China targets social media celebs ‘flaunting wealth’

The latest crackdown by the country’s Cyberspace Administration literally means ‘clean and bright’

Chinese regulators are in the process of wrapping up a two-month “spring clean” of the country’s social media. Launched by the Cyberspace Administration of China in April, the latest Qinglang campaign literally means “clean and bright.”

The aim is to penalize social media influencers and internet celebrities deemed to be flaunting wealth or showcasing a luxurious life built on money to attract followers and traffic. Its reach goes beyond the behavior of social media users on the mainland.

Taiwanese influencers are also feeling the heat.

Beijing is far from alone in expressing official alarm over the perceived harms of social media. The United States government on June 17 signaled its desire to slap warning labels on platforms such as TikTok, X, formerly Twitter, and Instagram.

But whereas Washington’s efforts are framed as protecting the mental health of users, it is the well-being of China’s society that is the focus of Beijing’s crackdown – and regulators are going beyond mere warnings.

Blocked accounts

Following the directive, various Chinese social media platforms blocked the accounts of influencers such as Wang Hongquanxing, who has earned the nickname “China’s Kim Kardashian.”

Wang appears to have been censored for bragging about his extravagant clothing and other luxury goods. And he isn’t alone.

Fellow influencer Bo Gongzi received similar treatement for showing off Porsche cars, Hermes bags, and other rare and expensive accessories. And Baoyu Jiajie disappeared from Chinese social media platforms after flaunting her luxurious cuisine and lavish properties.

Chinese official media defended the crackdown as a move against money worshipping and what Beijing describes as “toxic traffic” or attracting online fans for the purposes of making money.

Analysts such as Yao-Yuan Yeh, a Taiwanese professor of political science from St. Thomas University, have argued that the cancellation of the wealth-obsessed influencers is not simply motivated by a desire to protect public morality.

The ruling Communist Party fears “subversive” views. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Rather, it serves the purpose of mitigating the Chinese public’s growing sense of relative economic deprivation, exacerbated by the nation’s current slowdown.

While Ye’s point is valid, China has been punishing wealth-flaunting influencers for a long time and before concerns about the state of the world’s second-largest economy.

It reflects wider fears in Beijing that social media could be used to promote views it sees as subversive, ramping up the strategy in 2014 with the cancellation of Guo Meimei.

Guo is an internet celebrity known for her display of pictures showing a lavish lifestyle, including driving a Mercedes and owning a big mansion.

The measures against wealth-flaunting come amid a more general crackdown on what Beijing sees as morally problematic behaviors, such as viewing pornography, gambling, drug use, vulgar livestreaming, and displaying contempt for low-income citizens.

Public support

The official campaign has won wide support among a generally conservative public – it isn’t just being forced from above.

Chinese social conservatism in this regard leans on a centuries-old preference for equal distribution of wealth, reflected in the Confucian idiom that political leaders should “not worry about scarcity, but rather unequal distribution.”

And many polls show the country’s authoritarian government enjoys strong public support.

As MIT political scientist Lily Tsai has argued, Chinese people’s expressed support of their authoritarian government is not simply out of fear of political retaliation or satisfaction with long-term economic achievements.

Rather, the Chinese Communist Party is also given credit for its ability to satisfy the public’s strong desire for retributive justice.

Going up … Chinese people appear to have backed the campaign. Photo: Flickr

That is, Chinese people by and large back their government for its use of punishment against those who have run afoul of moral values shared by leaders and ordinary people alike – even if it restricts certain personal liberties.

This public support also serves as a political tool to reinforce the Communist Party of China’s worldview.

Still, as experts in Chinese cultural politics, we have noted how China is exerting pressure on Taiwanese social media influencers to echo and back its campaign against showy online displays of wealth.

More broadly, Beijing is leveraging social media to foster nationalistic support and to further its agenda for the island democracy’s reunification with the Chinese mainland.

President Xi Jinping’s government has tightened its grip on cyberspace by pressuring celebrities and influencers to publicly support pro-government values and policies.

Presidential address

This takes the form of a pressure campaign against Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te. He was elected in January despite some voters’ concerns over his pro-independence views.

On May 20, Lai emphasized in his inaugural presidential address that “the Republic of China [Taiwan’s official name] and the People’s Republic of China are not subordinate to each other.”

His comments were taken as an unapologetic insistence on Taiwan’s independence.

China Central Television or CCTV, a state media outlet in China, published a post on its social media account to warn the Lai administration that “Taiwan independence was, is, and will never be possible. China will finally achieve complete reunification.”

Many Taiwanese entertainment celebrities, who operate primarily on the mainland, shared the CCTV post with their followers to show their support for China’s reunification with Taiwan.

President Xi Jinping understands the power of social media. Photo: Wikimedia

CCTV in turn reposted their messages, praising the “patriotic” Taiwanese celebrities. This indirectly pressured other personalities from the island democracy to publicly declare their stance on reunification.

Recent research shows that, on average, Taiwanese celebrities repost official messages less frequently than those from the mainland and Hong Kong.

Nevertheless, the frequent political signaling by celebrities on Chinese social media suggests the increasing politicization of popular culture.

Both the crackdown on online displays of wealth and pressure on Taiwanese influencers reflect acknowledgment in Beijing of the power of social media.

As of 2022, China has the largest number of internet and social media users – about 1.02 billion, according to the latest statistics.

Social media

Chinese people rely on various platforms such as Weibo, WeChat, Xiaohongshu, and Douyin for news and information. This is something President Xi Jinping, who came to power in 2012, is well aware of.

The latest “spring clean” of Chinese social media is not the first to take place under his watch and is unlikely to be the last.

Authorities in Beijing know that, if regulated tightly, it can be used to amplify its message. If left unchecked, it could result in an increasingly subversive and chaotic cyberspace.

Gengsong Gao is an Associate Professor of Chinese Studies at Virginia’s University of Richmond in the United States. Dan Chen is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Richmond.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.