China’s CHUANG 2021, a reality television competition designed to create the world’s next great boy band sensation, ended on Sunday and finally freed contestant Vladislav Ivanov from weeks of involuntary participation on the show.
Chinese government media began promoting the program in February after weeks of controversy in which the Communist Party’s media organs repeatedly attacked Bangtan Sonyeondan (BTS), a South Korean pop group that has broken numerous records in the American music industry and become arguably the world’s most successful musical act.
One of the group’s members had expressed appreciation of the U.S. military while receiving an award for their cultural contributions in October 2020, outraging the Chinese government. American forces fought alongside South Korea against North Korea and China in the Korean War, making Beijing’s demand for the group to thank Chinese forces as well as American troops incoherent with the history of the nations involved.
CHUANG 2021 aired on the Chinese platform Tencent, believed to have close ties to the Communist Party. The show resulted in the creation of an international boy band named “INTO1.” According to China’s state-run Global Times newspaper, the band’s 11 members are contractually obligated to remain in the band and perform together for two years.
“‘INT’ refers to ‘international’ and ‘internet,’ and ‘O’ represents the Earth, while the ‘1’ symbolizes the idea that the 11 members will unite together to become one group and try their best to become No.1,” the propaganda outlet explained. The band features two Americans, two Japanese members, and three Thai members. The list of contestants on the program represented a wide variety of nationalities ranging from the foreigners chosen from the group to Korean, Russian, and Cuban contestants.
While the Chinese government appeared to hope the newly minted boy band would make international headlines, it is losing a contestant who received the most attention: Ivanov, who performed under the pseudonym “Lelush” and repeatedly told audiences to vote him off the show.
“Ivanov’s nonchalance about his potential stardom has won him legions of fans since the Chinese show began broadcasting in February,” the South China Morning Post recently noted. Ivanov reportedly joined the production of the show as a translator, given the high number of international contestants and his fluency in Mandarin. Colleague Ivan Wang reportedly convinced him to sign up as a contestant, noting he had the appearance of a pop idol and succeeded in convincing him to sign a contract to perform on the show. Ivanov hated dancing and singing and openly urged fans to not vote for him to move on in successive rounds.
Ivanov signed a contract that required him to stay on as a contestant until he was voted off or pay a large fine he could not afford, so he was essentially a hostage of the boy band creation program.
As the Agence France-Presse (AFP) noted, Chinese fans on social media supported his complete lack of interest in the program, compared to the eager dispositions of the other contestants. Some appeared to relish in the torture that they were causing by continuing to vote for him to stay on CHUANG 2021.
“Fans, some earnest and some ironic, dubbed him ‘the most miserable wage slave’ and celebrated him as an icon of ‘Sang culture,’ a popular concept among Chinese millennials referring to a defeatist attitude towards everyday life,” AFP recalled:
“Don’t let him quit,” one viewer commented on a video of a dejected-looking Mr Ivanov performing a Russian rap.
“Sisters, vote for him! Let him 996!” another fan commented, using the Chinese slang for the gruelling work schedule that afflicts many young employees, especially in digital start-ups.
In one episode, the South China Morning Post noted, Ivanov told the audience, “I hope the judges won’t support me. While the others want to get an A, I want to get an F as it stands for freedom.”
Ivanov’s performances largely lacked any charisma. He did not appear to have any notable vocal skills and could only muster sluggish dancing, scowling through them. With some performances, Ivanov used this to his advantage by employing music that made his malaise appear deliberate, such as a song by American artist Billie Eilish featuring the lyric “I really couldn’t care less.”
The Global Times did not mention the cult phenomenon surrounding Ivanov in its summary of the show’s finale, instead highlighting the ambitions that China has to dethrone South Korea as the current world capital of pop idol music.
“If running operations are well done, the band can accelerate C-Pop’s expansion into overseas markets,” a state-approved “analyst” told the newspaper. The Global Times fretted that “political issues” could hurt INTO1 before their debut, noting that several contestants on the program faced scandal during the season because their managements had at some point referred correctly to the nation of Taiwan as a “country.” China insists Taiwan is a rogue province under Beijing despite never having had political control over the island in its history.
“Get off the show! We are Chinese before we are fans. China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are sacred and inviolable,” a government-approved fan jeered on Chinese social media.
The controversy echoed the BTS comments that preceded the airing of CHUANG 2021 to begin with. In accepting the Korea Society’s James A. Van Fleet Award, given for outstanding contributions to U.S.-South Korean relations, BTS member RM said, “we will always remember the history of pain that our two nations shared together and the sacrifices of countless men and women.” BTS members are the youngest-ever recipients of that award. Chinese government outlets objected to the omission of China, which is not in any way relevant to the Korea Society award, from RM’s comments and attempted, unsuccessfully, to sour the group’s popularity in the country.
In February, as CHUANG 2021 launched, China again attacked BTS on the grounds that its record label, Big Hit Entertainment, had used an accurate map of India in a corporate presentation, rather than a map showing parts of India as Chinese “South Tibet,” a region not legally recognized as part of China.
BTS has enjoyed tremendous popularity. The group is the first Korean act nominated for a Grammy Award, the first to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and has released singles with some of America’s most popular musicians.