But Chinese social media was shocked this week to learn that a top actor in China made as much as $25 million in 2019 for one show alone, an amount comparable to what top-earning Hollywood actors made in a year. Meryl Streep and Gal Gadot, for example, earned $24 million and $31 million in 2020 respectively, according to Forbes.
In a series of texts disclosed by her estranged partner in a video, the actor Zheng Shuang was said to be paid 160 million yuan ($25 million) for working 77 days on a costume drama, or about $320,000 per day, according to the video posted on microblogging site Weibo on Monday.
Authorities in Shanghai and Beijing have launched investigations into allegations that Zheng received excessive pay and evaded taxes, state media reported on Wednesday. In a Weibo post on Thursday, Zheng said she was willing to cooperate with all investigations.
It’s no secret in China that top performers command astronomical wages, but the exact rates are rarely publicized as inequality grows in the country.
The high income of actors became particularly taboo in 2018 after the Chinese government cracked down on what it considered to be excessive pay and rampant tax evasion in the entertainment industry. Authorities capped actors’ pay at 40 percent of total production costs and required lead actors to be paid no more than 70 percent of total cast pay.
The most high-profile target of the clampdown, Fan Bingbing, was ordered to pay about $129 million in overdue taxes and fines. She has since stopped appearing in TV shows or films.
The alleged pay earned by Zheng, 29, came as a shock to many Chinese social media users and prompted outrage against what people believe to be an increasingly unequal society.
Wealth was widely worshipped as a result of hard work and entrepreneurial spirit in the first few decades of China’s economic reforms since the 1970s, but in recent years, the public has become more critical of the growing number of mega-rich people as the young generation complain of declining social mobility.
Many internet users have compared Zheng’s alleged earnings with the salary level of ordinary workers. In 2020, China’s per capita disposable income was 32,189 yuan ($5,000).
“If I started working from the Qin Dynasty [221-206 BC], working hard in a job that paid 6,000 yuan a month and not spending on anything,” a Weibo user said, “I would be able to have 160 million yuan by now.”
“I feel so suffocated and hopeless reading about this saga,” another person said. “What’s the point for ordinary people to work so hard?”
The messages were exposed by Zheng’s ex-partner, television producer Zhang Heng, in a video showing his WeChat messaging history with Zheng and her parents. The ex-couple has been embroiled in criticisms since Zhang accused Zheng of abandoning two surrogate babies born in the United States in January. The two are currently in a legal dispute over the children’s custody in the U.S.
Zheng has yet to respond to the accusations.
Zheng’s ex-partner also shared pictures of what he claimed to be “yin-and-yang contracts” signed between Zheng’s family and the drama’s production company. One contract covered a $7.4 million compensation for the actor, while the other was written as a $17.3 million investment agreement, the man said. Such contracts are known to be used by entertainment stars to under-report their income and evade taxes.
Zheng has not made public appearances in China since the surrogacy controversy. Prada dropped her as an ambassador, and other brands that worked with her also distanced themselves with her. The costume drama at the center of the salary controversy, called A Chinese Ghost Story, has yet to be released.
The scandals could upend Zheng’s entertainment career for good. Actors and singers in China could be banned from mainstream media if their speeches or behaviors are deemed against the Communist Party’s official ideologies.
In a Tuesday Weibo post responding to the controversy, Hu Xijin, the editor of party-run tabloid Global Times, said high earnings by celebrities were a global phenomenon, but it should not be tolerated in a “socialist country” like China.
“Market economy is a good thing, but it also has a barbaric nature,” Hu said. “The Chinese public has in their hearts a scale for fairness and justice. Celebrities and other wealthy people should better respect this scale like how they respect the law.”
Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.
This article has been updated with Zheng Shuang’s response to the investigations.