There are plenty of us who might consider few things worse than having to sit through a Communist Party conclave on the social importance of art and literature.
But clearly the comedian Zhao Benshan does not feel the same way.
No sooner had he been left off the invite list for Xi Jinping’s Beijing symposium on culture last month than Zhao started planning ways to inveigle his way back into the Party leader’s good books.
Step one was to organise a midnight study session for his production firm to learn more about Xi’s speeches.
Step two was to invite a journalist along to witness it.
“I’ve read through secretary Xi’s speech repeatedly. I’m thrilled and excited, I can’t even sleep… We need to repay the masses by creating more good works,” online newspaper The Paper recorded Zhao as saying.
Later the comedian confirmed his enthusiasm for the study sessions. “If you are not politically engaged and do not believe in our Party, why do you engage in art?” he asked.
Clearly Zhao is going to some lengths to demonstrate he’s fully absorbed the messages from Xi’s symposium. But why didn’t he make the cut? After all he is a member of the Chinese parliament’s advisory body and his 16-year stint as a headline act on CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala (an annual extravaganza celebrating the Chinese New Year) makes him more ‘establishment’ than most. Well, as with many things in China’s political sphere today, Zhao’s difficulties appear to relate back to the case of the disgraced Bo Xilai.
Zhao, an orphan from the northeastern province of Liaoning, is believed to have become friends with Bo and his police chief Wang Lijun in the early 1990s in Dalian.
His star rose along with Bo’s until 2012, when the former Chongqing boss was taken into custody. That year the comedian was dropped from the Spring Festival Gala too.
Since then Zhao has tried to present the image of a patriot giving back to his country. But that image has taken a battering from a legal case that appears to show that his wife and children emigrated to Singapore four years ago (an allegation that Zhao denies).
According to a recent article on China News Service, Zhao is now on a list of “morally flawed” artists, which means he is highly unlikely to be restored to his former glory at the Spring Festival Gala.
For a man who was China’s best loved comic for almost 15 years, the reversal of fortune has been extreme. Zhao’s new TV drama, in which he plays the role of an elderly man left behind in the countryside by offspring who migrate to towns, was even dropped due to “thematic problems”, the online edition of the People’s Daily has reported this month.
His efforts to win back favour haven’t impressed his former fans, either. “Never trust these so-called patriots, they just want to make their money here and leave,” scoffed one critic on weibo. Another warned: “The ‘vulgar culture’ Xi talks about, that’s Zhao Benshan.”
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