Hospitals in Hubei province are running short of supplies due to the surge of patients during the coronavirus outbreak. Amidst charities from all over the globe, a large chunk of medical supplies came from the fan girls, a special presence on the first-aid frontline. Women in their early twenties spontaneously organized public welfare action to aid the Wuhan medical staff during this chaotic Spring Festival holiday. According to the accounts published on Weibo, the supplies donated by different fan organizations has totaled over 1 million yuan as of February 14.
Even if you do not hang in the pop music idol community, it is becoming hard to ignore the power of fandom when you are scrolling through Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. When checking trending topics, you are likely to discover countless pictures or videos featuring fine-looking idols, whether relevant or not. You might also be surprised by the comment sections, which are occupied by a neatly organized group of fans using punchlines to introduce their idol’s charisma to the non-fans. Each member of the fan organizations is like a PR manager of their idol, who is genuinely concerned about any bad press of their “little brother” and will go all out to promote him all over social media, only without being paid.
China’s “fan circle”(fan quan) are superb when it comes to organizing and launching collective action. Formed predominantly by young female fans of a male celebrity, usually a member of a boy band, the fan organizations are bound by their selfless love for their idol. Influenced by K-pop fandom culture and unique Chinese social media trends, the fan circle communities could be the most dedicated, organized and autonomous civil organization in China. They can stream their idols’ MVs non-stop, produce and promote content on a regular basis, and deal with bad press efficiently—everything a PR manager is already doing, while they sometimes can go above and beyond.
Armies of fan girls come together, and will do everything to help with their idol’s career, including always standing with their country on important issues. Chinese state-backed media China Daily brought fandom culture to mainstream by leading a trending “super-topic” hashtag on Weibo in response to the Hong Kong protestors: #We all have an idol called China#. The Communist Youth League of China followed this trend and started another hashtag #The fan girls’ crusade# calling on fan girls to defend their common idol “Brother China” on western social media sites like Twitter and Instagram. Thousands of fans circumvented China’s restricted internet and flooded social media platforms including Twitter and Instagram to “kong ping”(manage the public opinion). This involves downvoting negative comments and spreading positive messages about China, just like what they always do for their own idol.
The astonishing mobilization does not come from nowhere. Being a committed fan is a very serious matter in Chinese fandom culture, but being a member in the management of a fan organization is even more businesslike. To join the management of certain fan groups, one have to take a full-on test given by current managing members about your loyalty, commitment, skillset and initiative. Even while occupying the position, managing members have to be extremely careful, otherwise they face ruthless censure by other fans and even risk expulsion. “We are walking on thin ice”, said Zhang Maomao, a current managing member in a fan organization, “We have to publish all managing and financial accounts for the community scrutiny. A tiny mistake could lead to widespread outrage.”
The level of transparency and diligence of fan organizations could be exactly what is missing from most Chinese philanthropy organizations, and their management skills definitely came in handy as the coronavirus hit Wuhan, and shortly after the entire China. They are full of energy, have abundant experience in organizing collective action, do not have to endure bureaucracy, and can quickly mobilize all forces. Most importantly, these fan organizations move fast. Qianqian, a leading member from Global Fan Club of Chinese idol Peng Chuyue, started to closely follow the epidemic since January 22. “We immediately started a discussion in our fan group”, said Qianqian, “We are aware of the risks of donating money, so we decided to do our best to send supplies to the hospitals.”
Peng Chuyue Global Fan Club is not the only fan organization seeking to help. Through LuHan Commonwealth Fan Union, 27 fan organizations were connected and formed the “666 Alliance”. On January 24, just two days after the idea of helping Wuhan hospitals emerged in the fan group, the alliance completed its first round of fundraising. Upon the night of January 25, the first day of Chinese new year, the first batch of supplies had arrived at Wuhan Dongxihu District People’s Hospital.
This is not the first time these fan clubs had connected to support a charitable cause. In fact, actively engaging in philanthropy has become a common practice for Chinese fan organizations. As Xiaodu from LuHan Commonwealth Fan Union introduced, most the these 27 fan organizations are already familiar with each other before the Wuhan outbreak. Young as they are, the members already have experience with a variety of charity projects. To celebrate their idol LuHan’s birthday, the fan union launched multiple campaigns through Alibaba’s environmental initiative Ant Forest and charity app Rice Donate. Qianqian, from Peng Chuyue Global Fan Club, said the most memorable philanthropic initiative was an anti-bullying campaign they launched in their idol’s name. “Peng Chuyue opened up to the media about his experience suffering from bullying in school, and that’s why we as a fan club want to spread the awareness”, said Qianqian.
But this time, providing supplies for the frontline hospitals is still a hard mission to complete, not only because the epidemic parallels the Chinese New Year holiday. As Hubei’s hospitals started to appeal online for help since early January, the public trust in Chinese Red Cross, a state-backed philanthropy organization reached to a new low for ineptitude. On January 26, the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs announced that all donations must go through five official philanthropy organizations including Hubei Provincial Red Cross. Since then, many have complained that the distribution and delivery of donated supplies is opaque. Most supplies sent from overseas are even rumored to have been detained or returned. In the meantime, hospitals are still crying for help on social media despite the Red Cross in China — and other organizations — having received millions of dollars in donations.
Without a third party, the fan girls need to get it all figured out by themselves. Mostly college students and young professionals, the members use their personal connections to weave a solid network. “Although we come from all walks of life, only very few have direct contact with medical suppliers and distributors”, said Eva from a Roy Wang fansite. To ensure the supplies they sourced abroad are up to Chinese standards, Eva and her fellow members in management had to learn the difference between US and Chinese standards for the N95 Respirator. Xiaodu also mentioned the difficulty her team had when choosing medical supplies: “None of us are professional, but we do not want hospitals to make do with whatever people give at this point”.
Another major obstacle is the delivery of the supplies. During the national holiday, the cost of logistics had jumped up significantly, while the efficiency dropped. To complicate matters, strict quarantine was started at the end of January in most cities in Hubei. “We have successfully sent supplies into Wuhan initially, but it has become harder as more restrictions are in place”, said Xiaoxiao, leader of singer Xu Liang’s fan club and “Hundred Fan Clubs Aid” project. A source who participated in the operation revealed that a recent pack of supplies they donated had been detained and returned by the local authority without further explanation. He explained, “There is an inconsistency in policy execution between different batches of supplies we send”. As sending supplies into Wuhan became nearly impossible, some fan groups turned to other cities that suffered from the epidemic including Xiaogan and Jingzhou.
For Xiaoxiao, the scale of this online grassroots aid project exceeded what she could imagined. Although her project is named “Hundred Fan Clubs Aid”, the actual number of fan organizations participated is already over 500. “As more fan organizations join our WeChat group, all we need to do was to start an initiative, and fans all over the world will react passionately.” According to Qianqian, members on duty in the alliance can only get three to four hours of sleep each day, and are required to be responsive online 24 hours. The fan girls dealt with time differences with diligence and solidarity, and had launched more than 14 round of fundraising initiatives. In Xiaoxiao’s project alone, the total value of medical supplies shipped is approximately 348,000 yuan.
“I joined the fan club because of my love for my idol, but I stayed because of the fellow members”, said Zhang Maomao. Despite being a senior managing member of her fan club, she is just a 20-year-old sophomore student in college. Currently, her university has postponed the starting date of the 2020 spring semester and forbidden students from coming back to Beijing due to the coronavirus. Her prolonged holiday wasn’t at all leisurely, as she actively engaged in updating the information of donated supplies on social media. “We young people genuinely want to make a difference when we get the chance”, she laughed, “if only there were more organizations that function like us in China.”
Special thanks to LuHan Commonwealth Fan Union, Peng Chuyue Global Fan Club, TwinkleRoy Roy Wang Fan Site, Xu Liang Global Fan Club, Zhang Maomao, Sophia Wang and Kyle Li for contributing to this piece