The disappearance of beloved and sometimes controversial actor Zhao Wei epitomizes many aspects of the Chinese government’s campaign to tear down fandom, celebrity and the driving forces behind them.
Zhao attained major stardom in the late 1990s with TV series “My Fair Princess,” starred as the leading lady in John Woo’s epic “Red Cliff” and directed 2013 hit YA film “So Young.”
Along the way, she shook off a scandal about wearing a dress that looked like a Japanese flag, became unfeasibly wealthy and got banned for five years by China’s securities regulator — none of which, incredibly, fazed her meteoric rise.
Now, suddenly, the star, who had accumulated 86 million Weibo followers, hasn’t just disappeared from public view (supposedly glimpsed only this week via unverified photos in her hometown), but all her film and TV series have been taken down and her name wiped from the web in what appears to be a state-mandated directive.
A rationale could be her wealth, prominence or close friendship with Jack Ma, the former rock-star founder of tech giant Alibaba who slipped from view a year ago after daring to criticize aspects of China’s financial regulatory system. Nobody knows the reasons for her circumstances, and there’s been no official explanation.
“Zhao Wei is like a poster child for what the Communist Party sees as what’s wrong with celebrity culture in China,” Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California specializing in Chinese films and politics, tells Variety. “Going after her without offering a smoking-gun explanation as to why they did it will certainly make other celebrities extremely cautious and proactive in embracing regime goals. It’s a demonstration that no one, no matter how wealthy or popular, is too big to pursue.”
The CCP’s current rage against what it calls the overly “chaotic” celebrity industry is growing increasingly far-reaching.
The goal, government and industry bodies say in new directives released in recent weeks, is to refocus entertainment on “traditional Chinese, revolutionary and socialist culture,” and to curb the worship paid and dollars spent on stars deemed “vulgar” or “immoral.”
The plan is to dismantle some of the key machinery that inflates individuals into sky-high stars. Talent-contest TV shows are to be crimped and recommendation engines used by social media, streamers and e-commerce curtailed. Online rankings of celebrity popularity and virality — often used for casting and salary decisions — will also be banned.
At the root of the industry overhaul is the long-held CCP view that entertainers aren’t artists but are rather “art workers” who play a key role in molding the minds and values of the people. Celebrities, therefore, should be upstanding role models and paragons of virtue who contribute to China’s rise in the world.
Even promoting the right brand of masculinity matters as China seeks this “national rejuvenation.” Earlier this month, China’s top media regulatory body called for a media ban of “sissy idols” and “effeminate men” while saying that it will establish a “correct beauty standard.”
This may prove quite revolutionary indeed, given the extent to which male makeup, androgynous K-pop-inspired looks and fey young pop stars known as “little fresh meat” have become the industry norm — and drivers of China’s richest money-making content.
Propaganda films, too, have capitalized on their popularity, with the recent historical dramas “The Pioneer” and “1921,” feting the Party’s 100th anniversary, drawing young fans to dry subject matter by employing the freshest of the fresh meat, tapping, for instance, Li Yifeng to play a young Mao Zedong and boy band idol Roy Wang to play a young Deng Xiaoping.
Meanwhile, Chinese regulators have spent much of the past year punishing its tech giants for anti-competitive behavior, mishandling consumer data and damaging society through gaming addiction, wiping out hundreds of billions of dollars of their market value in the process. Since tech firms also dominate China’s entertainment scene, the crackdown will have ripple effects through its TV, film and music worlds.
Hollywood may still be just waking up to the new era of Chinese anti-capitalism and hypernationalism, and its rabid keyboard army set to attack any perceived slights to China’s interests.
“Mulan,” Disney’s most Chinese studio film, withered. Chloé Zhao was canceled for earlier “lies” about Chinese freedom, putting her forthcoming Marvel film “Eternals” in danger of not getting a China release. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” which includes Mandarin dialogue and ethnically Chinese stars, may similarly never open in the Middle Kingdom.
But the pain will become apparent if Chinese regulators engineer a prolonged box office drought. By mid-August, Hollywood’s market share in the world’s biggest theatrical market had fallen below 10%, according to Artisan Gateway.
At times the moves feel targeted at Western influence, but Jaeson Ma, co-founder of 88 Rising and Stampede Ventures, believes otherwise.
“It is not anti-Western. It is more like a different approach to raising children,” Ma says. “The Chinese government is acting no differently from a parent disciplining a child … [expecting] honor, respect and obedience. They are trying to ensure a good education, a respectable outlook and not getting addicted to video games.”