HONG KONG — In less than a month, Kris Wu has gone from one of China’s biggest pop stars to the center of #MeToo sexual misconduct allegations. And in China’s increasingly punitive environment for moral offenders who happen to be entertainers, mounting a comeback will be a tall order.
While he has not been formally charged, the Chinese-Canadian singer-actor’s career has already taken a sweeping blow. Under public pressure, close to 20 brands — including Lancôme, Louis Vuitton, Bulgari and Porsche — have cut ties with him. Chinese music streaming platforms, including Tencent’s QQ Music and NetEase Cloud Music, have pulled his songs. And his Weibo social media account, where he had over 51 million followers, was taken down shortly after his detention.
On July 31, the Beijing police detained Wu, 30, in response to allegations of rape after he allegedly “repeatedly seduced young women into having sex,” police said in a statement.
Two days later, in response to the sexual wrongdoing claims, five Chinese industry associations, including the film association and music association, issued statements calling for industry bans on Wu and urging those in the entertainment sector to respect the law and pay attention to their behavior.
“We call on musicians to take Wu’s incident as a warning, insist on advocating morality and abide by the law as a lifelong practice,” the Chinese Musicians’ Association said.
The allegations against Wu first emerged last month on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, when Du Meizhu, a 19-year-old college student, said the singer date raped her when she was 17. Chinese law stipulates people under 18 are minors, while the age of consent is 14.
Wu has denied the allegations, saying that no underage sex was involved, and that if there was, he would send himself to prison. He did not respond to a request for comment from Billboard.
The scandal has grown beyond celebrity gossip into a significant incident with public-interest implications as part of a larger government crackdown on the country’s entertainment sector.
As supporters of Wu took to social media to defend him, Chinese internet and media regulators pledged to silence “unhealthy” online fan groups, as the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the country’s disciplinary watchdog, called them. “We must cut off the black hand of capital , and curb the wild growth of the entertainment industry,” the commission said.
CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, said in a commentary the day after Wu was charged that “no one has a talisman — the halo of celebrity cannot protect you, fans cannot protect you, a foreign passport cannot protect you.”
There are echoes in the Wu case to what happened to PG One, a rap star who found himself effectively banned from performing in mainland China after in 2018 he was called out for his 2015 song “Christmas Eve,” in which he raps about drug use and boasts about forcing himself on a woman.
Despite an apology — though made worse when PG One blamed “the deep influence of black music” for his vulgar lyrics — he has since resorted to releasing new music via a private account on WeChat.
“He is still persona non grata in Chinese media outlets, even his attempts at redemption with the release of a nationalist song are not working out,” says Nathanel Amar, who studies Chinese pop music as director of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China in Taipei.
“For Kris Wu, the seriousness of the accusations means he will probably not have a music career anymore in China.”
Born in China and raised in Canada, Wu rose to fame after he made his debut in 2012 as a member of the Korean pop group EXO. The group became one of the most successful boy bands of South Korea, selling over 1.4 million albums in their first year, according to its label, SM Entertainment, and performing sold-out gigs around the world.
In 2014, Wu left the group to pursue a solo career in China as a singer and actor, and soon gained a huge following in the country. He has starred in films, appeared as a judge on The Rap of China, a popular reality television program, and has locked endorsement deals with many domestic and international luxury brands. By 2017, he was named Forbes’ 10th most influential Chinese celebrity of the year, with an annual income of 150 million yuan ($23 million).
In 2018, Wu signed with Universal Music to distribute his music in global territories besides Japan and South Korea. “As China grows into one of the world’s biggest music markets, Universal Music China will continue to develop Kris Wu as well as the very best Chinese talent and position its artists for success both in the local market and across the globe,” the label said at the time.
Wu’s 2018 debut studio album, Antares, knocked Ariana Grande off the U.S. iTunes music charts and was platinum-certified in China. Antares peaked at No. 100 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, while the single “Like That” rose to No. 73 on the Hot 100. (Each lasted one week on the charts.)
A fan war soon emerged, and allegations that Wu’s fans had used bots to artificially inflate the album’s sales performance led to its removal from the iTunes Top 200 and for Nielsen Music, Billboard’s chart data provider at the time, to invalidate some sales.
Wu’s contract with Universal expired in March and the label has not renewed it. A source familiar with the matter said the decision not to renew was unrelated to any alleged sexual wrongdoing, but rather stemmed from the fact that Wu had not produced any music for Universal since Antares and seemed more focused on his acting career.
Wu’s legal troubles also casts doubt on the launch of Tencent Video’s big-budget period drama series The Golden Hairpin, which stars Wu. The drama’s official Sina Weibo account deleted all posts related to him, leaving only a poster featuring the show’s supporting characters.
China Cracking Down on ‘Tainted’ artists
Law-breaking artists have long been a target of China’s broadcast regulators.
Following a series of scandals in 2014, the National Radio and Television Administration — the country’s top media regulator – banned all “tainted artists” who have used drugs, visited prostitutes or broken the law, from all forms of broadcast.
Those bans have not always proved to be career-ending. From actress Fan Bingbing, who was arrested for tax evasion, to Chen Yufan, who was busted for drug possession, many artists have taken a break from the limelight and eventually found their way back to the business.
But Wu’s allegations come at a time when the Communist party has forged ahead with promoting Xi Jinping’s governance ideology, which emphasizes the “integration of law and morality.” Artists in China are under greater political pressure to refrain from “immoral conduct,” which includes infractions as minor as smoking or having tattoos.
“There is a larger movement to regulate the music and celebrity industries, to tighten up the control of artists and songs, and to promote ‘positive energy’ in the entertainment industry,” Amar says.
Last year, in response to public anger over “tainted artists” making low-key comebacks on live streaming platforms, the National Radio and Television Administration suggested the possibility of lifetime bans on livestreams for certain “illegal and immoral” artists.
In March, policies drafted by the China Association of Performing Arts (CAPA) — the country’s largest performing arts body — took effect which targeted entertainers looking to make comebacks after committing offenses. They apply to artists from various fields, including music, theater, dance and opera. Artists caught committing “ethics violations” would be subjected to “joint industry boycotts,” which could last a year or be permanent, CAPA said.
State-run media outlets voiced strong support for the initiative. “Every country has its own laws, and every industry has its own regulations,” the People’s Daily wrote in a Weibo post. “When public figures lose their moral compass and neglect rules, they need to be called out and held accountable.”
CCTV, the country’s top state broadcaster, urged “high-profile celebrities” to be extra cautious on another Weibo post. “One should educate themselves on morality before performing,” the broadcaster wrote.
Even for Wu, who built his career by streaming on social media and creating a massive fan base, the government’s latest morality push may be too overwhelming to overcome, academics tell Billboard.
“Chinese regulators govern the internet, control the industry and monitor public opinions, partly, by launching waves of campaigns,” says Bai Meijiadai, a lecturer at Liaoning University in northeastern China who studies fan culture.
And “the Chinese government has been trying to find a balance between developing the cultural industry and keeping a positive core value system for the society, especially for the youngsters.”