Comedian-turned showbiz tycoon Zhao Benshan embroiled in rumours amid anti-graft drive
After a bad year that saw him sidelined by the authorities, his television shows suspended and his club closed, one of China's most prominent entertainment industry figures now finds himself busy fending off rumours that he has been investigated for corruption amid President Xi Jinping's sweeping anti-corruption campaign.
Zhao Benshan is a household name in mainland China. The 57-year-old farmer-turned comedian’s sketch performances have long been essential viewing on state broadcaster CCTV’s New Year’s Gala, the country's single most-watched television programme every year.
But 2014 saw a downturn in Zhao fortunes, who had spent years building a business empire around his TV comedies, dramas, films and other investments within the entertainment industry.
A number of television programmes and dramas Zhao had produced or participated in over the past few months have been suspended from broadcast by the state censorship organ, without specific reasons being given, state media have reported.
A luxurious Beijing club that Zhao has run since 2011 was also found to have been closed recently. Employees at the club told the state-run China News Service earlier this week that the closure was due to sluggish business as a result of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive, which has deterred government and state company officials from visiting expensive restaurants and entertainment venues.
The official China Youth Daily said in a commentary on Tuesday that there was "nothing unusual" about the closure of Zhao's club.
"Online photos have shown that [the club's] decoration was extremely extravagant, and its services weere very expensive... Therefore, it is only normal for it to be closed" amid the Communist Party's campaign against corruption, the commentary said.
In October, Zhao was conspicuously absent from a high-profile cultural symposium in Beijing chaired by Xi to “spread Chinese values”, and subsequently two other follow-up meetings held by officials in his home province of Liaoning, which fuelled speculation that he may have been sidelined.
These events have given rise to internet rumours that Zhao was under official investigation.
Benshan Media, a cultural company founded by Zhao, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. Last week, Zhao broke a months-long silence to hit back at rumours that he had been arrested for corruption.
In a rare New Year's Day performance at a theatre that he owns in Shenyang, Zhao cracked jokes about rumours that government investigators had found as much as 20 tonnes of gold in a raid at his home.
"Did you think you'd never see me again because they say I have 20 tonnes of gold in my home? I even believed it myself!" Zhao said in performance videos that his audience members uploaded to the internet.
Through years of success in his comedy career and expanding show business empire, Zhao accumulated wealth well past one billion yuan, according to media estimates. And the comedian was not shy about demonstrating his luxurious lifestyles. Zhao's fleet of expensive cars, high-end possessions and luxurious property holdings were frequently reported in China’s media over the years.
And in 2009 Zhao became one of the first Chinese celebrities to own a private jet, a Bombardier Challenger 850 that cost him about 200 million yuan, Chinese media reports said.
But Zhao’s status has clearly declined since Xi took power and launched his signature anti-corruption drive.
According to Forbes’ Chinese celebrity ranking, Zhao was ranked 6th overall and pocketed 115 million yuan in 2012 when Xi became president. But his ranking slipped to 21st in 2014, when he made just 32 million yuan.