PTHE ROPAGANDISTS HAVE make it one of this year’s blockbusters. The movie “1921”, named after the birth year of the Chinese Communist Party, was intended to capture the imaginations of young people with the story of the party’s founding 100 years ago this month. Mao Zedong would be played by different actors depending on his age in the scene depicted. One of them would be Yan Xujia, a 19-year-old pop star who appears frequently on reality TV. In mid-May, the idol’s profile appeared on promotional posters against an orange-yellow background, suggesting the dawn of Chinese communism (see photo).
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But a few months before the movie was released on July 1, information emerged on entertainment news sites that Mr. Yan cheated on a girlfriend. He denied this, but disbelieving netizens said he was unfit to play such an important and honest character as Mao. Some have directed their anger at the main producer of “1921”: Tencent Pictures, a production house owned by a private social media and games giant. They accused him of being involved in a capitalist plot to smear the party’s most revered founder. “Mao must be portrayed as great and glorious. It must not be defiled, ”reads a popular commentary.
These positions must have piqued officials of the party’s advertising department, which was closely associated with the making of the film (with the help of one of the country’s most famous directors, Huang Jianxin). Earlier this year, the law was amended to make insult, slander or damage to the memory of national heroes punishable by up to three years in prison. Never mind that Mao was a zealous womanizer when he was married. (Mao’s private doctor Li Zhisui provided chilling details about this in his book “The Private Life of Chairman Mao,” which was published in 1994 shortly before Mr. Li’s death.) No mention is made of it. is authorized in China on such matters.
The film did not cause a sensation. In its first five days, it grossed 300 million yuan ($ 46.3 million), one-third of the amount earned in a comparable period by “Fast and Furious 9” (or “F9: The Fast Saga “as it is called in America) after the Hollywood action film was released in China in May. And the audience noticed that Mr. Yan was missing. In a revealing scene, Mao is chased through a forest by his parents, but does not appear himself. Online articles about Mr. Yan’s circumcision were deleted by censors.
As the party increasingly turns to celebrities to help spread its message, their privacy is likely to come under ever greater scrutiny. Yet the stars know they have no choice but to play with the cultural curators. At midnight on July 1, a message posted on Weibo, China’s response to Twitter, by state television said, “We will walk with the party forever!” Best wishes to our big party! ” Hundreds of popular actors, singers and other celebrities quickly shared the post. Their fans followed suit. In less than 12 hours, the message had been transmitted 15 million times.
Without celebrity support, state media would be hard pressed to strike such a chord. The Weibo account of People’s Daily, the party’s main spokesperson, has around 130 million followers. That’s about the same number as those who follow Xie Na, actress and TV host. Celebrity accounts on Weibo have more than 21 billion subscribers, almost twice as many as in 2017, according to the platform. The majority of these fans are 26 or younger. And they are very dispersed: almost 90% do not live in the largest cities.
But the party’s attempts to raise its ratings among armies of celebrity admirers are fraught with pitfalls. Officials could spotlight a heartbeat, like Mr. Yan, only to find jealous fans of another idol take umbrage and attempt to undermine the reputation of the party’s elected official. Mr. Yan may have been the victim of such an assault. “The filmmakers succumbed to pressure from fans of other actors who went mad reporting and exaggerating Yan’s immorality,” said a Chinese film critic. Mao once said that Marxists should not be afraid of criticism from anywhere. This is bad advice for entertainment stars in China. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “De-Maoisation”