Zooming in on China's new celebrity cult culture

New freedom pushes advertisers to seek out big stars in a fast-growing consumer market

Chinese fans are seen cheering during the quarter final match between Norway and China at the FIFA Women's World Cup Soccer tournament held in the Wuh...

Chinese fans are seen cheering during the quarter final match between Norway and China at the FIFA Women's World Cup Soccer tournament held in the Wuh...

It will be THE game of Day 1 of men's basketball at the Beijing Olympics: China vs. the United States, the 21st century's emerging superpower challenging the 20th century's titan.
The new 18,000-seat arena is already sold out. Many will be watching for just one of the hoopsters expected on court that Aug. 10 night: Yao Ming, the 7-foot-6 chiseled giant from Shanghai who has made it big in America's NBA.
China's superstar
Just three decades ago - a heartbeat historically but a lifetime in a country changing as fast as China - the Communist Party allowed just one person to tower above the rest: Mao Zedong. As the toiling masses were made to recite, he was China's Great Helmsman, its Great Leader ("May he live forever!"), the "Reddest Sun in our Hearts." Propaganda posters showed Mao with a Jesus-like aura.
Had Yao played then, he never would have been allowed to get so famous, nor go play for the Houston Rockets and become an NBA All-Star. But today, China's people, not the party, are choosing whom they worship as icons. And worship they do.
In place of the cult of personality that the party built around Mao, the Chinese are embracing a new cult: that of fame and celebrity. Mao's portrait still gazes out across Beijing's vast Tiananmen Square. But the revolutionary who changed the course of history is being supplanted in Chinese hearts by a firmament of music, sports and movie celebrities.
That journey from Mao to Yao speaks volumes about how China is becoming a freer place for its 1.3 billion people. To be sure, most Chinese are still reluctant to criticize their government in public for fear of arrest or police attention. But individuality, once frowned upon by the communists, is now seen as a right by young Chinese. Members of the Mao generation - unisex haircuts in proletarian blue and green overalls - were forced to bow to the supposed collective good. The cry from generation Yao is "Look at me!"
This freedom and the rise of the celebrity are outgrowths of the gradual opening of the economy and society since 1979. China was poor 30 years ago. Now, advertisers seek out celebrities for an edge in a fast-growing consumer market.
Yao takes in millions of dollars annually, endorsing everything from burgers to laptops, credit cards to sodas. Forbes magazine's Chinese edition this year again ranked Yao as the top-earning star in China, estimating that he rakes in about US$56 million (euro36 million).
Kung-fu action star Jet Li was second, with estimated annual earnings worth US$35 million (euro22.4 million). Such riches - which would have been a crime in Mao's time - only enhance stars' popularity and buy them influence, making it harder for government officials to boss them around. A giant poster of Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang hangs on a new clothing store in downtown Beijing, vying in size with Mao's on Tiananmen Square.
"Now it is no problem that your poster is bigger than Mao, as long as you don't put it in Tiananmen Square, nobody cares," said Yue Xiaodong, who studies Chinese youth and idol worship as a professor at Hong Kong's City University. "This is why the communists are getting hugely popular among young people, because they give young people hope that you can become famous, glamorous, wealthy overnight, and you can be individualistic, be yourself."
Few are better placed to measure the thirst for fame in China than "Allen" Su Xing (pronounced Sue Shing).
Life for the willowy, doe-eyed 24-year-old turned upside down when he reached the final of "Superboy" - an "American idol" knockoff that took China by storm last summer. Fans gave him 2.5 million votes, phoned in at US$0.15 a pop, exercising a democratic right the Communist Party still doesn't extend to the way China chooses its political leaders.
Su's second place finish (winner Chen Chusheng got 3.3 million votes) was enough, he hopes, to launch a music career. The former student now wears dark glasses and hats to avoid being recognized in public. Flying back from out-of-town concerts, he finds fans waiting for him at Beijing's airport, bearing gifts. He has three boxes in his apartment filled with thousands of fan letters, some perfumed and covered with hearts. And this before he has recorded his first album, due next year.
"There are so many people who are trying so hard to be famous," Su said in an interview, fiddling with a bracelet of black and silver beads given to him by a fan. "We don't want to be part of a crowd. We want others to see us as individuals."
"In China, when someone treats you as an idol, they are searching for something that they don't have but they can see in you," said Su, who chose his English name Allen in admiration for NBA star Allen Iverson.

Updated : 2021-04-15 06:10 GMT+08:00