Opinion: China’s celebrity rankings ban could be more sinister than it seems

Opinion: China’s celebrity rankings ban could be more sinister than it seems
The Chinese Communist Party wants to be at the centre of its citizens’ lives, including playing the role of their top social media influencer. Celebrity culture potentially poses a threat to that

What is it about rankings that makes them so seductive? Lists of top movies, top Marvel movies, top stars of Marvel movies, top Stan Lee cameos in Marvel movies (although the best one may be in rival DC’s Teen Titans Go animation), top bit-part actor saved from certain death by Tony Stark in Marvel movies – they’re everywhere.

Almost every media website of note has them, including this one, because they guarantee views, especially during coffee breaks. Or the unofficial five-minute breaks we all take. (Note to my editors: I, of course, am naturally glued to serious hard financial and other news at all times during work hours, and would never dream of spending time idly surfing the web in search of a ranking of the best celebrity lawsuits. Except for legitimate research purposes.)

Plenty of people spend those five minutes – and maybe longer – creating their own lists for dissection on social media websites and discussion boards. I’ve never gone that far, but if you want my ranking of the prettiest multicoloured vinyl releases – The Chills’ blue and white edition of Scatterbrain, which looks like a stormy sea, is my current fave – I’m sure I could oblige.

On that subject, China would now seem to be a slam dunk for first place in any ranking of the most ridiculous examples of regulatory overreach of all time. It’s reportedly trying to regulate rankings of celebrities, which are wildly popular in the country.

On the face of it, this looks even more daft than even some of the EU rules that Boris Johnson mostly made up when he was allegedly working as a journalist. Is this, then, just another fever dream to rile up the supporters of a future prime minister or president somewhere? It seems not.

The move comes as part of a concerted attempt by China to bring an “out of control” celebrity culture to heel.

Now, it isn’t just the Chinese state’s micro-managers who have been wrestling with internet culture and its disturbing ability to veer off into crazy town. Exhibit A: Britain’s Online Harms Bill, which attempts to regulate social media companies and address some of the troubling issues that have recently been coughed up.

Labour is among those who’ve taken aim at the bill’s weakness in the face of the foul racism experienced by England’s black footballers. If ever you needed an example of where regulation in the face of fan culture turning extremely toxic would be invaluable, it’s there.

So, maybe this isn’t quite the example of regulatory overreach it might appear to be. All the more so if you consider the mental health of the predominantly young stars who end up getting ranked and liked – or not liked – as they live their lives in an online goldfish bowl on their way up. And then there’s the bullying and harassment that have been observed as part of the country’s intense fan culture. Fundraising is an issue, too. Of course it is.

Seen through that lens, the idea makes more sense. Or does it? Not to put too fine a point on it, there may be an ulterior motive at work. Celebrity culture might seem trivial and disposable, and ditto the rankings that are a part of it.

But celebrities themselves can attain real power through it, up to and including political power. It has propelled people into governors’ offices – even the White House. The most recent example of that comes in the form of the top-ranked worst president of all time, and clear No 1 in any list assessing the biggest jerks ever to occupy the Oval Office. There is admittedly some competition there, but I imagine you can guess who I’m talking about.

The Chinese Communist Party wants to be at the centre of its citizens’ lives, including playing the role of their top social media influencer. Celebrity culture potentially poses a threat to that. Banning rankings doesn’t seem either silly or smart in that context. There’s another “s” word to describe it: sinister.

I was going to sign off by joking about ranking the top 10 scariest horror movies of 2021 prior to the release of Candyman, before I was left too much of a quivering wreck by the movie itself. But at the centre of the Chinese campaign there may be something more disturbing still.

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