86 MILLION FANS : China's missing star Zhao Wei's sudden erasure from the Internet has sparked a bevy of speculations.

Zhao Wei spent the past two decades as China's equivalent of Reese Witherspoon, a beloved actor -tuned-business mogul. She directed award-winning films, sold millions of records as a pop singer and built a large following on social media, amassing 86 million fans on Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblogging site.

Today, the 45-year-old star has been erased from the Chinese Internet. Searches for her name on the country's biggest video-streaming sites come up blank. Her projects, including the wildly popular TV series My Fair Princess, have been removed.

Anyone looking up her acclaimed film So Young on China's equivalent of Wikipedia wouldn't know she was the director; the field now is now empty.

Ms. Zhao's online disappearance on Aug 26 came at the onset of a broader clampdown on the country's entertainment industry as the Communist Party attempts to halt what it sees as a rise in unhealthy celebrity culture.

The Chinese government hasn't publicly stated what prompted the sudden change to her status, raising questions among fans and observers about how far it is willing to go against her and other celebrities, and why?

The mystery has also sparked open speculation over what, if anything, she might have done wrong. ''Zhao Wei is like a poster child for what the Communist Party sees as what's wrong with celebrity culture in China,'' said Stanely Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California who specialises in Chinese films and politics. ''It's a demonstration that no one, no matter how wealthy or popular, is too big to pursue,'' he said.

In Zhao Wei's case, he added, the lack of explanation ''will certainly make other celebrities extremely cautious and proactive in embracing regime goals."

''A new outpouring of public interest in Ms. Zhao's status erupted on Wednesday after the appearance of photos and video that purported to show the star, dressed casually in shorts and purple T-shirt, visiting a telecom service branch the day before in her hometown of Wuhu in eastern China.

The Wall Street Journal was unable to verify the authenticity of the images, which were shared widely on Chinese social media by fans. Ms. Zhao didn't respond to requests for comment.

Her films and TV shows remained unsearchable on video streaming sites as of Wednesday afternoon.  The Cyberspace administration of China, the country's Internet regulator, didn't respond to an inquiry.

After Weibo deleted Ms. Zhao's fan page when other platforms censored her name, her fans posted messages of support on their own microblogs and on her brother's Weibo page, urging the family to sue the attackers for defamation.

Ms. Zhao has also stirred controversy. In 2001, she apologized after Chinese media faulted her for appearing on a fashion magazine with a dress that featured a Japanese wartime flag. In 2016, she dropped a Taiwanese actor from a film she was directing after Chinese Internet users accused him of advocating for Taiwan's independence.

Following her online disappearance, a wide-range of state-run media republished an essay written by a former newspaper editor amplifying the idea that the current moves against celebrities, including Ms. Zhao, were part of a broader effort by Mr. Xi to rein in the rich and address the country's yawning wealth gap.

The World Students Society thanks author The Express Tribune.


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