China is trying to contain the awesome influence of social media celebrities, some of whom have tens of millions of followers that dwarf more Western media icons like Oprah Winfrey. For example, the top 10 Chinese celebrities on Internet have between 67 million and 90 million online followers.
Recent weeks have seen the closure of social media accounts of several celebrities while the Beijing Cyber Administration (BCA) shut down 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 The 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," he said.
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.
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.
Their claim to fame is their ability to raise sensitive social issues, such as the neglect suffered by some so-called "leftover women" who have not found husbands. One such celebrity is Teacher Xu, a popular internet celebrity, who runs a hugely popular account on the WeChat platform.
Almost all celebrities make sure they do not cross the government's policy line 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. So right to Pappi Chang to the little guys on the road, they know what to say and what not to say," he said.
Analysts say the immense popularity of these high profile individuals is itself seen as a challenge to the authorities even if they do not take up political issues. A lot of what they talk about is indirectly connected to 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.
The government also has things to worry at the technological level, where the popularity and content production of celebrities seem to be running 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 are using 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.