China’s Media Crackdown Is an Assault on Fan Activism

China’s Media Crackdown Is an Assault on Fan Activism
Thai activist Nachacha Kongudom raises a three-fingered salute outside a cinema where “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” is showing, in Bangkok, Thailand, Nov. 20, 2014 (AP photo by Sakchai Lalit).

About a year ago, the South Korean pop band BTS got caught up in a low-grade, somewhat baffling international scandal. During a speech accepting an award for improving relations between South Korea and the U.S., the band’s leader Kim Namjoon, better known as RM, referenced the “history of pain shared by the two nations,” which fought together during the Korean War. It should have been a fairly benign statement, but it sparked a furor in China, where state media outlets fiercely condemned the band for failing to acknowledge Chinese casualties in the war and thereby betraying a “totally one-sided attitude to the Korean War.” 

The outrage was absurd—China and South Korea fought on opposing sides of that war—and in the end, it proved ineffectual. As the journalist Arthur Tam wrote in The Washington Post, “China picked a fight with an enemy it can’t beat.” Although some Chinese netizens did call for boycotts of BTS and their merchandise, they were swamped by pushback from the band’s legions of online fans. Beijing’s state-run Global Times reportedly even took down some of its articles criticizing BTS. In a fight between a global pop sensation and the “old guard and red guard,” Tam wrote, “it’s not difficult to see who the younger generation would choose to align with.”

This minor scandal came to mind again last month, when Chinese authorities released a bevy of new regulations on the entertainment industry. The new rules aim to restore order and “purity” to a supposedly “chaotic” online and media ecosystem. One of the driving forces of the regulatory push—which covers everything from lowering salaries in the entertainment industry to banning children from playing video games after school—is an urge to stamp out what the Cyberspace Administration of China has called “toxic fan culture.”

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