According to the Financial Times, demand for AI-developed influencers in China grows significantly when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tightens its grip on its human counterparts.
There are high hopes for the emerging sector. As the Times cited from Guangzhou-based iiMedia Research, the Chinese digital idol market is expected to grow sevenfold, from $870 million (6.2 billion yuan) in 2021 to $6.7 billion in 2025.
These non-human personalities are increasingly favored as Beijing hardens scrutiny on online celebrities. They may be able to attract a massive audience and sell out stocks worth millions of dollars in minutes. Still, they may also disappear after inadvertently stumbling upon a sensitive topic.
Tom Nunlist, a senior analyst at consultancy Trivium China, told the Times, “They [virtual idols] don’t age, the IP lasts forever, they don’t get sick, or tired. Fictional characters do not have the risk of scandalous personal behavior, they are potentially less expensive to produce.”
Danish jewelry retailer Pandora is collaborating with Elle’s virtual model SAM after ending their partnership with Chinese actor Zhang Zhehan last year. The 31-year-old celebrity saw his career going downhill after getting caught up in political controversy for allegedly visiting a Japanese shrine.
By far, local authorities are welcoming of the juvenile industry. This August, Beijing became the first Chinese city to release a development plan specifically for the sector. It aims to grow 10 enterprises with annual sales of more than $140 million (1 billion yuan) by 2025 and turn them into one worth $7 billion.
From the propaganda perspective, Nunlist believes the CCP may also prefer computer-based characters over physical ones as they are more controllable.
Plus, the costs of developing these idols are also enticing.
According to China Daily, Wang Fei, an associate professor at Renmin University of China, says, “With continuous advances in intelligent technologies such as motion capture technology, the production cost of virtual idols will be greatly reduced, which will give a big boost to their popularization.”
Still, it does not mean the CCP will fully embrace the digital swift in celebrity culture. On the contrary, since last fall, the country has tried taming down the “chaotic” fandom frenzy. And as the Times reports, similar warnings have been issued in the digital idol industry.
In a report earlier this year, a think tank owned by CCP-mouthpiece People’s Daily wrote, “Compared to traditional real icons, virtual idols have advantages such as a more stable and controllable personality. But, after all, they are arts characters created by human beings and exposed to depravity risks.”