Culture Article

Zhong Feifei: The Sino-Congolese Social Media Star

Zhong Feifei: The Sino-Congolese Social Media Star

"With my curly hair, how could I interpret a song celebrating antique China?” declared Zhong Feifei while smiling, a bit ironically and mischievously (T/N: there’s no bite to it) talking about her upcoming stage performance. This 24-year-old Sino-Congolese is a part of the 101 trainees of the talent show Produce Camp 2020, available since May 2nd on China's Internet giant Tencent. Inspired by K-pop, the reality show has the goal of forming a 7-member girl band. An unprecedented challenge for this young woman to differentiate herself through her talent and physical appearance in this entertainment enjoyed by today's Chinese youth.

Born from a Chinese mother and a Congolese father, Zhong Feifei grew up in the north-east of China before leaving to study in the US in 2014. When she was younger, she did all she could to straighten her hair, to be like others. But now, she owns up to her differences and feels comfortable - her hair even becomes part of her brand. Her confidence, her enthusiasm and her humor attract hundreds of thousands of Chinese and occidental fans. While some see her a different idol, far from China’s beauty standards- “white, innocent and thin” (白幼瘦)- others see her as a representation of black people in the C-pop’s industry. However, this notoriety might quickly become a burden on her shoulders: to perpetually live under the virtual magnifying lens (she’s always observed) and constantly endure netizens judgments, including her origins and skin color.

Image source: Officiel Weibo account of Produce camp 2020

From part-time influencer to Produce Camp 2020 trainee

To grasp Zhong Feifei’s popularity, we need to turn back time in order to understand the C-pop’s industry. Since 2018, reality shows (survival shows) became huge in China, being true machines of creating celebrities and idols for young people. Cai Xukun, the winner of Produce 2018, a show produced by the Chinese platform iQyi, is known as a big success even internationally. Ever since, numerous young girls and boys are trying this adventure, an entertainment which is so popular that monopolizes all  media’s attention when it was broadcasted.

Being already a small celebrity on Chinese social media before trying to get into the big crowd, Zhong Feifei is a beauty and fashion vlogger during her free time as a second-year master student. As someone who likes to share her makeup and style tips, taking part of Produce Camp 2020 Produce Camp 2020 is, without doubts, a major event in her life. She wrote on her Weibo account, which now has been followed by over 380 000 people: “It’s an opportunity that will make me step out of my comfort zone”.

An “over-qualified woman specializing in anti-terrorism”

"When mixed people claim they also are “Yan and Huang descendants” (炎黄子孙 nominating the ethnocultural Chinese identity) or “dragon’s descendants” (龙的传人 describing Chinese people), I wonder if our ancestors won’t get mad in their graves!” commented a netizen under one of her post at the end of November 2019. Angered, the young woman replied immediately: “If you don’t know the answer, well get in their graves to ask them directly because I, someone who is alive, can’t answer questions destined to dead people” (I can’t translate it well because I’m exhausted but sis snapped!). A temper that got her a surprising amount of support from Chinese netizens. “A tough girl”, “a majestic answer” (comments made by netizens).

Image source: Officiel Weibo account of Produce camp 2020

If this exchange was unnoticed at that time, it was brought back early April when Produce Camp 2020 was releasing the trainee’s list little by little. On April 9th, the hashtag “ Zhong Feifei’s Weibo comment”, seen by over 20 million people, trended in the top 10 of the platform’s most searched hashtags. When xenophobic acts where noticed in Guangzhou, after 5 Nigerians escaped quarantine, tested positive to Covid-19, this quarrel through posts about Zhong Feifei gives a political or even geopolitical aspect to it, throwing the young woman under every lights.

However, in the Chinese public opinion, before being mixed Zhong Feifei is an “over qualified” specialized in anti-terrorism from the prestigious John Hopkins university, forcing respect and admiration in a country attributing a huge importance to scholar success. An article published on Tencent even made a list of the trainees who did the most prestigious studies in China and abroad, nicknamed “studies queens”, (online saying describing hard-working) students, whom Feifei is a part of.

The Zhong Feifei case in the anti-racism fight in China

 Zhong Feifei’s Weibo account’s Fanclub gathers those who actively rally to promote their idol and fight against racist remarks. Reached out by Chine-info, the owner of the account did not want to talk about the discussions around Feifei: “We follow Feifei since her debut as a vlogger and we were witnesses of the polemics caused by her participation in the show. We do not wish to highlight a part of her identity that is hers, risking creating even more discussions”.

 If the Chinese fans are avoiding any polemic about her skin color, those living in the US seem more comfortable addressing the subject. Julia, an 18-year-old black high schooler and owner of the “for Zhong Feifei” twitter account, has been passionate about K-pop for a few years and took interest into Feifei when she got racist remarks in China. “I remember some Chinese people left racist and vulgar comments on Feifei. So, I told myself I had to protect her from those awful people. They said African people were ugly and had a low IQ, and even asked her to go back to Africa. It was sad to see that they refuse to recognize her as a Chinese. It’s time for this state of mind to change (...)But I also know that not all Chinese are like that, because in Weibo’s “Super Topics” we can find a lot of very nice Chinese fans that I really like".

Image source: Officiel Weibo account of Produce camp 2020

Followed by almost 7,000 people, another twitter account “Zhong Feifei info” is owned by three American teenagers aged from 15 to 19. K-pop consumers, they also watched the latest Chinese survival shows. Unlike Julian they would rather highlight Feifei’s talent to explain their attachment to this “studying queen”, without ignoring the dormant racism. “We think that the POC representation in Asia is rare but could be impactful. The fact that she is taking part in this show is already a starting point for more representation of minorities in the Asian pop music industry”.

"The labels that got stuck on Feifei are like magnifying lenses through which we can, more than ever, observe the sensibility touching the skin color of a celebrity in different scenarios, which varies with the context. Tencent’s producer, Chinese media, Africans and occidentals don’t share the same vision on Zhong Feifei. There is no unique speech, but the comments aren’t necessarily contradictory, as each part express itself under the prism of its own point of view”, analyzes Liu Tingting, anthropologist and sociologist specialized on gender studies in Ji’nan university (Guangzhou) et survival show consumer herself.

Image source: Officiel Weibo account of Produce camp 2020

If some occidental media put to light the racist comments towards Feifei to denounce African discrimination in China, Africa-based websites are delighted that a Sino-Congolese woman can make so much waves on Chinese social media.

In China, while mainstream media; not used to talk about racial issues, stay quiet, bloggers don’t hesitate to sensitive the public on the hate speeches that can go around online. Like Lao Ge, owner of the video account “Cantonese’s talk show” (粤男有话说) on Bilibili, who delivered a deeply-thought reflection on Feifei’s case. To bring out sensitivity to his public, he made a parallel between the n word with a hard er (t/n i will not type it out) and a word used by Japanese people during WW2 to describe Chinese people and now considered as offensive (t/n since its offensive i wont type it out either). This method got quite an effect on netizens and brings to light a Confucian value: don’t do to other what you don’t want them to do to you.

The outsider's voice in the Chinese society

On March 31st, Feifei, in a traditional-inspired dress and a fan in her hand, succeeded easily her performance of the neo-traditional pop song “Poem” (一步成诗) and got picked for the next step of the show. But “the woman with dark skin and curly hair” as the viewers who don’t know of her call her, confided that the challenger was somewhere else: “I should have straightened my hair for this stage".

Image source: Officiel Weibo account of Produce camp 2020

A different idol who reminds us of another one. In 2018, Wang Ju, Produce 101 trainee, got famous for defying Chinese beauty criteria. Judged “fat", "dark skinned" and "ugly" by the large audience, she created a buzz by becoming a society phenomenon. Her “I don't care” attitude and her outspoken personality generated admiration, sympathy and solidarity coming from the LGBT+ community of China. Despite her popularity, she didn't win the show, but pursues today a solo career. This is why Liu Tingting subsist pessimistic about Feifei’s question, for the time being still in line, but only ranked 49th : “She is probably very good but doesn’t fit what is expected of a girls band member in China. She has her own style and a lot of spirit, it might be better for her to go her own way.”

"I want her to succeed. To me, and whether she wanted it or not, Feifei represents those who don’t fit China’s beauty criteria. Contrary of girls band members, who seem to be made in the same mold, she is not white, nor childlike, nor extremely thin. She is a different idol” continues Liu Tingting in her analyze. According to her “among her fans in China, numerous are LGBT+ people, feminists and other activists for more diversity in society”.

Chine-info HU Wenyan/Translated by Elise Darcy Littler

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