HONG KONG — President Trump isn’t the only American calling out his Chinese counterpart for unfair competitive practices.
The latest to fire shots? The camp of Ariana Grande, pop superstar.
The 25-year-old singer is embroiled in a transpacific spat this week after a string of singles from Canadian Chinese newcomer Kris Wu suddenly topped the U.S. iTunes store rankings, briefly knocking Grande — and Lady Gaga — out of the Top 10 and sparking allegations of foul play.
After tracks from Wu’s new “Antares” album swept the charts on Monday, Scooter Braun — agent to Grande, Justin Bieber and Kanye West — accused Wu on Twitter of using automated “bots” to artificially inflate sales in the United States, where he is relatively unknown. Braun later claimed that he didn’t write the tweet and deleted it, but “Chinese bots” nonetheless became a trending topic, and Grande not-so-discreetly fanned the flames by hitting “like” on a tweet that accused Wu of cheating.
Cue social media mayhem.
On the Chinese Internet, the episode has become one of the most hotly debated subjects, not just because legions of Wu’s fans have sprung to his defense — they definitely have — but also because the fraud allegations appeared to touch a nerve in a country where faked box office receipts, faked e-commerce reviews and faked download numbers are recognized as tricks from an all-too-familiar playbook.
To be sure, Grande has been criticized herself for ploys such as bundling digital sales with tour tickets. And Wu, a 28-year-old known for his Auto-Tune-inflected rap verses and boyish looks, is a bona fide superstar in Asia with a large, and real, fan base.
Known as Wu Yifan in Chinese, Wu has sold out stadiums in China and South Korea, starred in a handful of hit films, performed with Pharrell Williams and recorded a chart-topping track with rapper Travis Scott to lay the groundwork for a push into the North American market.
His label, Universal Music Group, has defended the iTunes sales as legitimate and threatened legal action against those spreading “malicious” rumors.
But many in China aren’t convinced. They’re embarrassed.
“What did we successfully export to the U.S. and Europe: Kris Wu’s new song or our rotten fan culture?” reads a headline in the Paper, a popular Shanghai-based news website.
“Chinese fans’ vote-rigging shocks American netizens: Do they hurt more than they help?” says another on Sina, a leading news portal.
As other websites translated the Twitter chatter of Grande’s American fans from English into Chinese, many Chinese Internet users were chagrined that the episode gave Americans a glimpse into the reality of their country’s entertainment business.
Rigging rankings and manipulating opinion has long been a well-known phenomenon in China, despite efforts by authorities to crack down on it. In 2015, a film distributor reportedly faked $6 million worth of ticket sales to claim its animated comedy topped Hollywood’s “Furious 7” at the Chinese box office. A year later, film authorities declared that a whopping 7,600 screenings of the kung-fu flick “Ip Man 3” were faked.
China’s Web mercenaries, known colloquially as “Internet Water Armies,” are notorious for pumping out fake reviews for e-commerce platforms such as Taobao and manipulating messaging boards, notably the now-defunct Digg. Beyond the commercial sphere, the biggest manipulator of online opinion is probably the ruling Communist Party, which employs 500,000 keyboard warriors to fabricate nearly 500 million social media posts a year, according to credible academic estimates.
As the controversy swirled around Wu this week, high-profile allies appeared to be in short supply. Lay Zhang, a fellow member in Wu’s old boy band, Exo, came closest as he offered somewhat backhanded words of encouragement.
“For someone who is making their debut in the U.S., it is quite normal that no one knows you in the beginning,” he wrote. “You should worry about your stage performances, rather than chart performances. And those who look down on all Chinese artists, get lost!"
Other Chinese celebrities simply reveled in schadenfreude.
“I’ll be kind for once and remind Kris Wu’s fans that your rigging of charts will by no means wake him up to the fact that his music is awful,” said Chinese actor Chi Zi in a top Weibo post that was retweeted 22,000 times.
Hong Kong hip-hop artist Edison Chen chimed in in English: “Money can’t buy u love, money can’t buy u fame, money can’t buy u charts.”
Grande returned to the top of the U.S. iTunes chart on Wednesday with a seemingly fitting single she had debuted live on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
“Thank U, Next.”