The Chinese idol who sparked an online war

Society & Culture

Xiao Zhan is known for his boyish good looks and — well, mostly that. But he found himself at the center of an online firestorm earlier this year, resulting in the ban of the popular website Archive of Our Own (AO3), a boycott, dropped corporate sponsorships, and a government campaign aimed at curbing “fan culture.”

Xiao Zhan illustration for SupChina's Chinese Lives column
Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

On October 23, 2019, one of China’s hottest new idols was boarding a plane for Wuxi from Beijing Capital Airport. A great chance to catch him in the flesh. According to his studio PR, so many fans turned out to see him that he was blocked from boarding his plane. Passengers already on board reported that dài pāi 代拍 — people hired by fans to take pictures — had blocked the entrance to the plane or even boarded without a pass. Either way, the flight was delayed by the fanatical fan base of Xiāo Zhàn 肖战 (Sean Xiao).

The inconvenience would foreshadow a greater scandal, which in March this year turned Xiao into the face of China’s rabid fan culture.

Who is Xiao Zhan?

Good question. He’s a singer and actor who rocketed to fame last year. But beyond his career, his interviews give only vague glimpses of his personality. He has a cat called Nuts. He lies awake at night worrying about scripts and characters. He reads books. His way of venting steam is by watching films and having a good cry. Even then, these must be taken with a pinch of salt, when Xiao is appealing to the image of himself fans have fallen in love with and the requirements of the state for celebrities to be social role models.

He’s fairly identical to all the other “little fresh meats” (小鲜肉 xiǎo xiān ròu) — those beautiful young (feminine) men catapulted to A-list status by reality TV shows. He’s a carefully manicured idol for fans to project their fantasies onto — leaving little room for the person beneath.

Born in Chongqing in 1991, he had an eclectic upbringing. His father encouraged him to learn skills in numerous areas, including painting and the violin. He became a model student at Chongqing Technology and Business University, winning singing competitions and multiple prizes in art, literature, and design, along with a campus “Best Popularity Award.”

He first appeared on screen in 2015 as part of X-Fire, a reality TV show dedicated to forming new boy bands. It launched him on the path of a singing career, as well as important roles in the costume dramas that were slowly becoming more popular during those years.

But it was his role in The Untamed that brought him stratospheric status. The show is now a staple of “xiānxiá” 仙侠, a TV and film genre with ancient Chinese settings but filled with magic, demons, ghosts, and gods. He plays the impish Wei Wuxian, who, alongside Lan Wangji (acted by another great idol, Wáng Yìbō 王义波), embarks on a series of epic detective adventures.

Xiao’s acting is unremarkable over the show’s 40 episodes, but many were drawn in by his boyish beauty and coy onscreen relationship with Wang. It made him an easy target for fànquān 饭圈, groups of young women who obsess over a male idol.

A romantic relationship between the two characters was always implied but never stated, allowing many young women to indulge in the gentle homoeroticism of so-called “BL” (boy love). The two actors have remained silent on their sexuality, but have gigglingly talked in interviews of having a close relationship. Xiao became Baidu’s most searched celebrity name of 2019.

Boycott culture

The problems started in February, when a piece of fan fiction entitled “Falling” was posted on the fan fiction website “Archive of Our Own” (AO3), which imagined Xiao Zhan as an aging cross-dressing prostitute in a skimpy red dress, trying to seduce Wang Yibo.

An idol’s fan base is much more tribal than those in the West. They feel responsible for their idol’s career and will buy products endorsed by them, posting a picture of themselves doing it on social media as a show of loyalty. They are highly dedicated and organized, willing to defend them against any wrongs.

Irate fans, perceiving this piece of fan fiction as a “perverse” slight upon their man, managed to get the authorities to block the website in China on the pretext of pornographic content. In fairness, many of the stories posted are sexually graphic. Still, it was a rash move. AO3 had a fan base in the hundreds of millions, the hub for China’s ACGN (Animation, Comic, Game, and Novel) readers and a safe space for LGBTQ+ literature, many checking its website every night for new content.

It led to a damaging boycott war, AO3 fans targeting companies endorsed by Xiao. He had made multimillion dollar deals to be the face of all sorts of companies, from Luckin Coffee to Olay, Estée Lauder to Budweiser. He made 48% of all endorsement deals in China last year. These companies made big money off his huge fan base, with Estée Lauder garnering $1.2m worth of sales for Xiao-themed products over Single’s Day 2019.

But now the party was over. Their customer hotlines were jammed by AO3 fans. They flooded review sites with 1-star ratings. They even got Olay investigated by the tax authorities when they were unable to distribute millions of receipts which customers are allowed by law to be issued upon request.

Despite Xiao Zhan’s XZ Studio, and Xiao Zhan himself, repeatedly apologizing for fan behavior and urging them to desist, scandals kept coming. Teachers have been suspended for bringing idol culture into the “serious” space of the classroom. It’s also possible Xiao has attracted so-called “black fans” (黑粉丝 hēi fěnsī), internet trolls aiming to stir up trouble. Last week, more trouble occurred when messages of support for Xiao were posted by an apparent fan on the Weibo account of what appeared to be a dead person.

Although Xiao had nothing to do with his fans’ behavior, many predicted his sharp downfall. Budweiser and Olay have ended their endorsement, but it wasn’t all bad. In late April, his new single “Light Spot” tallied a record 25 million downloads in just 48 hours. Although fans deny it, some say they helped by buying 66 copies each.

But the state has noticed. Media pointed out how much needless damage the conflict caused. During this year’s Two Sessions, the problem of fan culture was flagged by a delegate from Shandong, who advocated clipping the wings of fan culture, which is “severely disrupting public order.” China’s internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, has launched a two-month campaign this summer to crack down on fanquan abuse and pursuing idols “without a bottom line.”

Xiao himself has spoken out in agreement of this. Fans should focus on their own social obligations, rather than “chasing stars,” he said. Leave them alone to make their millions. (He left this part unsaid.)

Chinese Lives is a weekly series. Previously:

Huo Yuanjia, kung fu master who stood up for China’s honor