Entertainment, Talking Point

The lady vanishes

High drama as government turns sour on China’s entertainment stars


Where is she now: famed actress and director Zhao Wei has been expunged from the Chinese internet

“Husband and wife are like birds in the woods, they flee separately when troubles come.” So goes one of the more cynical Chinese proverbs in claiming that people put their own needs first in times of crisis. And that couldn’t have been truer last week when news surfaced about the actress and entertainment industry dealmaker Zhao Wei being scrubbed from Chinese social media and the web. For instance, the credits for all her movies and TV shows were removed from the major internet platforms and Zhao’s name is no longer searchable online. All of her fan pages were deleted from Sina Weibo too.

Before long, even Huang Xiaoming, who had gushed on more than one occasion about his long friendship with Zhao, had removed all traces of their shared history from his own social media accounts. Fendi, one of the many top brands to tap Zhao as an ambassador for its luxury goods, dumped her too, deleting all marketing material that featured her.

What was going on?

A chequered career

Zhao has been in trouble before. Three years ago, the starlet and her husband fell foul of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, which accused them of stock market malpractices. Both were barred from trading shares for five years as punishment for shenanigans related to a Rmb3 billion takeover of an animation company (see WiC389).

Zhao’s social media accounts then went dark last Friday following another crackdown by the authorities. A range of rumours as to why are doing the rounds. HK01, a Hong Kong-based news website, even reported claims that Zhao had fled China (a subsequent post on her Instagram account, soon deleted like much else, refuted this by suggesting she was in Beijing visiting her parents). Part of the speculation was that the 45 year-old showbiz star could be embroiled in the widening anti-graft probe that has enmeshed Hangzhou Party boss Zhou Jiangyong (see WiC553). Alibaba, the best-known company from Hangzhou, and its founder Jack Ma have been in trouble with regulators since Ant Group’s mega IPO was shelved late last year. Now the company is also rumoured to be under closer scrutiny as part of the investigation into Party supremo Zhou, although it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Ma had maintained a close working relationship with Hangzhou’s most powerful official in the past.

Zhao Wei is also believed to be a friend of Ma’s, despite his public protestation in 2017 that this wasn’t the case. However, eagle-eyed netizens recount that the duo were filmed together on no less than 10 occasions.

Zhao and her husband Huang Youlong have also enjoyed handsome returns from an early stake they took in Alibaba’s film unit in 2014.

Is this a wider backlash against stars in the entertainment sector?

Other netizens pointed out that Zhao is also linked to a celebrity scandal last month around the actor Zhang Zhehan. A client of Zhao’s talent agency, Zhang was blacklisted after an old photo of him at Japan’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine emerged online (see WiC552).

The focus on the male actor’s behaviour has been far from unique. Indeed the campaign against ‘celebrity culture’ – and those parts of the entertainment industry perceived as pernicious ­– has intensified over the summer. In the same week that Zhao ‘vanished’ from the Chinese internet, Gao Xiaosong, a popular talk show host and an icon of the so-called ‘knowledge economy’ (see WiC396), came in for similar treatment. Accusations were widespread online that Gao had also visited the Yasukuni Shrine (which both the Chinese and the South Koreans associate with Japanese war crimes during the Second World War) and the Chinese Academy of History followed up with a lengthy article spotlighting remarks on his talk show, levelling the charge that Gao was a proponent of “historical nihilism” (a broad-brush phrase for those who take the ‘wrong’ line on episodes from history. Suffice to say no Chinese wants to be accused of it in the current climate).

No official reason was given for Gao’s disappearance from the Chinese internet but he is also a long-time friend of Ma and formerly a senior executive at Alibaba’s music division.

Disgraced actress Zheng Shuang also found herself in the news again last week, this time after paying a Rmb299 million penalty for tax evasion. (Prior to Zheng’s case, actress Fan Bingbing was famously fined about Rmb883 million for tax evasion in 2018). Zheng had previously been mired in scandal after her estranged partner accused her of abandoning two children born to surrogates in the United States (surrogacy is illegal in China; the scandal, which went public in January, saw Zheng’s latest TV drama banned, see WiC526).

And in late July, one of the most bankable pop stars in China, Kris Wu, was arrested on suspicion of rape (see WiC551). Wu, who endorsed more than 17 brands, including LVMH and Bulgari, was regarded as one of the key faces of the so-called “niang pao phenomenon”, a generation of male icons with slavish fan followings (see WiC469).

Conservative types – generals in the military, for instance – have sounded their disgust at the niang pao trend, describing the stars as a dangerous generation of “sissy pants” or “feminine men”. The People’s Daily openly attacked the niang pao as being bad role models for teenagers last week.

At about the same time, Panda Boys, one of the newest of the country’s pop groups, was disbanded just three days after its debut. The boy-band, which featured eight children between the ages of seven and 11, was slammed in the state media as one of the worst cases of the exploitative ‘idol economy’ – a subset of the entertainment sector now being derided as its most vapid and cancerous offshoot.

There is no hard-and-fast definition of the ‘idol economy’. But it features the monetisation of celebrities through livestreaming, social media and other internet platforms. Admirers of the stars follow them around the various media channels, desperate to display their loyalty and affection. But critics of the trend say it is nothing more than exploitation, as the stars (and their commercial backers) grab billions of yuan from impressionable fans ready to buy whatever their idols endorse.

“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. At the same time, it will pass on the wrong values of ‘early fame’ to society, misleading young people,” fumed state-run broadcaster CCTV, demanding more regulation to “stop the unhealthy tendencies and evil influences of using the idol economy to collect money without a bottom line”.

Why are the authorities taking a tougher line now?

Perhaps because of the new prominence being given by President Xi Jinping to the idea of ‘common prosperity’ (see WiC553).

The fact that celebrities – much like tech tycoons – can earn exorbitant amounts of money highlights the increasing wealth disparities across much of the country. For instance, Zheng (the actress at the centre of the latest tax scandal) was said to have been paid more than Rmb160 million for two and a half months work on her role in a TV drama, or about Rmb2 million for each day of filming. Wu, the arrested pop singer, has consistently been ranked as one of the top 10 earners in China’s entertainment industry by Forbes.

“These scandals reveal that celebrities make tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of yuan a year. And these stars spend money like it is dirt. When the country is in need, how many stars have come forward?” NetEase thundered. “What we want is high-quality stars that can be role models for the public, not just those who can act and have great skin.”

The news portal added: “The question is: are celebrities being paid too much? Do their salaries match their professionalism and moral standards? By the way, the average monthly salary nationwide is only Rmb5,000.”

“For a long time the entertainment industry has been a mix of good and bad,” DW News also chastised. “(Kris) Wu Yifan is another example, using his celebrity halo and the pretence of ‘casting’ for the lead for his music videos to ‘hunt’ for women. Instead of working for the people to provide spiritual and cultural sustenance, artistic expression is now kidnapped by traffic and capital; bad money driving out good money.”

There’s also little question that policymakers have been perturbed by the fan culture surrounding the so-called ‘high-traffic stars’ (another local term for the most-hyped celebrities, who drive vast traffic online). Back in May, the authorities announced that reality programmes were prohibited from setting up systems where fans pay to vote for their favourite stars, for instance, after it was discovered that viewers of iQiyi’s hit variety series Youth With You 3 were buying crates of the sponsor’s milk cartons just to get the QR codes to vote for their favourite contestants and then dumping the unwanted milk into sewers (see WiC540).

According to Xinhua, about 8% of the 180 million netizens under-18 in China engage actively in what is described locally as fanquan activity. “Fan loyalty can turn blind and toxic, giving rise to online trolling, impulsive buying, rumour-mongering, cyberspace manhunts and other problems. To tackle the problems, Chinese authorities are working to regulate the fan culture,” the newspaper explained.

Less stated, mind you, is the Party’s concern that fanquan culture is a distraction to its own priorities for younger people, creating loyalties to a different set of opinion leaders and commercial groups.

There’s a similar reasoning where the bigger tech tycoons and the most powerful internet platforms are concerned – i.e. their massive customer bases and the data they generate constitutes an alternative source of influence and authority to that of the Party.

So what is Beijing going to do to ‘fix’ the entertainment industry?

In recent years the government has taken an ambiguous approach to the sector. Regulators still want to set the prevailing tone on the kind of material that can be produced, stepping in to censor content that they dislike. But the government has also encouraged rapid growth across the industry, particularly by supporting domestic films and TV productions that win local audiences away from Hollywood fare and other foreign imports.

Balancing this is the growing concern that celebrity worship and the worst excesses of fan culture are poisoning the minds of the country’s youth and deviating from Xi’s directives that art and culture should be made in the ‘service of the people,’ not for the profit of a select group of companies and stars.

Last Friday, the Chinese cyberspace regulator released a list of 10 new measures to address what it deems as problems in the sector, for example, including bans on social media platforms publishing popularity rankings, as well as tighter regulations over how fans spend money on their idols.

The measures, the regulators claimed, would “clean up” and “resolve the problem of chaos” of fan frenzies online. Online streaming platform iQiyi – often referred to as China’s Netflix – was the first to voice its support and it also announced that it had cancelled reality competition shows like Idol Producer, describing them as “unhealthy” (ironic, really, given that iQiyi was at the forefront of popularising the format).

Industry observers believe that it won’t be long before Tencent Video and Youku follow suit, so as to avoid offending the authorities.

So a different future beckons for Chinese show business?

Such is the change of mood in the sector that many of China’s entertainment stars would be well advised to adopt lower profiles for a while.

Just as the attractions of becoming a billionaire internet boss have diminished in recent months, likewise who would want to be a fabulously rich celebrity right now, especially one that has relied on a frenetic fan base for much of their success?

Darker warnings have also been coming to the fore about why celebrity culture needs to be skewered, including a much-discussed post from a little known WeChat blogger who goes by the name Li Guangman.

In comments catapulted into the headlines by coverage in state-run newspapers like the People’s Daily (implying official endorsement of his views), Li senses a fundamental change in the political mood.

Part of his message is aligned with the new focus on ‘common prosperity’ at senior political level, with comments that the government needs to “clean the house, freshen the air, make our society healthier, so that the main body of society can feel happy”.

But then he goes further, drawing from deeply sown ideological roots. “The capital market will no longer become a paradise for capitalists to get rich overnight,” he celebrates in his post. “The cultural market will no longer be a paradise for sissy stars, and news and public opinion will no longer be in a position worshipping Western culture.”

Li even describes the overhaul of the entertainment sector as essential for national survival, concerned its excesses had weakened China’s ability to withstand the challenge from rival countries like the US.

“If at this time we still rely on the big capitalists as the main force against imperialism and hegemony, and still cater to the US ‘tittytainment’ strategy, and let our young generation lose their toughness and virility, then we will fall first, just like the Soviet Union did back then, letting the country collapse, letting the country’s wealth be looted, and letting the people fall into a deep disaster,” Li warns. “Therefore, the profound changes that are currently taking place in China are precisely to deal with the current severe and complex international situation, and precisely to deal with the savage and ferocious attacks that the United States has begun to launch against China.”

Pretty dramatic stuff: maybe Li needs to sign up with a celebrity talent agency himself…

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