Protocol | China

China’s TMZ comes for politics, then censors come for it

Goose Group is the latest victim of Beijing's tightening internet culture regulations.

Kris Wu

Goose Group elevates new stories like sexual assault allegations against Kris Wu.

Photo: VCG/Getty Images

Time stopped on Sept. 23, 3 p.m. in the Goose Group. Since that moment, nothing has been published on the once-roiling Chinese online forum with nearly 700,000 registered members, for years the prime source of news on celebrity gossip and internet trends. On its in-app front page, above the week-old posts that normally would have been displaced by newer ones within seconds, sits a notification in red: "This group is being suspended and reformed for two months as a response to the mandate of Operation Qinglang" — the latest regulatory campaign in China that has cracked down on video games, online fan groups, personal finance influencers and many more aspects of internet culture over the summer.

Nobody outside of Beijing's leadership knows for sure what will happen to Goose Group in two months after Operation Qinglang. But last Thursday, a half-dozen other entertainment gossip groups on Douban were also suspended or disbanded. It's looking increasingly possible that Goose Group will be permanently dissolved, another high-profile victim of Beijing's campaign on internet influencers, one increasingly edging into the cultural sphere.

A place for gossip

At the age of 11, Goose Group has long been a formidable force on the Chinese internet. It's hosted on Douban, a popular social media platform that has been called a mix of "IMDb, Goodreads, Spotify, Pinterest, Medium, Twitter and Reddit." In recent years Goose Group has become home to more than news about mega-celebrity scandals; given how often entertainment gossip seeps into discussions of social issues, Goose has come to offer a raw form of civil organizing. Goose Group members have mobilized several times to protest against sexual assault perpetrators, pedophilic websites and misogynistic anime videos.

The group has tried to stay on the safe side of Beijing's red lines, but has still endured periodic shadowbans (i.e., was hidden from search results), a suspension and a renaming over the past three years.

Douban, the platform that hosts Goose Group, has always attracted an unusual crowd. Its complex product portfolio, including a respected book and movie review system, has resulted in Douban being known for two distinct groups of users: cultural elites and fans of hot gossip. Goose Group is the most popular Douban forum for the latter.

In its early years, Goose Group, originally called something like "here comes the gossip" (八卦来了组), was akin to a user-generated TMZ. It was home to rigorously researched — but also sometimes wildly speculative — gossip. Olivia, a graduate student researcher in Beijing, first started following the group as a college student in 2015. "It was like, someone would write a super detailed thread of the entire history [of a celebrity], and others just had a great time reading and discussing it," Olivia said. (She is using an English name to share her experience freely.)

Olivia couldn't comment or start her own post back then, because Goose Group is every bit as exclusive as it is popular. Non-members can read and like a post, but they can't reply to it or start a new one. Olivia waited about two years between submitting her membership application and getting accepted. Another Goose Group member, surnamed Zhao, started reading the group in 2016 but was finally accepted as a member in May 2020.

"[The admins] would pull up your profile and read it line by line: Whether it looks like a paid account, a bot, or an account that has changed ownership," Zhao told Protocol. Aspiring members often had to join a few smaller gossip groups first and post regularly to convince the Goose Group admins of their authenticity and drive. Because of the persistent rarity of the membership, a Goose Group member account's price on second-hand markets like Taobao or Xianyu soared from $9 in 2016 to $90 in 2018. Owning a membership has become a sort of status symbol — insiders refer to it as "owning a property" — signaling how central one is in the production and circulation of gossip.

The combination of exclusivity and originality made Goose Group one of the best gossip sources among Chinese online platforms. It's become so influential that content farms on other platforms like Weibo can make a living simply by reposting the latest discussions from Goose Group. And the group has continued to prosper even though Douban's overall traffic has declined. At the outset of last month, there were over 179,000 active discussion threads on Goose every week, each getting dozens or even hundreds of replies, according to statistics collected by programmer Allen Ji.

'Pink feminism'

Cute name aside, Goose Group is not for the faint of heart. The conversations, usually centering on celebrities' unappealing sides, often become heated, disorderly and even abusive. After being admitted to the group in 2020, Zhao posted just once, an attempt to interpret a Chinese actress' mental state from one of her bizarre social posts. It didn't go well. "There were probably a few hundred replies, and three-fourths of them were insulting me," Zhao said.

Even though the admins of Goose Group have repeatedly emphasized that the group is only for gossip, its tens of thousands of members inevitably react to current affairs, and some entertainment debates have started to hit close to home.

"Chinese entertainment industry and celebrity culture have also become a battleground for public discussion around social issues like gender inequality, sexual harassment and unlawful accumulation of wealth," Jingyi Gu, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois researching Chinese social media platforms and digital culture, told Protocol.

In February, Goose Group members were enraged by an anime series streaming on the video platform Bilibili that objectified women and featured pedophilic plots. They mobilized to report Bilibili's CEO to a local government body and pressured advertisers to drop deals with Bilibili. And they succeeded in getting the series removed.

The group has also helped elevate many news stories that it collectively deems important. Examples include a famous influencer's involvement in a pedophilia website, the sexual assault case of pop singer Kris Wu and the way a female passenger was inappropriately handled by subway security personnel.

Throughout the years, Goose Group has homed in on a unique ideology, often called "pink feminism." Grassroots "pink feminists" go after individuals and private companies instead of tackling big systematic problems, which researcher Gu calls "probably the only actionable form of feminism in the current Chinese context."

"In the case of Goose Group, since many of the targets of pink feminism's actions are celebrities in the entertainment industry or private corporations like Bilibili, it gives its participants a sense of civic engagement without having to become a political dissident," Gu said.

Here comes the crackdown

Several incidents this year foreshadowed the suspension of Goose Group. Hosts of talent contests, the most popular form of reality TV in China these years, were reprimanded in May, suggesting a widening of Beijing's regulatory interests in the culture sphere. Weibo banned the registration of new accounts with "Goose Group" in their name in the same month and finished clearing out existing ones in September. Two weeks ago, Douban disabled commenting across its website for a week, after pledging to regulate celebrity gossiping groups.

"At that time, you couldn't comment on a post, but you could start a new one. Many people were asking: 'Why are we being treated like this? Aren't we on the same side as the state?'" the group member Zhao recalled.

On Sept. 23, the hammer came down, with Goose Group singled out and suspended for two months. Details have not been published about what's going to change after this round of "reform." Douban didn't respond to Protocol's request for comment.

Operation Qinglang, the policy campaign that caused Goose Group's latest suspension, feels different from those before. Beijing seems more determined to regulate the entertainment business, citing concerns of social harmony (since people are always fighting in Goose Group) and a negative influence on children. In the week after Goose Group's suspension, three more gossip groups were disbanded and at least three more were forcibly paused. And it's not just Douban. Weibo is also banning hundreds of accounts and taking down certain features in order to regulate fan discussions; several fandom communications apps were ordered off of app stores.

It's hard to say what exactly caused the Chinese government to strike at the entertainment industry this year. The raw form of mobilizing that has prospered on Douban is certainly one reason. "The governing regime initially was not very alert to it since the disturbances that these pink feminism movements create are mostly in the entertainment and culture industry," said Gu. "However, when it becomes too big to manage its broader social impacts, the government has to intervene for its goal to maintain order and harmony."

China's entertainment and its political spheres used to be far away. But the fate of Goose Group shows just how far Beijing has expanded its definition of the latter — and how social media's strength as a social force is becoming clearer to China's ruling party. As Fang Kecheng, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said, Qinglang is another "step in the direction that China is taking in configuring the so-called 'ideal' society."

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