An idol's career derailed, the mania of overzealous fans draws scrutiny
China's Internet watchdog recently called for further discipline of online fan clubs after some zealous fans of Chinese-Canadian pop star Kris Wu said online that they want to help him break out of jail.
Wu, 30, a former star rapper with the South Korean pop group EXO, was detained by Beijing police on July 31 on suspicion of raping a fan. The pop idol has denied the charges.
Wu had more than 50 million followers on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-style site in China, before he was wiped off domestic social media platforms.
The scandal began after 18-year-old university student Du Meizhu accused Wu of plying her with alcohol to have sex with her when she was underage. Following her accusation, several other women came forth and accused Wu of sexual improprieties, including luring them into sex with promises of career help or gifts.
The wave of criticism hasn't deterred diehard fans, however. In addition to some of them calling online for a prison break, at least one woman said she was willing to trade places with Wu and go to jail for him.
Authorities are not pleased. The Cyberspace Administration of China urged websites and online platforms to promote more "rational" activities by fans.
It had already launched a two-month-long crackdown on what it calls the "chaos" of fan clubs, mainly focusing on activities like raising money from minors and enticing them to make large payments.
The National Radio and Television Administration has implemented a monthlong campaign on regulating online variety shows and issued a notification of stricter controls over idol talent shows. Its aim is to curb the brainless worship of celebrities and misconduct committed in the support of stars.
Sina Weibo canceled Wu's personal account. More than 100 chaohua, or columns of "super-hot" topics, and nearly 800 groups related to Wu were closed.
This is not the first time that Wu, who was born in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, has been involved in controversies related to sexual misconduct.
In 2016, a woman who claimed to be his ex-girlfriend faced online abuse and slut-shaming from Wu fans who didn't approve of her.
She said they had had some happy days together, but Wu disappeared from her life when she returned to China from Canada and she lost all contact with him. She also accused Wu of having an affair with others.
Zhao Xiaoman, 22, was a fan of Wu's for eight years. She liked the boy band EXO when she was a high school student but later shifted her passion to Wu alone.
"He is handsome and shows an interesting personality in variety show," Zhao told Shanghai Daily. "I bought his CDs, watched his movies, downloaded his pictures."
But now she says she is no longer a fan. His detention deeply depressed her, she admitted.
Over-zealous fans support their idols in many ways. They contribute money, organize fundraising, send them gifts, create favorable data about them online, help idol postings go viral and endorse products that enhance an idol's fame. When an idol comes under attack, diehard fans fight the criticism.
Three months ago, domestic video platform iQiyi apologized for a milk-wasting scandal caused by the third season of its variety show "Youth with You."
The program was accused of encouraging viewers to buy milk and scan the QR code inside the bottle caps to support their favorite idols. However, a subsequent video showed large volumes of milk being dumped by fans just to get the bottle caps.
Sometimes fan clubs raise tens of millions of yuan to buy copies of magazines featuring their idol, to boost sales. Some fans buy hundreds of CDs to qualify for an admission ticket to a star's signing event.
The Shanghai Morning Post reported that one middle-school fan, who came from a wealthy family, existed on steam buns and water for a month in order to save money to donate to a fan club.
Celebrities running afoul of the law are becoming increasingly common. Actress Zheng Shuang, who was accused of abandoning two babies born by surrogate mothers in the US, is facing an investigation of tax invasion, according to Xinhua new agency. It may be the biggest case of its kind since A-lister Fan Bingbing was fined 883 million yuan (US$129 million) for tax evasion in 2018.
Wrongdoing by idols is often whitewashed by fans.
There is a flip side to fan mania. Li Guofeng, a 23-year-old graduate student, said it's absolutely ridiculous how crazy Wu fans are behaving since his detention.
"The current fan culture and many fan clubs are unsound," Li said. "To 'chase' a person is idolatry run amok."
According to Li, "fan culture" is now seeping into other realms. Some product brands also have fan clubs.
"Such a culture may not only affect the growth of young people, but it also influences the stability of society," he said.
He Lingfeng, a local psychologist and member of the Ministry of Education's psychology teaching instruction committee, said fan culture is often incited by "interested parties" to gain more web traffic, creating conflicts of immorality and privacy, the Shanghai Morning Post reported.
"They care only about making profits," said He. "They don't take things like morality, ethics and protection of minors into consideration."
He said the trend has increased with the younger generation, who don't always have good judgment and can easily be trapped into fan culture. Authorities who want to end this unreasonable behavior need to go after the people profiting from fan manipulation.
Xiao Qi, who has been working for an entertainment company for five years, agrees that greed and profit are often behind the fan craze.
Investors spend a lot of money on stars and want return on that investment. They often push idols to endorse products that will bring in big revenue, she said.
An article in Banyuetan, the biweekly Xinhua news agency magazine, said some social media platforms cultivate professional "anti-fans" to harm a celebrity's reputation.
Famous Chinese actress Dilraba Dilmurat once received a portrait herself dead, made by the anti-fan with photoshop. Actor Yang Yang, who starred in a drama adapted from a novel, found himself on the wrong side of the novel's fans, who burned his photos and joss paper during the Qingming Festival.
Some marketing accounts create drama out of nothing and spread hate among fans to elicit web traffic and clicks.
Former Wu fan Zhao said she thinks crazy fans are just a fringe group and the public should pay less attention to them.
"Every time a star is implicated in a scandal, the public focuses on his or her fans," she said. "But many scandals are created events, and fans often don't know what's true or not. No one wants to like a person with no morality, who violates laws. We all end up being cheated."
She added, "Those who know what he did but still prefer to whitewash him deserve no sympathy, but others should be respected and not be stereotyped."
Zhao said some fan circles may have dark sides, but many fans are really warm-hearted people who help and inspire others.
(Yao Han contributed to this article)