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How Chinese Fans Enforce Chinese Nationalism on the World

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How Chinese Fans Enforce Chinese Nationalism on the World

Chinese fans are quick to call out idols for crossing political red lines — and those norms are being internalized in the global pop culture industry.

How Chinese Fans Enforce Chinese Nationalism on the World
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz.

“Speak Chinese or get out of China.” “This is China, Speak Chinese.” “Speaking our language is the basic respect.” These are quotes from “Produce Camp” fans on Twitter, one of the websites banned by China’s Great Fire Wall. The popular boy group competition show held its fourth season, and its “most global” iteration, showing sponsor Tencent’s aim to build an international “idol team.” With trainees from Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, Ukraine, and Russia, Tencent hopes to expand its overseas audience, make the competition more competitive, and raise the bar for the domestic “idol industry.” The debut stage of “Produce Camp 2021” has attracted a live audience of 52.38 million globally, which is quite a success. The attempt to globalize the show, however, has had the surprising side effect of globalizing Chinese nationalism.

This not a coincidence. Chinese nationalism is embedded in the show, promoted by the trainees, and manifested in the everyday interaction between Chinese and non-Chinese trainees. From the beginning of the show, “Chinese elements” have been a selling point: trainees often wear Hanfu, traditional Chinese clothing and perform on stages decorated by traditional Chinese style paintings, folding fans, and Chinese calligraphy. During the Chinese Lunar New Year 2021, all trainees were required to write spring couplets in brush calligraphy to show their understanding of Chinese culture.

The end effect is that the recruitment of foreign trainees not only shows how international the competition is, but more importantly, shows the degree of “cultural confidence” held by the Chinese trainees, and the Chinese youth they represent. One of the trainees even brought a closet of Hanfu to share with foreign trainees, in order to show them Chinese traditional culture. At the beginning of the show, the Chinese trainees were gathered in a big room to welcome foreign trainees from all over the word. Instead of welcoming them to the show, or the competition, they shouted “welcome to China” loud and proud to their foreign fellows – even though a lot of these foreign trainees have been in China for years.

All these national elements can be designed to promote the show within China, but the main actor in the globalization of nationalism is not Tencent, but the Chinese audience. The whole process is not propagandistic, in the conventional understanding of Chinese propaganda: top-down, imposed by the government, and passively accepted by the subjects. Instead, the global growth of Chinese nationalism is a grassroots movement that is organized by fans, the audience, and even ordinary netizens.

To understand the mechanism of how they globalize Chinese nationalism, it is necessary to understand the role of the audience in these idol-producing shows. Put it simple, votes decide all. Audience members can vote for any trainee they want, and these votes are for purchase with unlimited supply. This mechanism puts a giant weight on the audience and makes them the most important factor for a trainee aiming to advance. Fans, correspondingly, organize voting squads to vote collectively for their idols by purchasing votes from the producers. Through voting, these shows give the audience a sense of autonomy, in which their preferences matter. Thus, it is important for the trainees, their agencies, and the show to know and follow the taste of the audience, more than any other thing.

Nationalist fans are not new. Perhaps the most notable recent example is the 2016 THAAD missile defense system conflict between China and South Korea and the corresponding sanctions on K-pop idols. Much has been written about the incident, in which unofficial sanctions were posted by the Chinese government. Under these sanctions, Koreans cannot produce shows in China, no Korean cultural companies can invest new projects in China, Korean idol groups cannot perform to audiences of over 10,000, Korean directors and producers cannot work in China, and TV shows that have Korean actors cannot be broadcasted.

Since then, a lot of Chinese fans have turned to Chinese idols, under the mantra “nation first, idols second.” Moreover, fans began to “test” idols politically to see whether they harm Chinese national interests through a close analysis of their social media accounts, speeches, and behaviors (among other things). The definition of national interests is not fixed; it ranges from the “One China Principle” to promoting a generally good image of China, and keeping to the most detailed completeness of the Chinese territory. For example, Taiwanese idol Chou Tzu-Yu, a member of Twice (a Korean girl group), was criticized and attacked by Chinese fans in 2016 because she waved Taiwan’s national flag in a Korean TV show. Fans and netizens believed that waving the flag represented the independence of Taiwan, and thus was a threat to the integrity of China’s territory. The incident cost Chou and her agent company dearly – she had to apologize, reiterate the One China Principle, and cease her activity in China from then on. The company’s founder, Park Jin-Yong, also apologized to Chinese fans for “not educating his employees properly and hurting the feelings of Chinese fans.”

With many previous instances to learn from, foreign agent companies are now very cautious about what to say and what to do in relation to China. As a result, Chinese nationalism began to gain global attention – not just as a phenomenon to be analyzed, but as rules to follow. Foreign companies and idols, if they ever want to have a share of the huge Chinese market, must internalize the unofficial rules set by Chinese consumers, on top of all the official rules. The globalization of capitalism brought its side effect: the globalization of nationalism.

Before the debut of “Produce Camp 2021,” for example, Japanese social media circulated guidelines for Japanese trainees about how to “behave” in China. The guidelines are comprehensive, including warnings such as “do not publish works related to sensitive topics such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Falun Gong,” “pay attention to the consistency between Chinese and foreign social media accounts,” and “avoid going to the Yasukuni Shrine,” etc. These warnings were well taken by the trainees; none of them said anything politically inappropriate in the show. Most of the Japanese trainees were keen to learn about China during the show, showing great interest in knowing and experiencing Chinese culture.

However, the political investigations of Chinese fans do not end with the idols themselves, but reach even to their families. In late April, some fans went over the past Instagram posts of a debuted trainee’s mother, and found that she posted a meme three years ago in which several Mao figures were cut off from RMB banknotes. The exposure of this post went viral on Chinese social media, with fans arguing that this was an insult to China. They started to wage a “battle” to require justice for the nation – asking the trainee and his mother to apologize. Some even demanded that the debuted trainee “get out of China” if he could not demonstrate the proper respect. The trainee’s mother was forced to apologize for “not being careful enough” and causing negative social impacts. She even deleted her Instagram account to avoid further trouble.

Chinese fans have won a lot of “battles” like this. It starts with the discovery of inappropriate behavior, then escalates to public opinion “wars” against the related idols and threats of boycotts. The idols are forced to apologize. For those who openly challenge the Chinese fans’ “bottom line” with provocative actions and speeches, such as promoting Taiwan independence, the fans unite in no time to crucify the offenders on domestic and international media. For those who obey their rules, fans climb over the Great Fire Wall to dig out inappropriate content and begin the cycle anew. The mechanism reinforces itself through the repeated victories of nationalist fans – if that idol apologized, then you should as well.

The loop of offending-amending breeds Chinese nationalism home and abroad. At home, fans are proud of being able to change international public opinions toward China. Abroad, businesses learn to obey Chinese rules and play safe; the industry as a whole learns to internalize Chinese nationalism and nationalist values.

Through and by their practice of nationalism, the Chinese civic imagination of a “great China” is realized.

Of course, not all Chinese pop culture fans work to promote state interests. There are a lot of activists in China advocating for women’s rights or LGBTQ rights, for example, through popular culture. But due to the censorship and repression of these sensitive subjects, the scale and size cannot be comparable to the outgrowth of nationalism. This article attempts to shed lights on Chinese fans as an important actor in world politics, as opposed to the traditional conception of such fans as apolitical. They play important roles not only in the global entertainment industry, but also in world politics as they have the interest and power to manipulate global public opinions toward China.