It felt like a turning point. The arrest of one of China’s biggest pop stars on rape allegations had raised hopes that authorities were finally addressing the country’s #MeToo movement.
So many recent cases of harassment, abuse or violence against women had been swept under the carpet, excused or smothered by political censorship. But this was Kris Wu, known in China as Wu Yifan: a ubiquitous megastar with numerous international high-end brand endorsement deals.
Still, as the state media editorials criticising Wu mounted, and the star’s online presence was wiped from social media and streaming services, the focus might be more related to recent government moves to crack down on celebrity culture rather than a bona fide move to confront abuse. Beijing has recently introduced new regulations for the entertainment industry and launched a crackdown on online fan culture.
Wu, a Chinese-Canadian singer and actor who first shot to fame as a member of Korean boyband EXO, was arrested by Beijing police last week.
The police statement posted online said that “in response to relevant information reported on the internet”, Wu had been “criminally detained” on suspicion of rape, and included that he “repeatedly lured young women to have sexual relations”. It came shortly after a series of social media posts and interview by 19-year-old Du Meizhu, a beauty influencer. Du alleged Wu had sexually assaulted her when she was 17, and that she had evidence of his mistreatment of other young women or girls. Du said she had thought she was meeting Wu for a career opportunity, but that his staff plied her with alcohol and they had sex while she was drunk.
Du’s claims prompted others to come forward with dozens of other allegations, including that he lured young women or girls into sexual relationships with career promises or lavish gifts.
Wu denied the specific allegations on his Weibo account, addressing his 52 million followers. “There was no groupie sex! There was no underage! If there were this kind of thing, please everyone relax, I would put myself in jail!”
According to Bloomberg, Wu and Du both said they had asked police to investigate. Police announced Wu’s arrest last Saturday. He and his management have maintained that the accusations against him are false.
For many women in China, the arrest tentatively felt like it might signify a change, with society and authorities finally taking threats and abuses against women more seriously. Sexual harassment and assault cases are notoriously difficult to take to court, and domestic violence is often dismissed by police as a family matter. An ongoing civil case about alleged harassment by a TV personality, which was until now perhaps the highest-profile #MeToo case in China, was held behind closed doors. In recent months, feminist groups online have been shut down and censored. In some cases it was after they were targeted by misogynistic or nationalistic trolls, fuelled by conspiracy theories that feminist groups were funded by foreign forces.
Lü Pin, a well-known feminist commentator and academic, wrote recently that the case reflected the “shifting public opinion in China around sexual misconduct – and, with it, the influence of the #MeToo and feminist movements, which keep rising despite suppression and setbacks”.
It wasn’t the first time Wu had been accused of mistreatment of women – there were different allegations five years ago, which were largely shouted down.
“But today, countless women are speaking out on the Internet in support of Du,” said Lü. “They argue that what Wu allegedly did to [Du] and some others was power-based sexual assault and emotional exploitation, even though these allegations might not be recognised by China’s existing judicial system.”
International luxury brands, reportedly including Louis Vuitton, Porsche and Bulgari, cancelled contracts with him before the arrest, after tens of thousands of negative comments.
The post by police drew millions of likes and trended on social media, with some commenters on Wu’s account telling him to “get out of China”. A related hashtag drew billions of views. But it also sparked a fervent backlash from fans online and in the street in defence of Wu. The Cyberspace Affairs Commission said it had closed more than 4,000 accounts, 1,300 fan groups, 814 hashtags and 150,000 posts related to Wu, but neither it nor social media platforms explained what rules had been broken.
Wu’s own social media accounts, with tens of millions of followers, were closed, and his music taken from streaming services. State media published multiple warnings that fame and foreign citizenship were no protection from prosecution.
But it’s possible the emphatic responses from authorities related less to a #MeToo awakening and more to an ongoing crackdown on fame culture. Earlier this year, the Chinese government issued new regulations and moral guidelines for artists and celebrities, with warnings of boycotts for illegal behaviour. It followed crackdowns on high salaries and tax evasion. The new rules appeared primarily nationalistic in nature – art must serve the people and the party’s socialist doctrine, and its creators must show love for the motherland – but also added to efforts to sanitise the industry, with bans on tattoos on television.
Much of the state media commentary around Wu noted the social impact of public figures misbehaving and reminded celebrities they had to be good role models.
Xinhua said the Wu case should serve as a “wake-up call” to the industry. “The twisted dynamics in China’s entertainment industry need to be thoroughly rectified.”
Additional reporting by Jason Lu