Celebrity scandals are ingrained in show business. Beneath the surface of the star-lined Hollywood walk of fame are the roads to redemption and A-list remorse.
But not, it appears, in China. Bad behavior equates to box-office poison and a threat to the pulling power of La-La Land with Chinese characteristics.
So much so, that more than 30 delegates of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference have drafted a proposal for a “celebrity backlist” to protect the entertainment sector.
The move by representatives of the film and television industry at the National People’s Congress, which is being held in Beijing this week, is linked to last year’s scandal that embroiled movie mega-star Fan Bingbing.
“Celebrity scandal risks can be hard to predict. This could bring significant loss to investors and will affect other innocent actors and actresses,” one delegate, who signed the proposal, said.
To enforce what could end up being a sector-wide law, the “celebrity blacklist would keep records on” those caught up “in scandals” with “further punishment decided by the industry and legal departments.”
Indeed, that would involve a points system for past and future misdemeanors.
“The proposal also advocates that a TV series or a film starring a scandal-ridden celebrity might be prohibited from being screened for [up to] six months,” the delegate confirmed on Caixin, the Chinese media website.
Since last summer, the entertainment industry has been in turmoil after leading Chinese movie actress Fan was investigated for tax evasion.
She later apologized and agreed to pay back up to 884 million yuan (US$128 million).
Online, Fan was remorseful after “disappearing” from public view following a major government investigation into financial practices in China’s Tinseltown.
“As a public figure, I should have abided by laws and regulations, and been a role model in the industry and society,” Fan, who played Blink in the Hollywood blockbuster X-Men: Days of Future Past, said on Weibo, where she had 62 million followers.
“I shouldn’t have lost self-restraint or become lax in managing [my companies], which led to the violation of laws, in the name of economic interests,” she continued.
“Without the favorable policies of the Communist Party and state, without the love of the people, there would have been no Fan Bingbing,” the 37-year-old added in another act of contrition.
Her public humiliation unleashed fresh reports of stars and movie companies coming under scrutiny with more than $1.7 billion in taxes being clawed back by Beijing in a “self-examination and self-correction” campaign.
New rules were also quickly drafted, including a limit on fees that actors could be paid for onscreen work.
“Aside from the effort to fight unhealthy competition of inflating salaries to recruit celebrities, the authorities also will step up punishment against tax cheating and evasion,” the state-run China Daily reported at the time.
In the past 18 years, China’s box office has grown from $863 million to almost $8 billion annually and has spawned a new breed of super-rich celebrities.
Many of them have helped to sell President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” and his vision for a prosperous nation through soft power. Yet there has always been a “red line” separating the high life from real life.
“If you are [rich], then that is something that obviously you can enjoy to a certain extent, but you’ve got to be very, very wary that you don’t at any stage cross a red line and fall afoul of China’s Communist Party,” Fergus Ryan, a cyber analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said.
Others, such as the legendary Hong Kong action hero Jackie Chan, have taken a more controversial approach and embraced the CCP.
Back in 2013, he was appointed to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a symbolic stamp of approval from Beijing’s political elite.
“Hong Kong has become a city of protest,” Chan was quoted as saying a year earlier. “People scold China’s leaders and protest against everything. The authorities should stipulate what issues people can protest over and on what issues it is not allowed.”
His highly-contentious remarks echoed a statement made in 2009 at the Hainan Film Festival when he told an audience:
“I don’t know whether it is better to have freedom or to have no freedom. With too much freedom, it can get very chaotic. It could end up like in Taiwan. Chinese people need to be controlled, otherwise, they will do whatever they want.”
For Fan, it was a different story.
Her face once adorned thousands of billboards, as well as being an ambassador for luxury brands such as Cartier and Louis Vuitton. In 2015, she was even named China’s “most famous actress” by Time Magazine.
“[The] crack down on high-level earners [is] part and parcel of the [national campaign] for a new, modest patriot serving the national cause, instead of private gain,” Roderic Wye, an associate fellow at Chatham House and the former first secretary in the British Embassy in Beijing, said.
“That’s one of the messages put across by the [Communist Party] and it helps to have a high-profile example like Fan Bingbing, who people know,” he added.
If nothing else, behaving badly has proved to be the kiss of death in the rarified atmosphere of Chinese cinema, at least off-screen. After all, this is not Hollywood.