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

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GREGORY WARNER, HOST:

You're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner. There is a kind of rise-and-fall celebrity story that we're all now familiar with where someone super famous who can do no wrong suddenly does something or tweets something, and they go down fast in a social media pile-on. Today, we have a story from NPR's Beijing correspondent, Emily Feng, where you have the same arc, the same rise and fall, except the celebrity in question, a boy band star turned actor, he did not do or say anything.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The first that I heard of Xiao Zhan was the beginning of the end of his career. This is when the coronavirus pandemic really started to get bad in China. More people were getting sick. People were starting to die in large numbers. But online, the top five trending topics with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of retweets each would have been things like boycott Xiao Zhan, avoid Xiao Zhan, take down Xiao Zhan. If you followed any kind of major brand online and you were shopping on any of China's e-commerce apps, you may have seen scrolling comments from random users who would say things like take down Xiao Zhan. Do not buy this product. We must defend our public rights.

WARNER: Public rights - what even are public rights? We're going to get to that. It is what our whole episode is about. But first...

FENG: Should we start with who Xiao Zhan even is?

WARNER: I think so, yeah. Tell me about him. I'm going to call up his picture now so I can admire his good looks.

FENG: (Laughter) He is quite beautiful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG SHOW")

X NINE: (Singing) Yeah.

FENG: So Xiao Zhan's story begins in 2015 when he competes in this "American Idol"-like sing off competition, and he wins. And because he wins, he joins a boy band group called X Nine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG SHOW")

X NINE: (Singing) One, two (singing in Chinese).

FENG: But where he really got famous is he gets cast in this Chinese web drama called (speaking Chinese). In English, it's called "The Untamed." The series takes place in this sort of magical realm called jianghu (ph), which is a very common fantasy world using Chinese martial arts films. Think, like, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

WARNER: Xiao Zhan plays one half of a crime-fighting duo.

FENG: The other half is played by an actor named Wang Yibo. And they fight evil, but they also become best friends, and they're often described in the show as soul mates.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE UNTAMED")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Chinese).

WARNER: He's a symbol of loyalty and true friendship, but this reputation is about to flip. This is ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner. This is the first in a series we are dubbing The School of Scandal. It's a series about people breaking unspoken codes of conduct that challenge the status quo. And the scandal in this story has actually very little to do with the celebrity, Xiao Zhan, and much more to do with his fans - actually with two competing fan universes, each with their own culture fandom, who wage a very public battle over very private fantasies. That story when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: We are back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. By the time that Emily Feng started reporting this story in March, the controversy around this actor had already gotten so hot that many of his fans refused to talk to a reporter. Others asked to speak in ways that would not reveal their true identities. NPR, by the way, has a very strict standard on this. You have to reasonably expect harm to your person or livelihood, and they met this standard. There had been retributive attacks and death threats. But we're going to start our story before all that, back when Xiao Zhan was getting more endorsements than almost any idol in China. He's 28, tall and thin with pale skin, big eyes. And to understand the role he played in Chinese pop culture, you can look to the TV ads that were scripted with his image in mind. Like, Emily showed me this ad for Estee Lauder lipstick.

FENG: So it starts in this - it looks like a hotel lobby almost. The light is really warm, golden. Xiao Zhan appears at the top of a staircase. He looks down, and he sees this one beautiful woman in the crowd. She looks quite unsure of herself. He sees this woman, and you can sort of tell he quickens his steps. He walks down the staircase briskly. And it looks like he's about to approach her. But instead, he grabs a golden balloon, and he sends it her way with a package attached to the balloon. And inside is - surprise - an Estee Lauder lipstick that she puts on. And all of a sudden, she has self-confidence. She struts out, and she takes her position on stage in front of a microphone. And you see Xiao Zhan in the crowd. He begins to clap for her. And everyone else begins to clap for her as the woman smiles. They're selling this image of him as someone who helps others and who is a helper of beauty. He's, like, too good to be human, but he's always there helping others be their best selves.

WARNER: And that really shapes how Xiao Zhan's millions of fans see him.

IZ: He looks very clean. He looks very decent. He looks very gentle.

WARNER: This is a fan we're calling by her initials, I.Z.

IZ: In my past 30 years life, I have never seen someone look that good.

FENG: (Laughter).

IZ: It's true.

FENG: I.Z. is 30 years old. She's married. And she was about to become a mother when I talked to her. So she is not the typical Xiao Zhan fan. Xiao Zhan fans are usually single women, young teenagers likely in middle school or high school.

WARNER: I.Z. says that Xiao Zhan serves as this kind of connector to her friends because they always have something to talk about - Xiao Zhan's good looks.

IZ: And also there is - another reason is because I feel when people are pursuing or, say, when they're adoring certain kind of celebrity, they must find something in the celebrity that we'll have our self.

FENG: Well - so I.Z. describes herself as...

IZ: Very frank.

FENG: ...A very frank and outspoken person, maybe even a little harsh. And one of the things she envies most in Xiao Zhan is his gentleness.

IZ: So that - I feel that is something I want to learn from him.

FENG: Because Xiao Zhan is portrayed as such a sweet person, he also needs protection because that gentleness can be taken advantage of. And his fans need to be the ones who stand up for him.

WARNER: Now, here is where China's fan culture - and actually Asian fan culture in general - it kind of veers away from even the most intense fan behavior in the West because a lot of fans see it as their job, even their responsibility, not just to admire their idol and to support him but to go so much further.

FENG: So I.Z. talks about how in these social media groups, some of which will have hundreds of thousands of followers each...

IZ: There is something called (speaking Chinese) so super topic.

FENG: What's called a super topic, or (speaking Chinese), in which some of the lead fans who devote hours a day to organizing this fan structure will give orders to fans beneath them about what they need to achieve for that day. So today, we're all going to click on this one music video and watch it, or today, we're all going to buy products from this brand because they've signed an endorsement deal with Xiao Zhan.

IZ: And you can see the broadcast from the (speaking Chinese) to say, today, we need to do this. Today, we need to do that.

WARNER: So you remember that Estee Lauder ad for lipstick? According to Chinese media, Estee Lauder products pitched by Xiao in 2018 sold out not only within the first day of their release but within the first hour, totaling almost $6 million in sales. And then back on the fan club sites, fans would celebrate what they saw as their success.

FENG: It's gamified. You want to support your idol by making sure he or she gets the most brand endorsements and makes the most money on behalf of these companies.

WARNER: OK. I get what Xiao Zhan gets out of this. He gets fame and success and money. What do fans get out of making him so successful?

FENG: By being a particularly influential fan, a super fan, you also get a lot of power and influence. The majority of his fans are going to be young girls in their middle school or high school years. So in real life, they're not going to have a lot of power in Chinese society. But by being a part of this fan group, you become part of this very powerful commercial collective as well.

WARNER: So the gamified commercial fans, they are just the first group of fans in our story. The second group of fans are part of a much older and more global fan tradition - fan fiction or fanfic, which started in the West in the 1960s with "Star Trek."

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDER COURAGE'S "STAR TREK (MAIN TITLE)")

WARNER: Fans wrote their own stories starring their favorite characters.

CAOMU: Fan fiction was kind of, like, this mental safe haven. And I made a lot of my really good friends this way. So that was kind of, like, a big part of my social life growing up.

FENG: For this story, I reached out to one fan. Her name is Caomu (ph). which is her screen name, not her real name. And I reached out to her because she's been reading and writing fan fiction since she was a teenager. She is a Chinese person born and raised in China but moved to the U.S. at a young age and then moved back to China when she was in high school. So she always felt a little bit like a third culture kid. Like, she never really fit in.

CAOMU: I think in the very early stages, fan fiction was what kind of helped me just recognize the queer community in general. I think I got a lot of chance to test out a lot of, like, gender and sexuality expressions through imagining how these two people, how they would interact.

WARNER: In fan fiction terms, when you imagine a romantic pairing between two characters, you ship a pairing, like a relationship.

CAOMU: What you like in, like, the pairing you ship definitely says a lot about what you imagine relationships and emotions and connections to be.

WARNER: Caomu identifies as bisexual and also as demisexual. She's only attracted to someone she has an emotional connection with regardless of gender.

FENG: And anything that veers from cis people having straight relationships is still widely stigmatized in China.

WARNER: And if you're outed, you can lose your job or find it hard to get hired to a new one. You can be shunned by family. But that's all in the real world. In the virtual world of fan fiction, Caomu could express herself.

CAOMU: Even just, like, writing about your favorite couple having sex, that's a way to explore what it means to, like, be physical, which is, like, a part that's lacking a lot from our daily education, also conversation.

WARNER: Which brings us back to "The Untamed," Xiao Zhan's hit TV show where he and his fellow actor, Wang Yibo, battle evil and surmount tests of their loyalty.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE UNTAMED")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Chinese).

FENG: The series is actually based on a Web novel where this crime-fighting duo are more than friends. They're actual lovers.

WARNER: On the TV show, their physical relationship is only suggested.

FENG: They exchange these meaningful pregnant looks. There's one scene where the Wang Yibo character gets hurt, and in order to treat him, Xiao Zhan needs to convince him to take his clothes off in a cave, which - that's all as far as it gets. You don't see anything more.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE UNTAMED")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Chinese).

WARNER: Taking crime-fighting duos from mainstream television and imagining them in romantic fan fiction pairings is a tradition as old as Kirk/Spock, Holmes/Watson or, after them, Xena the Warrior Princess/Gabrielle, Buffy the Vampire Slayer/everybody. There's been a lot of scholarship about erotic fanfic or what is called slash writing. We are not going to get into that in this episode, but we'll have links in the show notes. But one thing to note - fan fiction has been mostly written by women and girls, and there's always been a strong subcategory of m/m, men in love with men, often having sex with each other.

FENG: Caomu describes how, growing up, it was a constant cat-and-mouse game to read the stories that you liked and to follow the authors that you liked because, inevitably, some of the stories they wrote would be censored, and the authors would counter by rewording sections of their story using phrases or vocabulary that was not as explicit, that was allegorical.

WARNER: But then Caomu discovered a site where she could write anything she wanted about Xiao Zhan or any other character, and it could be read in China freely. It's a site based in New York called AO3, Archive of Our Own. It's one of the largest fan fiction sites in the world.

FENG: And for a lot of people in China, AO3 was a place for free expression because AO3 does not require real name registration. So you can make up any username you want. You don't have to upload a passport or identification document verifying that you indeed are who you say you are. You can be anyone you want to be on this site, which Caomu calls the freedom to dream.

WARNER: Last summer when AO3 the platform won a sci-fi literature award called the Hugo Award, Caomu posted a video of the AO3 team receiving the award. And she wrote a kind of love letter to fan fiction.

CAOMU: I said (speaking Chinese).

FENG: Loosely translated, what she writes is fan fiction is the heroic dream or ideal of a worn-out life. We hope that every story has a happy ending and that every person you've ever loved but who doesn't exist in the real world will still have the richest, most marvelous life in your fan fiction.

WARNER: What does that mean, actually, that the characters you've imagined or dreamed up will have a rich and marvelous life?

FENG: What she's defending is someone's interiority. I like that she uses the word heroic dream because she's suggesting that to dream it in the first place is in and of itself an act of courage in that you're pushing boundaries that other people place on you, that you place on yourself. And so in fan fiction, you're at least trying to break free of those, to put yourself out there, to make these creations of yours public.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: So on February 25, 2020, with half the country stuck at home because of the coronavirus, a writer on the fan fiction site AO3 pushes those boundaries once more with a series of stories.

FENG: And the story is called "Falling." In Chinese, it's called (speaking Chinese). So in the short story, the writer imagines Xiao Zhan's character as a transgender woman who works as a prostitute in a hair salon who is pursuing a romantic relationship with a male high school student who sometimes comes into the hair salon. And that student is the character played by Wang Yibo, Xiao Zhan's co-star in this television show. And they have this torrid love affair in the fan fiction story.

IZ: And I like that AO3 fiction writer. I like that girl. She's writing better and better.

FENG: I.Z. reads the story and she says she actually liked the story. She says that there was a group of fans, though, that were really offended. They're actually a really small minority of Xiao Zhan's fans circle, and they're known as the duwei.

IZ: Duwei is called the poisoning single fan.

FENG: If we translate it literally, they're poison fans. The duwei are people who believe Xiao Zhan should have no romantic entanglements whatsoever. Even people imagining in fan fiction that he has relationships with his co-star is completely wrong in their eyes. So the duwei, they start to say we should report AO3, which is the fan fiction site where the story was originally published.

WARNER: When the poison fans decided to report AO3, reporting in China is kind of like when you flag a site for inappropriate content. But the difference is that in China, instead of sending your complaint to the tech company to act on, you can actually report them directly to the government.

FENG: The Chinese Cyberspace Administration, which is the ministry that oversees Internet content. Basically, they're online censors.

WARNER: So in China, you can report someone for criticizing the Communist Party, for denigrating Chinese culture or for, quote, "moral violations."

FENG: And the Xiao Zhan fans say we should report this site for hosting pornographic fan fiction so the Cyberspace Administration can take this entire site down.

WARNER: When does the intention shift from taking down the story to taking down the site?

FENG: Oh, I mean, immediately.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: The goal wasn't to ban this one story or even to single out this one author. It was to block in all of China the platform that allowed this content to exist. And to achieve this, the poison fans jump on those same fan forums that had built their star's success to mobilize the other fans in the community.

FENG: They give out telephone scripts so you can just recite the script and call in to the hotline at the Cyberspace Administration to report AO3. And these scripts are specifically designed to use buzz words that authorities will immediately latch onto, so words like negative influence or vulgar content or pornographic suggestions.

WARNER: And so instead of telling people to click on a video or buy this soap, they were now saying, call this number, email the censors, and report this story.

FENG: Yeah. Like, the entire tribe turns its focus on, we must take down AO3.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: But AO3 is not going down without a fight. That's when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: We are back with ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner. Before the break, we told you about how a horde of celebrity fans mounted an attack on the fan fiction site AO3, but where the story really gets interesting is the backlash.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

FENG: On February 27...

CAOMU: Hello.

FENG: ...Two days after this campy story about Xiao Zhan and his co-star Wang Yibo gets published on AO3...

CAOMU: Hey, good morning.

FENG: ...Caomu wakes up.

CAOMU: I woke up, and I found my phone just blown up completely. Like, I didn't know what happened, like, overnight.

FENG: And her mobile phone is flooded with text messages and messages on social media from friends saying, do you know what's going on?

CAOMU: And I was like, oh. So I went to check and kind of pieced together what was happening.

FENG: What's happened is that AO3 fans have become aware that Xiao Zhan fans are reporting AO3, and AO3 fans decide to counter and fight back.

CAOMU: My post from, like, half a year ago was kind of just dug out.

WARNER: They repost Caomu's love letter...

CAOMU: (Speaking Chinese).

WARNER: ...That she wrote after the Hugo Award...

CAOMU: (Speaking Chinese).

WARNER: ..When she said that fan fiction was the heroic dream of a worn-out life.

FENG: And so her original Weibo post ends up getting hundreds of thousands of retweets.

WARNER: Retweets in support. So now you have this chorus of voices saying, this is our public right, our public right to post these private dreams online and echoing Caomu's words, let the people we loved who never existed have a rich and marvelous life. And then two days later...

FENG: Representatives for AO3, the fan fiction site, confirmed that the website has been blocked in China. So if you use a Chinese Internet on a computer in China, you will not be able to access AO3 anymore.

WARNER: Wait. So it worked?

FENG: China's Cyberspace Administration had been conducting an online cleanup campaign to begin with. And so it's never been really clear if AO3 was already on their short list of websites to take down and Xiao Zhan fans simply tipped the balance or if they were the sole reason that AO3 was taken down.

CAOMU: For a lot of people, it is kind of like losing the last safe space they've been clinging on to. So we're just going to take out all our anger on censorship in general on you.

FENG: And their way of fighting back against Xiao Zhan fans reporting AO3 is they marshal AO3 fans in China to boycott any product and any brand that has an endorsement deal with Xiao Zhan.

WARNER: They are going after the endorsement deals that the fan clubs and the fan forums have worked so hard for.

CAOMU: They were kind of like - how do you say (speaking Chinese) like, in English? It's just like they were...

FENG: (Laughter) The human flesh search machine.

What she's talking about is the human flesh search engine or search machine springs into action. This is the power of the Chinese Internet. It's where people, through sheer numbers, just crowdsource challenges, and they will use very laborious, time intensive methods to attack someone. And so they go on every single e-commerce site, social media site, cultural movie review site and they spam every forum they can find with insulting comments about Xiao Zhan and things like hashtag #boycottXiaoZhan, #protestXiaoZhan.

WARNER: This is when Emily Feng and a lot of other people using the Chinese Internet started noticing those angry hashtags.

FENG: There was this video that went viral in which a livestreamer who's promoting products from Olay is swarmed by online comments - Olay being one of the brands that endorses Xiao Zhan.

WARNER: But she's not connected with Xiao Zhan. She just happens to be endorsing the same product.

FENG: She has no idea who Xiao Zhan is, I think.

WARNER: Really?

FENG: But you can barely see her because all of these comments of boycott Xiao Zhan, take down Xiao Zhan are scrolling across the screen so densely that it's basically blocking out her. And she says something to the effect of, ignore these comments. They're just random people. And that only infuriates the AO3 fans even more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMIE SONG: It was a very tricky time for brands, actually.

WARNER: Amie Song is a brand specialist the marketing firm Gartner.

FENG: And she specifically tracks Chinese celebrities and how popular they are.

SONG: So, normally, the average monthly engagement on Olay's Weibo is around 10,000. But in March, their average monthly Weibo engagement is actually 587,000.

WARNER: Amie had never seen this kind of energy before, and she wanted to know who were all these people taking the time to leave angry comments about hand lotion and lipstick to defend a trans positive fan fiction story and an author's right to dream it. Were there actually that many fan fiction fans in China? And what she finds is this movement is not just people that read AO3.

SONG: Writers and artists who has nothing to do with either Xiao Zhan or fans or AO3.

FENG: Intellectuals, filmmakers, artists, people who have been taken down, cancelled so to speak, because of their politically dissident subversive views.

SONG: Joining just because they sort of want to defend the freedom of expression.

FENG: AO3 becomes this rallying point for anyone who's been a victim of Chinese censorship and reporting culture before.

WARNER: This phrase reporting culture keeps getting mentioned in this campaign. This is a movement against reporting culture, which is something older than Xiao Zhan and older than AO3. It's even older than the Internet.

FENG: So reporting culture is an extremely loaded phrase in Chinese history because there have been numerous instances where people have been encouraged to turn on each other by top Chinese leaders. And in the 1950s, as the Communist Party of China is solidifying its rule, they encourage people to report landlords who have abused peasants, who have abused feudal relationships to exploit the labor of China's agricultural population. What results is, yes, some people who truly exploited Chinese farmers for their own gain being punished but a lot of people simply reporting neighbors and people they worked for for past grievances that likely didn't merit the punishment, which in the 1950s was violent beatings, public humiliation and then finally execution.

WARNER: In the 1960s and '70s, reporting culture was employed again by Chairman Mao in the Cultural Revolution. This time, you could be reported not just for something you've done but for something you said or failed to say.

FENG: People are encouraged to report each other for behavior that's not ideologically pure. Students were encouraged to report their teachers for teaching non-politically correct content. Friends were encouraged to turn to one another. Children were encouraged to report on their parents for behavior in the home. To this day, sociologists, anthropologists who study Chinese communities always report an astonishing lack of trust among even small communities, that people don't trust their neighbors.

WARNER: When we usually talk about censorship in China, we think of a government telling people what they can and can't say. But in China, people also worry about censorship as a tool to pursue vendettas and exact revenge. You can report someone or inform on them to the government to silence them or take out a grudge. So the boycott Xiao Zhan movement coalesces as a movement against reporting culture, against people informing on each other or trying to shut each other up. And at first, Caomu is behind this.

CAOMU: I think reporting people because of what they write is fundamentally wrong.

WARNER: But then she starts to realize the tactics that her people are using to defend AO3...

FENG: They mobilize the power of the Chinese Internet to find out personal information about the other side, and they threaten to dox them, to post their personal information online, and attack them that way.

CAOMU: Dug out their photos, dug out, like, where they worked, where they went to school, and they were just like, we'll just release this information.

FENG: You know, people get death threats.

WARNER: She joined AO3 because it was all about protecting people from shame, but its defenders were using shame as a weapon and targeting fellow fans by outing them.

FENG: This was so contrary to the foundation of the AO3 community, which is that you can be who you want to be online, that you shouldn't be judged or shamed for that identity. They were breaking that implicit boundary between what happens online and what happens in real life.

CAOMU: You know, like, how in martial arts stories, like the jianghu, the emperors never interfere.

FENG: What she means by that is the warriors, the characters in jianghu are always relying on their own wits and their own bonds of friendship to survive. People are never calling in central authority to solve issues. You are meant to rely on yourself and your friends to solve your own problems.

WARNER: They're not reporting each other to the government or to the emperors.

FENG: Right.

CAOMU: The emperors just kind of, like, allow you to do whatever you're doing as long as it's not, like, huge. That's the code of conduct we have lived by. But now since that's been broken, your previously safe space do not feel safe anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Working on this story about reporting culture in China, I kept thinking about the debate that we have in the U.S. over cancel culture, which I know even using that term is loaded. And the thing we talk about when we talk about cancel culture is usually is it right? Is it right that people or platforms get silenced? And one side will say, no, because this is freedom of speech. And the other side will say, yes, because of racial and social justice. People need to be called out. But in China, after Xiao Zhan had lost all his endorsement deals and after AO3, the fan fiction site, was blocked, the thing that Caomu was surprised to feel was not just the loss of her platform, her space for free expression. The thing she'd lost was her sense of trust, her feeling that she had a community that was all following the same code.

CAOMU: It makes you wonder. Like, you've poured out your heart and your soul to write fan fiction and kind of losing that sense of stability just makes you feel like it's pointless to invest more energy into building a new community knowing that you can lose it any second.

WARNER: The code of conduct she thought they'd all agreed to - not to shame people, not to out each other - that had been so easily tossed aside.

IZ: It's really making me feel very exhausted and also very disappointed.

WARNER: I.Z., the 30-year-old mom who loves Xiao Zhan, she also felt a loss.

IZ: Because I had the assumption previously - I assumed at least to say 70 to 80 people are just people like me.

WARNER: She said that she had assumed that most of her fan group were people who thought like she thought.

IZ: Who sort of, like, respect the others' perspective, can be rational and talk to each other. But then I realized it's not the case and they support to use reporting to go against the reporting.

FENG: After this incident, I.Z. realized two things - one, that she did not trust most of her fellow fans but, two, she realized the depth of her feelings for Xiao Zhan.

IZ: I realized how much I love him (laughter). It's really more than I thought. And there are still people like me who want to see his beautiful face, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

XIAO ZHAN: (Singing in Chinese).

WARNER: Xiao Zhan lost his endorsement deals, but he did not go away quietly.

FENG: Xiao Zhan tries to make a comeback. He makes a bunch of charity donations. He releases his version of a very patriotic Communist Party song. And finally, what his fans and AO3 fans had been waiting for for months, he issues an apology video.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

XIAO: (Speaking Chinese).

WARNER: He said things like if this controversy affected people online, I want to sincerely apologize to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

XIAO: (Speaking Chinese).

WARNER: None of this worked. And in the end, Xiao Zhan became a different kind of symbol in China. Instead of the guardian angel of beauty who helps you be your best self, he became not only toxic to brands but seen as a danger to Chinese society.

FENG: In late May, a Chinese provincial official actually just, like, delivers a lecture, a speech, in which she is concerned about reporting culture in the context of Xiao Zhan not because of freedom of expression but because it could severely disrupt public order.

WARNER: And that speech turned out to be a preview of new Internet regulations that came out in June.

FENG: China's regulators, which oversee publications, says that it will now start requiring Chinese fan fiction outlets to implement real name registration.

WARNER: So now, not only is the fan fiction site AO3 still blocked, but if you want to write fan fiction anywhere in China, you have to do it under an account that's linked to your real name.

FENG: So before, I mentioned, you know, you could be whoever you wanted to be, create your own username online, write fan fiction, and it did not have to be linked to your real identity. Starting from now, when you create a new account, you are going to have to upload some kind of identification document. And that's going to be a real constraint on people writing whatever they want to write knowing that it'll be very, very easy to find out who they are and hold them liable.

CAOMU: So I think now a lot of people are also reaching the sad frustration stage. A lot of my heart is dead. Like, I'm dead inside. Here, this is what we had. And now we lost it.

FENG: This whole thing is a cautionary tale about the excesses of reporting culture and fan culture in China. But from the perspective of China's ruling Communist Party, the reason why they're scared of fan culture and want to impose some controls over it is not because in and of itself reporting culture is a bad thing. It's just that they want to be able to harness it for their ends. And they're concerned when private groups as in Xiao Zhan fan groups or fan fiction groups can use reporting culture for purposes that go beyond the remit of what the Communist Party cares about.

WARNER: I mean, is it safe to say the Chinese government wants to be the only censors (laughter) the only censors in the room? They don't want competition.

FENG: Yeah, exactly.

WARNER: No one, not even the Chinese government, wants a social media horde to turn on them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Today's show is produced by Tina Antolini. Our editor is Lu Olkowski. The ROUGH TRANSLATION team includes producers Derek Arthur and Jess Jiang. Our intern is Justine Yan. Many people listened to this piece and made it so much better. Thank you to Yunfei Ren, Charley Wang, Shawn Wen, Naomi Zhengyang, Evan Roberts, Laura Starecheski, Robert Krulwich and Sana Krasikov. The ROUGH TRANSLATION executive team is Neal Carruth, Chris Turpin, Didi Schanche and Anya Grundmann. Our supervising producer is Nicole Beemsterboer; mastering by Isaac Rodrigues. John Ellis composed music for our show, with other scoring from Blue Dot Sessions.

If you'd like more stories like this in your podcast feed, you know what to do. You can rate us and review us on Apple podcasts. It definitely helps people find the show. And we'd love to hear your thoughts and your ROUGH TRANSLATION moments and stories on email at roughtranslation@npr.org or on Twitter - @Roughly. I'm @radiogrego. And Emily Feng is @EmilyZFeng. I'm Gregory Warner, back in two weeks with more School of Scandal. That's on ROUGH TRANSLATION.

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