Welcome to Zooming In China Tea Time. I’m Simone Gao.
Last week, Zhao Wei, the name of one of China’s most famous and influential actresses, was erased from the Internet by Chinese government officials. The order came without warning from the state-run regulator for entertainment, the National Radio and Television Administration, and included all social media sites, fan pages and posts on platforms like Weibo as well as all content featuring her—including movies, TV shows, chat show appearances and more.
While the order was clear, the reason was not. And because no official reason was given for the order, the rumor mill ran wild. State-run news source Global Times hinted that it may have something to do with the financial scandals she was embroiled in over the years but gave just one example.
Other online sources suggest that there may be an issue of tax evasion, like her fellow My Fair Princess co-star Fan Bingbing, China’s highest-paid actress, who disappeared from public view in 2018. Beginning in July of that year, Fan’s social media pages went idle, paparazzi couldn’t locate her, and friends and family couldn’t say where she was. It wasn’t until she resurfaced in October that the world learned of Fan’s true fate: she had been detained while Chinese authorities investigated her for tax evasion. She was ultimately released but fined $127 million dollars.
Still others believe it may be because of her connections to high-level corporate and political figures. Zhao Wei and her husband are close friends with Jack Ma, the Alibaba founder who has been under deep scrutiny by the Chinese government, and were early investors in his Alibaba Pictures Group, buying a $400 million stake in 2015.
There are many unknowns that circle Zhao Wei’s public erasure, and her whereabouts is one of them. But after photos were published suggesting she had fled with her husband to France, Zhao finally spoke up. She posted a photo of a childhood toy on her Instagram account, saying “The best season to chat with mom and dad. It’s like I’ve never grown up before, so good.” However, within hours, that post, too, was removed.
This issue does not impact Zhao Wei alone. Zhao Wei was removed from social media and streaming services. Zhang Zhehan was blacklisted. Zheng Shuang was fined $46 million for tax evasion. Ruby Lin and her husband Jianhua Huo have closed their studios in China. Zhao Wei’s friends in the celebrity circle urgently deleted all Weibo posts related to Zhao Wei. It is clear how scared they are. What crime did each of these people commit?
Chinese leadership claims the series of crackdowns on China’s celebrities are an effort to control the “Fans culture” of celebrity worship and restore moral behavior to the youth of the country. They said that celebrities need to become “positive energy idols” and need to assume responsibility for guiding the mainstream values of young people in China.
I think the real reason for CCP leaders to launch these attacks goes beyond the idea of punishing financial wrongs or curbing errant youth morality. I think this turmoil in the entertainment industry is part of Xi Jinping’s long-term plan for CCP’s dominance in all aspects of Chinese society. Xi Jinping requires that his way of thinking be the core around which the Chinese economy and society function. We see that in his Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, policies pulled from his writings and speeches and now published widely and formally taught in schools of all levels. Simply put, he is trying to comprehensively transform China toward that thought, and he sees the remediation of the entertainment industry as a prerequisite to that goal.
To talk about Xi Jinping’s transformation of China, we must first start with a phenomenon: the rise of “Little Pink,” a group of nationalistic and technologically savvy youth that have become a forceful presence on social media. The term, as it is now used, was coined by Weibo blogger Daguguguji. In the summer of 2015, he began using the phrase “your country” to separate himself from the party-state mentality in China. That term sparked outrage from many other users, including a group of young women who were members of the popular Jinjiang Literature City site, called “little pink” because of its pink background. Daguguguji began using that nickname as an insult to their nationalistic ideals. That term exploded in popularity in January 2016 after the Di Ba Expedition where Chinese users, this time male and female, flooded Taiwanese social media with attacks on Taiwan’s presidential election.
Liberal Chinese author Wang Wusi suggests that one factor in this group’s aggressive nationalism may be found in their class status, saying “It can be analyzed that most of the little pinks came from third- and fourth-tier cities, or followed by their parents to work in first- and second cities, and belong to the middle and lower classes of society.” He also cited psychologist Tang Yinghong’s perspective that strong patriotic feelings “usually appear in the middle and lower social economy, because ‘patriotism’ will enhance their sense of self-esteem.
I would add that the large number of small pinks is related to the timeline of the changes in Chinese people’s thinking. In the Hu Jingtao and Wen Jiabao era, before Xi Jinping came to power, there were the offline antagonists called the “angry youth” and the “50 Cent Army” paid by the Communist Party to post pro-Party comments. Those groups were spurred by the Communist Party itself. But the
In the Hu and Wen eras, there were voices from people publicly questioning the legitimacy of the CCP’s governance. But after Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China began to see a lot of little pinks. Over the years, fewer and fewer voices were heard questioning the CCP. Today there are almost none.
That silence is evidence that the Chinese people’s thinking has changed in recent years. In the thinking of many Chinese people, especially those in second- and third-tier cities and villages, the Communist Party has become the savior of corruption, a process that began with the anti-corruption campaigns launched by Xi Jinping after he took office. To a large extent, this also helped the Communist Party re-establish its ruling legitimacy. It gave Chinese citizens the false impression that the difficult circumstances happening in the country were created by a handful of corrupt officials and that once the Party brought those corrupt officials to justice, it would prove itself to be great and glorious and correct.
This technique has been tried repeatedly in the history of the Chinese Communist Party. Every time they face a crisis, they find a scapegoat. In the end, as the public message goes, the Party is always great and glorious and correct.
The changes in Chinese thinking in recent years are of great significance to Xi Jinping. Xi’s thoughts have always been relatively coherent. He wants to make Marxism the mainstream ideology in China again and re-establish the government controlled economy. This is the big game he has been playing since taking office, and it is still underway. It is his plan to transform China. He also believes that by accomplishing these two points, the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party can be secured.
Xi Jinping’s signature political philosophy is the Confidence Doctrine calling for Party members, government officials, and the Chinese people to be “confident in our chosen path, confident in our guiding theories, confident in our political system, and confident in our culture.” He wants to prove to the world that the set of things he insists on is superior to the set of Western constitutional democracy. He believes that if the Chinese people follow this path, they will not only survive but also surpass the United States and even rule the world. To accomplish this, though, all of China must know, believe and follow his path, his guiding theories, his political system and his version of their culture.
To do so, to gain that buy-in from Chinese citizens, Xi Jinping believes it is necessary to crush the traffic-based model of making celebrities and celebrities’ influence on the public. It is incompatible with the party system, as celebrities compete with the Party for the devotion of the masses. Celebrities, when combined with commercial and political power, divide Xi Jinping’s power and become a very real political threat.
Xi Jinping wants all traffic to belong to the Party and all influence to come from state-controlled media. On Toutiao, a Chinese news and information platform, the most popular account is state-sponsored media giant People’s Daily. And that is how Xi Jinping needs it to be. If the central government screams, he wants the whole country to respond enthusiastically. Only this method will support his efforts to close the country to the outside world, re-install a planned economy and engage in a full confrontation with the West. Just like a train, all the wheels must be on the track so the train can run effectively.
They also greatly limit celebrity endorsements of products and ban any activities that “affect the normal study and rest of minors” or that enable them to “carry out various online gatherings.”
What this trend shows is the Chinese government’s interest in not only controlling the entertainment industry itself but also the fans’ voices. Ways that fans view and value celebrity, what makes a person worthy of celebrating, are being forcibly taken and replaced by the CCP’s notion of what values are worthy of being upheld and under what conditions. It is not enough for Xi Jinping to control virtually all media within the country. It is not enough for him to control the leaders of industry and innovation. So long as the citizens have an ability to access other ways of thinking, and in doing so, to potentially choose a line of thought that does not align with his, they are viewed as a threat. And as the CCP demonstrated again this week with Zhao Wei, those deemed as a threat will be erased, without warning and without explanation.
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