Bye dyed hair, hello volunteer work: China's Idol Producer 2 heralds in new era of 'socially responsible' idols

PHOTO: Screengrab/iQiyi

Now you see it, now you don't.

Popular Chinese survival audition show Idol Producer suddenly went off air midway through this second season.

When it returned the following week, gone were the colourful dyed hair of its many contestants competing to be China's next big thing.

Filling the screens were now black and dark brown hair, with eagle-eyed viewers spotting other editing tricks they believe were employed by producers IQiyi to satisfy the country's tightening media regulations.

Fans should have seen this coming.

In a departure from its pilot season - and certainly from South Korea's Produce 101 on which it's based - Idol Producer 2 has openly touted "social responsibility" among the qualities it's looking for in the next boy group it eventually forms.

The programme's format sees trainees go through a series of evaluations to be voted into the final line-up by the public. It is known for its intense training regimens where contestants practise tirelessly to master a performance within a short span of time.

Celebrity mentors include singers Jolin Tsai and Li Ronghao.

The shift in the show's paradigm for this season is noticeable. It no longer focuses only on the competition - it also emphasises the character development of the trainees.

Throughout the season, they're shown actively involved in volunteer work amidst their busy training schedule ‒ from planting trees to visiting autistic children and a retirement home ‒ in an attempt to portray idols as more than mere pretty faces.

Contestants on Idol Producer 2 visit a centre for autistic children in episode 8.Photo: Screengrab/iQiyi

"Those who like us are perhaps children, and our responsibility is to let more of these children see all these bright and positive energy coming from our generation of youths," said Yao Chi, a contestant on the show.

These initiatives are part of the show's efforts to encourage viewers to follow its lead in making a positive difference towards society. On top of being a reality programme, the show hopes to be inspirational for young people as well.

"We hope to render a helping hand towards the volunteering movement and promote the spirit of volunteerism," said chief producer Jiang Bin during a press conference held to launch the show in January.

"With these outstanding youths of the new era as role models, we hope to convey an image of youths with talent, dreams and compassion to the public."

Contestants on Idol Producer 2 plant trees in episode 9.Photo: Screengrab/iQiyi

Image in showbusiness is something the Chinese government has been quietly concerned with in recent years.

Dyed hair, tattoos, hip-hop culture and even the topic of time travel have been publicly called out by the media regulators, while male stars' earrings, believed to be too feminine, were recently censored out on IQiyi's video platform.

“To cultivate a new generation that will shoulder the responsibility of national rejuvenation, we need to resist erosion from indecent culture,” published the state-run news agency Xinhua in 2018.

2014's mega-series The Empress of China also saw an unexplained takedown, before returning with its trademark cleavage shots removed.

Contestants on Idol Producer 2 visit a retirement home for the elderly in episode 10.Photo: Screengrab/iQiyi

Another popular competition produced by IQiyi, The Rap of China, originally featured a style associated with rap culture. When a new season arrived, contestants rapped about love, dreams and family, while the show's name changed to China's New Rap.

All these come amidst the Communist Party's renewed focus on "core socialist values", that frown on individualism and capitalism.

The country is set to implement a social credit system by 2020, ranking all its citizens based on their behaviour, with "social responsibility" rewarded.

For fans of Idol Producer, this seems to be working.

"Regardless of whether the show is doing all these because of appearance's sake or not, I feel that this is a significant step forward for the talent show industry," Fen Jiujiu commented on Weibo.

Some fans have followed in the footsteps of their idols, making donations for trees to be planted under their names.

Meanwhile, the show will conclude soon, with the finale to be held this Saturday (April 6).