In the past few weeks, China has weathered a series of dramatic scandals — predominantly in the tech and entertainment industries — that have run afoul of Beijing’s morality crusade. Reactions have been swift and strong, ranging from cancellations to arrests.
The most shocking was undoubtedly pop star Kris Wu’s arrested for sexual assault, causing shockwaves while leaving luxury names scrambling. Another is Lucas Huang from Gucci’s Qixi campaign, who also acknowledged inappropriate sexual relationships with fans.
In tech, Alibaba’s Li Yonghe left his job as the CEO of Alibaba Local Services amid a similar scandal after the company was called out for its “disgusting” drinking culture by the country’s top anti-corruption agency. Disgrace was also heaped upon the now blacklisted actor Zhang Zhehan when a controversial selfie at the Yasukuni Shrine, a war memorial in Japan, outraged citizens.
Recently, Chinese state television network CCTV reported that controversial actress Zheng Shuang, formerly a face for Prada, has been hit with a $46.1 million fine for failing to declare her true taxable income.
In April, her “yin and yang” contracts, in which both official and unofficial payments for entertainers get documented, were investigated. Finally, top actress Zhao Wei, a brand ambassador for luxury houses such as Fendi, Chanel, and others, has also fallen foul of Beijing — although the reason is unclear. Surprisingly, her name has been removed from the credits of all of her films and shows.
These crackdowns, arrests, and cancellations of adored stars remind China’s population that, regardless of status, no one in the country is beyond reproach — whether it is tech CEOs like Jack Ma or adored pop stars like Kris Wu. Also, the staggeringly high wealth of these celebrities, and C-suite tech leaders, go against President Xi’s latest common prosperity policy, in which he calls for a clampdown on high incomes and a redistribution of wealth. Furthermore, these figures have massive social followings and visibility. Zhao Wei alone has more than 85 million followers on Weibo, while Jack Ma was a household name.
For now, it is unclear what other sectors this crackdown will impact. But it is likely part of a long-term plan to push spending towards national brands by hindering the bankability of lightning-rod KOLs for international names. Local labels are more able to respond accurately and deftly to these sorts of crises. And with these incidents getting compounded by fan-culture crackdowns, as well, luxury brands must be questioning what value is left in their ambassador strategies.