With China developing a hearty appetite for marijuana, methamphetamine and other illicit substances, Chinese authorities are looking to celebrities as front-line soldiers in the nation’s nascent war on drugs.
BEIJING — Imagine if, after arresting a wave of celebrities on drug charges, U.S. government officials pressed the heads of major Hollywood studios, A-list actors, record-label chiefs and chart-topping singers to sign promises that they would stay away from vices such as drugs, pornography and gambling.
Simultaneously, substance-abusing performers found their films shut out of cinemas, forcing producers into hasty reshoots and re-edits, and news media began running editorials criticizing top directors for failing to inform on associates they had seen smoking pot or taking Ecstasy.
This is no fanciful figment: With China developing a hearty appetite for marijuana, methamphetamine and other illicit substances, Chinese authorities are training their crosshairs on stars, even as they look to celebrities as front-line soldiers in the nation’s nascent war on drugs.
As of June, China had listed more than 3 million people on a roll of drug users, up from 1.8 million in 2011, according to Liang Ran, a drug-control official in the Ministry of Justice.
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Millions more fly below the radar of police, and China’s National Narcotics Control Commission estimates the number of drug users to be more than 14 million, roughly 1 percent of the population.
Among the celebrities who have been arrested on drug charges in the past 18 months are Jackie Chan’s son, Jaycee, and his fellow actor and friend Kai Ko; the pop singer Yin Xiangjie; and actor Wang Xuebing, who had a major role in “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” which took top honors at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival.
Yin and Chan spent months in jail; Ko delivered a tearful public apology but nevertheless found himself cut out of films, including “Monster Hunt,” a partially animated family film that after hurried reshoots became the top-grossing Chinese movie of all time. Wang’s drama, “A Fool,” abruptly had its May release date scrapped and arrived in theaters only in November with some of the supporting actor’s scenes trimmed.
In a one-party system where even today’s Communist Party leaders maintain that art should “serve the state,” authorities are not merely setting out to punish stars who break the law. They also seek to turn entertainers into moral models — and model informants.
The campaign has caught even the most respected celebrities flat-footed. Last month, after Yin was arrested, the state-run New China News Agency interviewed director Zhang Yimou and about a dozen major stars about their attitudes on celebrity drug use.
“I have seen many actors using marijuana together during their breaks … It’s terrible that artists are involved in pornography, gambling and drugs,” said Zhang, who has directed such films as “Hero” and “Raise the Red Lantern,” and is in production on the big-budget “The Great Wall” starring Matt Damon.
“This trend is unhealthy for the industry. Many people tried to persuade me to try Ecstasy, and even told me, ‘This is the origin of inspiration,’ ” Zhang said.
But rather than winning praise for his propriety, Zhang was pummeled in the state-run press for failing to report the lawbreakers to police.
“Instead of protecting his actors, he was appeasing and shielding them. This will only make these movies stars more addicted to drugs,” said Eastday, a Shanghai-based news outlet. “If Zhang considered it disloyal to report his friends to the police, he has made a serious mistake, sacrificing the greater good for the sake of his self-interest.”
The Southern Metropolis Daily wrote a similar commentary headlined “Real love is informing on friends to police,” while the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid closely affiliated with the Communist Party, ran a cartoon of a sad-looking star shooting up with a hypodermic needle as Zhang watched from around a corner.
“The government wants celebrities to actively shoulder more responsibility” for spreading anti-drug messages, said Pi Yijun, an adviser to the Beijing Narcotics Control Commission. “Although celebrities are a small percentage of China’s overall drug users, they are an indicator of the trend. If more celebrities are taking drugs then so are more ordinary people.”
China, Pi said, is much less permissive about drug use than America. And censors ensure that drug use very rarely figures in popular Chinese entertainment. A Chinese TV program along the lines of “Breaking Bad” would not be approved by authorities — though the American show about a meth-cooking high-school science teacher is available online in China and is popular.
By pressuring people like Zhang to be informants, some observers say, Chinese authorities are walking a thin line that can erode social trust and sow a culture of fear, discontent, secrecy and creative conservatism. That could undermine China’s efforts to develop a world-class entertainment industry, which officials see as a key to advancing its cultural and economic influence.
“This is the perfect ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. If (Zhang) told, he might be called a rat; if not, then he’d be accused of dereliction of duty,” said Ying Zhu, a scholar of the Chinese entertainment industry at the City University of New York.
“Ethically,” Pi said, “Zhang should report drug users, but in Chinese culture, it’s hard to put righteousness above friends and family.”
Authorities, he added, might have more success in making it commercially risky for stars to use (or silently condone) drugs. That’s why Chinese officials are pressing measures to discourage bad behavior.
This fall, the China Alliance of Radio, Film and Television — a state-sanctioned umbrella group of official industry organizations — formed an ethics committee that it said could order individuals or organizations who violate its norms to issue public apologies. It could also disqualify them from awards, or blacklist them from the industry.
Last month, the group held a forum in Beijing, touting the fact that 50 of its member organizations had signed on to its “pledge on professional ethics and self-discipline.” In addition to shunning drugs, the pledge also obligates signatories to “protect the leadership of the Communist Party.”