In China, appetite for celebrity scandal

Dispute: A broadcaster is accused of having an affair with his physical therapist, who is suing him.

August 16, 2004|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Forget about the space race, the gold medal chase and the almighty gross domestic product. China is finally catching up to America in a crucial category: the celebrity sex scandal.

Zhao Zhongxiang, a television broadcaster for 44 years and this country's closest thing to Walter Cronkite, is embroiled in a scandal that has whet the public's appetite for unflattering celebrity gossip - in this case, allegations of an extramarital affair with his physical therapist, who is suing him.

For weeks, the Chinese news media and Web sites have feasted on each development and nuance: the sex, the lies, the dirty telephone chatter caught on tape (available for downloading), the much younger woman and, so she says, the clothing that contains proof of the dalliance, plus the tortuous denials.

It may sound all-American in its unseemliness, but some Chinese view the scandal as a welcome sign of political and social progress. The Zhao Zhongxiang story reflects the rise of a celebrity culture that competes for attention with the cult of celebrity Communist rulers. Zhao might not have been able to fall so easily or publicly as a political figure, but as a celebrity he was fair game.

"In the past, if something like this happened, the government would take care of it," said Mao Shoulong, a professor of public administration at Renmin University of China. "It was not a society where private disputes were independent of administrative power. It was not a society of rule of law, either."

The scandal might never have unfolded without some progress in rule of law. A Shanghai newspaper, The News Times, published 38-year-old Rao Ying's accusations of an affair in April after a Beijing court agreed to hear her two lawsuits against Zhao, one seeking about $1,200 in damages for physical injuries she alleges he inflicted, the other seeking about $460 in fees for the physical therapy she provided. Courts had refused several times to accept the cases.

The lawsuits became the basis for the initial press coverage of the extramarital affair and also gave the state-controlled media political cover for publishing accusations about Zhao. His celebrity status and clean, family-man image may have made him more vulnerable to the increasingly celebrity-obsessed press.

Zhao, 62, has worked for China state television, CCTV, since 1960, when there were so few televisions here that he was essentially reading the news to only China's top leaders. He has said he could walk the streets of the capital unrecognized, and that remained true until the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, when the number of televisions in the nation was still measured in the hundreds.

As China developed, his face became familiar in many more Chinese households. When the country's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, made a historic visit to the United States in 1979, Zhao went with him and was host of a daily half-hour report about the visit. He also visited the White House - becoming, he has said, the first Chinese journalist to do so - and interviewed then-President Jimmy Carter.

Zhao stopped being a news announcer in 1985, but he is host of other programs, including the annual Spring Festival program broadcast on Chinese New Year's Eve - perennially the most-watched program in the country - and a weekly show about wild animals.

Celebrity coverage

Meanwhile, the state press has in the past decade devoted more coverage to entertainment and celebrities. As government reforms began forcing newspapers to compete and earn profits, celebrity news emerged as an obvious, politically safe avenue for selling papers. Typically the coverage is favorable; over the years, stories about Zhao have touched favorably on his wife and family, two books he has published, and his skills as a painter and calligrapher.

He became a national celebrity and, according to his alleged former mistress, Rao, he very much liked it.

"Zhao once told me, `Wherever I go I don't have to spend money,'" Rao said in an interview last week. "He enjoyed taking these kinds of little advantages."

At first the Chinese public was not ready to believe Rao's accusations. She said she began a seven-year relationship with Zhao in 1996, about the time she began working at CCTV as a physical therapist. She said she had an abortion and divorced her husband because of Zhao, and that he promised to leave his wife and marry her.

Some of the early stories were critical of her, saying that women often claimed relationships with celebrities for personal gain. But Rao said she had anticipated that no one would believe her.

Taped conversations

To protect herself from accusations of fabrication and blackmail, she said, she taped more than 20 hours of conversations with Zhao, mostly over the telephone but also in person. She released a few minutes of the tapes to the news media last month, including some explicit chatter that has forever altered the public's image of Zhao.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.