China’s Biggest Movie Star Was Erased From the Internet, and the Mystery Is Why

By CreatorStack · 1 month ago

Zhao Wei spent the past two decades as China’s equivalent of Reese Witherspoon, a beloved actress turned business mogul.

She directed award-winning films, sold millions of records as a pop singer and built a large following on social media, amassing 86 million fans on Weibo, China’s Twitter -like microblogging site. She 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 biggest video-streaming sites come up blank. Her projects, including the wildly popular TV series “My Fair Princess,” have been removed. Anyone looking up her acclaimed film “So Young” on China’s equivalent of Wikipedia wouldn’t know she was the director; the field now reads “——.”

Ms. Zhao’s online disappearance on Aug. 26 came at the onset of a broader clampdown on the country’s entertainment industry as the Communist Party attempts to halt what it sees as a rise in unhealthy celebrity culture. The Chinese government hasn’t publicly stated what prompted this sudden change to her status, raising questions among fans and observers about how far it is willing to go against her and other celebrities, and why.

The mystery also has sparked open speculation about what, if anything, she might have done wrong.

In the past few weeks, other celebrities also have been scrubbed, including Zheng Shuang, an actress bogged down by a tax-evasion probe, and Zhang Zhehan, a young actor who was earlier slammed by the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper after he was found having visited a controversial shrine in Japan related to World War II while attending a friend’s wedding.

In an unprecedented campaign launched last month, the party banned the ranking of celebrities by name on social-media platforms, ordered traditional broadcasters and streaming platforms to ban artists who don’t meet political or moral standards, and effectively banned the children of pop stars from appearing in entertainment shows.

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

She launched her career in 1998 portraying a freewheeling Qing dynasty royal in the smash hit “My Fair Princess.” Over the years she cemented her star status by expanding into more roles and putting out hit 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 tech that in 2015 pushed their combined assets to hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars.

Following her online disappearance, a wide range of state-run media republished an essay written 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. Xi to rein in the rich and address the country’s yawning wealth gap.

The essay echoed earlier speculation by linking Ms. Zhao to Jack Ma, the larger-than-life founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. who has been a central figure in Mr. Xi’s campaign targeting the tech sector. It noted that the two of them had mingled with a well-connected spiritual guru.

Much of Ms. Zhao’s wealth came from a stake she and her husband bought in Alibaba’s entertainment arm. Separately, between 2016 and 2020, she purchased shares in one of the funds under Yunfeng Capital, backed by Mr. Ma, alongside several wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs, according to China’s company registry database. Alibaba, Ant and Mr. Ma didn’t reply to requests for comment.

The registrations also recorded that a director in Ms. Zhao’s companies, whose name matches with that of her mother, had taken a stake in Ant Group, a financial-technology giant founded by Mr. Ma that was on track for a record-setting IPO that was called off on Mr. Xi’s orders last year.