It is bizarrely easy for authorities to ‘remove’ material from the Chinese ‘internet.’ Offending material can disappear within seconds of being posted. Or, as in this case, retroactively.
Late on Thursday evening, China’s video streaming giants scrubbed their archives of anything to do with Zhao Wei—a billionaire actress who rose to fame in the late 1990s to become one of the country’s most popular celebrities.
Tencent Video and iQiyi, China’s most popular video streaming platforms, removed all films and TV series starring Zhao. Movie information sites stripped Zhao’s name from films that credit her as a director or producer. Twitter-like Weibo removed Zhao’s unofficial fan page.
Zhao’s sudden cancellation was reportedly prompted by an order from the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), the state-run regulator for entertainment. Beijing hasn’t given a reason for canceling Zhao.
Yet as authorities continue to unleash a torrent of crackdowns on everything from tech giants to celebrity fan clubs and unchecked wealth, Zhao could have fallen afoul of any number of new taboos.
Who is Vicky Zhao?
Zhao Wei, also known as Vicky Zhao, rose to fame in the late 1990s as the lead in the TV series My Fair Princess—a comedy period piece, set in the 18th-century Qing dynasty, about an orphan who accidentally becomes a princess.
The show was a roaring success in China and across Asia, securing Zhao’s status as a “national idol” at home. The show’s popularity also catapulted Zhao from television to films as she made her cinematic debut in Stephen Chow’s comedy Shaolin Soccer in 2001.
Zhao quickly established herself in China’s showbiz as one of the “Four Dan Actresses”—a term coined by Guangzhou Daily to refer to the four most bankable film stars of the time. As of last year, Zhao was still a marketable figure. The Italian fashion house Fendi hired Zhao as their brand ambassador for China in 2020, two years after Burberry had tagged Zhao for the same role.
But Zhao hasn’t amassed her fortune simply from brand sponsorship and acting. Like other prominent celebrities in China, Zhao utilized her wealth and fame to expand into markets.
In 2014, Zhao and her husband—Singaporean investor Huang Youlong—took a $400 million stake in Alibaba Pictures, becoming the production group’s second-largest shareholder. The duo’s collective investments earned them a spot on Hurun’s list of the world’s wealthiest young billionaires in 2016.
However, in 2017, Chinese regulators slapped the power couple with a five-year trading ban after a group of investors sued them for providing misleading information ahead of a corporate takeover.
What did Zhao do?
According to Global Times, the NRTA didn’t even tell the streaming companies why Zhao had been targeted for deletion. The ministry just instructed content platforms to strip their sites of Zhao’s work immediately.
Online, Chinese Internet users speculate Zhao’s history of controversial business dealings as well as her close connection to Alibaba—the tech giant lashed hardest by Xi Jinping’s recent crackdowns—could be the reason for her removal.
Another rumor speculates Zhao’s arrest is somehow connected to the downfall of Hangzhou Party Secretary Zhou Jianyong, who was detained earlier this month under corruption charges. Hangzhou is home to Alibaba headquarters, so Zhao has a tenuous connection to Zhou through her investment in Alibaba Pictures.
“The celebrity culture in China has a very intimate relationship with the business community,” says Kenny Ng, an associate professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University’s Academy of Film. “There is often a lot of under-the-table dealings going on between celebrities, businesses, and government officials.”
But Zhao could have also been ensnared in Beijing’s recent campaign against celebrity worship.
In June, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) announced it was clamping down on “chaotic” celebrity fan clubs, calling the fandoms harmful to children and a source for cyberbullying. On Friday, the CAC followed up and banned media and websites from publishing rankings of the most popular celebrities.
The crackdown on fan clubs has targeted individual celebrities too. Last week administrators de-platformed actor Zhang Zhehan after he visited a Japanese war shrine. On Friday regulators fined actress Zheng Shuang $46 million for tax evasion, too, and prohibited entertainment programs from hosting her as a guest.
New rules aside, Zhao isn’t the first megastar to suddenly fall out of favor with the government. In 2018, Fan Bingbing—China’s highest-paid actress who starred alongside Zhao in My Fair Princess—disappeared from public view.
Starting in July that year, Fan’s social media pages went dead, the paparazzi couldn’t find her in her usual haunts, and even friends and family couldn’t say where Fan was until she resurfaced in October. Fan had been detained while authorities investigated her for tax evasion and ultimately fined her $127 million.
Like Fan, Zhao’s social media has gone dark, save for one post that flashed up on Sunday. Following her censorship Friday, rumors emerged that Zhao had fled China to France, where the actress owns a vineyard. On Sunday, a new post on Zhao’s Instagram appeared to refute the rumor and claimed Zhao was in Beijing visiting her parents.
Hours later, that post disappeared as well.