The crackdown came quickly and sweepingly, wiping out some of China’s biggest stars and fan clubs in a matter of days.
Over the past week, China’s entertainment industry has become the latest to fall into the crosshairs of the ruling Communist Party, following Xi Jinping’s clampdown on political dissent, social activism, ideological liberalism and private businesses.
Zhao Wei, one of China’s most prominent actresses, saw her presence mostly scrubbed from the country’s internet overnight. The billionaire’s fan page on Weibo, China’s heavily censored version of Twitter, was shut down. Movies and television shows she starred in — some going as far back as two decades ago — were taken off streaming platforms, with her name also removed from the cast lists.
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Broadcasters and video sites also removed the works of Zheng Shuang, another top Chinese actress who was fined $63 million for tax evasion on Friday. Zheng had been caught in a surrogacy scandal earlier this year, after her estranged partner accused her of abandoning their two babies in the United States.
The erasure came as a list of “misbehaving celebrities” reportedly blacklisted by China’s broadcast authorities circulated on social media on Thursday. Zhao and Zheng were both on the list, as well as Chinese Canadian pop star Kris Wu, who was arrested on suspicion of rape this month. It was not immediately clear why Zhao was targeted. CNN has reached out to her agent for comment.
While individual Chinese celebrities have been targeted by the government before, the latest crackdown is wider in scope and harsher in severity, with their presence mostly wiped clean from the country’s internet — so complete is their erasure, it has been likened by fans online to the formation of a black hole following the collapse of a star.
Authorities also took aim at celebrity fan culture popular among China’s youth. On Friday, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) announced 10 measures to “clean up” what it called the “chaos” of celebrity fan clubs, including banning any attempt to rank celebrities based on popularity, and tightening regulations around talent agencies and fan club accounts. A day earlier, popular video platform iQiyi cancelled all idol talent shows, calling them “unhealthy.”
On Chinese social media, some comments said the crackdown was reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, a decade of political and social turmoil between 1966 and 1976 during which arts and culture were restricted to promoting party propaganda.
The Communist Party, which views popular culture as a key ideological battleground, has long kept the entertainment sector on a tight leash with stringent censorship. But it has also encouraged its growth, supporting domestic films and shows intended to help win the Chinese public over from Hollywood and other foreign productions.
But under Xi, the party has grown ever more obsessed with ideological and cultural control. The dazzle of stardom and the frenzy of fandom are increasingly viewed as a dangerous, pernicious influence — especially on the country’s youth.
For decades, robust economic growth has been a key pillar of legitimacy for the party. As the Chinese economy slows, Xi has invoked the need for “common prosperity” and pledged to redistribute wealth, with high-earning celebrities and business tycoons among the first to bear the brunt.
The sky-high income of some A-list celebrities is a glaring reminder of China’s gaping wealth gap. Zheng was reportedly paid more than $32 million for two and a half months of filming for a romantic drama, earning an average daily wage of more than $411,000. Last year, by way of comparison, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang revealed that more than 600 million Chinese were earning barely $192 per month.
From an ideological perspective, the party wants celebrities to become role models in helping promote values such as patriotism and love for the government. Many have responded to the call.
On social media, actors, singers, influencers and other entertainers have frequently acted as staunch defenders of the Chinese government, speaking up in support of Hong Kong police during the 2019 pro-democracy protests and leading the boycott earlier this year against Western brands over their stance against alleged forced labour in Xinjiang. Successful actors have also rushed to star in patriotic films and TV shows, and celebrities feel increasingly compelled to pledge millions of dollars in donations when a major disaster hits.
But that’s still not enough. The party sees the extravagant lifestyles of some celebrities as a sign of moral decay, and deems many of the popular male idols too “effeminate.” The extreme measures taken by some fans to defend their idols against perceived rivals, such as online abuse, doxxing and spreading rumours, have also drawn concerns.
On Saturday, the party’s anti-corruption watchdog lashed out at what it called “toxic” celebrity culture, accusing it of “advocating wrong values” in Chinese youth. “If not guided and changed, it’ll have a huge destructive impact on the future life of young people and social morality,” it said in a statement.
But most pressingly, the party is alarmed by the fervent loyalty top celebrities command among young fans, who have demonstrated remarkable ability, both online and offline, to mobilise in support of their idols. Following Wu’s detention, some fans openly called for a “rescue operation” to help free him from police dentition — drawing the censure of the party and state media.
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While few would take the “prison break” plan seriously, for a ruling party obsessed with maintaining stability and control, it serves as a warning that some of the country’s young are willing to challenge its authority for a subject of worship other than itself.
As for Chinese regulators, they have been upfront about the political intentions behind the clampdown.
In its statement Friday, the CAC urged various authorities to carry out the crackdown with “a sense of responsibility, mission and urgency,” and to bear in mind that it was born of the need for “safeguarding online political security and ideological security.”