Often when it comes to film all the drama plays out on the silver screen. Not so in China.
A recent controversy played out on Sina Weibo, regarding a romance directed by one of China’s most famous actresses Zhao Wei. It is a revealing and cautionary tale about how much control the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still has over the media.
Zhao has been forced to replace Taiwanese actor Leon Dai, and Japanese actress Mizuhara Kiko after finishing her new movie “No Other Love”, due to intense pressure on microblog site Weibo from both the public and Beijing.
Dai has a history of supporting Taiwan independence, while Kiko once visited Yasukuni shrine. Dedicated to dead Japanese soldiers, including those who fell in the Second Sino-Japanese War, the shrine has been condemned by the Chinese.
Weibo is a Chinese Twitter-like social media site, and the hottest microblogging service currently is Sina Weibo– the original inventor of the platform. It has various powerful functions, allowing users to insert rich media. The word limit for a basic microblog is 140 words, but users can edit and post “Long Microblogs” with lengthy text and multiple pictures.
Netizens can speak relatively freely on Weibo. Besides memes, commercials, news and harmless personal daily records, people use it to call out immorality, crime, and to criticise the political system – exposing injustice, corruption and the abuse of power.
Of course, this freedom is not entirely without limitation. Sina can delete posts and comments if they contain illegal content, or “sensitive words/information” unwelcome to Beijing, or the company itself.
For years, microblogs have served as a highly-valued justice tool. In 2016, however, things have started to change. Although netizens often criticize the CCP’s strict media control, they have paid more attention to Sina since the Zhou Ziyu Event.
The Taiwanese female singer insisted that Taiwan be an independent nation during her appearances on Chinese television. Angered, the public took to Weibo to ask her to apologise for the remarks.
Throughout the incident, a popular view emerged that Sina’s executives, in fact, support Taiwan independence, as the system deleted countless posts and comments in which furious netizens urged Zhou to apologise. Mistrust was bred.
The Zhao Wei Event is a replica of Zhou’s, but more serious and complicated. The movie was partly-financed by Alibaba, the country’s e-commerce giant as well as a major shareholder of Sina.
Three months ago when Zhao announced the cast on Weibo, her fans immediately realised that such choices would be a hidden danger to both Zhao’s movie and reputation. They kept reminding or questioning her about this on her posts, only resulting in deletion by the actress and her company.
The situation was inflamed on 25 June when she posted a joint photo with Dai to celebrate the movie’s completion. More protests appeared, while Zhao’s company threatened to sue, and Sina prevented users searching for the ongoing drama by blocking keywords.
On 6 July, there was an even more surprising plot twist – the Party began to interfere. The official account of the Communist Youth League, a key element of the CCP, posted a long detailed microblog about the incident.
Although it used the word “alleged” when presenting Dai’s history of supporting Taiwan independence, the end of the article “kindly” reminded the public of three other movies which he stars in and will be soon on screen, and directly mentioned Zhao.
“Everyone makes mistakes – what is crucial is that you should be aware of and correct them,” it wrote.
Making matters worse, Sina deleted the post after only 10 minutes, which led to unprecedented fury. As more political accounts got involved in the incident, Zhao finally threw in the towel and now the movie is in post-production.
Territorial unity is China’s most important political topic and nationalism is a mainstream ideology. The country is particularly sensitive to Taiwan. It may be seen as self-ruling from an international point of view, but in China it is considered an inalienable part of the territory. Any remark about independence can be a serious political mistake – as highlighted in both the Zhou and Zhao events.
And such control will continue to be stricter in the visible future. In February, President Xi Jinping stressed in a national speech the necessity of media’s subordination to the Party’s will.
Outside forces like business and the market might make some change in China, but they will never win the fight for dominance. Big Brother rules, as always.