Kris Wu china metoo
Megastar Kris Wu’s accounts and music works have been erased from the Chinese internet. Photo: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

#MeToo Hits One of China’s Biggest Celebrities. The State Is Taking Credit.

A megastar fell from grace over rape accusations. Now China is scrambling to steer the narrative in its favor.
August 6, 2021, 11:10am

Until recently, Kris Wu was one of China’s most adored pop singers, swamped by screaming fans wherever he went. The Chinese-born Canadian hip-hop artist starred in hit reality shows and commanded a following of 50 million on social media. Luxury brands including Louis Vuitton and Porsche paid him millions of dollars to be an ambassador.

But in less than a month, Wu effectively became an enemy of the state. Within 48 hours after Beijing police announced on Saturday his detention on suspicion of rape, he lost all social media accounts. His entire catalog of songs and music videos—from more than 20 albums—was removed from streaming platforms. Influencers who defended the star had their own accounts shut down, and people were fired just for joking about him. And this all happened before Wu, who has denied all wrongdoing, was even charged with a single crime or set foot in a court of law.

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Wu’s dramatic downfall is widely seen as a major victory in China’s feminist circles, who have tirelessly backed the accusers and amplified their allegations against Wu on the Chinese internet. A rising awareness of women’s rights in the country has empowered women to speak up about gender discrimination and sexual abuse. Many women were relieved to see a star as prominent as Wu brought into custody. It was an example of how grassroots pressure led to some sort of accountability.

But this story of bottom-up change is not what you’ll read about in China’s official news outlets.

Going beyond the normal scope of criminal justice, the Chinese government has started a massive information campaign to steer the conversation away from how women organized themselves to challenge the powerful. 

Instead, it has sought to turn Wu’s detention into a case about the moral decadence of pop stars. And by portraying itself as a government acting in the public interest, it is also trying to legitimize its arbitrary and opaque use of state power. This attempt to rewrite the narrative, critics say, could derail efforts to address a pervasive rape culture in the country.

Star erased

Wu, who rose to stardom in 2012 as a member of K-pop group EXO (he quit in 2014), is the most famous man to face rape allegations in China to date. In July, an 18-year-old college student said Wu’s manager brought her to a casting interview at the pop star’s home, where Wu allegedly plied her with alcohol and had sex with her after she passed out from drinking. Wu said he met the woman once, but denied he raped her. 

Facing an outpouring of anger from Chinese women, authorities initially blamed the scandal on an elaborate scam and criticized the accuser for hyping the allegations for fame. But on Saturday, Beijing police said they had detained Wu on suspicion of rape. The accuser’s supporters rejoiced.

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Although police did not release details of Wu’s alleged wrongdoings and he has yet to be charged, the detention is seen as an official denouncement, and it set off a campaign to erase an A-list star from the Chinese internet.

Not only were Wu’s own social accounts banned, but those who have defended him against alleged sexual misconduct were silenced, too. Microblogging site Weibo suspended the accounts of at least four influencers who had argued it was fine for Wu to sleep with his female fans. A total of 990 accounts that commented on Wu’s case were shut down for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble, attacking the government, malicious marketing”—a reason often used to silence critics of the authorities.

Wu’s songs were removed from all major streaming platforms in the country, including the Chinese version of Apple Music. His fan groups on different platforms were also closed. On Douban, a major film review site, Wu’s name was scrapped from cast lists. Searching Wu’s name turned up the message, “The search result cannot be displayed according to relevant laws and regulations.” 

Although the government has banned stars who have used drugs or visited sex workers from appearing on TV and in movies, this kind of total erasure, sometimes done to dissidents, is unheard of for a pop star who has steered clear of Chinese politics. 

Parent companies of the platforms, including Apple, Tencent, and ByteDance, did not respond to requests for comment. 

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On Tuesday, Chinese carmaker Honzo Auto issued an apology on Weibo after leaked screenshots from its internal chat group showed several employees joking about hiring Wu as a brand ambassador. They were soon fired by the company for remarks that “seriously challenged social values”—code for moral misconduct.

The Communist Party under President Xi Jinping has been tightening its control over Chinese society in the past few years, putting pressure on businesses to carefully toe the official line and distance themselves from personalities deemed politically incorrect by Beijing. Those who fail to do so can face dire consequences. The NBA, for example, was banned in China for one year after a team official tweeted in support of Hong Kong’s anti-government protests.

Now, to many Chinese women’s delight, the state is turning this vast machinery against a wealthy, famous man facing sexual abuse allegations.

“The government is taking a populist approach to show it is using its power to respond to people’s demands,” said Fang Kecheng, a communications professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Kris Wu is merely an entertainment star with no political identities. To the government, he can be easily discarded.” 

The crackdown on Wu contrasts with how other prominent sexual abuse allegations were handled. A woman who accused a famous state media host of sexual harassment got her Weibo account suspended this year, after she shared details about a continuing civil suit against the man. Richard Liu, the founder of e-commerce giant JD.com, suffered no major public backlash in China after he was accused of raping a student in the United States in 2018.

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In general, sexual assault on women in China rarely leads to legal penalties. According to a 2011 United Nations survey, 75 percent of male respondents who admitted to committing rape experienced no legal consequences. While not unique to China, this degree of impunity has contributed to the prevalence of sexual violence, UN researchers wrote.

Feminist activists say the popular campaign against Wu shows that more Chinese women are resisting the exploitation. The government, however, wants to tell a different story.

After Wu’s detention, authorities accused the entertainment industry and the obsessive fans of harboring criminal activities and promised a tougher crackdown—not on the permissive culture for sex abuse, but on the excesses of showbiz. 

Following the lead of mouthpieces like the People’s Daily, state media and entertainment industrial groups have in the past few days published a slew of articles attacking the country’s poorly-behaved pop stars, as well as the social media companies that profited from their popularity. 

“No one can enjoy impunity. The stardom offers no protection. Fans offer no protection. Foreign passports offer no protection, either,” the state broadcaster CCTV wrote in an editorial on Sunday. “Kris Wu’s case should give a wake-up call to the fans carried away by their obsession.”

A weakened #MeToo moment

Activists say the emphasis on Wu’s identity as a celebrity—and a Canadian one at that—is an attempt to downplay what should be a #MeToo event about women’s rights.

The first accuser, Du Meizhu, never mentioned #MeToo––the hashtag is intermittently censored in China, and many people are reluctant to identify with a campaign that originated abroad for fear of being accused of foreign collusion at a time of geopolitical tensions. Nevertheless, the women’s solidarity campaign sparked by Du’s accusations resembled the global campaign against sexual abuse.

Female internet users openly supported Du. Several young women shared their own experiences with Wu and alleged a pattern of predatory behaviors. Online posts discussing the importance of sexual consent and protection of survivors went viral. Under public pressure, brands including Bulgari and Louis Vuitton cut ties with the star. 

None of this could have happened without the growing feminist voices in China, activists say. The young generation of Chinese women have become more united and vocal in pushing back against patriarchal norms, from women’s traditional role in marriage and childrearing, to the harassment and abuse they often suffer from in intimate relationships.

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Zheng Xi, a Chinese activist who has campaigned against sexual harassment, said the #MeToo movement has given women, including Wu’s accuser, a powerful language to tell stories of sexual violence. 

But when authorities shift the focus to the entertainment industry, Zheng said, they are making it harder for victims to build connections with each other, and reducing public discussions on similar sexual abuse incidents in the wider society. 

Fang, the professor, said although the government has gone hard on Wu, it is discouraging such activism by casting the story as the state fixing problems in the entertainment industry, instead of it being forced to act by a women’s campaign. 

“If the focus is placed on women helping themselves, it would be acknowledging and encouraging the resisting forces in the society,” he said. “This time, they target Kris Wu. Who knows whom they will target next time? The state would not want to encourage this.” 

On social media, news of Wu’s detention sparked euphoria. Female influencers launched lucky draws to give away cosmetics, snacks and bubble tea. But as the crackdown intensified, women became divided over who should be credited for his downfall. 

“You can always believe in socialism, believe in the justice system,” said a widely shared post praising the Chinese law enforcement for holding Wu accountable. Many people compared the swift detention of Wu with the long time a rape trial often takes in countries like South Korea, arguing Beijing’s so-called “iron fist” is more friendly to women. 

But the government’s critics cautioned that the crackdown on Wu was less about women’s rights than about demonstrating the state’s control, which is showing dwindling tolerance for dissent. Some listed Wu alongside the companies and industries that have come under regulatory crackdown recently, arguing they were all victims of China’s arbitrary law enforcement.

“At first I thought Wu’s custody was a women's victory, but now I realized it was the iron fist trying to regulate fan circles,” a Weibo user wrote. “A tank is coming, and it happened to hit a bad guy on the way.” 

Lü Pin, a Chinese feminist activist based in New York, said women should be credited for bringing down Wu. Although the case did not reflect a general improvement in law enforcement, Lü told VICE World News, it was indeed a victory that women’s collective voices put a famous man behind bars.

“We don’t have a reliable legal system. Everyone knows this is an exception, a surprise,” Lü said. “But without feminists, even this exception would not have happened. We should let women celebrate this.”