The crucifixion of Zhang Zhehan in the age of misinformation

I wanted to write this article because there has been a tremendous amount of misinformation out there regarding the cancellation of Chinese actor Zhang Zhehan. As someone wiser than me once said, “If you want to condemn someone, base it on facts, not lies.”

The facts

Zhang Zhehan has been in the Chinese entertainment industry for 10 years now and he enjoyed small fame over these years. His breakthrough role came about when he filmed wuxia TV show “Word of Honor” last summer, taking on the co-lead role of Zhou Zishu. Word of Honor aired in late February this year and it catapulted both him and his co-lead Gong Jun to domestic (and to a certain extent, international) stardom.

He enjoyed about five months of elevated stardom, clinching numerous endorsements and making appearances in variety shows, before shit hit the fan. This is a timeline of events:

On 12 August, a series of old photographs appeared in the public eye that led to the start of Zhang Zhehan’s problems. The ones that aroused the most discussion were these two:

  1. Photograph showing that he attended a friend’s wedding at Nogi Shrine in 2019, a shrine that is dedicated to imperial Japan General Nogi Maresuke.
  2. Photograph of him in 2018 posing near or in front of the Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines both Japanese war criminals as well as the deceased from various Japanese wars. He posted this photograph to his Instagram account in 2018.

The photograph of him posing near the Yasukuni Shrine was the most controversial. His friend, whose wedding he attended, issued a public apology for not checking the background of the wedding venue. Zhang Zhehan also apologised on 13 August for his ignorance, said he was not a Japanophile and that he loved his own country.

He was also swiftly rebuked by the People’s Daily, an official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, and he reposted the article on his Weibo page, adding that he accepted the criticism.

The misinformation

Everything written above is factual. But there has also been a lot of misinformation that originated on Chinese platforms that have spread to international platforms.

  • Lie: Zhang Zhehan posted a photo where he purportedly did a Nazi salute. A Singapore entertainment magazine, which likely took its news from China’s Weibo, repeated this accusation, although it later republished the article with the correction.
  • Truth: Zhang Zhehan did the pose as an allusion to a role that he played in 2019, where his mentally-challenged brother would raise his arm to stop his nosebleed.
  • Lie: He paid the entrance fee to visit the Yasakuni Shrine. This misinformation was repeated by a Chinese Youtuber with almost 80k subscribers, who likely based her information on Weibo/Chinese sites.
  • Truth: A simple Google search in English would tell you that entrance into the shrine is free.
  • Lie: He paid respects to the war criminals by simply walking into the gardens.
  • Truth: You can only pay your respects by appointment. There is also a report from Chinese newspaper the Global Times that indicated that Chinese people are not allowed into the inner shrine.
A TV presenter on the China Central Television, a Chinese state-controlled broadcaster controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (2013 video)

People who live in Japan have also stated numerous times that it’s easy to wander into the gardens by accident and they often see many Chinese tourists milling around taking photographs of the cherry blossoms. In my opinion, Zhang Zhehan looked like his was disrespecting the dead rather than honouring them with his head-to-toe streetwear. This tweet is from someone who lived in Japan for many years and speaks Japanese.

  • Lie: There is a sign outside in Japanese stating that “to enter is to pay your respects” and therefore the moment Zhang Zhehan stepped into the gardens, he was paying respect to the war criminals.
  • Truth: The sign says in Japanese: “You cannot come into the inner shrine unless you intend to pay your respects.”

The aftermath

There were swift repercussions after these photographs came into the public eye. I would actually term Zhang Zhehan’s punishment as more akin to an erasure than a cancellation. People in the West understand what cancel culture is and they think that this is what is happening to him. But what has happened to Zhang Zhehan is more similar to what certain dictators do when they want to blot out their existence (eg. tampering with photos, rewriting history etc.).

It all started off as pretty normal repercussions before it quickly escalated to what was effectively an attempt to erase his existence from Chinese entertainment:

  • On 13 August, all 27 brands that worked with him announced that they had terminated their contracts with him.
  • On the same day, the movie “Formed Police Unit” said they would terminate their working relationship with him. He had finished filming this movie so it meant they would either remove all his scenes or hire another actor to replace him.
  • On 14 August, Weibo said they had muted his account and his studio’s account i.e. no posts allowed.
  • On 15 August, the China Association of Performing Arts (a non-profit organisation managed directly by industry volunteers) boycotted Zhang Zhehan, effectively preventing him from holding live or stage performances.
  • On the same day, Weibo closed his account (which had more than 18 million followers) and his studio’s account, on the grounds that he had hurt the national sentiment and created a negative influence on youths.

I believe the punishment, although harsh, is still well within the normal realms of what people in the West understand as cancel culture. Later on, these things happened:

  • His songs were deleted from Netease Music and QQ Music.
  • His name was removed from the cast of “Word of Honor”. The whole TV series was later taken down from Youku, the streaming service platform that produced the series.
  • His scenes in critically-acclaimed “Nirvana in Fire”, in which he plays the younger character of the lead actor, were erased from the TV series.
  • Le.com removed “Demon Girl” from its streaming platform because it starred Zhang Zhehan in the lead role.
  • International fans woke up on 24 August only to find that the two songs that he sang for the Word of Honor soundtrack became unplayable on Spotify.

The repercussions then spiraled to the comedic:

  • Variety shows either removed episodes in which he was in or blurred him out entirely.
Variety show Ace vs Ace, which featured Zhang Zhehan and Gong Jun in its 26 March 2021 episode, chose to blur him out.
  • He came in 2nd in a “top 10 hottest male actors in Q2” ranking. The results were released properly in July before his troubles started, but his photo and name were erased retroactively in August.
Where is Number 2?

I don’t know what the rationale is for erasing his works apart from petty punishment. This course of action hurts everyone else (actors, producers, directors, writers etc.) who have worked so hard on these productions.

At the same time, netizens verbally abused him, branded him a traitor, said he did not love his country and made up stories about him having Japanese blood. When he was de-platformed and there was nowhere else to direct the hate, the vitriol also spread to his family and friends.

Let me draw your attention to a parallel situation in Hollywood. Gina Carano, who starred in “The Mandalorian”, faced public backlash this year for several controversial social media posts, one of which was deemed as anti-Semitic. Netizens demanded that she was fired and Disney obliged by dismissing her from The Mandalorian and all future Star Wars productions.

Her fans and several media outlets blamed cancel culture for her dismissal and she never apologised for her posts. In comparison to Zhang Zhehan, her social media accounts remain intact; her scenes remain in both season 1 and 2 of “The Mandalorian”; nobody took down any off her TV shows and she has not been boycotted from the industry.

If you think you know what cancel culture is, it is nothing compared to what they can do to you in China.

Silencing alternative voices

Some Chinese netizens defend the erasure of Zhang Zhehan as the will of the people. They say that the Chinese people are genuinely angry with him and that foreigners do not understand the severity of his actions.

I wonder how we know what Chinese people really think if they are able to silence anyone who post an alternative viewpoint? In Weibo, you can report accounts and comments to get them taken down if you are displeased with the content. Anyone speaking out for Zhang Zhehan quickly saw their accounts being silenced.

On Bilibili, which is the Chinese equivalent of YouTube, many videos related to him were also taken down on the grounds of “inappropriate content.”

His fans were forced to keep silent. They were told that their opinions were irrelevant because they were his fans. They were also told that speaking out might harm him even more. Essentially, anybody who wanted a rational debate was branded a traitor. If you did not support the mob, you were a Japanese spy just like Zhang Zhehan.

This comment below is a very typical argument that equates any support at all for Zhang Zhehan with being a traitor to China. It may not come from your average Chinese netizen; it may be written by someone paid to slander Zhang Zhehan, but the point is that this is the argument they use to stop rational discussion.

“Nothing to say. A bunch of people still trying to speak up for this dog traitor. If you say you are not Chinese, I wouldn’t scold you. But if you are Chinese, why are you speaking up for this dog traitor? Why don’t you use your energy to learn more about this dog traitor?”

And here is another typical comment, which is the kind that disregard any evidence because they have already decided he is guilty in their minds. Again, this may be written by someone paid to inflame sentiments online, but this is the type of argument that is used to state that as long as you are are a fan of Zhang Zhehan, your opinions are invalid.

“Who cares if he paid his respects or went sight-seeing? Eating one mouthful of shit is still eating, eating a plate is still eating. So fans stop defending him. As long as he visited the place, he needs to be boycotted.”

Conclusion

You can criticise Zhang Zhehan for being ignorant, insensitive, careless or stupid, but these criticisms need to be based on facts. Let me summarise the facts for you:

  • He took tourist photographs near or in front of Japan’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine, photos that he posted to his social media account in 2018.
  • His foray into the gardens of the Yasukuni Shrine may or may not have been intentional. We can only make a guess.
  • There is no evidence that he paid his respects to the war criminals.
  • He apologised for his ignorance.

If you want to crucify him, crucify him based on the facts above. If you want to decide the severity of his punishment, decide it based on the facts and not misinformation. I leave you with this quote: