Is 2023 the year China reckons with celebrity toxic masculinity?

This year is proving to be a reckoning for male celebrities in China as they face heightened accountability thanks to the lightning speed of Chinese social media, eagle-eyed fans, a continuing government crackdown on celebrity and fandom culture, the growing She Economy, and advancing women’s empowerment. 

Several incidents have rocked China’s entertainment industry, shedding light on toxic masculinity and its consequences. 

Here’s a look at some of the year’s biggest celebrity sex-related scandals: 

Kris Wu receives 13-year sentence for sexual assault 

On July 25, 2023, Chinese-Canadian pop star Kris Wu appeared in court in Beijing to appeal his convictions. Photo: Shutterstock

Canadian-Chinese pop star Kris Wu’s sex abuse scandal speaks to greater awareness and changing standards towards abuse in the entertainment industry. 

In 2022, Wu was sentenced to 13 years in a Chinese prison for the sexual assault of three women and “assembling a crowd for sexual activity” between November and December 2020. After Wu finishes his lengthy sentence, he will be deported from the country. 

Wu, also known as Wu Yifan, initially denied the allegations, but was detained by police in Beijing in 2021 following public accusations by an 18-year-old female student. At the time, the news sparked massive discussion on social media, with the hashtag “Kris Wu sentenced to 13 years in the first trial” gaining over 10.1 billion views on Weibo. 

His appeal trial was held in Beijing on July 25 of this year, with the verdict to be announced at an unspecified future date.

Cai Xukun’s one-night stand controversy 

State broadcaster CCTV removed Chinese idol Cai Xukun’s music videos from its streaming app in the wake of his sex allegations. Photo: Still from “Young” music video

Earlier in July, Chinese pop star Cai Xukun faced a scandal when a local paparazzo claimed that the star had engaged in a one-night stand with a woman, who later became pregnant. The allegation included accusations that he had requested she undergo an abortion, which she was alleged to have undergone, and that his mother had hired a private detective to monitor the woman’s activities.

Cai responded after a week, stating that he’d engaged in a consensual relationship with the woman in 2021, which had ended that year with no further involvement. He denied any illegal behavior or that he forced her to have an abortion. 

The singer shared a Weibo post addressing the issue that gained significant attention. Chinese fans criticized him for the relationship, as it was contrary to their high expectations for single idols. 

Despite the controversy, brands endorsing Cai, including Prada, Givenchy and Tag Hauer, did not terminate their partnerships, and many of his 38.6 million fans on Weibo defended Cai on social media. 

Olympian Zhang Jike’s non-consensual image-sharing 

Zhang Jike scandal

Anta and other brands terminated their partnership with the table tennis star after he was accused of paying off his gambling debts with intimate videos of his ex-girlfriend. Photo: Shutterstock

In April, Chinese Olympic gold medalist Zhang Jike was embroiled in a major scandal that led to the termination of his partnerships with major brands. Rumors surfaced on Chinese social media claiming that the retired table tennis star had shared intimate videos of his ex-girlfriend, actress Jing Tian, without her permission to pay off his gambling debts. 

Investigative reporter Li Weiao uncovered a loan contract in Zhang’s name for approximately $726,000 (5 million RMB), adding weight to the allegations. Zhang denied the rumors, but brands including Anta, Toyota, and Chinese nutrition firm Nuotelande quickly cut ties with him. 

Chinese regulators have become increasingly strict with celebrities involved in scandals. This incident demonstrates how brands now react swiftly to distance themselves from controversial figures, even when the rumors are unsubstantiated.

Chen Feiyu’s leaked private photos

Chen Feiyu scandal celebrity

Private photos of Chen Feiyu, a mainland Chinese “traffic idol” and son of the acclaimed director Chen Kaige, were leaked across social media. Photo: Dior

In February, Chinese actor Arthur Chen Feiyu, known for his roles in popular dramas and as a “traffic idol” with a large fan following, became embroiled in a sex scandal when non-sexually explicit photos of him sharing a bed with a woman were leaked on social media. 

The scandal involved an alleged affair with a fan, leading to a widespread backlash and fan outrage. Chen and his management company released an official statement admitting to the relationship, when both parties were reportedly single, and asked the public to stop sharing the private photos. Fans expressed disappointment and questioned Chen’s behavior, which damaged his reputation and could have affected his earning power as a brand ambassador for Dior, Tissot, and Kiehl’s. 

The scandal adds to the ongoing crackdown on idol culture in China, following other recent high-profile celebrity scandals.

Alexander Wang pivots to China, following sexual abuse allegations in the US

Since being accused of sexual assault in 2020, Alexander Wang has shifted his focus to expanding in China. Photo: Shutterstock

In February, Alexander Wang hosted a New York fashion show for the first time in three years after facing several accusations of sexual assault in 2020. Although the event was well-attended by 150 guests, including fashion’s biggest editors, global media were quick to question and criticize his return.

After issuing an apology statement in 2021, the Taiwanese-American designer sold minority stakes in his eponymous label to Chinese investors Youngor Group and Challenjers Capital the following year, with the aim of supporting the brand’s global growth goals.

Wang shifted his focus to supporting Asian American-related causes in the West and engaging with Chinese consumers, contributing to the brand’s resurgence and strong business performance.

Over the past two years, Wang’s label has grown rapidly in China, achieving almost 150 percent sales growth. The brand has been aggressively expanding its retail presence in the country, with new stores opened in Wuhan, Zhengzhou, Shandong, and Ningbo in April 2023 alone.