After a spate of scandals involving megawatt stars, China is undergoing what state-backed media bills as “much-needed” reform -- a crackdown on the entertainment industry that has some analysts hearing echoes from the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.
An article posted on China’s super app WeChat in late August signaled what was coming. Quickly reposted by major state media outlets such as People’s Daily and Xinhua News Agency, the article was titled “Everyone Can Feel This Reform Coming.”
“The Chinese entertainment industry stinks,” it said. “With no reform, not only the entertainment industry but also the cultural performing arts, film and television industry will be ruined.”
By September 2, China’s National Radio and Television Administration had published a new set of guidelines banning artists with incorrect politics, purportedly to protect youth from “bad influence” and the “social atmosphere” from “severe pollution.” The directive also advocated for “professional, authoritative critiques” of performers and putting “political correctness and the socialist values above all forms of arts.”
Akio Yaita, a onetime Beijing correspondent and Taipei bureau chief for a conservative Japanese newspaper, told VOA Mandarin that the crackdown reflects power struggles between President Xi Jinping and his opponents.
“Xi is creating an atmosphere of terror to suppress those who advocate for capitalism and economic reform,” Yaita said in a phone interview with VOA Mandarin. “He’s encouraging blind patriotism online. His efforts to stir up hatred of the rich, xenophobia, envy, jealousy and hatred of celebrities is appearing to be more and more like a Cultural Revolution 2.0.”
The Cultural Revolution was a decadelong period of political and social upheaval that began in 1966 with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Mao Zedong seeking to consolidate power. Millions of professionals, artists and intellectuals were imprisoned, forced into farm labor or worse.
The current entertainment industry crackdown was prompted by a succession of three scandals involving superstar celebrities that include allegations of baby abandonment, rape and tax irregularities.
In January, producer Zhang Heng, the former husband of megastar actress Zheng Shuang, announced on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform, that he was in California caring for two babies born to a pair of surrogates the couple had hired.
The pair reportedly split while the surrogates were pregnant, and Zhang’s allegation that his wife had abandoned the babies rocked China, which has long banned surrogacy.
On August 27, authorities presented Zheng with a $46 million fine for tax evasion. According to the Shanghai tax office, the actress had evaded taxes by signing fake contracts and submitting fake documents related to her payment for the TV drama "A Chinese Ghost Story,” according to the state-affiliated Global Times.
That same day, all online references to Zhao Wei, another highly paid actress, disappeared. Her work vanished from video streaming platforms and social media. Her fan clubs shut down, and films and TV shows ghosted her name from the credits.
Zhao had invested her acting and endorsement fees from luxury brands such as Fendi so profitably that Chinese media took to calling her "China's show-business Buffett," according to Forbes magazine, referring to Warren Buffett, the storied U.S. investor and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway.
Zhao, a former kindergarten teacher, was reportedly close with Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, a founder of the multinational tech behemoth Alibaba Group, who has been targeted by Beijing's crackdown on tech companies.
On August 16, police arrested Kris Wu Yifan, a 30-year-old Chinese Canadian actor, singer and model on suspicion of rape after a woman accused him of spiking her drinks and raping her at his home when she was 17.
According to CNN and BBC, Wu has staunchly denied the allegations.
“The CCP is afraid of independent, authentic human experience which offers different ways to understand and be in the world to its own. These challenge its power,” Didi Kirsten Tatlow, senior fellow at the Asia Program of the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, told VOA Mandarin via email. “The entertainment sector offers many ways to challenge this cultural, or ideological, control, and when people get too popular, they are seen as a threat.”
Tatlow added that “to maintain full authority, (the CCP) feels it has to stamp out stories which deviate from its own 'story' about China. Fundamentally, the CCP’s ‘story’ is a claim to power. … Ultimately, this is about silencing alternative stories to the party’s.”
Some experts say they are unsurprised by Beijing’s entertainment industry crackdown.
“There is a lot of stuff that needs cleaning up in the entertainment industry, so the view that it needs reforming is not out of line,” Jonathan Sullivan, a political science professor and the director of China Programs at the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute, told VOA Mandarin.
“It has been this way for a long time, and incremental moves have not made a big enough dent, and so now, we have a more definitive response,” he told VOA via email. “It probably appears excessive, because it comes at the same time as policy crackdowns in other sectors amid the general and seemingly monotonic tightening of society under Xi.”
Sullivan added, “I think the depiction of this as 'turning on celebrities' or any reference to the (Cultural Revolution) are totally inapt. The fact is, celebrities have long been identified as possessing societal influence, and because of that, they have a social and moral responsibility assigned to them. Adding extra policy levers to make that happen, using campaign methods to step up exhortation to behave in such a way, is an unsurprising step.”
Yet when it comes to celebrity culture and fan clubs, there is a slightly different calculus, according to Sullivan, who describe them as more diffuse and decentralized, thus more difficult to control than the entertainment industry, which is ultimately controlled by the state.
“Fan and celebrity cultures have been burgeoning in China over the last several years, and it represents a real challenge to the party’s ambition to dominate the public sphere,” Sullivan said. “Any time you have individuals who command attention and affection at scale, they will come into the crosshairs.”
Quieting fan clubs
Fan clubs have been popular in China for the past two decades, with the country’s idol economy thriving. A report released by Beijing’s big data company Endata showed that in 2020, China’s idol economy raked in $20 billion, while celebrities’ advertisement sponsorship grew to $2.77 billion. The report also said fan clubs mostly attracted young women born after 1995 in big cities, half of them students.
The Cyberspace Administration of China has repeatedly criticized the fan clubs, accusing them of “luring the underaged into massive spending, voting on celebrity ranking lists, and instigating young people to cyberbullying.”
On May 8, the internet watchdog announced the “qing lang” or “clear and bright campaign,” to eliminate “harmful online problems damaging young people’s mental health.” The campaign focuses on online fan clubs.
Almost all of China’s most popular social media companies, including Sina Weibo, Tik Tok and Tencent, made public affirmations that they would cooperate with the government’s campaign to bring the fan clubs in line with the official state narrative.
Douban, China’s equivalent of IMDB and Reddit combined, started publishing weekly censorship announcements in June. On August 20, Douban said “in the past 7 days, 30,834 malicious posts were deleted, 196 rule-breaking accounts were deactivated, 7 problematic groups were taken offline.”
“The atmosphere has changed now. As fans, we have to watch out for what we say online,” Tracy Zhang, a fan club member in China’s eastern Zhejiang province, told VOA. She asked VOA Mandarin to use a pseudonym in fear of attracting attention.
According to Chinese state media outlets, the campaign to "rectify" fan clubs was fruitful. China’s state-controlled Xinhua News Agency said on August 2 that in two months, over 150,000 harmful posts were deleted, 4,000 malicious accounts were wiped out, and 1,300 “problematic” fan groups were removed.
One Chengdu resident who spoke to VOA Mandarin on the condition of anonymity, said she’s been joking with friends to see “which fan club will set up the first Communist Party branch. … Obviously, this is a very clear signal, at least for now: Be docile. Be obedient. Behave. Don’t make trouble, because that is not going to be tolerated.”