China has taken several steps recently to reign in the influence of its celebrities, as well as consumers’ ability to follow them. This could have an impact on licensing, collaborations, and endorsements tied to celebrities in China, and even limit Chinese celebrities’ marketability abroad. Celebrity tie-ins, especially with luxury, fashion, and cosmetics brands, have become a very significant business in China in recent years.
Some of the moves that have occurred since the beginning of the year that bear watching include:
- Banning “Little Fresh Meat.” The Chinese government this month forbid so-called “Little Fresh Meat” from appearing on television or streaming platforms. These are young males, including Wang Yibo, Li Jiaqui, Zhu Zhengting, Lu Han, and Liu You, among many others, whose look is considered effeminate or androgynous. They have become an important segment of the landscape of influencers, or key opinion leaders (KOLs), in China. The government also cracked down on what it called “other abnormal aesthetics.”
- Making it hard to be a fan. In an attempt to “clean up” fan culture, the government has increased regulations for fan clubs, including limiting the ability to fundraise and redoubling efforts to ban children from the groups. ByteDance, owner of Tiktok (called Douyin in China), removed 1,900 fan groups in the wake of the new requirements. Lists of the most popular celebrities or other types of celebrity rankings have also been taken down from social media, as a way to steer fans away from putting famous people on a pedestal. At the same time, the country is strengthening its regulations on the sale of fan merchandise, with a goal of reducing the incentives for fans, especially young people, to buy.
- Removing stars from public view. A handful of celebrities have had their names scrubbed online—including in the credits of popular films and television shows—after being accused of tax evasion, “incorrect politics,” or other prohibited behaviors (with the reasons sometimes unclear). The crackdown has impacted some of the country’s biggest names, both domestically and abroad, including Zhao Wei, Zheng Shuang, and Zhang Zhehan. (Fan Bingbing, one of China’s best-known faces, was in similar straits back in 2017.) Celebrity salaries have also been capped, to prevent them from showing off their wealth or tempting fans with wealth and fame, and they are now subject to regular tax investigations. The government also took steps to prevent stars who get into such trouble from trying to rejuvenate their careers later. It also created a list of proscribed celebrity behaviors, from promoting physical defects to lip-synching.
- Taking American Idol-style shows off the air. Talent competition programs such as Youth With You and Produce Camp, are no longer allowed and have been pulled from platforms such as iQIYI. At the same time, young people are barred from participating in any competition that has the goal of making them a star. Popular reality shows starring the children of celebrities have also been banned.
These regulations are new and it remains to be seen how strongly they will be enforced over time. Previous crackdowns have often been temporary, and some individual cases have led to more popularity for the celebrities in question. That said, taken together all of these moves are certainly a concern when it comes to the business of celebrity licensing, collaboration, and endorsements in China, especially in the realms of fashion, beauty, and luxury.
The concerns are not limited to celebrity and influencer licensing either. On Friday, the government said it would ban children’s cartoons, both on television and online, that contain any blood, violence, or vulgarity, as well as “bad plots,” opting instead for programming with content it deems healthy, true, and beautiful. One of the first victims of the regulation was Ultraman Tiga, a popular and long-running series from Japan that includes explosions and fights, which was taken off the air. The government also recently restricted the amount of time kids are permitted to use gaming apps.