The Chinese government is obliterating this hugely popular comedian

GlobalPost
Chinese comedian-actor Zhao Benshan jokes with Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona at a Chinese Red Cross Foundation charity banquet in 2010. These days, Zhao Benshan's empire is being disassembled by Communist Party officials.
STP

BEIJING, China — In China, amassing wealth, power, and enormous popularity does not protect you from being caught up in an old-fashioned political purge — even if you happen to be a comedian.

Consider the beloved laugh master Zhao Benshan, a multimillionaire actor-businessman with an equally impressive Rolodex of political connections.

A grassroots performer with a rural style (think, roughly, Larry the Cable Guy), Zhao emerged from humble beginnings to become one of the country’s best-loved performers. In 2012 he ranked sixth on Forbes’ celebrity rich list. He was one of the first Chinese stars to buy a private jet, spending some $30 million on a Bombardier Challenger 850. (He later publicly mused about replacing it with a Gulfstream).

But now his fortunes are plummeting. Many of his “friends” are in jail. After two decades at the top, some are asking: Will the last laugh be on Zhao?

A recent high-profile blow occurred in mid-February, as some 690-million viewers settled in to watch Chunwan — a schmaltzy four-hour televised gala that is as much a part of Chinese New Year as fireworks and family arguments. Chunwan is also a strictly controlled propaganda-fest: Among this year’s highlights was “I Give My Heart To You” a soaring paean to the motherland accompanied by footage of President Xi Jinping.

For 22 consecutive years, Zhao has been a fixture at Chunwan. This year, he was out — replaced, tellingly, with skits that criticized corrupt officials.

His absence hardly went unnoticed. “Without Zhao’s vulgarity,” snarked the official Global Times, “The show combines hot social topics with criticizing bad social phenomena, and spreads positive energy.”

Despite enduring popularity and wealth estimated at $160 million, Zhao’s career has been in freefall for months. All signs point to an impending reckoning.

Days after Chunwan, during the weeklong Spring Festival in which most of China sleeps in, workers were busy dismantling Zhao’s flagship theater in Shenyang. Several hit shows have been inexplicably canceled. After his upscale nightclub in Beijing was closed, the official China Youth Daily described it as “extremely extravagant” and suggested its customers had been badly hit by the ongoing corruption purge. Last year, Zhao even angered nationalists after it was revealed his family had emigrated, like “naked officials,” to Singapore.

Once rumors spread that investigators had found 24,000 kilograms of gold at one of his properties, the comedian went on the offensive, joking that he’d looked for the bullion but couldn’t find it anywhere.

Back in his Shenyang hometown, Zhao’s ebbing influence has not gone unnoticed. Previously, the flamboyant 57-year-old’s New Year homecoming was accompanied by a parade of vehicles, to which provincial authorities happily lent fire engines. But January’s entourage was as sheepish as this year’s zodiac sign — just a pair of cars, villagers told Qilu Evening News.

A thoughtful state-media editorial attributed Zhao’s own “mysterious fall from grace” to the “uncomfortably close link between politics and entertainment.” Indeed, in China careers can rise and fall along with patronage networks.

The consensus is that Zhao’s problems are connected to the ascension of President Xi, and the subsequent downfall of the "Liaoning Gang." One of Zhao’s most powerful friends had been former Liaoning Governor Bo Xilai, whose wife was famously imprisoned for murdering British businessman Neil Haywood in 2011.

Bo once penned an article for China's Xinhua news agency lavishly praising Zhao’s career. Bo’s arrest for corruption in 2012 came shortly after. Gossip claimed Bo had backed a failed coup against Xi, engineered by ex-security czar Zhou Yongkang, a Dick Cheney-esque political “tiger” who also got his start in Liaoning (Zhou now awaits trial for “discipline violations”).

With the pair now political poison, Xi has been dismantling the gang’s deeply entrenched networks of businessmen and politicians — and, critics argue, replacing them with his own. The comic Zhao, meanwhile, has long been a beneficiary of this collusive network.

“What everybody forgets in hindsight is just how difficult it would have been for someone like Zhao to maintain distance from Bo,” observes Mark Rowswell, a Canadian comic who has appeared in several Chunwan. “The former is by far the most famous cultural figure to come out of Liaoning Province in the past 20 years, while the latter was a very dynamic Party Secretary.”

Just how far that relationship went has yet to be revealed, but both Bo and Zhao’s reputations are that of high-flying, highly controlling personalities (Zhao’s tightly run Benshan Media group is said to hold a virtual monopoly on performers across the country).

Zhao has been engaged in damage control, claiming in one interview, “I have repeatedly read General Secretary Xi's speeches … I’m extremely emotional, extremely excited. Sometimes I cannot even sleep at night.”

Sleepless nights may be the least of Zhao’s problems as the rumors surrounding him grow ever louder. “Zhao Benshan devoted a better part of his life to entertain the public,” replied one dismayed reader to the Global Times editorial. “Please show some respect to grassroots culture and to an old man.”

Other say that Zhao has long been more kingpin than comedian. “He’s somewhat like Frank Sinatra,” suggests Rowswell. “The darker side of his business is coming back to haunt him.”

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