’s content as porn, the fan fiction’s publishing platforms – the Chinese site Lofter and the international open-source platform Archive of Our Own (also known as A03) – were taken down by the authorities.

A03 has been the go-to destination for China’s ACGN (animation, comic, games and novels) subculture, with an estimated user base of around 300 million readers, says Jing Daily. The site was also considered a sanctuary for LGBTQ communities and other kinds of alternative publishing. More importantly, until late February, it was not blocked in China.

Things escalated quickly after A03’s site went down. Enraged by Xiao fans’ behaviour, legions of free speech and LGBTQ activists began to retaliate. Many went on to Douban, the TV series and film review sites, to give Xiao’s previous works a one-star rating. Others boycotted the dozens of brands he endorses. They even crashed these brands’ customer service hotlines, and pressured them to cut their commercial ties with Xiao.

Take Estée Lauder, which Xiao endorses. Its weibo page was quickly flooded with thousands of comments like “change the idol, or we boycott you”.

Even though none of the brands has taken the step of terminating their contracts with Xiao yet, Olay and Crest, have removed the idol’s image completely from their e-commerce sites. So far, the weibo hashtag #BoycottXiaoZhan# has surpassed 360 million views.

“I am not going to use violence against violence. I will also not report your fans to the authorities. But I will definitely express my dissatisfaction against the ambassador these companies have hired to represent their brands,” one netizen thundered.

“Until you change your brand ambassador I will boycott your product,” another threatened. “Xiao Zhan and all his fans are extremely annoying. I will also urge those around me to boycott your company’s products. I hope the consumer brands know that Xiao Zhan’s fans have crossed the line.”

As a means of damage control, Xiao’s studio published a weibo post, apologising for the actions of his fans and urging them to “be more rational” in their support of their idol. However, many said it was too little too late. “The idol’s public image has gone from pop-culture sweetheart to a ‘low-brow’ celebrity with crazed fans in a matter of days,” reckoned Jing Daily. But even as public opinion was turning against them, Xiao’s supporters refused to admit to any wrongdoing.

Prior to this incident, the ‘fan economy’ has been a key growth engine, driving consumer spending in China. Xiao, with his legions of affluent female admirers, had become a darling among advertisers. He now endorses as many as 15 brands, ranging from Piaget to Xiaolu Tea. During the last Singles’ Day, Estée Lauder sold Rmb8.5 million ($1.2 million) of Xiao Zhan-themed products on its Tmall store in just one hour (he appeared in our ranking of China’s Top 30 KOLs; again see our website).

“Through their consumption and spending, fans yield so much influence that, in many ways, they are actively managing the careers of their idols… But as a result, the relationship between the fans and the celebrities has long gone beyond just the idol worship: fans have become the celebrities’ ‘strategic partners,’ so to speak, fully investing in their careers,” argued Tencent Entertainment (for our earliest mention of the staggering commercial potential of the fan culture, see WiC416 and our article on Tencent’s own show Produce 101 and the boost it gave to Unilever).

However, Xiao’s devoted fans may now have also sabotaged his ascent. “They can’t accept their idol’s portrayal in a piece of fiction so they used excessive cyberviolence to bully those people in that small circle. Now Xiao Zhan is forced to pay for their actions. It is without question that his career has hit rock bottom: his endorsements are being boycotted and all his works were poorly rated. But what can he do? He can only blame himself for not managing his fans better. Now he has to suffer all the consequences alone,” Xiqi Entertainment wrote.

“As the saying goes, fans are the reason for your success, they are also the reason for your demise,” Zhang Yi, chief executive of iiMedia told National Business Daily. “While existing advertisers can’t do much as contracts with the star were already in place, Xiao will have a much bigger problem when he seeks out subsequent endorsement deals,” Zhang warned. “Everyone will think about this incident before signing Xiao.”

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