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After “China’s Beyoncé,” Reality Show “Produce 101” Creates Another Controversial Star

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Tencent-produced talent show Produce 101a singing contest with 101 entrants remade from a Korean original — has been consistently grabbing headlines in China since premiering in April. The premise of the show is to cull the original 101 contestants to a super-group of 11, and several interesting candidates have emerged in early episodes.

Wang Ju is one, a tanned, fit, 25-year-old girl who looks nothing like a “standard” Asian pop idol, and who made the media rounds earlier this month for her challenging of beauty standards, becoming widely known as “China’s Beyoncé”.

The latest contestant to get some traction is Yang Chaoyue, a member of girl group CH2 who was born in 1998. A video of Yang singing on the show’s 8th episode went viral on the Chinese internet, hitting the top of Weibo’s “hot search” list for her “car crash-like” singing ability.

Frankly, Yang is not particularly good at singing, dancing, or even emotional control (she’s cried a lot on the show). Therefore, it’s been surprising to witness her popularity surge following her appearances on Produce 101 — she has expanded her fanbase on Weibo to over 518,000 followers at time of writing. Fans’ comments under her Weibo post might offer some explanation:

“’This song is chosen by you, so please give me some time, and I want to sing it for you’ [quoting Yang on the show]. Hope all the fans can prove that we have spirit and determination, just like Chaoyue! Let’s move forward to the final round together!” – National Yang Chaoyue Fan Club

“We can see how hard you’re working, and we’ll always be here for you. Let’s work hard together and fight on. You deserve to stand on the shining top! Jia you!*  – Za Shi Zheng

Ella Chan, one of the show’s judges, said bluntly after Yang sang: “She knows she’s not good, and her ability is limited, but she really wants to try hard.” Two other judges appeared greatly touched — one even wept a bit. As veteran musicians and entertainers, they might understand what Yang is going through, and why “working hard” is so valuable.

People who are not that into pop music, the show, or Yang herself have been harsher in their criticism:

“I really want to clench my fist now… What else can she do, other than cry? Is something wrong with her?” – Yao Cool

“I didn’t feel good or bad in the first place, but now I’m really annoyed…” – Ju ki-

“I don’t think ‘working hard’ can be a reason for her to stay. Others are working hard too, so why can’t the contestants who work hard and are capable stay while she [Yang] can get a good ranking? If it’s not fair to criticize her because she works hard, then is it fair to the other girls? She should improve after she works hard.” – Chu Lu Feng Liang vv

“Who in this group of sisters doesn’t work hard? So speechless to hear ‘she works really hard’, this kind of thing every time. And is it backlash when netizens question her ability???” – Jiang Yang Gege Cai Bushi Dadao

Some intrigue was added to the debate after a few netizens reported Yang Chaoyue and Produce 101 to the National Cultural Market Report Platform of China’s Culture Department, part of the government’s sophisticated content monitoring and censorship apparatus:

“In Tencent Video’s talent show ‘Produce 101’, Yang Chaoyue is not capable, and just draws attention in vulgar ways. As an influential program that is aired during a holiday, this definitely will affect a lot of young people. Yang’s existence is an incorrect influence which violates the age-old rule of ‘no pain, no gain,’ as well as socialist core values. Please stop and strike it!” (source)

And some reports are not just about Yang:

“Want to report ‘Produce 101’, produced by Tencent Video, for emphasizing Yang Chaoyue, a contestant who cannot sing or dance, and giving the viewers an impression that someone from a poor family can succeed only with good looks, which violates socialist core values, and is not good for youth’s mental health.” (source)

Yang grew up in the countryside in Jiangsu Province, didn’t go to high school, and wasn’t properly trained as a professional in the industry. At the beginning of her career, she mainly attracted fans on Kuaishou, a streaming platform that’s come under fire for “vulgar” content. Having earned the derogatory online nickname “flower of the village” — a dig at her provincial upbringing — Yang keeps working, generating new torrents of bullet screen commentary from fans and haters alike. 

Dragging an internet beef into the realm of censorship and ideology seems to be a step too far, but it will be fascinating to see how long she can survive on the show.

* Jiayou, 加油, literally “add gas,” a slang term for encouragement

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Fan Shuhong
    Shuhong (aka Rita) is a language instructor, English/Chinese translator, writer, and proud bunny owner based in Beijing. She's previously worked in Washington D.C. and IUP at Tsinghua University. She loves Chinese language, Japanese arts, post-rock music and good English TV series. Instagram: rita_van