A village boy catapulted to stardom for his uncanny resemblance to Jack Ma has quit his five-year entertainment career to go back to school, months after the Chinese billionaire angered financial regulators and fell off the radar.
The 12-year-old boy, Fan Xiaoqin, has returned to living on poverty benefits after his manager shut down his social media accounts, where he had hundreds of thousands of followers, according to Chinese media reports.
The manager did not explain the decision, but many of Fan’s followers linked it with Ma’s run-in with Chinese authorities. Ma lay low for three months after Beijing scuttled the $34 billion initial public offering of his financial services company, Ant Group, in November. Once revered as a successful businessman, Ma also suffered a popular backlash over the grueling work culture he promoted.
Fan’s reversal of fortune has prompted a discussion about the exploitation of children, as parents and talent managers put kids in front of cameras to ride a lucrative boom in livestreaming. Some children, like Fan, became their families’ breadwinners.
Fan came from an impoverished family in Yanhui village, in the eastern province of Jiangxi, and has been diagnosed with a mental disability. In 2015, he became an online sensation at seven years old after a relative posted his photo online, the China Youth Daily reported.
Even Jack Ma himself recognized the striking likeness. “I thought my family had posted my childhood photo,” Ma wrote on microblogging site Weibo in July 2015. “I really feel I was looking into a mirror.”
Fan’s father lost one leg to a snake bite, while his mother has a mental disability. Their son’s fame brought a flood of donations and business offers, as well as tourists to their village. In 2017, a businessman made a deal with the father and brought Fan to live with him in the northern city of Shijiazhuang.
In return, the man renovated Fan’s family house. He also promised to give the boy good education and pay his parents about 10,000 Chinese yuan ($1,500) a year—more than their annual income—according to China Youth Daily.
Since then, Fan had made appearances on short-video apps, business events, TV programs, and even low-budget films. He was often paired with a young woman, whose title was his caretaker.
But Fan’s internet stardom came to an abrupt end in January, when his managers sent him back to his village home and deleted his short-video accounts.
Internet users speculated that the boy could no longer generate traffic and profits after Ma, China’s richest man, fell out of favor with the Chinese government and members of the public.
Fan still shows up in some online videos posted by fellow villagers, singing a song titled “Alibaba” and introducing himself as “mini Jack Ma.”
“Villagers treat him like a monkey in the zoo,” a local resident, who only gave his surname Li, told VICE World News. Li said he saw the boy at the village last week. “People are filming him all the time. Outsiders pay several hundred yuan for each video. For locals it’s free.”
On social media, Fan’s story has sparked a debate on child celebrities. Some say the entertainment career has deprived children like Fan of proper education and a happy childhood, but others say Fan’s family was lucky to be able to benefit from their boy’s look.
The Chinese government banned minors from hosting livestreaming shows in 2020, but accounts featuring child dancers, comedians, or even chefs still have large followings on short-video apps like Douyin and Kuaishou.
Fan’s family now lives on farming and the government’s poverty relief benefits. Local officials have told Chinese media that he would attend a village primary school in the spring semester.
Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.