Hong Kong protests, K-pop fan activism and the mobilisation of Chinese propaganda?

Blog / Thursday, August 29th, 2019

As with anyone who’s in tune with global world affairs, I’ve been following the news of Hong Kong very closely; transfixed by, and in awe of the courage the people (especially the youths) who have been taking to the streets every week since June to fight for their freedom to preserve not only their way of life, but their civil liberties, and their identities as HKers. Social media — Twitter, in particular — served as an up-to-date resource of the news and the opinions that permeate through. 

Twitter elevated the orderliness of the early protests: the pictures and videos of a 2-million-strong crowd parting for an ambulance to pass through the protesters now having been recorded into the annals of (social media and protest) history. I was equally horrified and devastated with the rest of Twitter when the police brutality started, worried that another Tiananmen disaster is in the making. I raged when the video of the Australian businessman yelling at the protesters during the airport sit-in disrupted travellers surfaced on the Twittersphere. 

I rage because the man’s arguments were those typical of the privileged, who doesn’t understand, nor very likely does he care to understand, the cultural nuances of Asian culture at large. But because he is white, and for the majority who sees the world in coloured lenses, who thinks violence, racism and colonialism can only be enacted by those of one colour on another, his complaints are going to get more visibility than the causes of the Hong Kong protesters. I rage because people like him can callously throw around flippant judgement calls like how Hong Kong “belongs” to China, and that they’re all one and the same without any consequences. As if notions of identity, in particular cultural identity, do not matter to HKers, to the Taiwanese, and on a more personal level, to Sarawakians, as each of our history continues to be erased in favour of those with more power. And I rage as important arguments by Melissa Chen’s on how postcolonial theory doesn’t work in places like Hong Kong is mostly ignored, even by academics. 

However, I’m not here to debate about the protests, for others have presented more astute arguments than me.

As a fan studies scholar, I’m more interested in another incident that may have slipped past people’s attention. About two weeks ago, the “Hong Kong” feed on Twitter — normally filled with up-to-date information on protests, opinion pieces and news from pro-democracy publications — shifted. Interspersed with news and information coming from Hong Kong were tweets by concerned K-pop fans over the safety of their favourite K-pop idols under the hashtag #JYPE_CancelGOT7HKConcerts. The tweets were specifically focused on the K-pop band, GOT7, who was due to have a concert in Hong Kong. Fans were concerned the continued unrest (this was at the height of the protests, when police brutality on protesters and passers-by were rampant) would pose a danger to the band members. GOT7 fans appealed to other K-pop bandoms to put aside their tastes and differences to — for lack of a better term — band together and appeal to the management company, JYPE to cancel the band’s concert. 

In essence, #JYPE_CancelGOT7HKConcerts is [Twitter] fan activism. Fan studies scholars have commented and some may even have participated in these social media savvy campaigns. Viewed from the perspective of fan activism, the K-pop fans were also engaging in a form of civic engagement and digital citizenship. Their favourite band was going to be performing in a city state that has been hit with constant unrest. It is highly likely public transport will be affected, making security and safety an issue. The difference with this particular hashtag at the time, was that it was populating a feed that has become centred on political activism and civic engagement (the latter, especially for HKers and other concerned citizens who weren’t in Hong Kong but doing their part in spreading the word).

However, the tone of the tweets changed when one of the band members — a Hong Kong-born Chinese — declared on the Chinese microblogging site, Weibo, his support for Beijing. His declaration (and others, including Disney’s Mulan actress) courted the wrath of pro-democracy supporters; who, asides from fighting a ‘war’ on the streets, is also fighting a PR war on social media. As calls for boycott rise on social media, the tone of the tweets (under both the hashtag #JYPE_CancelGOT7HKConcerts and the “Hong Kong kpop” feed) from fans also change: terms like “riot”, “violent” and “dangerous” now enter the rhetoric in relation to Hong Kong, as tweeted by these K-pop fans, with some going on to reiterate the ideology of a united China. 

JYPE eventually cancelled the band’s Hong Kong concert, but as other Chinese celebrities publicly declare their allegiance to China, arguments break out among fans on social media. Those defending the celebrities maintain that these celebrities were likely being coerced in order to continue performing in China, suggesting that the allegiance is therefore an economic one rather than an insightful political position. Others, however, argue that the celebrities can instead choose to remain silent (as many in Hong Kong as well as China have), rather than to seem like they are trying to please China’s central government in order to elevate themselves at the expanse of Hong Kong’s future. 

As the band, BTS, has recently proven, K-pop has become a global phenomenon. As such, K-pop stars have not only become lucrative commercial commodities, but also influencers, accureing the attention and loyalty of millions. In a PR war like the one China is waging against Hong Kong, for instance, this is a powerful mouthpiece to amass. On top of the Chinese-centric rhetoric (the usage of terminology like ‘rioters’), fans also share manipulated and out-of-context images heavily circulated by Chinese state-sponsored mediaTwitter, Facebook and YouTube have since suspended and deleted accounts on their platforms used to spread fake news and misinformation on the Hong Kong protests. 

This isn’t to suggest that K-pop fans are cultural dupes, but rather a reflection of the power of fandom en masse. Joanna Elfving-Hwang have commented on the dedication of K-pop fans, and it is also difficult to not feel the fans’ presence on social media platforms like Twitter. In fact, if Western conception of fandom and community have dimmed a bit with fragmentation of fandom into platforms like Tumblr — Lori Morimoto has been arguing for fandom to be conceptualised as contact zones rather than communities — fandoms like BTS’s have shown how an almost militaristic approach to its Twitter campaigns have seen the band’s continued rise in media (and industry) attention. Furthermore, the industrial practices of the K-pop industry: the pan-Asian recruitment and training of band members (especially that from China to ease breaking into the market) ensures the cross-cultural appeal of K-pop. 

It bears asking if the concept of fan activism (within the context of this complex transnational and transcultural relationships) have been hijacked by the Chinese state media propaganda in this case? It is difficult to resist thinking that China does not recognise the power and (global) positions of some of these K-pop stars, and would seek to make use of this influence somehow, given another Tiananmen incident when the world is paying close attention to it’s reaction would certainly be unwise. And certainly, at what stage does the circulation of soft power become neocolonialism given China’s thirst for power? 

At the same time, within fan studies, we need to consider if as scholars, we have perhaps unquestioningly and uncritically taken fan activism as evidence of ‘good fan behaviour’. “Fan studies has long depicted fandom as a site of ideological and cultural resistance to the heteronormative and patriarchal values often shaping mass media” (Jenkins and Shrestova, 2012). In the Western context, we have applauded fans’ appropriation of pop culture narratives and icons in exploring their civic engagement. We see this in the #MeToo movement and Women’s March that have become global phenomenons. “[F]an-based groups had helped support civic learning and had developed resources and practices that could quickly mobilise supporters behind emergencies, charities, or human rights campaign”, Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shrestova reflected in 2012. I use these very examples myself as I introduce resistant students to the concept of fandom, eager to move the discourse away from the overly emotional, indiscriminate consumer persona of the fan (heightened in Asia with media representations of extreme fan behaviour such as stalking).

But in this era of fraught relations and historic cultural clashes between China and Hong Kong, fought on the streets of the former British territory, mediated by social media-savvy protesters and fans concerned with the safety of their favourite celebrities, we need to consider how fan activism can potentially be harmful to civic learning as well. 

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