Earlier this month, Chinese web users noticed young male celebrities’ earrings were blurred on several shows on iQiyi, a Netflix-like video platform. These included Wang Linkai of the popular idol group Nine Percent and actor Jing Boran.
These young male celebrities are likely attracting scrutiny in part thanks to to their significant cultural influence in China. Known colloquially as “young fresh meat” (小鲜肉), attractive male stars have attracted enormous and devoted fan bases.
Gartner L2 has found that young fresh meat stars consistently drive massive social engagement for brands across sectors. In the recent Luxury China: Influencers Insight Report, seven out of the top 10 watch and jewelry brand Weibo posts featured a young male celebrity. The top post by Chopard featured Wang Yuan of the ultra-popular boy band TFBoys, whose members dominate social engagement for brands across categories. Five out of the top 10 watch and jewelry brand Weibo posts for the time period studied featured him.
Earrings are a common fashion trend among male pop stars in China, with top celebrities including Kris Wu, Lu Han, and TFBoys member Jackson Yee sporting them.
While iQiyi denies it has received a government directive and no official ban has been publicly announced, an anonymous TV station employee told Chinese media that they had been told to avoid filming men’s earrings. One possible reason is a Chinese government attempt to censor any styles it deems too “effeminate” for men. Young fresh meat idols were the subject of a September op-ed by state-run media outlet Xinhua complaining that they looked too “androgynous,” stating that they are “slender but weak as willows,” and a sign of a “sick culture.”
The earring censorship could also be related to a draconian government crackdown on televised displays of what it calls “subculture,” “hip-hop culture,” and “dispirited culture” including tattoos and dyed hair. Everyone from contestants on iQiyi’s Rap of China show to members of China’s national soccer team have been forced to wear long sleeves and bandages covering their tattoos if appearing on TV. In 2017, a TV show photoshopped a comical hat animation on a character with pink hair, while a show in July last year placed a cat emoji over a male star’s ponytail.
These incidents are a reminder that Chinese celebrities and the multinational brands they endorse are at the mercy of the Chinese government’s impulses. Last summer, China’s top actress Fan Bingbing disappeared for months following a tax evasion scandal, prompting brands including Montblanc and De Beers to cancel their brand ambassador deals with her. While the TFBoys may have their earrings censored, they appear to be in good standing overall: they have starred in promotions for the Communist Youth League and ranked highly in a government-affiliated study scoring the “social responsibility” of China’s top celebrities.