China Power | Society | East Asia
In China, celebrities are under greater political and societal pressure to refrain from “immoral conduct.” Is this the Chinese version of cancel culture?
Singer Kris Wu, center, performs in the 2017 Tmall 11.11 Global Shopping Festival gala, in Shanghai, China on Nov. 10, 2017.
Credit: Chinatopix via AP
“I think the people in my grade are too immature,” Kevin Li told me at the English class we attended at Point Grey Secondary in Vancouver. Through our interactions in high school, Kevin left me with the impression of a charming person with marked confidence, perhaps borderline egoistic. He vanished from class one day; the word was that he had been recruited by a talent scout during a trip to Korea. He appeared on screen years later, with a new name: Kris Wu.
Kris Wu, having gained stardom in China, became the focus of a sex scandal in the past few days. He has denied the allegations of rape and sex with minors, but the public is largely unconvinced given Wu’s similar scandals in the past and that over 20 girls have now claimed to be victims or potential targets of Wu’s “sexual predation.”
In the wake of the Kris Wu scandal, a quasi #MeToo movement has erupted on China’s social media sphere. People are using the hastag “GirlsHelpGirls” to bump up discussions on sex abuse, the general tolerance shown to the sexual acts of male celebrities, and “capitalists” allowing such cases to be suppressed and silenced using wealth and power.
The authorities’ attention, was, however, on something else: the morality of public figures – an important element in the leadership’s vision of the “moral construction of society.”
The scandal could not have happened at a worse time for Kris Wu. With the CCP’s centenary, the party has gone full steam ahead in promoting Xi Jinping’s governance ideology – “Xi Jinping Thought.” A major pillar, the “Xi Jinping Thought on Rule of Law,” which had a research center dedicated to it established last month, emphasized the “integration of law and morality.” Xi himself has stated that “Law is written morality, while morality is conscious law.” The “Implementation Outline for the Establishment of a Rule of Law-Based Society” policy guidelines published in 2020 mandated the “establishment of moral norms” and the combination of “legal norms” with “moral norms.”
Under this political context, the lines between virtue and law have blurred. Celebrities are under greater political and societal pressure to refrain from “immoral conduct,” which includes acts as minor as smoking or having tattoos. In 2018, China’s National Radio and Television Administration ordered TV programs to refrain from using actors whose “morality is not noble… tasteless, vulgar and obscene… ideological level is low and have no class,” and that “actors with stains, scandals and problematic moral integrity” are banned. In 2020, celebrity Show Lo was banned in China for infidelity. Celebrity Zheng Shuang’s career ended in 2021 after state media accounts criticized her for abandoning her baby, born to a surrogate mother in the United States.
While the legal process has just begun for Kris Wu’s case, the “violation of morality” was sufficient for the politically sensitive domestic and international brands to drop their endorsements. Given the difficulty of gathering evidence for prosecuting a rape case, however, it was uncertain whether Wu’s career would be resurrected after the incident.
Netizens were generally disgruntled at the Communist Youth League’s stance on using the legal processes to settle the issue. However, the state-owned CCTV Weibo social media post titled “raise the threshold to become a celebrity” dropped the hammer on Wu. The post put greater emphasis on moral norms and demanded that celebrities have “virtue before artistry.” The post won CCTV plaudits as “the rightful state media.” The Chinese state broadcaster, rather than the court, has decreed the end of Kris Wu’s career in China.
While the state and party have an interest in the top-down engineering of a “moral society” through regulating celebrities, the public has demonstrated similar propensities by advocating for the punishment of Kris Wu and calling for state media to intervene in this case. Either out of spontaneity or due to previous government efforts, the internet public has shown growing activism in the surveillance of public figures. Celebrity donations to disaster relief efforts are gauged and compared, and those who were slow to cut off ties with “China-insulting brands” were faced with criticism. This trend likely demonstrates public support for Xi’s vision of a youth society that may growingly conform to “core socialist values.”
The incident also highlighted the ambiguity on whether “moral norms” or “legal norms” have more weight in the verdict of the official on social conflicts and disputes. The Communist Party Youth League, along with the China Association of Performing Arts – a government body affiliated with China’s Ministry of Culture – were criticized for showing a double standard: being critical of the morals of females and previous celebrities who were banned without legal violations, but advocating for the legal process to play out in the case of Kris Wu.
However, as the party and its leadership seek to enforce its governance by upholding and acting on uncodified moral norms, without clear boundaries for the conduct of public figures, China risks growing its own form of cancel culture.