China’s biggest movie star has been erased from the internet, and the mystery is why

HONG KONG – Zhao Wei has spent the past two decades as Reese Witherspoon, the beloved actress turned business magnate in China.

She has directed award-winning films, sold millions of records as a pop singer, built a large following on social media, and amassed 86 million fans on Weibo, the Chinese micro-blogging site similar to Twitter. She has also made a fortune as an investor in Chinese technology and entertainment companies.

Today, the 45-year-old star has been erased from the Chinese internet. Searches for her name on the country’s largest video streaming sites appear blank. Her projects, including the popular TV series “My Fair Princess”, were removed. Anyone looking for her popular movie “So Young” on the Wikipedia equivalent of China would not know that she was the director; The field now reads “——.”

Poster for “My Fair Princess”, the TV series that launched Zhao Wei’s career.

Ms Zhao’s disappearance online on August 26 came at the start of a broader crackdown on the country’s entertainment industry as the Communist Party tries to stem what it sees as a rise in unhealthy celebrity culture. The Chinese government has not publicly announced the reason for this sudden change in status, which has raised questions among fans and observers about how willing they are to oppose her and other celebrities, and why.

This mystery also sparked open speculation about what, if anything, you might be doing wrong.

“Zhao Wei is like a poster child for what the Communist Party sees as wrong with China’s celebrity culture,” said Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in Chinese film and politics. “It’s proof that no one, no matter their wealth or popularity, is too old to pursue it.”

Beijing is targeting the pop culture industry as part of an effort to weed out what it sees as the unhealthy effects of youth. The Wall Street Journal looks into what happened after a prominent celebrity in China, Zhao Wei, disappeared from parts of the Chinese internet. Photo: Xu Nizhi / Zuma Press

He added that in Zhao Wei’s case, the lack of explanation would “certainly make other celebrities very cautious and proactive in embracing the goals of the system.”

New public interest in Ms Zhao’s status erupted on Wednesday after photos and video allegedly surfaced showing the star, dressed in casual clothes, a cropped top and a purple T-shirt, and she had visited a telecom services branch in her hometown the day before. Wuhu is in eastern China. The Wall Street Journal was unable to verify the authenticity of the photos, which were widely shared by fans on Chinese social media.

Ms. Zhao did not respond to requests for comment. Her movies and TV shows remained unsearchable on video streaming sites as of Wednesday afternoon. The China Cyberspace Administration, the country’s internet regulator, did not respond to any inquiry.

In the past few weeks, other celebrities have been ignored, including Cheng Shuang, an actress stumbled by a tax evasion investigation, and Zhang Zihan, a young actor who was criticized by the main Communist Party newspaper earlier after he found visiting a controversial shrine in Japan related to World War II. The second is while attending a friend’s wedding.

In an unprecedented campaign it launched last month, the party banned celebrity rankings on social media platforms, ordered traditional broadcasters and live-streaming platforms to ban artists who do not adhere to political or moral standards, and effectively banned children of pop stars. From appearing in entertainment shows.

He was featured on the cover of Chinese fashion magazine Zeng Shuang, another recently deleted celebrity, in January.


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Jade Gao/AFP/Getty Images

Ms. Zhao hasn’t spoken publicly about her being erased online. On August 29, after rumors spread on Chinese social media that she had fled to France on a private plane, she posted a message on Instagram saying that she was in Beijing with her parents. The message was deleted within hours.

Speculation about Ms. Zhao’s situation has ignited Chinese social media. One group referred to her relationship with Mr. Chang, a banned young actor, who is represented by an agency she owned. Nationalists among online speculators celebrated her disappearance.

Actor Zhang Zhehan in Shanghai in June; He was criticized by the main Communist Party newspaper after he was found visiting a controversial shrine in Japan.


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VCG / Getty Images

“The ability to gouge out such a lofty target really belongs to our nation,” said a film blogger with a handle that translates to Stark Wild Nuts With Roasted Corns. She said in a post that she had spent the past several weeks verbally arguing with fans of Mr. Zhang and Ms. Zhao and reported them to the NSA.

After Zhao’s fan page was deleted by Weibo when other platforms censored her name, her fans posted messages of support on their own microblog and on her brother’s Weibo page, urging the family to sue the attackers for defamation.

Comments often defended the star, while refraining from challenging the unwarranted decision to ban her.

“The state knows its political position better than any netizen,” wrote a supporter by the name of Tough Pea Sprout, who provided a list of the high-profile government events that Ms Zhao was invited to attend. As a representative of China’s soft power in 2013, then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye was introduced to President Xi Jinping at a state banquet.

For many, Ms. Zhao’s erasure marks the disappearance of fellow star Fan Bingbing in 2018 amid a tax evasion scandal. Ms. Fan, who appeared in the 2014 movie “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” disappeared from view for three months before appearing to issue an apology and pay a $70 million fine.

Actress Fan Bingbing attended the premiere of X-Men: Days of Future Past in Beijing in 2014.


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VCG / Getty Images

Ms. Zhao is a larger figure than Ms. Fan in many ways. She began her career in 1998 portraying a free-lance royal character of the Qing Dynasty in the blockbuster “My Fair Princess”. Over the years she solidified her star status by expanding into more roles and directing successful pop records. In the late 2000s, she married developer Huang Youlong.

She also became a major player in the business world, making investments with her husband in film and technology which in 2015 drove their combined assets into hundreds of millions of US dollars.

Ms. Zhao also sparked controversy. In 2001, she apologized after Chinese media blamed her for appearing in a fashion magazine in a dress featuring the flag of wartime Japan. In 2016, she dropped a Taiwanese actor from a movie she was directing after Chinese netizens accused him of defending Taiwan independence.

The following year, Ms Zhao and her husband were banned by the Chinese securities regulator from trading mainland stocks for five years for allegedly misleading investors. Ms. Zhao said at the time that she had done nothing wrong. Mr. Huang said he had never intentionally attempted to obtain wealth by illegal or immoral means.

After her disappearance online, a wide range of state-run media republished an article by a former newspaper editor amplifying the idea that the current moves against celebrities, including Ms Zhao, were part of a broader effort by Mr. The growing wealth in the country.

The article echoed earlier speculation linking Ms. Zhao with Jack Ma, the older founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.

who has been a central figure in Mr. Shi’s campaign targeting the tech sector. She noted that the two had a good relationship with a spiritual teacher.

Alibaba Group Holdings founder Jack Ma and Zhao Wei in Hangzhou, China, in 2015.


Photo:

VCG / Getty Images

Much of Ms. Zhao’s fortune came from a stake she and her husband bought in the entertainment arm of Alibaba. Separately, between 2016 and 2020, it bought shares in one of the funds affiliated with Yunfeng Capital, with the support of Mr. Ma, along with several wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs, according to the Chinese company registration database. Ali Baba, you and Mr. Ma did not respond to requests for comment.

The filings also recorded that a director at Ms. Zhao’s companies, whose name matches her mother’s, had taken a stake in Ant Group, a financial technology giant founded by Mr. Ma that was on track for a record-breaking initial public offering. This was canceled on Mr. Shi’s orders last year.

A fan of Ms. Zhao, a government employee in her late twenties who was willing to only give the nickname Zhang, said he thought her past was no more deserving of punishment than most other celebrities and was happy to see her photos circulated on Wednesday.

“If she can roam freely, she probably shouldn’t have much of a problem,” he said. And about erasure, he said: “I am still waiting for an explanation.”

write to Wenxin Fan at Wenxin.Fan@wsj.com

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