ANDREA MONETON explores official and popular reactions to a controversial actress’ presence in a documentary about the Long March.
In late October, CCTV, the state-run television broadcaster in China, removed an episode of its documentary series which commemorates the 80th anniversary of the Long March in response to criticism of the network’s choice to cast controversial actress Bai Ling. The near-sacred nature of the Long March, during which Chinese Communist leaders, including Mao Zedong, fled from enemy Kuomintang forces in Jiangxi Province north to Shaanxi Province, led viewers to criticize her inclusion in the series. CCTV later posted a new version of the episode, in which all scenes featuring Bai Ling had been removed. Furthermore, Bai Ling issued a public apology on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, to express regret for the incident as well as her love and admiration for Chinese culture.
Bai Ling has been the subject of controversy in China for decades. Born in 1961, she moved to the United States in 1991 and gained prominence in Hollywood. However, her roles in American films drew criticism for casting the Chinese government in a negative light. Most notably, her portrayal of a lawyer who uncovers cases of government corruption in the 1997 film Red Corner led the Chinese government to ban the film and prohibit her from re-entering the country. This portrayal, her other roles in sexually explicit films, and her accusations that People’s Liberation Army soldiers sexually assaulted her when she served as a teenage member of an art troupe have made her a taboo figure in China.
State-owned media outlets and Chinese citizens reacted to Bai Ling’s appearance in the documentary with indignation. An article in the Global Times, a media outlet owned by the CCP’s official newspaper People’s Daily, labeled Bai Ling’s inclusion in the CCTV documentary “blasphemy,” and called her a “porn star.” Users across Weibo qualified Bai and her performance at worst as “anti-China,” “disgusting,” and an “insult” to the Long March. At their most cordial, users criticized her for failing to take a strong stance to defend China in her previous roles. For many, this shortcoming made her unworthy of featuring in a documentary commemorating a part of the Chinese Communist Party’s history as important as the Long March.
Though the actress issued a public apology expressing her love for Chinese culture and her desire to spread the beauty of Chinese culture across the globe, her past betrayals seem unforgivable to the Chinese audience. Her critics suggest there is no room in popular culture for actors who criticize China in any way, whether inside or out of their films.
This limited range of acceptable artistic expression and interpretation reflects the Chinese government’s tightening control over both the entertainment industry and the Chinese public opinion as a whole. With regard to the entertainment industry, this incident will make Chinese networks like CCTV warier of the actors they choose to feature. More than ever, actors will face intense scrutiny of their past, with no limit as to how far back in time criticism might go. In addition, prominent figures in Chinese popular culture will increasingly be expected to serve as mouthpieces for official government stances on a variety of issues. In this way, censorship makes all entertainment in China inherently political.
The intensity of reactions on Weibo lashing out against Bai Ling also shows the Chinese public’s gradual trend of mirroring official party lines. While the Global Times op-ed praised the Chinese public for holding the entertainment industry to high political and moral standards and for forming its own political requirements for entertainment, anticipation of the government’s negative response likely triggered the public’s overwhelmingly negative response as much as the actual documentary.
Combined with a climate marked by recent crackdowns on religion and non-governmental organizations as well as the branding of Xi Jinping as China’s core leader, the entertainment industry and its public reception will likely fall increasingly in line with official Chinese political stances in the future. Indeed, the Global Times op-ed includes a kind of warning for television networks: chi yi qian, chang yi zhi, meaning “Fall into the moat once and you’ll be wiser next time.”
Andrea Moneton is a junior in the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.