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Toxic Fan Culture Puts Brands at Risk in China

A controversy linked to homoerotic pop culture is engulfing a Chinese superstar affiliated with several global luxury brands. The rise and fall of Xiao Zhan should be a wake-up call for all brands leveraging celebrities in China.
Xiao Zhan arrives at the red carpet of 2019 Tencent Star Awards | Source: Getty

SHANGHAI, China – In one of the surest signs to date that some Chinese people are looking for a distraction from the coronavirus crisis that has dominated daily life for months, water cooler talk this week moved away from infection statistics and back to an old favourite, an online furore centred on a xiaoxianrou (‘little fresh meat’ celebrity).

The controversy has seen factions of fans at war with each other, with rabid followers of heart-throb Xiao Zhan, successfully calling for authorities to block the fan-fiction platform Archive of Our Own (AO3) that featured works they deemed unflattering to their idol.

In retaliation, fan-fiction aficionados launched a smear campaign called "227 United" against Xiao Zhan, hitting his fans where it hurt, by targeting review sites with one star reviews of his performances, flooding Weibo with negative comments and, not only calling for boycotts of the brands he is a spokesperson for, but flooding the customer service lines of those brands, causing some to crash, and actively promoting competitor brands.

To date, the hashtag #boycottxiaozhan (in Chinese) has prompted more than half a million discussions on Weibo and has been viewed 410 million times.

Brands affiliated with Xiao Zhan, including beauty giants Olay and Estée Lauder, initially stayed quiet on the issue, hoping to ride out the controversy above the fray, but they have come under increasing pressure from the anti-Xiao Zhan factions online. The vitriol against Olay in particular increased after a hostess on a brand livestream responded to negative comments by saying, “There’s no need to care about these fan-fiction aficionados because this group of people is very small."

What started out as a seemingly silly online feud, has escalated so quickly and so dramatically.

The situation has become so ugly that Olay is reportedly now under investigation by tax authorities at the urging of muck-raking AO3 fans, according to a report in Chinese newspaper National Business Daily.

What started out as a seemingly silly online feud, has escalated so quickly and so dramatically because its seeds have been sown in broader societal trends, including the increasing toxicity of social media and idol culture and a precarious debate about LGBTQ+ rights in a country where homosexuality has not only been taboo, but until as recently as 1997, was illegal.

Who is Xiao Zhan, Anyway?

Xiao Zhan, like other dewy-skinned, doe-eyed young men in show business, rose to prominence via a reality TV show in 2015, winning a place in boy band X Nine and a following among a small army of young female fans for his delicate beauty. It was a pivot to acting, however, and a star turn on last summer's breakout streaming costume drama, The Untamed, that really propelled him to the top-tier of celebrities with influential and, at times zealous, fan followings.

In 2019, Xiao Zhan was Chinese search engine giant Baidu's most searched celebrity of the year and today the 28-year-old has 24.4 million Weibo followers, a significant portion of whom have made it their mission to keep their boy on top of the social media platform's "trending" topics, and to take down anyone or anything that gets in their way.

These fans have made Xiao Zhan one of the country's hottest commodities for brand partnerships over the past six months. From almost nowhere, the young actor was suddenly everywhere – invited to Milan Fashion Week, signing deals with Vidal Sassoon, Olay, Crest, Piaget, and fine jewellery brand Qeelin.

Prior to launching its Singles Day promotion in October last year, Estée Lauder announced Xiao Zhan would become the face of its fragrance and beauty line. Special products “curated” by the star, including a 270 yuan ($38) lipstick were phenomenally successful, leading Estée Lauder to smash its Singles Day pre-sales record.

“A significant reason for the numbers that these stars can produce is the intense devotion of their fan bases, which develop highly organised fan clubs that rush to show their support for the brands that hire their favourite idol,” Liz Flora, editor of APAC research for L2 Inc., says.

This idol culture has sparked a massive 'fan economy.'

“This idol culture has sparked a massive ‘fan economy’ in which idol groups’ followers will spend big money not just on concert tickets and merch, but also the items the pop stars promote. [They have] even crowdfunded billboard ads in [New York’s] Times Square for their birthdays.”

Right up there with Xiao Zhan in the popularity stakes has been Wang Yibo, his co-star in The Untamed. Wang was the fourth most searched celebrity on Baidu last year, has 31.3 million Weibo followers and has inked deals with beauty brands Shu Uemura and Origins.

Though elaborate fantasy-history-costume dramas such as The Untamed are nothing new in terms of popular television fare in China, another sub-culture trend that propelled the popularity of The Untamed and its lead actors is known on domestic social media as BL (or “Boy Love”).

A Tightrope of Acceptability

Though China, as in many parts of Asia, lags behind the West in terms of both the legal rights and public representations of same-sex relationships, young women in China, in particular, have driven a trend for a chaste strain of homoeroticism in popular culture here.

In 50 episodes of The Untamed, which was adapted from a queer novel, Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo play "soulmates," travelling around together solving murder mysteries, eventually working to bring down an evil mastermind. The relationship of these characters, though not overtly defined as romantic or sexual in the show, was widely accepted among viewers to involve more than friendship.

Trading on this youth culture trend seemed to drive the popularity of both men, who also coyly joked about their real-life closeness in interviews. By the end of 2019, Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo were Weibo's reigning most popular “CP” (or couple).

To be clear, neither actor is openly gay or bisexual; it would be difficult to come up with the name of a male celebrity in China who is. Nevertheless, outsiders are quick to chalk the “Boy Love” trend up to a greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ communities in China – even if the reality is far more complex.

Some progress is being made. Recent developments include a body of the National People's Congress, the highest law-making body in the land, publicly acknowledging petitions to legalise same-sex marriage (it had reportedly received 230,000 of them and the news drew 400 million views on Weibo); only weeks later e-commerce giant Alibaba also seemed to nod at greater acceptance of gay couples by depicting two young men returning home for Chinese New Year dinner.

So, in some ways it comes as a surprise that the recent furore surrounding Xiao Zhan emanates from his depiction in an AO3 queer fan fiction tribute, entitled “Falling.” Granted, the fan fiction in question was not the innocent young “Boy Love” content that can be seen as a culturally safe zone for young fans; instead Xiao Zhan is depicted as a cross-dressing, under-aged prostitute working out of a hair salon. For some of his young, predominantly female fans, this crossed a line becoming an insult they felt should be avenged.

It's difficult for brands to know what is acceptable as China's murky social media censorship guidelines evolve and change.

“[Xiao Zhan’s popularity has always been] about having this gender-neutral look and this homoerotic [undertone] in the roles he was playing, even photoshoots with Wang Yibo and in commercials, but for his fans, this fan fiction went beyond homoerotic. This isn’t what [most of] his fans want,” says Raymond Phang, co-founder of LGBTQ+ festival Shanghai Pride.

It’s difficult for brands to know what is acceptable as China’s murky social media censorship guidelines evolve and change, rarely with anything approaching clarity. This makes it especially hard to navigate the potentially shaky ground brands may be treading by partnering with a celebrity whose rise to fame is intertwined with controversial sub-cultures.

"What is allowed to talk about or not allowed to talk about in China, there's never really a clear rule," says Shaway Yeh, founder of the consultancy Yehyehyeh and group style editorial director at Modern Media. "Maybe now it's okay, but next year it's not okay."

Phang explains. “Being ‘out’ is not an official no-no. It just leans towards bringing bad effects or challenging traditional values.”

High Rise, Hard Fall

In the increasingly pitched battle for eyeballs that has erupted in the Chinese marketplace, a force called liuliang jingji (“the traffic economy”) has become king.

Brands leaping to partner with the most popular idols of the day has led them to inadvertently place themselves in the firing line for vicious online battles between fan factions and as a target in modern Chinese "culture wars" that they seem ill-equipped to deal with or respond to.

Perhaps this controversy will serve as a turning point in which brands will more carefully align with celebrities, based on more than just large follower numbers.

Perhaps this controversy will serve as a turning point in which brands will more carefully align with celebrities.

Another option is shorter contracts, limiting brand exposure to stars if their longevity is in doubt. Already over the past year, it has become more common to see brands split their ambassador and spokesperson roles into sub-sections, hedging their bets in case of unforeseen controversy with any one affiliated celebrity.

Estée Lauder, for example, has Yang Mi as global spokesmodel, actor Li Xian representing its skincare and beauty lines and then Xiao Zhan as the face of its fragrance and beauty lines.

The commercial fallout for Xiao Zhan is still a fast-moving situation. Brands such as Crest removed imagery of the star from their social media accounts in recent days (though Crest said they removed the imagery because their contract with the star had come to an end).

Others contacted by BoF, including Estée Lauder, remain tight-lipped, declining to comment. Olay in China did not respond.

So far, Xiao Zhan has retained his affiliations with all of the brands he currently represents, but it seems they have deemed it better to step back from the star for now, until the heat dies down.

As fast as his star rose — and arguably through no fault of his own — Xiao Zhan has become the poster boy for China’s “chaotic fan culture, which is in urgent need of management and reform,” according to Zhu Wei, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law. What began as a fight between fan factions has spiralled into an attack from all corners of the Chinese internet on the way Xiao Zhan fanatics have tried to manipulate public opinion and control the narrative about their favourite celebrity.

For his part, Xiao Zhan has remained silent as the fans that elevated him to such an exulted status have put his career at risk as they virtually tear each other apart.

“All these headlines are about [Xiao Zhan] but actually have nothing to do with the celebrity himself,” Phang says. “But it will affect him and it will affect the brands.”

Brands must begin to wonder at the wisdom of cashing in on China’s hottest young stars in an environment this volatile.

Additional reporting from Shumin Lai.

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