BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - China's Communist Party invented a duo of virtual social media influencers in its latest bid to win the hearts and minds of millennials. They did just the opposite.
The ruling regime's Youth League this week debuted the officially sanctioned anime characters - a pair of adolescents in Chinese traditional garb with names straight out of Mao Zedong's poetic oeuvre.
It introduced the would-be online idols - the boy's name roughly translates as "red flag flutters freely", while his sibling is "rivers and mountains are beautiful" - on Twitter-like site Weibo, igniting an onslaught of ridicule and vitriol. Within hours, the Youth League had pulled the duo offline.
Digitally created avatars are the latest rage on social media, inspiring huge followings just like real-life pop icons or idols. But in this case, the pair stoked concerns that Beijing was subverting a trend for political purposes.
In tens of thousands of comments, Chinese bloggers lashed out against Beijing's use of cartoon figures to communicate policy. The Youth League - the party branch for younger members - quickly removed its original Weibo post and scrubbed content from a Weibo account dedicated to the pair.
"I'm your citizen, not your fan," one Weibo user wrote in a widely circulated comment.
China's government has over the years tried to engage the country's youth and reinforce its ideology with rap, anime and chat-app stickers. Unsurprisingly, the Youth League is at the centre of such campaigns: It ranks among the top 10 creators of content on anime-focused video service Bilibili in terms of both followers and views, according to data tracker Biliob.com.
"The government's legitimacy is at a very low point more than a month into the coronavirus outbreak. Previously people have already accumulated dissatisfaction with state media tapping into fandom culture in virus coverage," said Assistant Professor Fang Kecheng, a communication and journalism expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "Co-opting anime and fandom culture is no panacea."
Using virtual idols to fan Chinese nationalism is not a new concept - but up to this point, it has been a distinctly grassroots one.
During Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests in 2019, online patriots created a viral personification of their nation called "Brother Ah Zhong" or Brother China, a pop idol who debuted 5,000 years ago with a fan base of 1.4 billion. The Youth League and state media praised what they called a spirited defence of their homeland against foreign attack.
The League's attempt to replicate that with its own virtual pair fizzled near-instantaneously. One point of criticism centred on the use of women by the propaganda machine.
The debut of the idols came just days after a controversial state-media video in which female medical workers wept silently, while men shaved their heads to help prevent infection during the coronavirus outbreak.
Many Weibo users in fact directed a rhetorical question at the Youth League's female anime character: "Why don't you shave your head?"