The ever-expanding influence of the internet on human social interaction is fraught with risks. China, where internet access is rapidly becoming ubiquitous, is seeing some of these risks evolve into real-world problems. By the end of 2020, China recorded 989 million internet users; that was up by 85.4 million from March 2020, according to the China Internet Network Information Center (1). The figures are especially high for young people.
These young people are frequent users of social media applications like WeChat (WhatsApp), Sina Weibo (Twitter) and Douyin (TikTok). There, they communicate and interact with each other. This avid use of various social platforms incites somewhat of an extreme and obsessive subculture among Chinese youth: an obsession with pop culture figures that takes “fandom” to toxic, time consuming and, at times, dangerous extremes. This report will discuss toxic fan culture, the reasons behind it and, finally, will highlight some examples.
We’ve all heard about the horrors of internet predators, waiting in the shadows to target the vulnerable. But little has been discussed about how extreme consumption of and attachment to the internet can bring negative consequences for its users. This article aims to explore the obsessive social media culture among China’s youth. It will initially outline some of the reasons that people are driven towards virtual relationships, including background about Chinese social media, general societal structure and the effects of the Covid-19 virus on internet use. The article will then flow into the existence, understanding and effects of para-social relationships through the lens of live streams (the largest and fastest-growing social media phenomenon) and pop sensations. Finally, the article will conclude by exploring the extreme nature of fandoms, drawing on several examples including Kris Wu, super fans, and how the government has responded in these cases.
Reasons young people are drawn to virtual relationships
The internet, initially, was a tool for communication, entertainment and education. However, by the turn of the century, and over the last decade especially, it has been integrated into every aspect of contemporary life. The internet is the most popular medium for communication and therefore the most popular medium for building and exerting social, economic and political influence. The internet, following the Covid-19 virus outbreak, has become an auxiliary tool for education, namely, for online learning, online teaching, group discussions and academic communication (2). The internet has also, because of both its rapid development and the gradual reform of the Chinese political landscape, become one of the main ways to evaluate the government’s performance (3). It has also become the overarching way to consolidate and create relationships.
For us to understand the current youth social media climate, we must first journey to the beginning. The Chinese one-child policy did more than curb the birth rate. It introduced a sense of social isolation, especially among young people. And these young people, many of them born in the 1990s, have grown up in a world very different to the one occupied and experienced by their parents. As the older generation participated in China’s urbanisation and economic growth, cities transformed from traditionally larger Chinese families to one-child households (4). Subsequently, family dynamics changed. In more recent years, it has been argued, younger generations feel less personally connected to relatives, friends or neighbours. (5).
But they are far more tech-savvy and, so, connected in a different way. From an early age, they were already familiar with the use of cellphones, messaging tools and search engines. Unfortunately, though, this has created a preference for virtual rather than physical interactions. Of the long list of day-to-day priorities for the youth in China, human social interaction is not included (6). Many millennials (aged 24-39) and Gen Zs (18-23) are reported to have experienced some social phobias (7). Among 2532 participants of a research study by VCG, only 69 said they had no problem with human interaction; 97% of participants said they avoided all social activities (8). Young people are living in their bubbles with only a slight connection to the real world. Herein lies the problematic truth: most people appreciate the convenience of technology, but at the expense of a chance to understand the workings of physical human communication (9).
Chinese work culture – which prizes hard work and diligence - does little to defuse the situation. China’s general economic structure is incredibly complex; the large gaps between the rich and the poor and the small jump from middle class to lower class fuels much of Chinese work culture. If a person does not work hard to succeed, most fear they could slip into a lower class. As a result, in recent years, the Chinese worker runs at a “9-9-6” pace: work from 9 AM to 9 PM, six days a week with, most often, no extra pay (10).
This leaves little room for human socialisation or physical interaction. People are forced to socialise in the digital sphere. For the youth, pressures are no different. As a result of the 1-child policy, the family framework is inverted (11). There is great pressure on children to succeed so they can support their parents and grandparents. The youth find that online interactions may be their only reprieve (12).
The draw to live streams
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has forced everyone online – and made absolute isolation almost mandatory. For the youth, live streams and chat rooms appear to be at the forefront of social interaction opportunities (13). In 2005, following the repurposing of public video service YY, the live stream was born. Today, the industry is said to be worth over $5 billion (14). Live streams are performances by usually female dancers or singers on webcams. Streamers are paid through a rewards-based system. Viewers, live in-stream, gift the streamer; this can thereafter be exchanged for cash. This is a break from the traditional notion of pay-per-view and it has proved so popular that it’s been adopted by mainstream services such as Facebook Live and Periscope (15).
“Viewers who have difficulty or are reluctant to integrate into traditional social settings are provided with a new means of seeking comfort, use and protection” (Lin, 2017:2). Even more still, live-streams holds the appeal of intimacy and community, especially for those suffering from the societal pressures of achievement and work. 70% of live-stream users are under the age of 30, of those, 74% are male (16). Live stream statistics go further in observing that viewership peaks during lunch breaks and after work or school hours. Live streams detract from the loneliness most of the youth feel. Live comment and gift visualisation encourages immediate responses from streamers which, in turn, creates a more personal and intimate relationship between the streamer and the viewer (17).
Quite similar to the rise to stardom for some YouTubers, live streaming has breathed new life into an unknown dimension of Chinese entertainment and celebrity culture. However, streamers teeter on a very thin line. Mainstream modern celebrities hold somewhat of an aloof status. There is no ultra-interactive intimacy between the fan and celebrity; for streamers, however, this is very different. Streamers, although attaining wealth proportionate to mainstream celebrities, lack the security of persona. Simply put, the mainstream general public might not know or have built an actual interactive relationship with a celebrity, let alone a monetary one. Mainstream celebrities boast a type of wall between themselves and the general public. Streamers, on the other hand, have just as much, if not more recognition than mainstream celebrities, but without the protection of the anonymity associated with playing a character or role.
Streamers have garnered their celebrity status through thousands of live interactions with their fans. Fans, in turn, feel the streamer is familiar to them and can develop a personal connection. Viewers, to put it bluntly, feel as if they know the streamer; they are led to believe that this is an actual relationship. But it is actually a para-social relationship, defined as one-sided relationships in which a person extends their time, energy and interest into another party while the other party is completely unaware of their existence (18). These sorts of fan connections have spilled over into other realms of celebrity, such as pop stardom.
China is amid a grand social phenomenon, fandoms. Fandoms, as the name suggests, are fan kingdoms. Thousands of fandoms exist because of people’s love for celebrities. The existence of fandoms encapsulates the notion of a para-social relationship. The only difference is that in China, fandoms have turned into a very public, somewhat disturbing obsession (19). The conversation of fandoms became prominent when, in 2018, Canadian Chinese pop rapper, Kris Wu, beat Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga for the top streaming spot on iTunes. It was later discovered that Wu’s fans downloaded and purchased the songs multiple times (20). They had manipulated the system. Fandoms were brought into the spotlight when, on Sina Weibo, Chinese pop singer Cai Xukun was retweeted 100 million times. However, the platform only has 130 million users: apparently a third of users re-posted the star (21). An investigation by China Central Television (CCTV) (22) found that extremely popular idols on social media were paying for their coverage and celebrity.
It is no secret that at times, mainstream popular social media celebrities have been known to buy their engagement; namely, their followers, likes and comments. In China, however, social media engagement is not simply bought but allied with a group of far more organised and dedicated super fans.
A deeper delve into the world of fandoms, fan pages and chat rooms revealed a rather sinister and daunting aspect of para-social relationships. Fan clubs and fan pages are incredibly organised, to the point of ultra-infatuation and obsession. Interviews by the Global Times revealed the inner workings of fandoms (23). The main goal of fandoms is to promote idols. Idols are young Asian pop stars with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of young fans. The promotion of idols, as previously mentioned, is highly organised. Fans are strictly regulated and given different tasks such as voting, running social pages and raising funds. In past years, fans of Karry Wang, a member of boy-band group TFBoys, splashed a month-long birthday poster that covered an elevated train (24). Additionally, Sina Entertainment quoted South Korean media as saying that in 2018, fans of the K-pop group Wanna One bought first-class plane tickets just to meet the group (25). After taking photos they were asked to leave and were escorted off the plane. The plane was delayed for one hour.
At the Two Sessions Meetings in May, a delegate of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s top legislature, made a plea to the government and the Chinese public at large (26). The delegate mentioned some of the mounting discontent associated with the existence and rampant interaction of extreme fandoms and super fans. Fears of widespread doxing, bullying and harassment were at the forefront of her address (27). Doxing involves revealing identifying information about someone online, such as a home address, phone number, work location or even financial situation. Due to the toxic and competitive nature of fan clubs, doxing and other negative online behaviours have been rampant. In an article by Sup China, fan clubs are said to continuously compete and interact with one another for their idol to reach the top spots (28). Fan clubs personally target rival members to weaken the ‘strength’ and standing of rival idols. Young middle school students, the article goes on to say, spend more than five hours a day on fan sites, begging the question of healthy online/offline relationships (29).
Not all young social media users in China are part of extreme fandoms. However, the phenomenon does point to the dangers of consistent social media exposure. The extreme nature of toxic fan culture has gone as far as to garner attention from the Chinese government. Following a statement from the Cyberspace Administration of China in June, detailing the corruption of the “pure and healthy online ecosystem” of the internet, the implications of fandom culture were called into question (30). Extreme fandom culture is running rampant. The administration has called for a social media crackdown, with the removal of 4000 social media accounts, the deletion of 150 000 harmful posts and the closure of 39 apps (31). The administration also mentioned that fandom culture has and will continue to negatively affect the physical and social well-being of China’s youth if it is not contained and controlled.
China’s youth are in the grips of a malevolent wave of social media culture. The internet has brought a multitude of modern technological advances and conveniences. But, at the same time, it has formed new toxic cultures and negative internet behaviours. The internet, a tool for education, entertainment and communication, has also in some cases replaced human interaction. Aspects of the internet such as live streams and the proliferation of pop stars have created a new sub-genre to the Chinese entertainment sphere. Live streams and the die-hard loyalty of super-fans, fan club, fandoms, and fan pages show the unyielding existence of para-social relationships. These relationships have gone as far as necessitating government interaction. In closing, China’s youth social media culture is incredibly toxic.
- Cheng, E. 2021. China says it now has nearly 1 billion internet users. CNBC (online). Available at: https://www.cnbc.com/2021/02/04/china-says-it-now-has-nearly-1-billion-internet-users.html (Accessed: 20 September 2021).
- Ibid, 1
- France 24. 2021. China clamps down on pop culture in bid to ‘control’ youth. France 24. Available at:
https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210929-china-clamps-down-on-pop-culture-in-bid-to-control-youth (Accessed: 20 September 2021).
- Tang, L., Omar, S.Z., Bolong, J. and Mohd Zawawi, J.W., 2021. Social Media Use Among Young People in China: A Systematic Literature Review. SAGE Open. Available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/21582440211016421. (Accessed: 20 September 2021).
- Ibid, 4
- Ibid, 4
- Ran, B. 2020. Go social or go solo? Social media is a blend for young Chinese. CGTN (online). Available at:
https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-08-30/Social-or-solo-What-social-engagement-looks-like-for-young-Chinese-Tn0bl3LJPq/index.html .( Accessed : 20 September 2021).
- Ibid, 7
- Ibid, 7
- Ibid, 7
- Schwartz, N. 2021. Work culture in China: The 996 working hour system. Xinergy Global. Available at:
https://www.xinergy.global/work-culture-in-china/, (Accessed : 20 September 2021).
- Hancock, T., Xueqiao, W. 2019. Overdoing it: The cost of China’s long-hours culture. Financial Times. Available at:
https://www.ft.com/content/d5f01f68-9cbc-11e8-88de-49c908b1f264, (Accessed :20 September 2021).
- Fakude, Q. 2021. What does the three-child policy mean for women empowerment in China? Afrasid. Available at: http://www.afrasid.org/index.php/publications/articles-2/85-what-does-the-three-child-policy-mean-for-women-s-empowerment-in-china. (Accessed: 22 September 2021).
- Ibid, 7
- Ibid, 7
- Lin, J. and Lu, Z., 2017. The rise and proliferation of live-streaming in China: Insights and lessons. In International conference on human-computer interaction(pp. 632-637). Springer, Cham. Available at:
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317172185_The_Rise_and_Proliferation_of_Live-Streaming_in_China_Insights_and_Lessons , (Accessed : 20 September 2021).
- Ibid, 16
- Ibid, 16
- Ibid, 16
- Ibid, 16
- Find a psychologist. 2021. Parasocial relationships: The nature of celebrity fascinations. National Register of Health Service Psychologists. Available at:
https://www.findapsychologist.org/parasocial-relationships-the-nature-of-celebrity-fascinations/ (Accessed: 22 September 2021).
- Chow, Y. 2021. Explainer: What is the reasoning behind China’s crackdown on ‘toxic’ fandom culture, and how are people reacting? YP (online). Available at:
https://www.scmp.com/yp/discover/news/asia/article/3147895/explainer-what-reasoning-behind-chinas-crackdown-toxic-fandom , (Accessed : 20 September 2021).
- Ibid, 22
- Ibid, 22
- Ibid, 22
- Jie, S. 2019. Highly organized and well-trained fandom in China becomes industry. Global Times (online). Available at:
https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1141134.shtml . (Accessed: 20 September 2021).
- Ibid, 26
- Ibid, 26
- Ibid, 3
- Yip, W. 2021. China targets obsessive teenage fans in new internet cleanup campaign. BBC News. Available at:
https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-58459318, (Accessed: 22 September 2021).
- Ibid, 22
- Ibid, 22
- Ibid, 22
- Ibid, 5
About the author
Qhawelazo Ayesha Fakude holds a Bachelor of Social Science from the University of Cape Town, South Africa. She majored in politics and governance, anthropology and sociology.