Fan Fiction, Cancel Culture, and the Fate of Xiao Zhan : Rough Translation A Chinese idol had millions of fans who adored him for his kindness and good looks. Then, this February, one group of fans accused another of violating their image of him. What happens is a lesson in morality and revenge, love and hate, and how these feelings are weaponized on the internet.
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Dream Boy And The Poison Fans

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Dream Boy And The Poison Fans

Dream Boy And The Poison Fans

Dream Boy And The Poison Fans

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Chinese celebrity Xiao Zhan at an event in Nanjing, China, promoting his web drama, The Untamed. VCG via Getty Images hide caption

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VCG via Getty Images

Chinese celebrity Xiao Zhan at an event in Nanjing, China, promoting his web drama, The Untamed.

VCG via Getty Images

In late February, with COVID-19 deaths skyrocketing in China and much of the country on lockdown, the last thing correspondent Emily Feng expected to see dominating the internet was a scandal involving a boy band celebrity and queer fan fiction. But as she dug into the story, she discovered that this fan war had lasting consequences for how the internet in China is regulated and censored.

Xiao Zhan is a super idol whose star had been rising until a piece of erotic fan fiction about him sparked an online feud between an army of admirers and the writers on a popular fan fiction platform called AO3. These "poison fans" reported the offending story to the Chinese government, which in turn blocked the whole site. In response, AO3 devotees called for a boycott of all Xiao Zhan-endorsed products.

The scandal not only upended a pop star's career, but also prompted soul-searching across China about a social media-fueled resurgence of Chinese "reporting culture." Some recalled a history of abuses in which people settled grudges by reporting their personal enemies as "anti-revolutionaries" to the government. Was a similar thing now happening online? And what might it reveal about American "cancel culture" when we see similar tactics used on an internet that is monitored and controlled by the government?

Additional Context:

  • For an academic analysis of slash fan fiction and its origins, read "Queering Popular Culture: Female Spectators and the Appeal of Writing Slash Fan Fiction" by Susanne Jung. 
  • Internet censors in China are often quick to quash online dissent. But what if doing so could hurt economic development? Emily Feng reports on how GitHub became a safe space for tech workers to speak out.
  • Xiao Zhan has been working on a comeback. This month, he appears in a new primetime series called Heroes in Harm's Way broadcast by CCTV, China's state-run television station. The series is set in Wuhan as COVID-19 cases peaked in the city and features a large cast of well known Chinese actors in the roles of patients, doctors, volunteers, nurses and other essential workers. Xiao Zhan makes his cameo on September 21.