Wang Leehom’s divorce sheds light on China’s crackdown on celebrities and the role of women in marriage
HONG KONG – A Taiwanese American star known as the King of Chinese Pop is in free fall amid a chaotic public divorce being discussed in the Chinese-speaking world.
Singer Wang Leehom, 45, was born in Rochester, New York to Taiwanese parents and grew up to be a hugely popular singer-songwriter and actor in Asia. He had been viewed by his fans as a role model for Chinese men, among other things because of his longstanding relationship with his former wife Lee Jinglei, 33. The couple have three children.
But Wang is taking a concert break after publicly apologizing in a scandal that highlighted the fragile status of celebrities and women in modern China.
After Wang confirmed speculation about the couple’s divorce, Lee posted a lengthy online embassy letter last weekend accusing him of infidelity and emotional abuse, as well as employing prostitutes.
Wang responded and sparked a social media war that undermined the clear image he had cultivated as a husband and father.
The day-long dispute led to interventions by his father and the Chinese Communist Party; Brands, including a luxury automaker and a jewelry company, also quit doing business with him.
Wang apologized to his family and fans last Monday, many of whom criticized him on Chinese social media site Weibo, where history was the top trending topic.
“After thinking about it, I should take on all of the responsibility as a man. I will not make any more statements or defenses. I improperly led the marriage, caused trouble for my family, and failed to give the public the image that an idol should have. It was all my fault, ”he wrote on his Facebook page.
“I will temporarily quit work and take time to accompany my parents and children to make up for the damage caused by this unrest,” he wrote.
Wang did not respond to a request for comment.
Wang is nowhere near the only major celebrity to face public backlash in China this year.
The ruling Communist Party under President Xi Jinping has cracked down on celebrity and fandom culture to gain more control over the lucrative entertainment market and the lives of young audiences who may be influenced by their idols.
Last week, Huang Wei, a Chinese internet celebrity known as the “Queen of Live Streaming,” also known as Viya, became the newest high-profile figure to be fined a hefty tax evasion. A well-known actor, Zheng Shuang, was sentenced to a similar fine in August following an investigation into a US surrogacy controversy
Xi, who recently spoke at a major conference of artists and writers in Beijing, warned his audience to “appreciate their social influence” and observe their behavior. A comment published on December 19 by an anti-corruption agency entitled “Morality comes before artistic work” was widely interpreted as criticizing Wang, even if he did not directly mention him.
“This is part of a larger movement to strengthen the regulation of the economy,” said Jing Vivian Zhan, associate professor of politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, citing recent crackdowns on Chinese tech giants like Alibaba and Tencent.
“In general, the Chinese government wants to set stricter rules for market activities,” she said.
The high demands placed on stars by the Chinese government and society are a clear signal for tolerated behavior. As western brands and celebrities have also noted, the fall from role model to outcast can go quickly.
“These public figures and celebrities are clearly expected to be role models,” said Pan Wang, senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales, Sydney and author of Love and Marriage in Globalizing China.
Lee’s allegations certainly came as a shock to Wang’s fans, such as Michelle Yap, 38, a hotel manager in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia who met him while visiting the country in 2005.
“I was in disbelief when I first heard the news. It was outside of his character, ”she said. “With so much information I was so confused.”
The Wang scandal has not only underscored the precarious status of celebrities in China, but has sparked discussions about why Chinese women remain in unhappy marriages.
In her first post outlining her implications with Wang, Lee said, “Whether it was women in the past or in modern times, choosing to become a housewife means choosing an unpaid job.” Without a paycheck, women run the risk of losing their right to own savings and financial management.
With men as traditional family breadwinners, even close relationships can be accompanied by unequal power dynamics.
The state-run Global Times newspaper published an opinion piece claiming that the saga highlighted the plight of “desperate housewives.”
With divorce rates rising and birth rates falling, the Chinese government has tried to strengthen traditional family values. A new law this year imposed a 30-day “cooling off” period before couples can get divorced.
It appears to have had the desired effect, according to data from state media showing that the divorce rate fell 70 percent in the first quarter of 2021.
Women have received anger at the controversial law, but Beijing appears to be taking steps to allay some of their concerns. Last week, according to Reuters, the top legislature debated laws that would provide new safeguards for women in the workplace and during pregnancy.
“If women are planning to have children, it means they will have to look after them, and that will really reduce their personal freedom for career advancement or for socialization and recreational activities,” said Pan Wang, lecturer and writer.
“Some women see divorce as a new beginning, a new chapter in life,” she said.
Lee definitely did. She posted on Instagram again on Thursday, saying she hopes “to put an end to the ongoing turmoil”.