Forget Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping and let us turn the limelight to other international celebrities from China.
There are quite some big-name Chinese personalities on the global stage. But not all of them are Chinese Chinese. The kung fu actress Michelle Yeoh is from Malaysia; the acclaimed film director Ang Lee is from Taiwan. The cellist Yo-yo Ma was born in Paris and grew up in France and the United States. After these names are crossed, there are not many left.
Among them is the pianist Lang Lang. The people of China are proud that their country produced a world-class musician like him, although many of them also have reservations about his flamboyant style when playing and speaking. Lang Lang, despite his busy schedule between world tours, has been showing up from time to time at grand ceremonies and gala shows in China.
In 2011, he was invited to play at a state banquet hosted by US president Barack Obama for his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao (he still found the way on his own back then). One of the pieces Lang picked was an adaptation of a song known to all Chinese. The song, titled “My Motherland”, is originally from a 1956 movie about a battle between US and Chinese forces during the Korean War. The lyrics include the line “If wolves come, they will be greeted by guns,” wolves being a metaphor for the US Army.
This episode triggered some minor controversies, resulting in both the White House and Lang himself speaking to the media downplaying the political connotation of the piece. Lang must have been glad that it didn’t turn into a big row. But it has surely been serving him as a reminder about the necessity to be double vigilant to avoid political minefields.
Jackie Chan won an Oscar – and is an ardent patriot
However, there are also celebrities who embrace politics to take full advantage of the Chinese market, such as Jackie Chan.
At 68, the Hong Kong kung fu movie star is probably still the most popular living non-political Chinese figure in the world. Hollywood even awarded him an honorary Oscar for his life’s work in 2016.
But Chan is actually very close to the Chinese government. He has openly opposed Hong Kong’s democratic movement and is known among Chinese for his public claims, such as “People in Hong Kong and Taiwan have too much freedom, that’s why it’s very messy there” and “Chinese need to be disciplined.”
Chan has long been a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a top-level political advisory body. In this sense, he is in fact part of the government system.
With his political credentials and his international fame, Chan enjoys unparalleled stature in China’s entertainment industry. Whenever he performs with other Chinese artists, he almost always takes the center stage. His colleagues from the mainland would all obsequiously refer to him as Big Brother Cheng Long (Cheng Long is how his name is pronounced in mandarin) to show respect.
In contrast, many of his fellow Hong Kong stars, such as the actor Chow Yun-fat (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) and singer Anita Mui, are on the Chinese government’s blacklist, the former for openly supporting dissidents; the latter for the important role she played in helping Chinese students escape China following the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989.
That is why it was all the more bitter for liberal Chinese when Chan was awarded the Oscar. According to his critics, politically correct Hollywood should have dropped him two years ago over of his close ties to the Chinese government and public rejection of the democracy movement in Hong Kong.
Whether the jury at the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was aware of Chan’s political inclination and affiliation is unknown. At least the information was overlooked by the western media, leaving the Academy’s decision uncontested.
Jack Ma’s dispute with the government marked his downfall
Chan reaped handsome incomes in the Chinese market. But his commercial success pales compared to the achievement of many real business people in China, perfectly represented by Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce powerhouse Alibaba.
But where is he now? Few people know.
In his heyday, he was sometimes referred to by the nickname Daddy Ma because many jokingly said they wish Ma, then China’s richest man, to be their dad.
The articulate former English teacher enjoyed his international influence as a startup guru and as the face of Chinese business in the world. He sat on UN committees for digital development and boards of leading international NGOs. He founded a university for entrepreneurs. In his spare time, he gave life lessons in TV interviews and starred as a kung fu master in a short film alongside real movie stars.
His glamorous public life came to an abrupt end two years ago when there was a semi-open conflict between him and Chinese authorities over the IPO of a financial subsidiary of Alibaba.
Behind his retreat from the public eye, one suspects Xi Jinping’s decision to put a leash on the private sector. Numerous policy measures have been taken to weaken large private companies, especially IT companies, resulting in drastic job cuts.
Apparently, Xi Jinping does not tolerate being outshined by others. After two years, it is becoming increasingly clear that Xi alone has the right to be in the spotlight.