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Party Lines: Why China Prefers Virtual Stars For Show Business Fame

Hologram idols are the new stars of the entertainment industry in China, performing in live concerts and in front of audiences of millions. It's not just tech companies that are happy about the boom, the leadership in Beijing is too for more political reasons.

Photo of "​Virtual stars" decorations in a fast-food restaurant in Shanghai

"Virtual stars" in a fast-food restaurant in Shanghai

Wang Gang/Sipa Asia/SIPA Asia/ZUMA
Maximilian Kalkhof

BEIJING — Luo Tianyi celebrated her breakthrough at the Spring Festival Gala. The show is broadcast every year on state television at the beginning of the Chinese New Year. With approximately 700 million viewers, it is not only the TV program with the largest audience worldwide, it is also one of the most influential shows in Chinese culture.

What's special about Luo Tianyi is that she's not human. The singer is a hologram, an avatar. And the first virtual idol to make it into the Spring Festival Gala.

Luo can look back on a glittering career. She was born out of a cooperation between a Chinese and a Japanese company, and in 2012 she was introduced to the public. In the years that followed, she rose to stardom.

In 2019, she gave a concert together with world-famous pianist Lang Lang. Today, she has more than five million fans on the Chinese social media platform Weibo.

TikTok joins the growing business

Virtual idols originated in Japan. But in China, the trend has developed its own momentum, which is closely linked to the rise of Bilibili. This video-sharing platform is considered a home for anime, comic and gaming fans. In 2020, it hosted China's first concert exclusively featuring virtual artists.

There are currently more than 10,000 virtual idols on Bilibili. They are real crowd pullers: When virtual singer Eileen celebrated her birthday with a live-streaming concert on Bilibili in August, she took in about 1.5 million yuan (200,000 euros) from paying fans in about two and half hours.

The hype leads companies to advertise with the virtual figures. Last year, for example, the U.S. carmaker Tesla advertised on the Chinese market with the virtual star Ling. McDonald's went one step further: instead of advertising with an already existing character, the fast-food company irreverently presented its own virtual idol, Happy Sister, as a brand ambassador in January 2021.

The cyber supervisory authority announced it would put fan culture in its place.

Meanwhile, an entire industry is emerging. According to the Chinese consulting firm iiMedia, the Chinese virtual idol market reached the equivalent of $540 million in 2020, an increase of more than 70% compared to 2019. It is expected to exceed the threshold of $1 billion this year.

One reason for this is the progress made by Chinese companies in technologies such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence. The market potential has led big names to enter the ring. For example: the band A-SOUL, which includes Eileen, is managed by Beijing-based Yuehua Entertainment. ByteDance, the company behind video platform TikTok, invested in Yuehea this year.

According to the Chinese tech website 36kr, at least 10 tech startups specializing in motion capture, image synthesis, artificial intelligence and image processing technologies for virtual idols have raised money in funding rounds since mid-2020.

Photo of a Bilibili screen displaying one of its 10,000 virtual stars

There are currently more than 10,000 virtual idols on Bilibili.


Cracking down on real-life idols

But the growth of the market also has to do with the fact that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been cracking down on the entertainment industry for some time. In late August, Zhao Wei, one the country's most prominent actresses, was deleted from the Internet overnight.

Virtual idols are proving to be extremely practical.

The feature films and television series in which Zhao has starred over the past 20 years are no longer available on streaming platforms. On information pages about the films, her image has been erased and her name replaced with "xx." Zhao's fan pages on the internet with millions of followers were also deleted. Actors who are friends with her deleted photos from social networks that show them together with Zhao.

The background is unclear, there is no official explanation. But she is not the only one affected. At the same time as Zhao's virtual erasure, the tax office announced that actress Zheng Shuang would have to pay the equivalent of 25 million euros in fines for tax evasion. Shortly before that, singer Kris Wu had already been arrested on charges of rape. What is true about all these accusations cannot be verified.

Hologram idols don't have political opinions — or do they?

But apparently the CCP is declaring war on the whole entertainment industry. The cyber supervisory authority announced it would put fan culture in its place. And the Discipline Commission complained that celebrity worship has created a toxic culture that imparts the wrong values to China's youth.

Against this background, virtual idols are proving to be extremely practical. After all, in a political environment where a celebrity can be deleted from the Internet overnight because they are deemed inappropriate by the authorities, virtual idols are a safe bet for investors. They don't have political opinions and they don't have trouble. In short, they are reliable assets.

However, the example of Japanese stars Akai Haato and Kiryu Coco shows that this bet doesn't always work out. In a livestream, the virtual idols referred to Taiwan as a "country" — and thus drew the ire of the CCP. The People's Republic considers Taiwan to be part of its territory, although the country is de facto an independent state. The two virtual stars were banned from Bilibili.

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