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China erases thousands of social media accounts for vulgarity, negativity and more


Can a government shape popular culture? China is giving it a try. In the last year alone, the Chinese government has shut down tens of thousands of celebrities, bloggers and influencers for running afoul of official censors. NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Much of Chinese pop culture is dominated by either megastars who populate TV, movies and song or superstar influencers who can each sell millions of dollars of merch online through constant livestreams. In this landscape, actor Zhang Zhehan dominated with his popular TV drama "Word Of Honor"...


ZHANG ZHEHAN: (As Zhou Zishu, non-English language spoken).

FENG: ...Until last August. Images surfaced of Zhang allegedly at a Japanese war shrine - false. More photos appeared to show Zhang at the wedding of an anti-Chinese politician - also false. But that didn't matter. The outcry against Zhang was immediate.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It was almost like seeing someone get murdered.

FENG: This is one of Zhang's online fans. She found herself suddenly besieged by hateful comments from thousands of social media accounts, who also began attacking Zhang. Many appeared to be bots with no followers. These attacks are why she and other fans didn't want to be named in this story.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: To the point where to this day, I will not watch another Chinese drama, you know, like, because it's so arbitrary. I don't want to invest emotionally and then, you know, have that person be cancelled.

FENG: And by canceled, I mean wiped off the map. Zhang Zhehan's name is now banned from China's biggest e-commerce apps and video streaming platforms, something only the state can do. Even positive videos about him have been deleted.

Such censorship happens frequently in China. The difference this time is that Zhang is famous enough that fans around the world like this one were taking notice that everything about Zhang was disappearing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They were being systematically deleted. I could not understand why. So not only was Zhang silenced, but anyone speaking up for Zhang, no matter how rationally, were also being silenced.

FENG: Zhang is not the only celebrity to have their star dimmed. Last year, China's cyberspace regulator shut down more than 20,000 popular social media accounts for being vulgar or spreading misinformation. The national radio and television regulator closed down another 380,000-plus accounts for being too, quote, "negative." China's Arts and Performance Association, or CAPA, recently blacklisted 88 stars and their accounts for immorality.

Like many countries, including the U.S., China is fighting against disinformation and online bullying. But China is also taking down more accounts and more stars than ever for sometimes-unclear reasons, such as not being patriotic and state censorship has been turbocharged by grassroots nationalism online.

Here's David Craig, a communications professor at the University of Southern California who studies Chinese internet celebrities.

DAVID CRAIG: And so what we're witnessing here is this kind of platform nationalism in which the populist sentiment that's happening not only in China but in every country all around the world is expressing itself through these kind of mob-like behaviors on social media.

FENG: This populist censorship in China has ended the careers of professors, artists, athletes and writers. It tends to begin the same way - with a seemingly genuine public outcry online, followed by official bans and state censorship of the person in question. Many have likened it to cancel culture in the U.S., but Fang Kecheng, a communications professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong, says that term is not quite accurate.

FANG KECHENG: In the Chinese context, it's ultimately conducted by the government, who will ask the platforms to delete certain online influencer or ordinary people's social media account.

FENG: Most people find themselves a target of cancel culture for supposedly making subversive political statements or for being inappropriate, but there's no clear pattern. For example, Fang himself was canceled after he shared a This American Life podcast episode about Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities are tacitly complicit, shutting down their social media accounts and censoring anyone targeted.

FANG: By initiating such campaigns is a great way to attract traffic and quite safe because apparently the government is implicitly endorsing these kind of campaigns to get rid of people that the government or even the people don't like.

FENG: How such a vicious and prolific censorship environment changes Chinese pop culture is yet to be seen. In the short term, it's already hollowed out the country's performing arts circles. For example, in 2008, when China hosted the Summer Olympics, it recruited 73 A-list stars to sing the Olympic anthem. Albert Leung, a prolific songwriter, penned the lyrics, Beijing welcomes you.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

FENG: But by this year's Winter Olympics in Beijing, 10 out of the 73 artists had effectively been banned from performing in China. They included Leung, the song's writer, who has gone into exile in Taiwan because of his support for protests in Hong Kong.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.