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The wanghong are internet celebrities in China, and they differ from traditional celebrities, who gain their fame through mainstream media, such as television and movies (Roxburgh). The word wanghong translates directly into “internet celebrity.” There are mainly two types of internet celebrities: celebrities who produce original content, such as short comedy videos, and celebrities who are centered around content involving beauty and fashion (Li). The relationship between the wanghong and strict censorship is a complex one. There are looser censorship rules on the internet, allowing the wanghong to have more freedom with their content. However, government organizations do choose to sometimes censor specific internet celebrities for content that they see as “foul” and “vulgar.” The strict censorship in China does not negatively affect the wanghong. The heavy censorship of Chinese mainstream media is beneficial to the wanghong because their relative freedom over traditional celebrities causes fans to feel connected to them, in a way that they do not interact with traditional celebrities. Therefore, internet celebrities’ fans respond more strongly to advertisements. Even if a wanghong is censored by the CCP, it does not damage their reputation, instead, it helps them gain publicity.
The wanghong economy refers to the new and growing digital economy in China centered around social media influencer marketing that has recently rocketed. In May 2018, the amount of cyber celebrities with more than 100,000 followers increased by 51 percent from 2017 (Ying). Additionally, the amount of total followers of the wanghong increased by 25 percent to 588 million followers (Ying). Additionally, in 2016 the wanghong economy was worth 58 billion yuan, which is about 8 billion US dollars, and has only increased since then (Ying).
How it works
There are three main ways that the wanghong can make money. The first way is through online retailing. Internet celebrities use their social media platforms to promote their self branded products, which are sold on Chinese customer to customer websites (Zhang). For example, a celebrity could have their own shop or clothing line on Taobao, which is the largest e-commerce site and is owned by Alibaba. Celebrities model the products sold on their shop by posting pictures online of themselves wearing the clothing, accessories, and makeup sold in their shops (Zhang). The second way is through social media advertising, which is when companies pay internet celebrities to promote the companies’ products in their videos or posts (Zhang). The last way wanghong make money is through live advertising, which is the newest way for internet celebrities to gain money (Li). This is when celebrities promote a brand or product during a live stream program. This way, their followers can communicate and ask questions to the celebrity while they are promoting the good. Therefore, the advertising is more accepted by the followers, since they feel more connected to the internet celebrity (Li).
Companies want wanghong to promote their products because they know that the wanghong have a lot of influence over their large fan bases (Roxburgh). The wanghong economy has grown from the authenticity of internet celebrities and the fact that fans really trust the internet celebrities. Since content on the internet is not as heavily censored as TV and movies, online stars are able to connect on a deeper level with young Chinese people than traditional celebrities can (Roxburgh). Fans see the internet celebrities as more authentic and relatable, which causes them to trust their opinion and want to be like them (Roxburgh). Business see the wanghong as “key opinion leaders” since they have instilled a trust within their fans (Roxburgh). The harsh censorship of Chinese mainstream media is very beneficial to the wanghong, since internet celebrities can be seen as more trustworthy and admirable to fans. Fans see the internet celebrities as friends, due to the freedom and lack of censorship on the internet, which causes them to buy any products they promote. Therefore, wanghong are seen as valuable advertisers to companies, who will pay the wanghong a lot of money to promote their goods, which helps to increase the wanghong economy.
Although internet celebrities face less strict censorship rules than mainstream media celebrities, there are government organizations that do censor internet content (Schoenmakers). For example, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television is an agency under the control of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China (Embassy). The SARFT is responsible for supervising the television, film, and radio industries, as well as censoring any media, including internet content, they deem as offensive to the Chinese government or culture (Embassy). In 2016, Papi Jiang, an online comedian, was ordered by the SARFT to take down some of her videos, since they contained vulgar language (Schoenmakers). She was allowed to put the videos back up once she removed the foul language (Schoenmakers). Papi Jiang is one of the most popular wanghong in China, and she is known for her satirical, fast paced videos where she pokes fun at everyday things in life: dieting, annoying relatives, gossipy girls, and dating (Qin). Before the censorship, Papi used some swear words in her videos for a comedic effect, but the content and topics of her videos had never been inappropriate or vulgar (Guo). Papi did not mean to cause any harm when she included swear words in her videos, but the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television did not see her videos in that way. .
The censorship of Papi’s video was viewed as a message from the Chinese government that it wanted to take greater control over online celebrities (Qin). One day after Papi Jiang’s censorship scandal, President Xi Jinping held an internet security symposium in Beijing and called for “enhanced development of the Internet and harnessing it for the benefit of the country and the people,” in which “better cyberspace management and a positive and healthy cyberculture will be good for everyone” (Guo). Although the internet is much less censored than mainstream media, there are still some boundaries that the wanghong cannot cross, such as using inappropriate language. The Chinese internet is a fuzzy area in terms of censorship, since wanghong can be more authentic than traditional celebrities, but they also must be careful. Many fans were upset by the SAFRT’s decision to censor Papi’s videos and expressed their opinions online (Guo). A survey on weibo showed that more than 70% of people were against Papi’s censorship and did not think that her videos had to be taken down, and believe that that internet content should have its own rules for censorship (Guo). As shown by the censorship of Papi’s harmless and innocent videos, the Chinese government has been working toward a tighter control of the wanghing and the content that they release. However, this stricter authority may not be completely negative for the wanghong.
Surprisingly, Papi Jiang’s censorship scandal did not hinder her success at all. On April 21st, 2016, only a few days after Papi Jiang’s videos were taken down, a video ad auction was held in Beijing (Huang). The winning bidder, a beauty company, paid Papi 22 million yuan, around 3.4 million US dollars, for a brief advertisement spot in one of her videos (Huang). Papi’s recent censorship scandal did not seem to have any negative effect on this ad auction (Guo). If anything, the censorship scandal only boosted her popularity, allowing her to gain a millions of dollars from an ad auction. Even though the government was trying to control her, it is clear that Papi still had a lot of power and influence. The harsh censorship of the SAFRT turned out to actually be beneficial for Papi. Companies were competing for an advertisement in one of her videos, since they knew that more people would be watching her, due to the recent censorship scandal. When wanghong are censored, they gain more publicity, which causes people, especially companies looking for advertisements, to be more interested in them. Therefore, China’s harsh censorship can work in favor of wanghong because even if they are censored, they will still gain publicity, and companies will want advertisements from them.
Censorship is beneficial to the wanghong for two reasons. The first reason is the contrast between traditional celebrities and internet celebrities. There is less censorship on the internet than in mainstream media, so fans of wanghong feel more connected to online stars. The admiration and trust that the fans have for the wanghong cause them to respond very strongly to advertisements, so many companies are interested in paying the wanghong to promote goods. Secondly, if an internet celebrity is censored by a CCP organization, such as the SAFRT, they will favorably gain publicity, as shown by Papi Jiang, and the censorship does not ruin their reputation. Censorship in China is beneficial to the wanghong, since it helps them gain more money, and the increased business of internet celebrities has contributed to the recent boom in the wanghong economy.
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