Why is China's celebrity-obsessed fan culture so out-of-control?

When obsession tips over into stalking a number of studies have found that the stalked celebrity often represented an idealised version of the stalker.
PHOTO: Reuters

In 2017 a quiet and unassuming 18-year-old girl named Gong Yuwen found herself caught at the centre of a major story about Chinese fandom and star-chasing.

The teenager had left school and did not work, giving her endless hours to lurk around Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport; there she would lie in wait for celebrities in the hope of getting a photo, sometimes chasing them through the terminals.

What was most unusual about Gong was that, unlike most hardcore fans, she did not focus on one or even a few celebrities, instead called herself an “all-loving fan” — she was after any star that she could get access to.

After Chinese singer Yuan Chengji mistook her for a regular fan and shared a photo of himself with Gong, hundreds of social media comments followed pointing out that Gong was a superfan stalker and shared hundreds of photos of her posing for selfies with stars, chasing them through the airport and pushing her way through crowds to try and get close to her idols.

The media dubbed her the “Hongqiao Diva” and soon reporters were digging through her personal life; reporting on her poor academic performance, her unemployment, and that she lived with her grandparents who supported her financially.

She was held up as an example of everything wrong with China’s rising celebrity fan culture. Gong said she found the loss of privacy and unwanted attention extremely stressful, but seemingly missed the irony that after years of hounding celebrities through Shanghai airport she was now the one being stalked.

Crossing the line

In the years since the story of the Hongqiao Diva captured the public’s attention, the country’s fan culture has exploded as Chinese cinema and television shows have become more popular, and the people involved more famous.

Calls for authorities to crack down on obsessive celebrity stalkers, who are often referred to as “sasaeng” in China, a word borrowed from Korean, for fans who take their adulation too far, have grown ever louder.

Last month police in China arrested two obsessed fans who stalked Chinese actor Wang Yibo by placing an illegal tracking device on a rented car he was using.

The pair used the device to follow 23-year-old Wang around Beijing and monitor his daily movements which they then sold to other obsessed fans seeking his location. It was only after other fans of Wang reported the stalkers to police after they bragged about their activities in social media posts, that they were caught.

A handout photo. Actor and singer has had illegal tracking device placed on cars he was using on more than one occasion.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

In May Chinese reality show Youth with You was shut down after it was caught manipulating fans into buying products made by the show’s sponsors. Viewers who had bought a particular kind of yoghurt made by one sponsor began to post videos of boxes of the yoghurt being thrown away.

The viewers had bought the yoghurt as a condition for voting for contestants on the show, sparking a public outcry amid China’s anti-waste crackdown and again raising questions about the extreme fan culture and the impact on China’s youth.

Just last week seven primary school children who formed China’s youngest ever boy band were forced to rebrand themselves as a children’s art troupe after accusations of child exploitation.

Stalker danger? How much is too much?

In the stalking case of celebrity Wang Yibo, who first found fame as a member of the Chinese boy band Uniq, before a solo singing career and a move into acting, it was not the first time an illegal tracking device had been used to trace his movements.

Last year Wang spoke publicly about being harassed by infatuated fans and condemned the rise of obsessive stalking culture around celebrities in China.

“For a long time now, I will have strangers come and knock on my hotel room door. Someone even placed a location tracker in my car. No matter where I go, there is always someone following me,” he said on his Weibo account.

In 2019 Hong Kong singer Jackson Wang’s home address was leaked online by an obsessed fan. He was later filmed confronting a fan and demanding to know if she had been the person behind the leak. The woman in the video denied she was the source of the leaked address.

Cases like that of “Hongqiao Diva” and the use of illegal tracking devices raise questions about the mental health implications of obsessive celebrity culture in China.

Academic studies often describe the shift from standard celebrity fandom to intense-personal celebrity worship as borderline pathological behaviour in which normal social boundaries start to dissolve.

When the obsession tips over into stalking a number of studies found that the admired celebrity often represented an idealised version of the stalker themself, who are essentially projecting a version of their own identity onto the targeted celebrity.

Fans of boy band Mirror gather in front of a billboard celebrating member Anson Lo Hon Ting’s birthday in 2021.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

A 2007 UK study into the psychological characteristics of fans and their behaviour towards their idols found the most common reason behind obsessive behaviour was a delusion there was some form of direct personal connection with their idol.

“Through frequent media exposure, audiences come to feel that they know a celebrity from their appearance, gestures, conversations, and conduct, despite having had no direct communication with them,” the study authors wrote.

The study also considered the idea of treatment for some individuals who may be mentally disturbed and ways to assist law enforcement to protect celebrities who may be at risk in cases like that of Japanese pop star Ena Matsuoka who was stalked by an obsessed fan and sexually assaulted last year.

“Behaviour that becomes more sinister and provokes fear in a celebrity may be of interest to law enforcement. An understanding of the psychological characteristics related to approach behaviour in this context might prove useful in identifying perpetrators, informing risk assessment, and risk management.”

This was supported in a further 2015 paper by Dr James Houran who has three decades of experience in applied psychological research, and who stated that “compromised identity structure in some persons facilitates psychological absorption with a celebrity, in an attempt to establish an identity and a sense of fulfillment”

Can China get its celebrity fans under control?

As the phenomenon of celebrity fandom shows no signs of abating, China’s authorities are increasingly trying to find ways to regulate fan and celebrity behaviour.

Last week, China’s internet watchdog the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) announced a 10-point plan to stop “chaotic” fan culture and celebrity misbehaviour.

This included action to stop the dissemination of “harmful information”, spreading gossip or provoking scandal in fan groups. Fan groups are big business in China with The Paper recently reporting the industry could be worth as much as 140 billion yuan (US$21.64 billion) by 2022.

The government has also banned the publication of ranking lists of celebrities and the practice of celebrity reality competition shows from charging fans to vote for their idols.

This is just the latest in a string of actions taken to regulate the fan industry. Earlier this month CAC issued a warning statement urging fan websites and platforms to adjust their products and services to regulate fans to “star chase rationally”.

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“There needs to be a limitation of irrational star-chasing by cancelling promotions that prompt fans to buy products in support of their idols, changing the rules for competition, and managing fan groups,” it said.

The announcement by the CAC came after the Beijing police’s detention of Chinese-Canadian pop idol Kris Wu Yifan after an allegation of rape was made by one of his fans.

Since June, the CAC’s has been aiming to put an end to the “chaos” involving online fan clubs, part of a crackdown on China’s increasingly obsessive celebrity fan culture, which involves online abuse, doxxing, excessive spending and even stalking of celebrities in extreme cases.

This month dozens of mainland Chinese celebrities, including some of the country’s most famous stars, took part in an “ethical training session” hosted by the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA).

The Chinese Government has issued a series of statements and new regulations in recent months in a bid to rein in the worst excesses of fan culture.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Among the participants were Lei Jiayin, the star of The First Half of My Life , Zhang Yishan from The Deer and the Cauldron and actor Rayzha Alimjan, the sessions were viewed by many as an attempt to encourage responsible behaviour by stars when dealing with fans in the wake of the Wu rape allegations.

Even before these incidents, there was growing concern about the intensity of some fans. In March, Song Wenxin, a deputy to the National People’s Congress (NPC) China’s top legislature suggested country’s ‘fan circles’ should be regulated and “overzealous star-chasing activities” should be limited.

“Domestic fandom culture has crossed a line and should be regulated,” she said in an interview during China’s Two Sessions annual political gathering.

However, despite the proposals put forward, they do little to resolve the underlying obsession of fans who have not broken any laws such as the “Hongqiao Diva” who although not heard of in the mainstream media for several years, it is not hard to imagine her still lurking around airport terminals desperate for a glimpse of a celebrity.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.