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Li Yifeng: China arrests star who played Mao for soliciting prostitutes

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By Kerry Allen

BBC Monitoring

Actor Li Yifeng attends Panerai event on April 15, 2021 in Shanghai, China.Image source, VCG

Image caption,

Li Yifeng has been a bankable star and a household name in China for years

One of China’s biggest stars, actor Li Yifeng, has been arrested on suspicion of repeatedly soliciting prostitutes.

State media said Li, 35, had recently been detained and charged by police in Beijing and had confessed his guilt.

The actor, who played Communist leader Mao Zedong in a 2021 film, has been dropped as brand ambassador by leading firms including fashion house Prada.

He’s the latest star to be prosecuted in China after officials criticised the influence they have over young people.

Li Yifeng, also known as Evan Li, is a household name and hugely popular in China, with 60 million followers on the country’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo platform. He has been in the public eye since 2007, when he participated in a national TV talent contest.

Since then, he has appeared in many TV shows and dramas before moving into acting. Last year, he starred in The Pioneer, a biographical historical blockbuster about China’s Communist party.

Signs he was in trouble appeared over the weekend, when his name was removed from the list of celebrities due to appear at the Mid-Autumn Festival Gala on state television on Saturday.

The official China Daily said the actor had been “cancelled” after being placed in administrative detention on solicitation charges. Striking what some might see as an ironic note, it reported he had been dropped as promotional ambassador for China’s highest prosecuting agency, which had removed a music video of his from its channel.

Before news of his arrest became public, Li’s studio issued a statement saying he had “always abided by professional ethics, adhered to the moral bottom line and actively shown social responsibility”.

Image source, VCG

Image caption,

Li starred in a production last year celebrating the centenary of the Communist party

“The remarks about Li Yifeng on the internet are untrue and have been fabricated and spread maliciously by people with ulterior motives,” it said. Within 24 hours, the statement had been deleted on Sina Weibo.

Despite his huge popularity, there has been little apparent sympathy for the actor – perhaps not surprising, given the nature of the crimes he’s accused of.

Many netizens talked about how “embarrassing” the case must be for him.

“This is the biggest humiliation in history! Li Yifeng, you have truly lost face,” read one popular Weibo post.

“How dare he make a statement [refuting the allegations],” another person wrote.

Last year, Beijing’s top media regulator sent a strong warning to celebrities that they needed to show more “moral” behaviour and “consciously oppose decadent ideas of money worship, hedonism and extreme individualism”.

Consequently, many celebrities have found themselves “cancelled”, whereby their online accounts are deleted and their historic works are removed from prominent channels.

These include actress Zheng Shuang, social media influencer Viya and Chinese-Canadian actor Kris Wu.

Many in China have compared the arrest of Mr Li to that of Mr Wu in July 2021 for suspected rape. The All China Women’s Federation has said such scandals are “not isolated cases in the entertainment industry” and that they “shatter the public’s goodwill”.

News of Li Yifeng’s arrest comes amid a climate of anger about the ill-treatment of women in China, including the unprovoked attack on a group of women in a restaurant earlier this year.

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