ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Our next story is about a celebrity you might not have heard of, but certainly everyone in China has. His name is Xiao Zhan. At the height of his popularity, Xiao was not just an actor. He was a corporate powerhouse whose brand endorsement could move millions of dollars in sales.
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UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Love makes the whole world go 'round.
SHAPIRO: This is an Estee Lauder lipstick commercial he starred in. As soon as it aired, that lipstick sold out in China in under an hour. But then he gets cancelled. He becomes persona non grata, loses endorsement deals, temporarily disappears from the public eye. But not for anything he did himself. NPR's Emily Feng brings us the story.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Caomu is an avid Chinese science fiction fan and writer. And earlier this February, in the middle of the coronavirus epidemic, she was surprised to see the trending topics on Chinese social media were all about Xiao Zhan.
CAOMU: I woke up, and I found my phone just blown up completely, like, overnight. So I went to check and piece together what was happening.
FENG: All these messages had to do with a fan fiction story about Xiao Zhan, posted on a multinational website called AO3, Archive Of Our Own, which Caomu and a lot of other Chinese fanfic (ph) writers use because it was not censored in China. This story portrayed Xiao Zhan as a transgender sex worker who falls in love with another famous male actor...
CAOMU: Which got a bunch of his fans very mad - and they were just like, oh, this is damaging this celebrity's personal reputation. This is not OK. We should report the site.
FENG: Report the site as in alert China's Internet censors that this site was hosting, quote, "vulgar content." And it worked. Representatives for AO3, the fan fiction site, confirmed in late February that the website was blocked in China, meaning you cannot access AO3 on the Chinese Internet anymore. This made a lot of people upset because it was a sign the government would censor more and more sites, even if that site wasn't specifically critical of the government. For Caomu, it was personal. She was born in China but spent some of her childhood in the U.S. And she felt out of place, so fan fiction became a safe space.
CAOMU: Especially times when my reality wasn't going well, like, school work is hard, when social life is not going great, I find myself seeking comfort in this virtual world with virtual friends.
FENG: Now, Caomu and millions of fans in China were being cut off from that virtual world.
CAOMU: For a lot of people, it is kind of like losing the last safe space they've been clinging onto, so we're just going to take out all our anger on censorship in general on you.
FENG: Specifically, taking out that anger on Xiao Zhan - reporting culture has a long history in China. During the 1950s and '60s during various political campaigns, the Chinese Communist Party encouraged people to report on their neighbors, colleagues, even family for ideological infractions. The Chinese state continues to leverage reporting culture to encourage their citizens to boycott products from countries Beijing does not like. With Xiao Zhan, aspects of this reporting culture were moving into pop culture, so AO3 fans decided they weren't going to take this sitting down. They were going to fight back against Xiao Zhan fans by attacking the celebrity himself.
CAOMU: They were kind of like - how do you say, like, (speaking non-English language) in English? It's just, like, a word.
FENG: The human flesh search machine.
What she's talking about is the human flesh search engine harnessing the manpower of the Chinese Internet. And so AO3 supporters go on every single e-commerce site and social media platform, and they spam them with insulting comments about Xiao Zhan.
AIME SONG: It was a very tricky time for brands, actually.
FENG: Aime Song is a brand specialist at the marketing firm Gartner who tracks Chinese celebrities. And she was trying to figure out, who were all these people piling onto Xiao Zhan? And what she finds out is it is not just people who read AO3 because AO3 at this point had become this rallying point for anyone - filmmakers, intellectuals - who had been a victim of Chinese censorship and reporting culture before.
SONG: Joining just because they sort of want to defend the freedom of expression.
FENG: And they utilized the same tactics Xiao Zhan fans used to report AO3 but this time, using them to report on individual Xiao Zhan fans.
SONG: Dug out their photos, where they worked, where they went to school, and they were just like, we'll just release this information.
FENG: Caomu was horrified. She joined AO3 because it was all about protecting people from shame. But its defenders use shame as a weapon, targeting fellow fans by outing them. They were breaking that implicit boundary between what happens online and what happens in real life.
CAOMU: 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.
FENG: And that felt like an even bigger loss than the censorship of AO3. Her sense of trust in her community, that freedom to imagine a different world online - that was gone. Xiao Zhan has been making a slow comeback. He's released a pop single that topped charts. He has a new role in a state television show. But the fan fiction community has suffered a more lasting legacy. In June, China started requiring Chinese fan fiction outlets to implement real name registration. So now not only is the fan fiction site AO3 still blocked, but also, 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.
CAOMU: I think now a lot of people are also reaching the sad frustration stage. My heart is dead. Like, I'm dead inside - a lot of here, this is what we had, and now we lost it.
FENG: Reporting culture, however - it's still well and alive in China but only when the state decides it's all right to report.
Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.
SHAPIRO: That story came from NPR's Rough Translation podcast.
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