History lesson

Actor hit by nationwide boycott for ‘unpatriotic’ pose three years ago

Zhang Zhehan-w

Zhang Zhehan has had to deny he is ‘spiritually Japanese’

While Justin Bieber is no stranger to controversy, the Canadian pop star certainly wasn’t prepared for the political row he got himself into when he visited Japan in 2014. During a trip to Tokyo, he posted a picture on social media that showed him standing in front of the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours Japanese war dead including 14 prominent war criminals.

Visits made to the shrine by Japanese leaders over the years have been viewed as a particular affront in China and South Korea, both of which suffered from a brutal Japanese invasion. The visits were viewed as gestures that were less about reconciliation than memorialising Japan’s past military aggression.

Bieber, 20 at the time, quickly took down the picture and issued an apology, saying that he was “extremely sorry”, yet apparently the Chinese have not forgiven his offence even now: his cameo appearance in the Friends Reunion show was edited out of the version shown in China in June (see WiC544).

Given Beijing’s strong stance on the Ontario-born singer, one can only imagine its reaction when one of its own celebrities made a similar visit. Actor Zhang Zhehan has recently learned this the hard way. Last week, ahead of the key August 15 date that marks the anniversary of Japan surrendering in the Second World War, netizens in China uncovered a set of images from 2018 of Zhang visiting Japan, one of which showed the 30 year-old posing at the Yasukuni Shrine.

While the photos were there for all to see for three years on Zhang’s weibo account, it is less clear why they suddenly got new attention. Regardless, the damage is done. New scrutiny of the images quickly prompted a backlash online. The following day, the actor went into crisis mode and issued an apology, saying that he was sorry for his ignorance about the shrine’s politically loaded background (WiC can only assume he didn’t pay much attention during his school’s history classes).

“I am ashamed of myself, of my ignorance. I would also like to deeply apologise for my misconduct,” he wrote in a statement. He also promised to become a more diligent student of history and to redouble his “discipline”.

“I am not pro-Japanese. I am Chinese… I love my motherland deeply,” Zhang pleaded.

The People’s Daily was unsympathetic. “As a public figure, it is too inappropriate that he has so little knowledge of history and that he is oblivious to the suffering of the nation, which is totally unreasonable,” the newspaper wrote in a commentary.

“Zhang Zhehan has touched on the wounds of history, offended our national sentiment. He can’t just blame his own ignorance. As Chinese, we should remember history and build on it. We must not lose sight of right and wrong, or mislead our youth! And please remember: Yasukuni is full of ghosts, so don’t forget history and be strong,” the state-run broadcaster CCTV further lambasted.

The scandal quickly escalated, with the China Association of Performing Arts (CAPA), a semi-official organisation, suggesting the actor be denied new roles. “The Yasukuni Shrine is a spiritual tool and symbol of Japanese militarism for waging foreign wars of aggression, and a place for Japan’s right-wing forces to deny history and glorify wars of aggression,” it said in a statement.

This came as another setback for Zhao Wei (see WiC389), whose management company looks after Zhang’s career. Nevertheless, the starlet should have warned her client that history matters in China. Zhao learned that lesson personally after a magazine photographed her modelling a dress printed with the old Japanese naval flag. This triggered public outrage back in 2001 and even saw her being smeared with excrement by an incensed protestor.

Back in 2021, Zhang has been put into the so-called jingri category, or people who considered themselves as ‘spiritually Japanese’ (see WiC410).

Seemingly overnight Zhang went from being one of the most popularly followed celebrities online to pariah status, with his internet presence almost erased. His Sina Weibo and Douyin accounts have been deleted. Music platform NetEase Cloud Music and QQ Music removed his songs. A search for his name on different TV and movie databases found no record of the thespian. Even his previous TV shows, such as the hugely popular Word of Honour – only released in March – have no longer been allowed to stream online.

Zhang’s commercial partners were quick to respond too. Beverage firm Wahaha was the first to cut ties with its erstwhile brand endorser, followed by Coca-Cola, Taobao and Pandora. Luxury brand Lanvin deleted all posts featuring him on social media, including its most recent campaign around Qixi (the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day). Within four hours, Zhang had reportedly lost all 26 of his endorsement deals.

The actor’s road to stardom wasn’t at all straightforward. He got his start in 2010 aged 19 in little-known TV series Why Love You. His big break came five years later when he played the young version of the male lead in the hugely popular historical drama Nirvana in Fire. But it was Word of Honour, one of the breakout shows this year, that turned him into a household name.

“Zhang Zhehan has enjoyed success for no more than six months but he lost it all in four hours,” Jiemian pithily pointed out.

Zhang was cast as the lead in the TV series Sunsong, a big-budget production also starring actress Wu Jinyan, which was scheduled for a 2022 release but now looks like it will be shelved indefinitely (bad news for its financial backers such as Mango TV and entertainment studio Huaxia).

The actor, who has been cashing in on his recent popularity, was also in the middle of filming of several reality TV shows and those are likely to be canned as well. Already, his name has been erased from the cast list for the film Formed Police Unit, which was scheduled for release next year.

The Beijing News has little truck with Zhang’s plight. “For a ‘high traffic star’ [a Chinese term for celebrities who enjoy huge followings on social media], every word and action has a wide-ranging social impact, especially on young people who are especially susceptible to influence. If their idols show questionable morals and values, they could lead their fans astray. As the saying goes, the greater the influence, the greater the responsibility,” the newspaper opined.

Zhang’s abrupt fall from grace comes on the heels of a range of other high-profile celebrity scandals. These include Kris Wu Yifan, the pop icon who, this week was formally arrested on a rape charge according to Beijing prosecutors (see WiC550). Back in January, starlet Zheng Shuang saw her career tank and her endorsements evaporate after she was embroiled in a furore over child surrogacy, a sensitive topic in China (see WiC526). The backlash was so intense that luxury brand Prada had to cut ties with the star after only seven days of collaboration.

Beijing has a lengthy and stern track record of showing zero tolerance when it comes to what it deems as misbehavour by celebrities. Actress Fan Bingbing is still trying to get back in the good graces of the censors three years after she was charged for tax evasion. Actress Tang Wei also didn’t work for three years in China after appearing in Lee Ang’s 2008 movie Lust, Caution, which saw the young actress play a sexually provocative role in the period drama (set in the politically fraught late 1930s). She was deemed unpatriotic because her character fell in love (albeit reluctantly) with a brutal secret service boss who was collaborating with the occupying Japanese forces.

The harsh treatment of some of China’s biggest stars has sent a clear signal to the show business world (particularly as it has happened in tandem with the tech crackdown that has belittled so many internet tycoons). Since last year, the policy direction has aimed to dismantle the cult of celebrity, which had been tolerated for a couple of decades as representing a meritocratic pursuit of wealth through talent and hard work. But as celebrities have garnered more and more online influence (and wealth), they are now expected to adhere to a higher standard of political correctness and patriotism – or else.

No doubt as you read this the management agencies and PR consultants who work with the nation’s celebs are busily foraging through their client’s online posts and purging anything ‘questionable’…

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.