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8 juicy scandals that broke China’s internet in 2018
Editor’s note: A version of this originally appeared on Radii, a new media platform covering culture, innovation, and life in today’s China.
If you’ve stayed plugged in to RADII this year, and we hope you have, there’s something you might have noticed: 2018 was truly the year of the scandal.
Are scandals a constant, unavoidable part of today’s controversy-driven news cycle? Yes. Yes they are. But China in 2018 was thicc – like, very thicc. The entertainment industry was rocked by scandals, both newcomers and established heavy hitters. The world of e-commerce wasn’t safe, and neither were international luxury brands. Even the uppermost tier of Buddhism in China could not avoid the righteous hammer of scandal, crashing down amidst a fiery din of social media venom.
We were on the edge of our seats for basically the whole year. And now, we’re distilling all of that down into an easy-to-digest highlight reel of controversy and shame. You’re welcome.
Here are the top scandals that dominated the Chinese internet in 2018:
1. The One Where a Rapper was Shunned for Rapping About Things Rappers Rap About
Poor, poor PG One. The Xi’an rapper started out this year at the top of his game, earning the co-champion spot on the smash hit competition reality show “Rap of China”. His future as a dominant force in China’s rapidly growing hip hop scene seemed written in stone.
And then, people started digging into his past. An old track of his resurfaced, with lyrics referencing “white powder”, “shameless bitches”, sex, etc. If you’re a rapper, these subjects are all par for the course. But in China, and especially if you’re currently the country’s most visible rapper, in the midst of a tenuous “hip hop ban”… it’s not a good look. Throw in the fact that a paparazzi caught a married actress staying the night at PG One’s house, and you’ve got a good ol’ fashioned scandal.
Fans and Netizens React to Rapper PG One’s Recent Scandals
PG One was largely scrubbed from mainstream and social media, and the proud champion was forced to retreat into hiding. Apologies were of no use, and he became the poster child for the “hip hop is bad and we’re not allowed to engage with it” movement. Since then, he’s made a couple attempts to climb back into the ring, all of which were largely unsuccessful. Poor, poor PG One.
2. The One Where China’s Most Famous Actress Disappeared Overnight
As a fresh new star, PG One’s fall from grace hit hard. But if there’s one thing that hits harder, it’s the biggest actress in China (!) being exposed for fraud (!!) on social media, and straight up disappearing for months (!!!), Carmen Sandiego-style.
The storm started when infamous straight-talking TV presenter Cui Yongyuan published a photo to Weibo of Fan’s contract for the film Cell Phone 2, showing her payment of 10 million RMB (1.56 million USD) for just four days work. A big payday, but the real bombshell was a photo of a second contract, displaying Fan’s actual payout of 50 million RMB for the exact same job. The lower number was sent to the authorities, allowing Fan’s camp to sidestep a huge sum in taxes.
Fan Bingbing, “Yin-Yang Contracts”, and Alleged Tax Evasion: Will the Scandal Change China’s Film Industry?
The “yin-yang” contract scandal blew up. Fan disappeared from the public eye for months (previously, she’d been absolutely inescapable, probably the only star to hold more product sponsorships than Kris Wu). Rumours circulated that she’d been arrested, or fled to the US. But authorities eventually came forward to charge her with nearly one billion RMB in fines for tax evasion.
Yikes. She issued a suitably grovelly apology via Weibo, but it seems Fan likely won’t be getting sponsorships for yogurt, or vacuum cleaners, or milk biscuits, or handbags, or vitamin supplements, or dish detergent, or air purifiers, anytime soon.
3. The One Where Team Ariana Grande Fired Shots at Kris Wu
Ah! Speaking of Kris Wu.
The K-pop star-turned-rapper had an eventful year, to say the least. Wu’s fame and status were cemented by his position as the lead judge on reality TV juggernaut Rap of China, which marched on into Season 2 in 2018, in spite of alleged hip hop bans. He also had an ear-splittingly bad raw vocal track leak, which thrust him into the center of an all-out “boys vs. girls” debate instigated by a basketball fan forum (still with us?).
Several rappers jumped in with diss tracks, leaving Wu to fight them off with a diss track of his own:
He then followed that up with a hater-bating appearance in the final of Rap of China. Phew. But wait, there’s so much more….
Kris Wu Controversially Pulled from iTunes Top Spot as Twitter Asks, “Kris Who?”
Now, after all that, we get to the real scandal and controversy. When Kris finally dropped his long-awaited debut album Antares, it inexplicably seized seven of the top ten spots on the US iTunes charts. That’s super fishy, considering the artist’s rate of recognition with US audiences is close to zero (or at least was prior to this scandal).
Maybe iTunes would have let that slide, but one person was not having it. And that one person was Ariana Grande. Well, more than one person — ostensibly it would’ve been Ariana’s whole team of lawyers, who were not pleased about Kris’ suspiciously strong performance edging Ariana’s new single thank u, next out of the number one spot.
Several conclusions were drawn, but to summarize: yes, it seems Kris’ mainland China fan base had conspired to artificially boost his US sales data. He was wiped from iTunes’ US charts altogether. The rapper once again became a trending topic on Weibo — but hey, for the first time, US fans started to care who he was, finally asking the question Kris Who?
4. The One Where One of China’s Best-Known CEOs was Arrested in the US
No, not a CFO in Canada — we’ll get to that. 2018 was, among other things, the year of #MeToo in China. Initially deemed too controversial, and thus suppressed by the powers at be, the movement proved in 2018 it was here to stay, with a slew of high-profile figures finding themselves on the receiving end of sexual misconduct allegations.
Near — if not at — the top of the totem pole was Richard Liu, CEO and founder of major e-commerce platform JD.com. While in the US, Liu was accused of rape, and arrested. He was released a day later without charge, but by then his mugshot was already pasted over every news outlet in China.
JD.com Billionaire Richard Liu’s Arrest is Forcing China to Have New Conversations
The case prompted serious discussion, and confusion. Photos of a woman identified as the accuser circulated almost as quickly as the photos of Liu himself. The woman later came forward and denied all connection to the case. But JD.com has continued to find themselves in the headlines since then, and it doesn’t seem like people are ready to forget about Richard Liu anytime soon.
5. The One Where #MeToo Hit the Upper Reaches of Chinese Buddhism
Richard Liu’s charges were unexpected, but not surprising. CEOs and powerful executives have been in the spotlight since the beginning of #MeToo. But elsewhere, the hammer fell further from the usual mark, when China’s most senior Buddhist monk was publicly exposed for a string of sex crimes.
China’s #MeToo Movement Reaches Major Buddhist Temple
The allegations against Master Xuecheng, Senior Abbot of Longquan Temple and President of the Buddhist Association of China, were detailed in a 95-page letter posted to social media. It was quickly removed by authorities — not just because censors have a history of deeming sexual assault allegations unfit for online discussion, but also because (through his position at the top of the Buddhist Association of China) Xuecheng is considered an official government figure.
Both Richard Liu and Xuecheng were wake-up calls for China, proving that sexual assault is not a faraway concept, but an unfortunate reality which far too often goes unseen. The disgraced Xuecheng was forced to resign from his position in the Buddhist Association of China.
6. The One Where One of China’s Best-Known CFOs Was Arrested in Canada
Now here we have a scandal that’s still ongoing.
Meng Wanzhou, CFO of tech giant Huawei (and daughter of the company’s founder), was arrested while transferring flights in Vancouver just over a week ago.
The reason? Meng was sought for extradition by the United States, on suspicion of helping Huawei circumvent US sanctions on Iran. The US alleges that she misled financial institutions by painting a Huawei subsidiary as a separate company.
No matter how you slice it, when a top executive at one of China’s biggest and most important companies faces possible criminal charges in a New York courtroom… that’s a big deal. Meng was released on bail last week, with the condition that she’d undergo 24-hour surveillance. The case is still developing, so grab some popcorn and stay tuned — this might be one for your holiday watchlist.
7. The One Where CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala Featured Blackface in a Skit About Africa
Well, individuals weren’t the only ones to endure widespread social shame this year. CCTV, whose reputation with foreign audiences was quite poor to begin with, reached a new low with the ultimate foot-in-mouth move: using a blackface caricature of African women as a key focal point in their biggest annual TV production.
Four Key Points from CCTV’s Controversial Spring Festival Gala
Really, the mind boggles to understand how they imagined this might work. CCTV’s Spring Gala is a national production on a huge scale — hundreds of millions of viewers tune in each year to watch the variety show for China’s most important national holiday, the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year).
With an event so massive, with so many moving parts, you’d think somebody might look at the pitch to paint a Chinese woman black, affix to her a large fake ass, and have her parade around loudly and foolishly (with a monkey at her side) in the name of Sino-African friendship, and say “hey guys, maybe this isn’t the best idea.”
And yet, it happened. All around the world, international media outlets held the mic up to CCTV, asking “yo, what the f*ck, man?”
It didn’t make China look great. I guess you could argue CCTV’s heart was in the right place: it’s normal for the Spring Gala to highlight key political themes, and CCTV wanted to acknowledge and offer screen time to Africa, whose importance as a partner to China is becoming clearer every day. But the cringeworthy execution showed that China still has a long way to go in understanding their new friends.
8. The One Where Dolce & Gabbana Apparently Decided They Didn’t Want to Make Money in China Any More
Let’s wrap up this list with a more recent scandal; one whose fallout was quick, comprehensive, and could potentially alter the future for one unfortunate, but very deserving, brand: Dolce & Gabbana.
D&G wanted to promote their Shanghai fashion event, “The Great Show”. Inexplicably, they did so by running a promo campaign that was zero parts luxury handbags, all parts navel-gazing Orientalist stereotype. Their three part video series of a Chinese model giggling shyly behind her hand, accompanied by red lanterns and Clip Art-like Chinese festival tunes, while she struggles to use chopsticks to eat Italian food, did nothing but confuse viewers and incite backlash. Nonetheless, the clock continued to tick towards the night of “The Great Show”.
Dolce & Gabbana Sparks Cries of Racism with Controversial Ad Campaign
That is, until one imbecilic, clueless, and probably drunk designer got his grubby, bottom-feeding hands onto the situation. Stefano Gabbana, in a stupendous display of ignorance, single-handedly knocked thousands and thousands off of D&G’s net worth, when he responded to a criticism of the campaign with statements that China was “the country of ”, “ignorant dirty smelling mafia”, whose people are “racist because [they] eat dogs”. Yiiiiiiiiikes.
Well, you can probably imagine what happened when those screenshots were captured and released to the world:
The blowback was swift and merciless. “The Great Show” was cancelled, their products were removed from online retailers, and D&G’s overall brand health score in YouGov’s BrandIndex dropped from 3.3 to -11.4. This writer came across no less than four individual D&G diss tracks by Chinese rappers. Truly some pre-internet thinking, from this old sack of Stefano Gabbana. And it didn’t help that D&G’s brainless PR team opted to address the situation by claiming the messages were fake, and that Stefano’s Instagram account had been hacked, giving birth to the now infamous “Not Me” meme.
Chinese Retailers Remove Dolce & Gabbana Products as Dairy Queen is Sucked into Backlash
Chinese buyers are an incredibly important group of consumers for international luxury brands. That being said, D&G looks like they’re in store for a long, hard, and probably fruitless road to recovery, whose destination may be a lost cause altogether.
Well, that was juicy. We need to step into the sunlight now, having basked in the shade for so long. But thanks for joining us on this scandalous roundup, and we hope you stay tuned for whatever terrible, shameful things happen in 2019.