Why China Fears K-pop Fandoms

The Chinese government has launched an intensified crackdown on the entertainment industry as part of a larger effort to tighten control over young minds and ensure ideological security. The industry is portrayed as creating chaos and promoting degenerate morals, ultimately posing a serious health risk to its audience. In response, weekly time limits have been imposed on teenager’s video gaming, celebrity ranking lists banned and heavy regulations imposed on celebrities’ advertising and fan groups.

One outside actor caught up in the crackdown is the South Korean export of K-pop, comprising of “sissy” men and “abnormal aesthetics”. K-pop groups have been accused, alongside domestic artists, of inspiring “toxic idol worship”, leading young people into irrational spending and foul-language fan wars. Upon closer inspection, however, another potential reason for China’s determination to exclude K-Pop from its youth culture emerges, one that goes beyond a fear of effeminate men and vulgar language: the ability of the genre to mass-mobilize its fanbase.

K-pop fandoms

The Korean Wave, or Hallyu, has seen unprecedented success across the world during the past decade and turned South Korea into a soft power force to be reckoned with. While the government established the foundation upon which the Korean music industry is built in the 1990s, the success of Hallyu has far outpaced any policy program and is wholly independent of the administration in Seoul. In a similar fashion, fandoms have on occasion outgrown the narrative of its idols.

K-Pop is a catch-all term to describe a genre of South Korean music that employs a group of singers, rappers and dancers of both Korean and foreign origin referred to as “idols”, usually performing songs in a mix of Korean and English. The genre is characterized by the thorough video documentation of its idols’ professional and personal lives as well as the high level of engagement with fans online, creating a strong and devoted fanbase. K-pop fandoms are highly organized, non-centralized networks of fans that are willing to devote time, money, and skills to further their idol’s popularity. What sets the contemporary phenomenon apart from previous pop fandoms is the unprecedented ability to navigate digital spaces, utilizing algorithms and hashtag proliferation to unleash highly coordinated social media campaigns with the potential to reach millions of people globally within minutes. Simultaneous streaming and sharing across multiple platforms and electronic devices in a symphony of engagement across continents has seen K-pop idols reach a level of online presence never achieved by any music genre. Furthermore, rather than sending idols lavish gifts for their birthdays, the trend among these fandoms in the past few years have been to fundraise and donate to humanitarian causes in their idol’s name: planting thousands of trees in Sudan, donating hundreds of tons of rice in South Korea and funding relief work for the Australian bushfires, among other ventures.

Mobilizing for politics

K-pop fans have been able to put these online organizational tools that they have honed for fandom projects to work on political causes. At times these have been directly tied to the acts of their idols – when the world’s biggest music act BTS donated $1 million to the Black Lives Matter movement in the US back in 2020, their fandom (known as ARMY) launched a successful online campaign to match the bid in under 24 hours. Considering that the movement at the time largely constituted a US issue, it is noteworthy that the four individual fans in charge of the campaign were coordinating from Sweden, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil. Not only does this showcase the fandom’s ability to rapidly mobilize individuals of vastly different cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds but it also shows how fandom engagement can act as an entry point for foreigners to have a real impact on political issues in a different country. The fandom engagement has also moved beyond merely mirroring the act of their idol. When the Dallas Police created a platform urging citizens to upload videos of BLM protestors, K-pop fandoms flooded it with fancams ultimately disabling the entire app, and then went on to hijack the anti-BLM hashtag #whitelivesmatter in a similar fashion, effectively thwarting efforts at disseminating white supremacy ideology. The perhaps most poignant offline effect of the fandoms’ engagement was when they coordinated with non-fans via TikTok to discreetly preorder large amounts of tickets to Trump’s Tulsa rally using fake profiles, only to not show up and leaving thousands of seats empty.

In Asia, fandom engagement has crossed over into pro-democracy movements. In Bangkok, Thai K-Pop fandoms were the biggest economic contributors to the Thai anti-government protests that started in 2020 and called for the resignation of the military leadership and reforms of the monarchy. While Thai-American K-pop artist Nichkhun did speak out against the October 2020 police violent crackdown on protesters to his nearly 7 million Twitter followers, the subsequent fandom activism was conducted primarily by fans of Korean K-pop artists with no connection to cause. By linking the hashtag #whatishappeninginthailand with hashtags on K-pop stars, the fans made videos and photos of the crackdown go viral, which functioned as a political entry portal to a young Thai domestic audience and ensured that an international audience paid attention to the events unfolding in Thailand. Online fundraisers by K-pop fandoms saw $100,000 collected in the first week alone, which was utilized to equip protestors with protective gear and to provide legal assistance to those arrested. The socially and culturally attractive aspects of South Korea as presented through the Hallyu wave, which initially attracted Thai youth, has spilled over into an interest for the Korean nation at large, including its political values. The protestors see in South Korea a fellow Asian nation that fought the same struggle against military authoritarianism and succeeded in establishing a democratic government back in the 1980s. As such, the soft power reach of South Korea has rendered the nation’s history a blueprint for contemporary democracy movements, with K-pop as an entry point. Against the backdrop of K-pop fandomhood acting as a vehicle for interference in domestic politics and inspiring a foreign political ideology, China’s seemingly excessive crackdown on idol culture takes on a new meaning.

China’s experience

China has already experienced how fandoms of its own controlled domestic entertainers have shown an incredible ability to mobilize independently for humanitarian causes. When human-to-human transmission of Covid-19 was first confirmed in Wuhan and the government proved slow to provide necessary equipment to frontline workers, a fan network of a local Wuhan actor fundraised to purchase 200,000 protective masks and had them delivered within 24 hours. Ten days later, an alliance of 27 separate fandoms located on the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan collectively sourced nearly half a million yuan worth of medical equipment for shipment to Wuhan independently of the government. Chinese K-pop fandoms have proven even more efficient. It reportedly took an online fan page of idol Park Jimin three minutes to raise the 1 million yuan ($154,770) needed to customize the exterior of a Jeju Island commercial airplane in celebration of his birthday last year. A year prior, a fan group of bandmate Kim Taehyung managed to collect 7 million yuan ($1 million) which was used to build an elementary school and a bridge in his name, as well as put up a birthday video on the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Despite the specificities of the Chinese online world, Chinese fandoms have proven to be just as capable as fans abroad.

Considering that mass mobilization is at the very core of CCP identity and celebrities are frequently placed front and center in propaganda campaigns, the leadership is well positioned to recognize its potent force. As such, the government remains highly vigilant of grassroots movements that idolizes anyone but the CCP. “Grassroots fans” of idols have been accused in state media of being a “huge threat to national ideological security”, as their simplistic thinking makes them an easy target for “foreign forces”. The recent measures enforced by the cyberspace administration target both domestic and K-pop artists and are aimed at impeding the scope of fan interaction and activities by reducing the amount of online forums, putting restrictions on teenagers’ entry, managing the narratives of forums and making fundraising activities illegal. In addition, the state media has launched what appears to be a propaganda campaign intent on discrediting the whole fan culture as irrational, immoral and in stark contrast to Chinese “mainstream values”.

While the measures target both domestic and K-pop artists, the latter constitutes an additional threat. China is unique in that the government has spent years building up an independent internet that it can effectively control. The authorities retain the power to block or erase content it deems unfavorable, including the entire cross-media presence of a domestic artist, as shown in the case of prominent actress Zhao Wei who all but disappeared last year. China cannot exert this type of extreme control over a foreign artist.  The state propaganda machine has already lost a fight against the biggest K-pop group in the world following both domestic and international fan backlash. The 2016 THAAD-retaliation package, which included embargos on K-pop, did not reduce K-pop popularity but rather pushed Chinese fans to become more creative in their access strategies.

Beijing has been embarrassed by the cultural successes of Hong Kong and Taiwan that showcased how the Chinese people can thrive away from the watchful eye of the Communist Party. Similarly, the cultural successes of the democratic, pluralist and wealthy neighbor South Korea constitutes an eyesore, in particular as the Chinese leadership often pushes a narrative of the historically Chinese origin of Korea. K-pop then not only poses the risk of inadvertently training China’s youth in online mobilization separate from the Communist Party, but as in the case of Thailand may also entice with a more attractive political ideology based on the successes of the country of origin. Going forward, it is likely that the Chinese government will continue to counteract, both openly and covertly, the growing influence of K-pop and the larger cultural exports of South Korea.