Xiao Zhan and AO3 Fans Clash, Sparking Social Media Firestorm

Xiao Zhan, a famous Chinese actor and singer (Source: Weibo@Xiao Zhan)

During the end of February, a firestorm ignited at the intersection of cultural and entertainment circles. Xiao Zhan, a popular actor in China and an icon in international LGBT community became the center of heated discussion on social media. Topics related to the event dwelled on Weibo’s hot topics page; articles and comments were all over the internet and multiple social media platforms. Even on Twitter, a platform banned in China, a hashtag started by Xiao Zhan’s fans, #WeLoveYouXiaoZhan, trended in several countries. So how did it begin? Who’s Xiao Zhan? What’s AO3? Why does it matter? And most importantly, what does it tell us about today’s Chinese netizens and the famous Chinese firewall?

Xiao Zhan, a famous Chinese actor and singer, quickly rose to fame in 2019 after starring the television show The Untamed, which is based on a popular gay novel on the internet. Afterwards, his Weibo followers grew to over two million, and the bromance between Xiao Zhan and his partner in the show, Wang Yibo, also was widely celebrated by fans. Earlier this year, a fan fiction about the two went viral, which also became the fuse of the upcoming controversy. Fans of Xiao Zhan were furious about the fan fiction as it depicts their idol as a prostitute; then, they quickly extended their anger to the platform where the fan fiction was published.

Xiaozhan and The Untamed

AO3, also known as Archive of Our Own, is an international open source repository for fan content. As of 2019, AO3 hosted over 5 million fictions in over 35 thousand fandoms. The platform also once own the Hugo Award for Best Related Work. The LGBT literature community treat it as their habitat, and most importantly, it was not blocked in China. What caused the whole downward spiral, was when Xiao Zhan’s fans reported Archive for Our Own to the Chinese government. The fallout resulted in the deletion of countless content and AO3 itself, not surprisingly became unaccessible to Chinese internet users. The crackdown eventually triggered a war between Xiao Zhan’s fans and everybody who was involved in AO3 and LGBT literature communities.

After the story evolved over a couple of days and with input from many people directly involved, the impact extends broader than conflicts between fans groups. It sparked discussion around numerous topics that Chinese public is due to ponder on. To begin with, to what extent should the freedom of literature creation and the right of reporting should be protected? Should there be a boundary to freedom, when authors create gay literature based on real-life celebrities? On the other hand, is the right of reporting fully justified, at least morally, when the consequence hurt other people’s right to read and exchange cultural content they like? From Xiao Zhan’s fans’ perspective, freedom has a price and should be curtailed. From the standpoint of AO3 users, nobody really forced Xiao Zhan’s fans to read material that makes them uncomfortable, and simply because they don’t like it, their solution was to rely on authoritative power to make it disappear.

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That argument leads to my second question, where did the mentality of “I don’t like it, so it should disappear” come from? Pop culture’s fans on internet are mostly teenagers, and it is very dangerous to hold such a mentality while growing up in a world where open-mindedness and collaboration are vital. Should the censorship environment be held accountable when young netizens failed to embrace, or even just tolerate, different perspectives, and instead request the censorship of others?

Later on, fans of Xiao Zhan went on Twitter and started #WeLoveYouXiaoZhan, narrating the event as an incident of violent abuse against their idol by Chinese netizens, which is inaccurate at best, and totally distorting the reality at worst. That leads to the final question: Who is really being blinded by the firewall?? It’s undeniable that with filtered information, officials need to worry less about public opinion being misled by biased views. However, on the other hand, it hinders citizens ability to defend, to clarify, to present the true version of themselves and their country to a worldwide audience. It’s unquestionable to say that there’s so much more to consider and judge on the Chinese firewall, but hopefully this Xiao Zhan incident offers some new perspectives on the topic.