China Discovers a New “Cult,” “Fan Circle Culture”

The rhetoric of “xie jiao” and “brainwashing” is used to crack down on fan clubs of sport and entertainment celebrities

by Hu Zimo

“Repairing the chaos” of fan circles. Poster in typical Xi Jinping language distributed by the Supreme People Procuratorate’s Film and Television Center.

“Bitter Winter” has repeatedly noted the expansive use of the category of “xie jiao,” translated (somewhat incorrectly) in official English-language Chinese documents as “evil cults.” Another example comes from the application of the rhetoric of “xie jiao” and “brainwashing” to control the “fan circle culture,” a matter of such concern to the CCP that it has been discussed at the recent Two Sessions.

The “fan circle” (饭圈) culture in China refers to the organized networks of fans, mostly on social media, who actively promote and support their favorite sport or entertainment celebrities. Fan circles have millions of members, particularly among teenagers and young adults. Some of them are highly organized, and indeed some have even been praised for promoting and organizing charitable activities.

On the other hand, fan circles have been heavily criticized for generating fanaticism, inducing young members to engage in cyberbullying against those who do not share their enthusiasm for a certain celebrity, and sometimes milking them for their money. What causes concern in the CCP is also that when celebrities have been punished for moral wrongdoings, real or otherwise, or for criticizing the Party, fan circle members have rallied to their support.

From 2021, the Cyberspace Administration of China has enacted measures against “fan circles,” trying to control them as it does with any Internet phenomenon that develops, in the words of Xi Jinping, “chaotically” and escapes the Party’s surveillance. The rhetoric of “evil” and “cults” that practice “brainwashing” was already mobilized at that time against “fan circles,” and is used again in the current campaign.

The fan circles should be brought under control. Another poster distributed by the Supreme People Procuratorate’s Film and Television Center.

In fact, Xi Jinping himself said in 2021 that “fan circles” are “like xie jiao,” and CCP propaganda accused them of using “brainwashing,” claiming that there was “similarity between fanatic fan circles and cults in their ways to build up a personality and mobilize and control followers.”

Of course, it is not false that “fan circles” may involve problematic behavior and fanaticism. However, the CCP’s response and the use of the “xie jiao” category evidences that the typical reaction of the authorities in China is never to try to understand juvenile culture and its motivation, and to answer through repression only. More broadly, the CCP cracks down on everything that organizes independently and operates outside of its control.