Celebrity Culture “Clean Up” Campaign Targets Stars and Fans Alike

One of China’s most famous actresses has been summarily wiped from the internet as part of a “clean up” campaign aimed at celebrity culture. Zhao Wei, who starred in the über-popular TV drama “My Fair Princess,” became a billionaire through investing in Alibaba, and was the face of Italian high fashion brand Fendi in China, was digitally disappeared overnight without explanation. Her erasure happened in the middle of a Cyberspace Administration of China “special operation” against celebrity worship, which has both targeted celebrity misbehavior and imposed strict new controls on fan interaction with “idols”:

In June the office of the central cyberspace affairs commission announced a two-month special operation targeting fanclub culture, known as fan quan, which it said negatively affected the mental health of children.

[…] The 10-point list “to rectify chaos in the fan community” also included an order to “strictly regulate” celebrity managers and firms running fan pages and other online activities that “cause fans to bully each other”, as well as previously flagged bans on fundraising activities and participation by children.

[…] In June the commission said children were being induced to contribute to fundraising or voting campaigns for celebrities on competition programmes, that verbal abuse, online bullying and harassment and doxing were taking place, and that people were being encouraged to show off wealth and extravagance. It also said public opinion was being interfered with by bots or social media trends that were hijacked to boost celebrities’ profiles. [Source]

The new regulations have banned publishing lists ranking celebrities’ popularity and warned that discussion groups that channel online mobs will be shut down. The fan groups are being targeted in part due to their role in the Kris Wu rape case. Fan groups rallied to his defense, attacking his accusers and demanding that brands maintain their relationships with him. In response, the CAC “deleted 1,300 fan groups, disabled 4,000 online accounts, and removed more than 150,000 ‘toxic’ remarks.” At The New York Times, Alexandra Stevenson, Amy Chang Chien and Cao Li reported on the Party’s effort to combat “fan culture,” which it believes poses a threat to young minds and social harmony:

Chinese video sites have quickly fallen in line with the government’s crackdown. The popular video platform iQiyi canceled its idol talent show this week, a move that its chief executive said was aimed at “drawing a clear boundary on unhealthy tendencies in the industry.” Earlier this year, the show came under criticism after fans of various contestants bought milk from Mengniu Dairy, a sponsor, to earn more points for their idols, then dumped large quantities of it into sewers.

[…] The move to clean up unruly fan clubs and discipline celebrities is the latest example of the increasingly assertive role that China’s governing Communist Party under Xi Jinping, an authoritarian leader, wants to take in regulating culture. Mr. Xi said in 2014 that art and culture should be made in the service of the people, and in the years since, the entertainment industry has emerged as an ideological battleground, whether it is in the censorship of themes deemed pernicious or in reining in celebrity influence.

[…] The crackdown on fan clubs is a reversal of Beijing’s view of the industry only a year ago. State media outlets used to praise fan culture for promoting spontaneous “positive energy,” citing a fan club in 2019 that was created around a fictitious character who came to the defense of Beijing’s policies during the protests in Hong Kong. [Source]

The push for control has extended into other already tightly regulated cultural spheres. In October, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism will publish a blacklist of karaoke songs that “endanger national unity, sovereignty or territory integrity; violate China’s religious policies and spreads cults and superstitions; and advocate obscenity, gambling, violence and drug-related crimes or instigating crimes.” Hong Kong will begin censoring films—and even reviewing old films for subversive content—“to safeguard national security.”

It is unclear why Zhao Wei was censored. There are two prevailing theories, both unconfirmed: her ties to actors and directors blacklisted for their ties to Japan and Taiwan and her business relationship with Alibaba. Zhao signed Zhang Zhehan, an actor recently blacklisted and censored for taking a photo at Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine, to her company last year. She also once cast Leon Dai, a Taiwanese director reviled by Chinese ultra-nationalists, as a lead in a film she directed. At The South China Morning Post, Mandy Zuo reported on speculation that Zhao ran into trouble over scrutiny about her opinions on geopolitics:

An agency owned by Zhao represented Zhang Zhehan, who was an up-and-coming actor until he was also blacklisted after an old selfie he took at Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine in 2018 emerged online. The Yasukuni Shrine honours Japanese soldiers who died fighting for the country and is a particularly sensitive political touchpoint in China.

[…] Outside of business, Zhao courted controversy in 2001 when she wore a dress that resembled Japan’s imperial Rising Sun flag during a fashion shoot in New York.

Her political stance was again questioned in 2016 when a film she directed, No Other Love, was attacked for inviting Taiwanese actor Leon Dai to be a leading character. Chinese web users regarded Dai as an advocate of Taiwanese independence. Zhao was ultimately pressured to change him. [Source]

Others speculate that the cause may lie in Zhao’s ties to Alibaba. The company and some affiliated with it have been in hot water: in mid-August, the Party’s anti-corruption agency announced an investigation into Hangzhou Party Secretary Zhou Jianyong (once thought to be a member of Xi’s “New Zhejiang Army” faction) while directing cadres to conduct self-examinations on their business ties—heavily implying that Alibaba had undue influence in the city. Bloomberg News reported on Zhao’s relationship with Alibaba and other business dealings:

Zhao, who has served on a jury at the Venice International Film Festival and owns a wine chateau in Bordeaux, has also built a fortune through investments including an early stake in Alibaba Pictures Group. Her husband Huang Youlong in 2015 partnered with e-commerce billionaire Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. on a private equity deal.

In 2018, Zhao and her husband were banned by the Shanghai Stock Exchange from acting as senior executives for any listed companies for five years due to irregularities related to a failed takeover bid in 2016. [Source]

Other celebrities were targeted too. Actress Zheng Shuang, who earlier this year was embroiled in a controversy over surrogate pregnancies and subsequently targeted in a hushed-up tax investigation, was fined $46 million for tax evasion. The staggering fine pales in comparison to actress Fan Bingbing’s $130 million fine on similar charges in 2018. Both used “yin-yang contracts” to fraudulently claim lower income for tax purposes. Global Times framed Zheng Shuang’s tax penalty as consistent with Xi Jinping’s push for “common prosperity.”


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