Going Gaga

1st March 2013

In honour of International Women’s Day (8 March) Tina Nandha profiles an actress and activist breaking the mould in her own country

‘China’s Lady Gaga’. That’s the moniker bestowed on Yao Chen by the western media. But if we’re going to play the label game, we’ll need to do it with a little more nuance. ‘Lady Gaga-meets-Kate Middleton’ might come closer to the truth. Yao, one of her country’s most famous women, employs few of Lady Gaga’s shock tactics; in China’s climate of repression and censorship, it’s a more respectful amiability that has helped turn the actress into a beloved household name. Where she does mirror Gaga, though, is in her enthusiastic microblogging. Though Twitter is banned in China, Yao dominates its biggest equivalent, Sina Weibo, with over 39 million fans. (To put that figure into perspective, it’s larger than any Twitter following, outstripping President Obama’s by more than ten million.) And like Gaga, Yao uses her online presence to draw attention to social issues. But speaking out in China is a risk; her Weibo account is watched as closely by the powers that be as it is by her fans.

It’s no surprise that China’s state censors want to keep an eye on Yao. Her Weibo following is ten times the circulation of the country’s biggest newspaper, and her readers clearly take notice of what she says. Around four thousand people were moved to comment when she posted a photograph of her pet cat looking out of a window. Five thousand did the equivalent of retweeting it. Her influence has resulted in multiple endorsement deals (for Adidas and Toshiba, amongst others) and a side-job as Tourism New Zealand’s brand ambassador. When Yao chose to marry her cinematographer boyfriend Cao Yu in New Zealand’s Queenstown late last year, local news organisations talked excitably about the effect it could have on the resort’s tourism profile. “Her audience reach is something that Tourism New Zealand could never afford to buy in a market like China,” boasted a manager at the organisation.

Cao Yu and Yao Chen

With the eyes of tens of millions of Weibo fans and those of the Chinese government fixed upon her, Yao is one of the most scrutinised people in the world, although so far, her fame in China has not translated to a great deal recognition further afield. That may change. She is certainly making an effort to implant herself into the global public consciousness. Her publicist was keen to tell press at last September’s New York Fashion Week that, though they might not recognise her, she’s “super, super famous”, and there was some international interest when she attended the world premiere of The Hobbit wearing a pair of elf ears: a mildly Gaga-esque stunt… Yao has yet to wear a meat-dress or create an alter-ego.

Like Gaga, Yao is considered a member of the internet monarchy (she’s known as ‘queen of the microblogs’, whilst Gaga reigns as ‘queen of Twitter’), and she has earned this Weibo supremacy. She rewards followers with intimate access to her life, posting, for example, several pictures of her wedding day. The relationship between her celebrity in her home country and her microblog following has been one of mutual reinforcement. Her existing fame naturally made her popular on Weibo, but embracing the medium has further increased her profile. Similarly, Yao’s humanitarian posts are effective because the public pay so much attention to her, but respect for her interest in humanitarian issues has also led to yet more attention.

She’s eager to raise awareness of injustices in China, including corruption, exploitation and child-trafficking, to name a few. She’ll forward pictures of kidnapping victims and publicise the struggles of the country’s many impoverished citizens, and she has also worked with the UNHCR to help refugees abroad. As with the picture of her cat, her fans are quick to pass on her microblogged messages regarding social issues.

Considering the strict control over political debate exercised by the Chinese government, any such advocacy is a fairly brave step. So Yao plays it safe. When censorship of the New Year editorial in the Southern Weekend newspaper provoked outrage in China earlier this year, many public figures used their micro-blogs to express support for the publication. Yao was among them, but her support was less direct than it could have been. She quoted Nobel Prize-winning writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, posting ‘one word of truth shall outweigh the whole world’, along with the newspaper’s logo. It’s hard to imagine Lady Gaga showing such restraint.

The repercussions Yao seeks to avoid with her caution are very real. Fellow netizens (internet citizens) who put their weight more firmly behind Southern Weekend received secret police warnings, and shared the fact by blogging that they’d been ‘invited to drink tea’ – one of many euphemisms used to stay one step ahead of the online censors who crack down on discussion of politics and the politburo (other codes include ‘teletubby’ to denote a particular political leader). People who have their say on contentious subjects may find their accounts suspended, and there have been reports of detentions. Last year, Sina Weibo introduced a code of conduct prohibiting any messages that could be deemed harmful to national unity. The government has also tightened its grip by requiring all micro-bloggers to use real names. A dedicated team identifies posts including sensitive terms, and offending items may be deleted at the will of the authorities.

Yao Chen has at times found herself on the wrong side of the censors’ sensibilities. In a Prospect magazine interview last year, she acknowledged the need to pre-empt the state’s reactions to avoid trouble, saying, “Weibo is a very honest expression of my mental world, but gradually I had to regulate my self-expression as a public figure… At the beginning I would pour out negative things, but now I’m careful to convey only the beautiful side of the world.”

So although Yao can be described as an activist, she practices a particularly careful kind of activism. Where Gaga aims to shock and accuse until people support her chosen causes, Yao aims to gently coax societal change.

Comparing their approaches without consideration of their environments, it appears that Yao is simply less passionate and less invested. But environment is everything. If you want to get along in Chinese society, it doesn’t really pay to be outspoken. If Lady Gaga wants to challenge, or demand change from, the American authorities, she can go right ahead. She can even post photos of herself with Julian Assange, officially referred to as an enemy of the United States, on her website. There might be negative public reaction to worry about – a hazard for famous people everywhere – but Gaga’s unlikely to be one tweet away from being hauled before the police.

The political situation in China is surely at least part of the reason Yao is not bolder in her approach. But this situation – and the way that it stunts public debate – is also the reason that two such dissimilar figures can be seen as comparable. It’s the reason Yao’s activities are in many ways as extraordinary as Gaga’s. By American and British standards, it might not look like Yao is pushing the limits… but the limits in China are a lot more constricting; she‘s venturing about as close to them as Lady Gaga gets to America’s. To stay out of trouble, Yao Chen finds it necessary to speak a little less explicitly, and perhaps, ultimately, to tell a little less truth.

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