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Op-Ed ⎪ Cyber Bullying and Fake News: What You Should Know About the Zhang Zhehan Story

Opinion: Zhang Zhehan is still being punished every day for a crime he never committed.

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Along with several other celebrities, Chinese actor Zhang Zhehan has been a hot topic in the media this year ever since photos of him taken at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine went viral online. Not only does Zhang not deserve his recent blacklisted status, Jessica J. argues in this op-ed contribution for What’s on Weibo, he is also a victim of online fake news propagation and cyberbullying. 

 

Those following Chinese entertainment news may have read about the string of celebrity crackdowns and cancellations this year, including big names like pop star Kris Wu, actress Zheng Shuang, and actor Zhang Zhehan.

However, Zhang Zhehan’s inclusion among Chinese ‘blacklisted artists‘ is raising some eyebrows and has also drawn the attention of Li Xuezheng, the Vice Chairman of the China TV Artists Association and Director of the Golden Shield Television Center.

Among those ‘canceled’ artists, Kris Wu was arrested on suspicion of rape, Zheng Shuang was fined for tax evasion – but Zhang Zhehan did not violate any laws and, according to Li, “was not officially banned or deemed immoral by government bodies” (Drama Panda).

Instead, Zhang was swiftly canceled when old vacation photos of him near the Yasukuni Shrine surfaced in August 2021, despite apologizing quickly for not knowing the significance of the buildings in the area.

[For context, read: Chinese Actor Zhang Zhehan Under Fire for Yasukuni and Nogi Shrine Photos – Ed.]

One of the photos featuring Zhang Zhehan, causing controversy in 2021.

After digging a little deeper, it becomes apparent that there is much more nuance to Zhang’s incident than can be captured in a single sentence such as “Zhang visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine” or “Zhang posed for photos at the Yasukuni Shrine.”

 

Yasukuni Shrine is a Cherry Blossom Destination

 

The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is notorious for enshrining “1,068 convicted war criminals, 14 of whom are A-Class (convicted of having been involved in the planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of the war).” The shrine is of great significance when it comes to Sino-Japanese history, as many of Japan’s war dead enshrined at Yasukuni committed atrocities against the Chinese, including during the ‘Nanjing Massacre‘ which started in December 1937 and came to be known as the most notorious Japanese atrocity of the Second Sino-Japanese War.

However, what many people think of as the Yasukuni Shrine only concerns the shrine’s religious structures, including the prayer and worship halls. These are the places where Japanese prime ministers go to pay respects to this day, resulting in recurring controversies.

The Honden Main Shrine, where nearly 2,5 million Japanese war dead are enshrined as ‘divinities,’ is usually inaccessible to the general public. No photography is allowed at the courtyard of the Haiden Main Hall, which is where people pay their respects.

Yasukuni Shrine Main Prayer Hall.

Outside of these structures, the Yasukuni Shrine grounds include an open park area famous for its cherry blossoms. In fact, it houses a “benchmark” cherry tree, which Japan’s Meteorological Agency uses to officially announce the start of the cherry season (NBC News). It’s important to note that Zhang’s photos were taken in this prime cherry blossom viewing area, and not inside the shrine itself.

When searching for “Yasukuni Shrine Cherry Blossoms” on Google, one will find many travel guides and blogs showcasing the lively atmosphere and the sea of people that come to visit during the blossom season. As recently as March 2021 (Phoenix News), Chinese media have included the area around the Yasukuni Shrine as a popular cherry blossom viewing destination. See examples from China Daily, People’s Daily, and China News. Chinese state broadcaster CCTV even covered the benchmark tree in March 2018, the same year that Zhang’s photos were taken.

Many articles that came out around August this year claimed that Zhang “posed in front of the Yasukuni Shrine” (see examples from Radii, Business of Fashion). This is false because the building in Zhang’s photo is actually labeled “斎馆” (Saikan) and is an administrative or office building on the park grounds.

The building behind Zhang Zhehan is actually an administrative building.

The cherry blossoms are clearly the main focus in all of Zhang’s photos. In 2018, there were over 31.19 million international tourists to Japan, including over 8 million Chinese visitors. Each year Japan attracts almost 3 million visitors during cherry blossom season alone.

Zhang was just one among thousands of Chinese tourists coming to view Japan’s famous cherry blossoms. If this is considered an act that hurts national sentiments, then what about the millions of other Chinese citizens that came for the same reason, not to mention the Chinese media that recommended this place as a tourist destination?

 

Signs of Coordinated Smear Campaign

 

The three-year-old photos of Zhang surfaced on August 13, a sensitive date leading up to the August 15th Victory over Japan Day, the day on which Imperial Japan surrendered in World War II.* In addition to the timing, other accusations against Zhang, including those around a wedding he attended in Japan, rest on blatant misinformation and falsified Baidu entries. (*The Chinese Victory over Japan is commemorated on September 3rd when the signing of the surrender document occurred. )

To a lesser extent than the cherry blossom photos, Zhang was also condemned for attending a friend’s wedding at the Nogi Shrine in 2019 and taking a photo with controversial figure Dewi Sukarno, one of the wives of the former Indonesian President Sukarno.

Netizens soon noticed that the Baidu entry for Nogi Shrine was created the night before on August 12. Similarly, Baidu entries for Mrs. Dewi and Nogi Maresuke, the general whom Nogi Shrine is named after, were both edited on early August 13.

Photos of Zhang at his friend’s wedding at the Nogi Shrine.

Chinese state media outlet Global Times wrote that “there were also photos of Zhang attending a wedding ceremony at Nogi Shrine, another infamous shrine that honors imperial Japanese military officers who invaded China during World War II.”

While it is true the Nogi Shrine honors Japanese general Nogi Maresuke, he died in 1912, well before the events of WWII. So where did this blatantly false information come from?

It is also worth noting that the popular Japanese idol group Nogizaka46, who held a coming-of-age ceremony at the Nogi Shrine, performed several concerts in China without issue.

Numerous other rumors, though not published by reputable media, circulated broadly on social media sites including international platforms such as Youtube and Twitter.

Almost all of them have been debunked as misinformation or complete fabrications. For example, Zhang starred in a short film titled Brother, where his character’s mentally challenged older brother raises his hand when he gets a nosebleed. Zhang took a series of photos interacting with his co-star, but the photo of this gesture was taken out of context to accuse Zhang of making Nazi gestures.

The middle image in the top row was used to accuse Zhang of making Nazi gestures. His comment is a quote from the show, and his co-star responded similarly.

The nosebleed gesture from Brother.

Netizens have also noticed that over 800 marketing accounts posted at almost the same time asking for Zhang’s works to be taken offline (Weibo search), and that so-called water armies (paid commenters) heavily manipulated the direction of social commentary and sentiments (a netizen’s data analysis).

Based on all of this information, it can be reasonably concluded that Zhang was the target of a coordinated smear campaign.

 

Consequences of Misinformation and Cyber Violence

 

Within a time span of less than a week, Zhang lost all sponsorship deals and his career suffered a massive blow.

Shows featuring Zhang, including Word of Honor and Demon Girl, were taken offline from Chinese platforms Youku and Le.com. His scenes were erased from the critically acclaimed Nirvana in Fire. His songs “Gu Meng” and “Tian Ya Ke” from Word of Honor could no longer be streamed on various platforms and variety shows featuring him either removed the episodes including Zhang, or he was simply blurred out.

In addition, Zhang faced mass silencing, erasure, and defamation on all Chinese social media platforms:

  • Zhang’s accounts on all social media platforms were closed.
  • His face still cannot be shown on Bilibili, Douban, and other platforms (videos featuring Zhang will be deleted).
  • All positive content on Zhang has been deleted or has been made unsearchable on video site Bilibili. Searching for Zhang’s name on this platform will only show videos condemning him.
  • Many netizens still refer to Zhang as a “traitor” or a “spy.”
  • Before Li Xuezheng spoke up for Zhang, anyone attempting to clarify Zhang’s situation often found their posts deleted or their accounts closed.
  • Li posted on December 5th that Zhang doesn’t even have the right to his own name: “There are only two people in the world who can’t buy things on the internet. One is notorious fascist Hitler, the other is our Zhang Zhehan.”

Since Zhang was included on the performers’ blacklist issued by the Chinese Association of Performing Arts (CAPA), Li Xuezheng has been investigating potential corruption within the industry-led organization. In doing so, Li Xuezheng is also providing a platform for Zhang and his family to speak out for the first time since they’ve been silenced.

Li recently posted a letter from Zhang’s mother, garnering over one million likes within a day. In the letter, Zhang’s mother described the harrowing experience her son and her family have gone through over the past few months.

She wrote:

Not only have the dreams and achievements he [Zhang] has worked for for more than ten years been crushed, but the entire internet is also filled with one-sided rumors and slander. His positive actions, his love for the Party and the country are erased, and his works have all been de-platformed. My son told me that he did not enter the Yasukuni Shrine, he did not visit it, let alone pay any respects. The information spread on the internet is false… We never got a chance to clarify. We feel completely powerless and hopeless.”

This part, in particular, was difficult to read:

The little nephew he loves is only four years old and dares not look at him, saying that his uncle is a bad person. When my son heard this, he went to his room and cried… He is really a strong person ordinarily, but at this moment he was broken.”

Zhang Zhehan was canceled in August over misinformation that cannot stand up to scrutiny, yet numerous reputable media entities continue to spread misinformation without further investigation.

As a consequence, Zhang’s works were de-platformed, his presence erased, his voice silenced, and even the right to use his own name is lost, all without any legal backing. In a country governed in accordance with law, a person should be considered innocent until proven guilty. But it’s been over four months now, and despite having committed no crime at all, Zhang is still being punished every day without rescission.

By Jessica J.

Jessica J. (alias) is the initiator of the Teddyfoxfluff blog which collects and translates Weibo posts relating to the Zhang Zhehan controversy. To read more, visit her blog here.

For more about Zhang Zhehan on What’s on Weibo, see our overview here

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Jessica Jones (alias) is a Chinese-American software engineer and Computer Science MA graduate with a love for Chinese dramas. In light of the 2021 news developments involving Chinese actor Zhang Zhehan, she started the Teddyfoxfluff blog.

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12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Cat Lost

    December 16, 2021 at 10:16 pm

    Tears streaming down my face while reading your article. Thank you! Thank you!! Finally some unbiased news report on Zhang Zhehan.

  2. Sônia Maria Frazão Ramires

    December 17, 2021 at 1:52 am

    👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻

  3. Pingback: Op-Ed ⎪ Cyber Bullying and Fake News: What You Should Know About the Zhang Zhehan Story – beijing

  4. Bing

    December 17, 2021 at 5:31 pm

    Thank you very much for writing this, I really appreciate this well-sourced, and well-written article.. thank you..

  5. Max

    December 17, 2021 at 6:37 pm

    Thank you for writing this article from a well-balanced view and using actual sources. It’s much appreciated!

  6. JaneDrew

    December 17, 2021 at 7:39 pm

    Thank you for this well-researched look at this case, including the information about the level of cyber-bullying and misinformation involved! The extent to which a person’s life and reputation can be attacked by malicious actors is really upsetting. The extent to which a lot of reporting about Zhang Zhehan claims that he did go to the shrine or that he was “banned by the government” is also unfortunate, and I’m glad that the author took the time to actually do research and provide accurate information.

  7. Nao

    December 18, 2021 at 5:10 am

    Great article! Thank you

  8. LT

    December 20, 2021 at 1:16 pm

    Thank you for the update,I just recently came across this actor and felt very sorry to what has happen to him. Love his work and his personality,it really hurt reading how he broke down and cry.

    It is very unfair to be judge before being able to defend oneself.And hence why the need to have a balance of power politically(well my view).

    I really hope things will turn around quickly for him.A miracle is needed. Someone needs to be held accountable sharing all those fake news about him. By then his name will clear and he will be off the hook. And I hope really soon.

  9. Joe

    December 20, 2021 at 6:48 pm

    Appreciate basing the article on sources and realize this is a opinion piece, can’t help but feel there is an overly biased tone though? (especially the cherry blossoms part which conveniently glosses over that the shrine is a site commemorating war crimes in favour of statistics which show that “Other Chinese people go there too!”) Imo the article will be much better without attempting to downplay the implications a public figure can cause when one poses in front of such a monument.

  10. San

    December 21, 2021 at 10:30 pm

    Thank you for the article!! It’s Christmas. If Santa is real, I wish for Zhang Zhehan’s well-being and a comeback. we need a miracle for this to happen soon. We can only wish I guess. I cannot imagine how helpless they must be feeling right now.

  11. Sarah

    December 26, 2021 at 3:04 am

    To Joe: Please note the article clearly states that the shrine commemorates war crimes. Specifically:
    “The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is notorious for enshrining “1,068 convicted war criminals, 14 of whom are A-Class (convicted of having been involved in the planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of the war).” The shrine is of great significance when it comes to Sino-Japanese history, as many of Japan’s war dead enshrined at Yasukuni committed atrocities against the Chinese, including during the ‘Nanjing Massacre‘ which started in December 1937 and came to be known as the most notorious Japanese atrocity of the Second Sino-Japanese War.

    This is a sensitive topic and it is best to read the article before making baseless allegations.

  12. meeeena

    December 30, 2021 at 8:11 am

    Thank you so much for all your hard work!

    I really hope Zhang Zhehan is doing well and can make an awesome comeback SOON!

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China Celebs

Weibo Shuts Down Rumors of Tong Liya’s Alleged Marriage to CMG President Shen Haixiong

The censorship surrounding the Tong Liya story almost drew more attention than the actual rumors themselves.

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The famous actress and dancer Tong Liya (佟丽娅, 1983) has had an eventful year. After hosting the CCTV Spring Festival Gala in 2020, she performed at the CCTV Spring Festival Gala in February of 2021 and in May she announced that after seven years of marriage, she finalized her divorce with actor and director Chen Sicheng (陈思诚).

Tong Liya is of Xibe ethnicity and was born in Xinjiang. The former beauty pageant and award-winning actress is known for her roles in many films and TV series, such as those in The Queens and Beijing Love Story. She also starred in the 2021 Chinese historical film 1921, which focuses on the founding of the Communist Party of China.

This month, online rumors about Tong flooded the internet, alleging that she was recently remarried to Shen Haixiong (慎海雄, 1967), the deputy minister of the Party’s Central Propaganda Department and the President of the CMG (China Media Group), which includes CCTV, China National Radio, and China Radio International.

Some of the rumors included those claiming the actress was previously Shen’s mistress, or netizens connecting Tong Liya’s relations with such an influential and powerful person to her role at the previous CCTV Spring Gala Festival.

But these rumors did not stay online for long, and the quick censorship itself became somewhat of a spectacle. As reported by China Digital Times, the topic ‘Tong Liya’s Remarriage’ (‘佟丽娅再婚’) was completely taken offline.

Following the rumors and censorship, it first was announced that Tong reported the online rumors about her to the police, with the hashtag “Tong Liya Reports the Case to Authorities” (#佟丽娅报案#) receiving over 310 million clicks. On December 23rd, the hashtag “Beijing Police is Handling Tong Liya’s Report” (#北京警方受理佟丽娅报案#) went viral online, attracting over 1.7 billion (!) views on Weibo within three days.

The Beijing Haidian police statement on Weibo is as follows:

In response to the recent rumors on the Internet, the public security authorities have accepted Tong Liya’s report, and the case is now under investigation. The internet is not a place beyond the law, and illegal acts such as starting rumors and provoking trouble will be investigated and punished according to the law.”

The statement led to some confused responses among netizens who wanted to know more about what was actually reported and what it is the police are exactly ‘investigating.’

On Twitter, Vice reporter Viola Zhou wrote that the censorship “angered many young people,” some of whom lost their social media accounts for discussing Tong Liya’s second marriage: “It’s now prompting a mass pushback against the potential abuse of censorship power.”

In an attempt to circumvent censorship, and perhaps also ridicule it, some netizens even resorted to morse code to write about Tong Liya.

One Weibo post about the issue by Legal Daily received over 3000 comments, yet none were displayed at the time of writing.

The case is allegedly still being investigated by Beijing authorities.

By Manya Koetse

With contributions by Miranda Barnes.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Celebs

China’s Livestreaming Queen Viya Goes Viral for Fraud and Fines, Ordered to Pay $210 Million

Viya, the Queen of Taobao, is under fire for tax evasion.

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Viya, one of China’s most well-known and successful live streamers, is trending today for allegedly committing tax fraud by deliberately providing false information and concealing personal income.

The ‘Taobao queen’ Viya (薇娅, real name Huang Wei 黄薇) reportedly committed tax fraud from 2019 to 2020, during which she evaded some 643 million yuan ($100 million) in taxes and also failed to pay an additional 60 million yuan ($9.4 million) in taxes.

The Hangzhou Tax Administration Office reportedly ordered Viya to pay an amount of over 1.3 billion yuan ($210 million) in taxes, late payment fees, and other fines. On Monday, a hashtag related to the issue had garnered over 600 million views on Weibo (#薇娅偷逃税被追缴并处罚款13.41亿元#).

Viya made headlines in English-language media earlier this year when she participated in a promotional event for Single’s Day on October 20th and managed to sell 20 billion yuan ($3.1 billion) in merchandise in just one live streaming session together with e-commerce superstar Lipstick King.

China has a booming livestreaming e-commerce market, and Viya is one of the top influencers to have joined the thriving online sales industry years ago. When the e-commerce platform Taobao started their Taobao Live initiative (mixing online sales with livestreams), Viya became one of their top sellers as millions of viewers starting joining her channel every single day (she livestreams daily at 7.30 pm).

With news about Viya’s tax fraud practices and enormous fines going viral on Chinese social media, many are attacking the top influencer, as her tax fraud case seems to be even bigger than that of Chinese actress Fan Bingbing (范冰冰).

Chinese actress Fan Bingbing went “missing” for months back in 2018 when she was at the center of a tax evasion scandal. The actress was ordered to pay taxes and fines worth hundreds of millions of yuan over tax evasion. The famous actress eventually paid approximately $128,5 million in taxes and fines, less than Viya was ordered to pay this month.

Like Fan Bingbing, Viya will also not be held criminally liable if the total amount is paid in time. This was the first time for the e-commerce star to be “administratively punished” for tax evasion.

Around 5pm on Monday, Viya posted a public apology on her Weibo account, saying she takes on full responsibility for the errors she made: “I was wrong, and I will bear all the consequences for my mistakes. I’m so sorry!”

It is not clear if she will still do her daily live stream later today and how this news will impact Viya’s future career.

Update: Vaya’s live stream was canceled.

Update 2: Vaya’s husband also issued an apology on Weibo.

Update 3: Taobao has suspended or ‘frozen’ (“冻结”) Vaya’s livestreaming channel. Her Taobao store is still online.

By Manya Koetse

With contributions by Miranda Barnes.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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