Celebrities Have Used Their Platforms to Speak Out on Social Justice Issues. But Why Won’t They Stand Up to China?

Swedish pop star Zara Larsson took a strong stance against Beijing and ended a lucrative endorsement deal with Huawei. But China’s soft power over the entertainment industry keeps others from speaking up.
Zara Larrson sweden music
Zara Larsson performs during Power 96.1's Jingle Ball 2019 Show on December 20, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. Credit: Paras Griffin/Getty Images for iHeartMedia/AFP

Swedish pop star Zara Larsson, known for her hit songs “Ruin My Life” and “Never Forget You,” spoke out against Beijing’s growing political influence in Hong Kong and alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang in a rare display of resistance against the global power.

“China is not a nice state,” the 22-year-old said during an interview with Swedish broadcaster TV4 on Tuesday, August 4. “I do not want to support what they do.”


In her interview, Larrson also announced the end of her endorsement deal with Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, which has faced accusations of stealing its competitors’ intellectual property and being linked to the Chinese Communist Party. Huawei has denied these allegations.

Larsson previously faced scrutiny for her association with the brand, which she has represented alongside Swedish Olympic swimmer Sarah Sjostrom since 2019.

When questioned about her collaboration with Huawei in a 2019 interview with the Swedish magazine Resume, Larsson said that she was “not particularly familiar” with the controversy surrounding the Chinese brand.

On Tuesday, Larsson told TV4 that her relationship with Huawei was “not the smartest deal I have made in my career.” She also said she had wanted to take a stronger stance on China’s alleged detention of Uighur Muslims and its political encroachment on Hong Kong, but claims she felt “hindered” by her professional partnership with Huawei.

“If I now look back on it, from a professional and also personal perspective, it was not the smartest deal I have made in my career,” she said. “It's not something I stand for.”

Larsson faced swift backlash in Chinese state media following her announcement, with some Chinese netizens vowing to boycott her music.

Huawei’s Swedish branch issued a statement in response to Larsson’s comments, saying that their deal had only been “for a set amount of time” and ended as agreed upon.


“We appreciated the collaboration with Zara, her energy, values and driving force to walk her own path,” the company said in its statement, stressing that it remains a “global company” and doesn’t take “instructions from any government or country.”

Larsson’s statements echo the enhanced scrutiny of China recently made by human rights groups and global governments. Specifically, criticism of China’s widespread media censorship and growing surveillance of its citizens domestically and abroad is growing louder.

But many celebrities, some who have used their positions of influence to stand up for other social causes in recent months, have largely stayed silent on issues pertaining to China and its alleged rights violations.

Social media platforms have become prolific tools for celebrities in order to amplify their voices for social justice. Kim Kardashian has taken a particular interest in criminal justice reform, while Beyonce has been vocal in calling out systemic racism in the US. Even K-pop stans have become powerhouses for political activism, throwing their support behind the Black Lives Movement and against US President Donald Trump.

According to John Lee, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct professor at the U.S. Studies Center in Sydney, Australia, speaking out against China can invite far-reaching consequences.

“China will blacklist, ban or restrict any movie, TV show, song or celebrity speaking out against policies or interests of the party and the country in general,” Lee said.


“The potentially serious commercial consequences will shape and temper the actions of celebrities and producers when it comes to making comments critical of China,” he added.

China will flex its muscles in the face of a perceived political threat. Last year, it feuded with Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team, after he voiced support for protests in Hong Kong. The ensuing fight eventually led to Chinese partners cutting ties with the NBA and nixing local streaming of the league’s opening games.

American pop star Katy Perry’s quiet support for anti-China protesters in Taiwan in 2017 reportedly cost her fans in the mainland. And other musicians, like Bjork, Lady Gaga, Bon Jovi, and bands like Oasis and Maroon 5, have provoked ire in China for making political statements about Tibet and the Dalai Lama.

On the other hand, celebrities who voice approval for China and its political activities stand to have their careers boosted by Beijing.

“Stars like Jackie Chan, who speak positively about China and the Communist Party, benefit though offered greater support and access to China’s heavily regulated and censored market,” Lee said.

China is the second-largest film market in the world after the U.S. and its economic power pulls an incredible amount of influence over decisions made in Hollywood and other Western entertainment markets. Last year, China raked in over $9 billion in box office earnings, according to The Washington Post.


A 94-page report by human rights organization PEN America titled ”Made in Hollywood, Censored in Beijing” released on Wednesday discussed China’s soft power over the entertainment industry, particularly when it comes to its censorship of mass media.

“The Chinese Communist Party is increasingly shaping what global audiences see,” James Tager, PEN America’s Deputy Director of Free Expression Research and Policy, wrote in the report.

“Writers and producers know not to test the limits,” Tager wrote. “The Chinese government doesn’t have to say a word because Hollywood [and the West] is doing their work for them.”

“This is a massive propaganda coup for the Communist Party,” he added.

Photo credit: Paras Griffin/Getty Images for iHeartMedia/AFP