China state television broadcaster CCTV digitally erased an actor from a program broadcast on Sunday after he shared an article on his Facebook page suggesting China's first communist premier, Zhou Enlai, was gay.
The article that reportedly got actor Wong Hei in trouble concerned a new book published in Hong Kong that argues diary entries show Zhou was in love with a high school classmate. In a December post that appears to have since been deleted, Wong shared the article commenting, "Qu Yuan's descendant," a reference to an ancient Chinese poet whom several scholars believe had a love affair with the country's king, and whose death is commemorated in an annual festival .
Wong's post provoked an uproar in Chinese social media, ultimately leading the director to posting an elaborate mea culpa on Jan. 1, "If we had known, we wouldn't have asked. We would have asked, but not recorded. We would have recorded, but not used. We would have used, but not broadcast."
But rather than pull the show, a reality program called The Great Challenge, its producers digitally removed Wong from some shots and pixelated his face in group shots.
The whole affair is not just about whether it's still considered slander to suggest leaders are gay in China despite some signs of gradual social acceptance of same-sex relationships. It also shows how complicated it is for Chinese officials to control the country's history on social media while fighting political battles with both Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The confrontation started on Facebook — which is banned from China — but it blew up on the Chinese social network Weibo. And although Wong is a celebrity on the Chinese mainland, he is from Hong Kong, where the book about Zhou was published. The book's publishing house has previously infuriated Beijing by doing things like publishing the diary of the premier who was purged from the Communist Party for sympathizing with pro-democracy activists during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. The book appeared just before five employees from another house that publishes politically sensitive titles disappeared, prompting allegations that they were abducted to the mainland.
Wong's Facebook post might never have been noticed in mainland China if it hadn't been called out on Weibo by a singer named Huang An. Huang was born in Taiwan but now lives in Beijing and campaigns against formal independence for the island, which has essentially operated as an independent state since the Communist Party took power in 1949.
Huang wrote in that post, which appeared on Dec. 31, that Wong “earns money and buys a flat in the mainland, eating and drinking well, then condemns mainland China when [he has] returned to Hong Kong and Taiwan," the South China Morning Post reported. "We have to report these kind of people.”
Hayes Brown is a world news editor and reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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