Nicholas Tse says he is renouncing his Canadian citizenship. Photo: CCTV

The push for pop stars who work in mainland China to get rid of their foreign passports has increased after Hong Kong actor Nicolas Tse told state media he was renouncing his Canadian citizenship.

Tse, 40, was among nine movie and TV stars urged by netizens recently to cancel their foreign nationalities if they still wanted to make money in mainland China, according to an unofficial list widely circulated on social media after Chinese actress Zheng Shuang was fined 299 million yuan (US$46.3 million) for tax evasion in late August.

An academic warned that xenophobic sentiment in mainland China could spill from the entertainment sector to other industries amid rising political tensions between the country and western powers, especially after a hardline commentary warned recently that the US had launched a color revolution against China through different channels.

Since 2016, mainland media have reported that dozens of movie stars were holding foreign passports though audiences thought they were Chinese. They included Canadian pop idol Kris Wu Yifan, who has been arrested for alleged involvement in sex crimes, Singaporean actress Gong Li and actor Jet Li, American actress Crystal Liu Yifei and Britain actor and film director Zhang Tielin.

In the 1998 Chinese television series My Fair Princess, Zhang acted as Qianlong Emperor while Chinese actress Zhao Wei, who has been removed from major Chinese video platforms last month, played the role as a princess.

From time to time, Chinese netizens criticized these pop stars for “pretending to be Chinese while making huge money in mainland. In 2019, a potential ban list showed that 43 artists were holding passports issued by the US, Canada, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and some European countries.

On February 21 last year, the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), China’s broadcast regulator, released a new guideline called Detailed Rules for Reviewing Internet Variety Program Content, which said TV and internet program makers should not hire pop stars who had criminal records or had been involved in scandals. They should not use inappropriately stars from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan or foreign countries.

Actress Crystal Liu Yifei held an American passport but mainland audiences thought she was Chinese. Photo: AFP / Imaginechina

However, foreigners could still find ways to take up major roles on screens in mainland. Last September, Chinese movie Leap debuted in mainland with Gong acting as Chinese volleyball coach Lang Ping. At the same time, Disney’s animation Mulan was tailored for China’s markets with Liu acting as the main character. Both movies, dubbed as patriotic films, saw strong box office performance in the country.

During the past two months, Wu was arrested while Zheng Shuang was fined for tax evasion. Prior to this, Zheng was accused by her former partner Zhang Heng of abandoning their two surrogate babies in the United States in early 2021.

A list has recently been circulated on social media in mainland, slamming nine pop stars, including Singaporean singer-songwriter Stefanie Sun and American singer and actor Leehom Wang, for making money in China without giving up their foreign passports.

Sun’s management agency declined to comment on the ban list but Hong Kong’s Nicolas Tse told CCTV on Sunday that he was renouncing his Canadian citizenship and he would continue to promote Chinese culture overseas. Tse said he was born in Hong Kong so he was originally a Chinese. He said it was his parent’s decision to get a foreign passport for him.

Tse was born on August 29, 1980, when Hong Kong was a British colony. While young, he moved to Vancouver and later returned to Hong Kong and began his career as a singer and actor. In the recent decade, he entered China’s TV and movie markets and opened restaurants. He was known for his exaggerated actions on cooking shows.

Tse’s father told media on Monday that he did not know about his son’s decision to give up his Canadian citizenship but would definitely support him.

Some Chinese netizens praised Tse’s decision while some others said it was a bit strange when a 40-year-old Canadian suddenly realized that he was a Chinese.

British-Chinese actor Zhang Tielin smiles as he promotes his latest TV drama in Nanjing. Photo: AFP / Jacky Jin / EyePress

A Hong Kong movie Raging Fire starring Tse and Chinese kung-fu actor Donnie Yen debuted in mainland in late July and has seen strong box office returns. Yen said in a previous interview that he had given up his US citizenship several years ago and become a 100% Chinese person. He said he was given foreign citizenship at 11 when his parent moved to the US with him.

Since 2008, Yen has been the main character of the kung-fu film series Ip Man and beaten up many foreign fighters in the movies. In recent years, he told state media that foreign passport holders should not make money in China.

Hong Kong comedy actor Chapman To, who has moved to Taiwan, on Monday teased Tse for his decision to get rid of his foreign nationality. To “praised” Tse as a model for all Chinese people in the world and suggested that patriots should stay in mainland China forever.

Chung Kim-wah, a former assistant professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said although Tse chose to cancel his Canadian citizenship, he could easily apply for it again in future.

Chung added that it was ridiculous that Beijing forced TV and movie stars to give up their foreign passports while Hollywood had never had such requirements. He said he would not be surprised if xenophobia in China would extend to other sectors while a lot of foreign professionals would be urged to choose between mainland revenue and their original citizenships.

On September 2, the NRTA banned reality talent programs first made popular in the West and ordered broadcasters to promote more masculine representations of men.

In a hardline commentary published by state media on August 29, Li Guangman, the author of the article and former editor-in-chief of the Central China Electric Power News, which was closed in 2013, also said China should not rely on big capitalists as the main force of anti-imperialism and anti-hegemonism or the nation would collapse like the Soviet Union.

Li said curbs on the entertainment sector were far from adequate as ordinary workers and people, not flashy movie stars, should be the main characters on screens. Some commentators said Li’s article could be the curtain-raiser for a “Cultural Revolution 2.0.” 

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