He was the first to report the budding romance between actress Zhang Ziyi and now-husband Wang Feng. He also caught actor Wen Zhang cheating on his wife on camera. More recently, he published some damning evidence of actress Bai Baihe engaging in intimate activity with a young model, which later prompted her husband to announce that the two had already separated.
Zhuo Wei – widely known as China’s number one paparazzo – has become so famous he is now a celebrity in his own right. His personal weibo boasts over 7 million users. “I believe that we have the right to know the truth. And that also applies to our knowledge about public figures,” he told Sanlian Weekly. “Behind the aura of the celebrities, there are a lot of ugly, dirty dealings we don’t see.”
But since last week, Zhuo has found himself without a job. About 90 “celebrity news” websites, blogs and social media accounts – including Zhuo’s – have been shut down following a directive from the Cyberspace Administration of China, with the country’s internet regulator calling on gatekeepers like Sina Weibo, Tencent and Baidu to do more to “combat the vulgar and sensationalist coverage of celebrity scandals and lifestyles”.
Internet users were stunned by the move, with many calling it “the biggest tragedy of the year”.
“What’s going on? Instead of demanding that celebrities behave morally, they are shutting down sites that expose them? If anything, this is just a big cover up of all the dirty dealings in the entertainment business,” one netizen wrote.
Meanwhile, weibo users lamented the sudden loss of celebrity news on the platform. “Now I don’t even know why I am here,” one weibo regular complained.
The heavy-handed crackdown came ahead of a key meeting of top Communist Party officials later this year, during which wide-ranging leadership changes are expected at every political level. Even the internet censor needs to show that it is doing its job by “toeing the Party line,” says Taiwan’s United Daily News.
Others say it is yet another sign of President Xi Jinping moving to reclaim ideological authority. “The old Communist ideology is coming back,” Qiao Mu, a Beijing-based media scholar and prominent critic of government censorship, told the Wall Street Journal. “Communism doesn’t like entertainment and gossip; it wants politics and class warfare.”
Even though the news industry has long been subjected to strict censorship, entertainment journalism was generally perceived as relatively harmless. “In China, there were only two areas before that we could say had news freedom: one was entertainment, and the other was sports,” Gao Ming, an industry insider, told the New York Times. “But now I think the government is trying to send a message that all the news needs to be within its control.” (We reported on new regulations to tighten internet-based news in WiC367.)
Celebrity gossip is big business. As WiC noted in issue 344, one reason for Sina Weibo’s enduring popularity is its marked shift from a platform that promotes discussion of social issues to one that focuses on celebrity news. The story about actor Wang Baoqiang’s divorce, for instance, almost broke China’s internet when it first surfaced on weibo.
Nevertheless, some netizens complain that not all the sites that were closed were trading on celebrity gossip. For instance, Poisonous Tongue, a major film critic read via the app WeChat, was one of the casualties in the crackdown. The influential blog mainly offers reviews on new films and TV series. It recently completed series-A financing, backed by Germany’s Bertelsmann Group, which valued the much-read blog at Rmb300 million ($44.14 million).
Similarly, popular mobile news apps like Jinri Toutiao and Yidianzixun were forced to shut down their celebrity news sections. Fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar also saw its entertainment-related WeChat account closed down. United Daily News speculated that the latest closures have caused as much as Rmb6 billion in losses.
Some were supportive of the crackdown. Qianjiang Evening News says paparazzi like Zhuo, who claim they are doing the public a service by revealing the truth about celebrities, are in fact merely mercenary. “A lot of them simply fabricated the stories to generate views. They make money from every click and every forward. When did the paparazzi ever leave empty-handed?” the newspaper thundered.
Yangcheng Evening News concurs: “Paparazzi fuel our guilty pleasures of peering into the lives of celebrities. Some have resorted to making up stories and spreading malicious rumours about celebrities just to gain fame… But think about the damage they are doing to teenagers, who look up to celebrities as role models. Now, under this paparazzi culture, every piece of clothing stars wear, the lavish mansion they live in and their every move is being shown and glorified. This materialistic lifestyle will eventually make its way to young people’s sub-consciousness and pollute their minds.”
In fact, some in the government think the internet censors are not doing enough. On Sunday, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which oversees Communist Party inquiries into official misconduct, published a report saying the Cyberspace Administration of China was “irresolute” in implementing the policies of President Xi and “not trying hard enough to ensure political security”.
Meanwhile, some of the impacted parties have already started to try to rehabilitate their images. Go Ying Studio, known for posting celebrity photographs and gossip, has created a new account with an apology, for instance. “For us, this was a very profound lesson,” the statement said. “We wholeheartedly accept the criticism and from now on, we will make sure to strengthen our own thinking and moral education.”
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