Barred from the luxury of sating appetites for controversy and sex through political coverage, the Chinese media has found safe, and fertile, ground in absurd, disgusting and, more often than not, lascivious human interest stories. Combine an ongoing cultural transformation that pits new kinds of behavior and personal expression against old norms, add fierce social competition for limited resources, and your left with a culture of tabloid journalism peppered with publicity stunts.
Any conversation about publicity stunts in China must begin with the entertainment industry. Nude pictures, videos and illicit affairs can boost a singer or actor’s profile, so it’s no surprise that quite a few have been accused of staging leaks themselves. Just this week a video of a man paying a relatively little known actress 80,000RMB to see her naked made it onto the internet. Some say the actress arranged the whole thing.
But, it’s not just the famous that are willing to manipulate to get more attention. Last year when Obama gave a speech in Shanghai a girl in a red dress sitting behind the president became an internet celebrity. It came out later than her boyfriend paid for a few internet sites to build the hype. There’s also the mother who secretly video-taped her daughter in the shower and posted it on the web, all in the service of finding her a boyfriend.
Then there’s Tianya, one of the biggest Internet portals in China. The company itself has been implicated in several stunts. One of the biggest internet phenomenons last year, a girl’s diary about the exploits of her fat, boy-crazy college classmate Xiao Yue Yue (小月月), turned out to be fictional. Tianya heavily hyped the story and were accused of creating the whole thing.
Another strange story, where a man promised a woman 10,000RMB for her son’s eye cancer if she would crawl on her knees through downtown Guangzhou, turned out to be a hoax. The story drew a lot of attention; the woman got a lot of donations and the man was heavily criticized. The man was a Tianya employee. He had planned the event with the woman’s agreement.
As you might expect the general public reaction is a combination of shock, interest, disgust, and shame. I’ve heard of at least a couple blogs dedicated solely to scrutinizing and pontificating against publicity stunts. It was the work of curious web users that uncovered Chinese Obama girl and Xiao Yue Yue as stunts. This kind of netizen driven accountability goes by the name human-flesh search (人肉) in China, and has it’s own storied tradition.
The internet is a great example of how China at times feels like the wild west. It’s a place with limited rules, scandalous behavior and vigilante justice. A healthy smattering of publicity stunts is just another colorful part of the landscape.