China is trying to contain the awesome influence of social media celebrities, some who have tens of millions of followers that compete with Western media icons.
In recent weeks, the social media accounts of several celebrities have shut down while the Beijing Cyber Administration (BCA) closed the accounts of 60 celebrity gossip magazines.
It also asked Internet portals hosting these accounts to “adopt effective measures to keep in check the problems of the embellishment of private sex scandals of celebrities, the hyping of ostentatious celebrity spending and entertainment, and catering to the poor taste of the public.”
Analysts said the Chinese Communist Party (CPP) has reason to worry about the massive influence of celebrities, according to Bill Bishop, who runs the widely read Sinocism China Newsletter.
Money and values
“The Party is really pushing hard on Socialist Core Values, and very few of the popular Internet celebrities are paragons of those values,” he said. “Individual media creators are much harder to control, and one of the core pillars of the CCP is propaganda and ideological control.”
Celebrities are an important tool for marketing and advertising, and thousands of companies depend on them to disseminate product messages. The size of Internet marketing by Chinese celebrities was estimated at $58 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach $100 billion in 2018, according to Beijing-based research agency Analysus.
The top 10 Chinese celebrities on Internet have between 67 million and 90 million online followers, according to whatsonweibo.com. Newcomer angelababy has more than 80 million followers. The status of her account was unknown.
Many of the social media celebrities come from the world of cinema, television, and sports. But there have been a large number of upstarts who have emerged from nowhere.
These stars can raise sensitive social issues, such as the neglect suffered by some so-called “leftover women” who have not found husbands. One popular Internet celebrity, Teacher Xu, runs a hugely popular account on the WeChat platform.
Most celebrities make sure to not cross the government’s policy in their posts in texts and videos, said Mark Tanner, managing director of China Skinny, an Internet-based marketing company.
“Everyone in China knows that if you want to be a successful and effective voice in China, you need to toe the party line. … They know what to say and what not to say,” he said.
Analysts say the immense popularity of these high profile individuals is seen as a challenge to the authorities even if they do not take up political issues. They indirectly touch on governance issues like the environment, and this is what bothers top officials.
“Celebrities happen to hold a powerful microphone to speak to society, and in CCP leaders’ eyes, that alone is threatening no matter how non-political most of them may be,” said Christopher Cairns, a Cornell scholar.
Popularity and content of celebrities seems to run far ahead of the government’s technical ability to control them.
“A lot of it has to do with lack of control. It is really hard for them to censure real time video. the software hardware for voice and video is just not there yet,” said Jacob Cooke, CEO of Web Presence in China. “And still, a lot of the system depends upon real-time monitoring. So, there are a lot of vague rules in terms of censorship including harming feelings of the Chinese people.”
The censors use other reasons to crack down on celebrities they don’t like. The BCA reportedly told executives of Internet companies the new cybersecurity law required websites “to not harm the reputation or privacy of individuals.”
The government has said the new law is necessary for security reasons, but many analysts fear it can be used to surpress freedom of speech on the Internet.