Hot Chinese Ask-a-Celebrity Mobile App Mysteriously Goes Dark

  • Fenda’s abrupt silence raises speculation about censorship
  • Backers included the son of Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin

It was China’s latest hot social media trend, where anyone could pay hundreds of dollars to fire off questions at celebrities such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” swordswoman Zhang Ziyi. And then, abruptly, it wasn’t.

Two weeks ago, the vastly popular Fenda went dark. Much of its content was removed and celebs like Zhang and the entrepreneur-socialite son of media mogul Wang Jianlin fell silent. Users signing on are greeted with a message explaining that the service is getting an upgrade (before digressing into a discussion about The Scorpions). While the app’s founders aren’t talking, local media including Sina.com speculate that Fenda has become the latest victim of a widening crackdown on free-wheeling social media.

Chinese censors have become increasingly concerned about the laissez-faire nature of a new crop of services showcasing everything from live-streams to lifestyle blogs -- and their inability to police the millions of videos and posts uploaded daily. The circumstances surrounding Fenda’s cessation may bear implications for other social media platforms pushing the boundaries of what’s politically and culturally acceptable. Cui Shuxin, a spokeswoman for Fenda, said the app will be back online “very soon” but wouldn’t explain the weeks-long downtime.

Fenda’s target audience of young urban professionals is a sensitive demographic given their penchant to debate taboo topics from sex to politics. The app, whose name means “a question a minute,” works a little like an audio Quora or Reddit. Users pay varying sums -- from a few dollars to hundreds, depending on star-wattage -- to pose a single question of celebs like Zhang or rocker Wang Feng, who then reply in a personally recorded soundbite. Onlookers fork over a tiny sum to hear the same message. Anything is fair game: Fenda’s viral allure reportedly soared after Wang Jianlin’s son, Wang Sicong, gamely answered questions about sex positions and unwanted pregnancies. He didn’t respond to requests for comment messaged to his Weibo social media account.

It remains unknown why or how Fenda went off the air, but it’s unusual for technical glitches to tank a well-funded mobile app. It raised $25 million from backers including Wang Sicong in a Series A round this year, the South China Morning Post has reported. That helped it draw more than 1 million paying customers in its first 42 days, founder Ji Xiaohua told the newspaper, before the plug was pulled. 

It’s not unknown for government censors to step in when things get out of hand: they aggressively scrub online content deemed undesirable or a threat to society, from violence and pornography to anti-government commentary. Authorities this year shut the social media accounts, with some 37 million followers, of property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang after he criticized a media clampdown. 

But censors typically go after offending material or select accounts, rather than a clean sweep of an entire service. For instance, Tencent Holdings Ltd. said in May that it deleted 85,000 rumor-driven articles and that 7,000 accounts were punished for violating regulations “to maintain a healthy internet environment.”

— With assistance by Robert Fenner

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