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Protocol | China

China's streaming platforms are a new headache for Beijing

They've come to dominate idol competition shows and are cultural touchstones. But their rabid fans don't always do what the government wants.

China's streaming platforms are a new headache for Beijing

Chinese streaming platforms have benefited immensely from the development of fan culture.

Photo: Huang Yong/VCG via Getty Images

As Chinese streaming platforms are finding out, with great power comes greater responsibility. At least, that's what Beijing is telling them.

China's Big Tech-enabled streaming platforms are surpassing traditional TV networks in their ability to command millions of fans. Their success has also made them a new target for Beijing, which is ordering the platforms to do their part in influencing China's youth in a state-endorsed way.

In a May 8 press conference held by China's State Council, the Cyberspace Administration told reporters that it would "resolutely punish online platforms that have indulged in unregulated behaviors" of the online fandom groups.

Earlier that month, a video had circulated online showing fans of Baidu-owned iQiyi's flagship idol competition show wasting what state media called "gallons of milk" to get extra opportunities to vote, which were available under the bottle caps via QR code. Beijing's municipal media regulator quickly ordered iQiyi to suspend the show, just days before its scheduled final.

"Whoever operates [the fandom groups] should administer it; whoever benefits from it should be responsible," Zhang Yongjun, an official at the Cyberspace Administration of China, said during the press conference.

Chinese streaming platforms have benefited immensely from the development of fandom culture. Back in 2005, when the first idol contest "Super Girl" blew up in China, it was traditional television channels and telecom operators, all state-owned, that earned large profits with a vote-by-SMS process. Over the past decade, private streaming platforms like iQiyi, Tencent Video and Youku have become serious competitors to the television networks. And Beijing is learning how to regulate these platforms' newfound power.

Today, online platforms have become the center of popular entertainment. Virtually every hit variety show over the past year was produced by streaming platforms, not television channels. Today, streaming idol shows attract millions of fans every year known for their heavy spending to support their favorites. For a single show streaming Tencent Video this year, fans collectively spent more than $23 million to help their favored idols win.

The change of broadcast mediums also shows the cultural power shift from traditional media to Big Tech; the three leading platforms, Tencent Video, iQiyi and Youku, are owned respectively by Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba.

"The past two decades have seen exponential growth with tech giants powering up a booming digital economy. The idol contestant variety show is just one of many genres that [they have] experimented with online over the past few years," Troy Chen, assistant professor in communications studies at University of Nottingham Ningbo China, told Protocol.

While the parent companies provide cash and technical advantages, the streaming platforms, in return, keep young users inside the company's product ecosystems and direct massive traffic to other company-owned apps.

But when fan culture develops in a direction not favored by the state, streaming platforms are left holding the bag.

In the fallout of iQiyi's controversy, state media has criticized fan groups for unwise spending, picking online fights and using abusive language. The milk-wasting incident was a bridge too far, as it deliberately countermanded the government's recent focus of reducing food waste. On May 8, regulators also fined Alibaba-owned platform Youku for "providing online cultural content that threatens the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country," although it remains unclear what content triggered the fine.

It's clear that responsibility for regulating fans will fall onto the platforms that enabled it, mostly social media sites like Weibo and streaming sites like iQiyi. But Beijing will be watching closely. The Cyberspace Administration has said it will "make sure platforms take their responsibilities and ramp up daily management."

The platforms have quickly obliged. On May 6, iQiyi released a public announcement about the milk incident apologizing for "having ignored ideological values and social responsibility." It says it will carefully adjust the rules for variety shows in the future. The show's suspension may have appeased regulators, but fans remain furious at iQiyi, with angry Weibo comments asking for refunds and worrying about the futures of favored idols.

It's unlikely the government wants to strip streaming platforms of their cultural power the way it has stripped fintech platforms like Ant Group of their ability to act as de facto banks. Instead, the state just wants to direct the mighty power of fan groups to be used in line with government priorities, said Siru Chen, a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto, who recently wrote about how nationalism is being promoted by Chinese idol show fans.

"I believe [government actors] are more interested in working with and utilizing these fans as an important bottom-up force for their benefit," Chen said.

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