Panda Boys, China's newest boy band, debuted on August 21 with their first song and music video, a pastel-laden synth pop number with a rap and Chinese opera interlude. But just three days later, the group disbanded, following outcry on social media over their young age and concerns of exploitation.
The seven members, dubbed the "cubs" in promotional materials by their talent agency, range from 7 to 11 years old. Photos on their official social media account show the baby-faced boys with makeup and carefully mussed hair, decked out in miniature blazers and street-style joggers.
The Panda Boys "have officially embarked on a new journey," posted Asia Starry Sky Group, the band's management agency, on Chinese social media platform Weibo on Saturday after the band debuted. It added that the children had spent their summer vacation "with sweat and tears" to "stand on the stage of dreams."
But their debut quickly drew criticism and shock from social media users, who pointed to the children as a sign of China's intense "idol" industry going too far.
The idol industry, also seen in Japan and South Korea, recruits pop star hopefuls often at a young age, putting them through months of intense training. The trainees typically enter talent show-style competitions before making a grand debut, with multiple rounds of voting and performances. Sometimes, hundreds of trainees face off, hoping to win enough votes to secure a spot in the final lineup of a band.
Trainees are also expected to adhere to strictly controlled lifestyles and diets, and make regular media appearances. It's a grueling process that has already come under scrutiny in recent years for the strain placed on teenage and adult trainees -- let alone children below 10.
"If the kids are school aged, they should go to school. Let them make their own decisions when they have the right to choose," one Weibo user commented.
"Does this suggest that the next boy group that debuts has to include children in a nursery?" another user wrote, according to state-run tabloid Global Times.
Many other comments criticized the boys' parents and managers within the company, accusing the adults involved of exploiting children for financial gain.
The management agency responded on Tuesday by announcing a rebrand: though the band's English name would remain Panda Boys, their Chinese name would change to become "Panda Children's Art Troupe." There was "no capital (gain)," the agency insisted: "We are doing something meaningful with a group of children who love singing and dancing."
But pressure continued building as state-run media chimed in.
"More and more young idols are attracting the attention of capital and are expected to share the booming idol economy because of their young age, strength and large room for progress," wrote state-run broadcaster CCTV in an online commentary
. However, it added, being pushed into the entertainment market too early may harm these underage stars' "physical and mental health development."
"At the same time, it will also pass on the wrong value of 'early fame' to the society, misleading young people," said CCTV, calling for greater regulation to "stop the unhealthy tendencies and evil influences of using idol economy to collect money without a bottom line."
A day later, Asia Starry Sky Group announced that it would dissolve the Panda Boys.
"We will seriously and properly handle the follow-up work," it said in a brief statement. "Thanks for the supervision and criticism from society and online."
After releasing the statement, the agency's Weibo account was suspended for violating of the platform's policy, though it's not clear which policy is in question.
CCTV's emphasis on capital in its criticism reflects the government's ongoing crackdown on private enterprise,
which has taken aim at tech companies and corporate giants. New regulations have thrown private companies into chaos, with some forced to restructure operations.
The entertainment world hasn't been spared, either -- a government watchdog agency recently decried
"the black hand of the capital" and "the wild growth of the entertainment industry," and authorities have grown more vocal in criticizing extreme fan behavior.