A star is falling, Icarus-style

Updated: 2015-01-29 06:58

By Raymond Zhou(China Daily)

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A star is falling, Icarus-style

Chinese comedian Zhao Benshan (R) talks to other deputies during a panel discussion on the sidelines of the 2nd Session of the 12th Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference on March 7. [Photo/IC]

The mysterious fall from grace of China's most prominent comedian is testament to a culture mired in political innuendoes and the uncomfortably close link between politics and entertainment.

Zhao Benshan rose from the grassroots and, through numerous appearances on the star-making national television platform, attained the highest status possible for anyone in Chinese showbiz. He has an empire with a chain of theaters presenting the Northeastern style of standup and sketch comedy, and many seasons of rural sitcoms broadcast around the nation's channels. Whatever he said or did was reported, often in a glowing tone.

His troubles seem to have surfaced when he was conspicuously absent from the autumn pow-wow with President Xi Jinping, when 72 of the nation's "representative" artists were in attendance. A subsequent provincial-level meeting, again, did not extend invitation to him. His TV shows were canceled. The public did not believe this was a coincidence.

A hushed anticipation has been in the air since, with rumors flying like a snowstorm in Northeastern China. Not a week would go by without some grapevine news that Old Zhao is "nailed". Even a plot from a hit movie, about the villain hoarding 20 tons of gold bullion, was grafted onto him, which he humorously brushed aside by saying in a local stage show that he could not locate it after rummaging through his household.

Part of the reason some are eager to see Zhao's fall complete with enhanced drama is his high-profile lifestyle just a couple of years back-and his easy rapport with politicians, politicians who have since fallen from the pedestal. He comported himself in grand style, always surrounded by a large entourage. He bought a private jet. He remodeled a culturally significant homestead in Beijing to build and reinforce government connections, it was reported.

If Zhao is legally guilty of anything, he should be prosecuted. Assuming the façade of a godfather is a sin shared by many of the country's nouveaux riches, but it's not a crime. Maybe it is a case of meeting the people on the way down, people he rubbed the wrong way when he was ascending to cloud nine. Maybe it's just schadenfreude of seeing the powerful in disgrace.

Nevertheless, the logic is warped to judge an entertainer's popularity by his proximity with the powers that be. Certainly Zhao benefited from that-to the point that he was untouchable, exempt from criticism and from the regulation that no dialect be used on television. And now he is tasting the bitter side of that same logic.

There is no denying that Zhao's folksy art has a large and genuine following. It should be judged on its merit alone. Its detractors, who accuse him of vulgarity, should be given voice whether or not he is in political favor. Ideally, art should keep a respectable distance from politics and stand on its own.

Contact the writer at raymondzhou@chinadaily.com.cn