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2018 in review

Fan Bingbing, #MeToo, Sabrina Meng Wanzhou … the big stories that shook China in 2018

  • From gene-edited babies to the diplomatic row over the arrest of Huawei’s CFO in Canada, here’s our top five for the year
PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 December, 2018, 8:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 December, 2018, 4:41pm

Fan Bingbing

After disappearing for three months, actress Fan Bingbing – one of the country’s highest paid entertainers – surfaced in October with a grovelling statement on Weibo, China’s Twitter.

In her letter, she apologised to fans and the Communist Party for using “split contracts and other tax evasion methods”. She also said she accepted the penalties that had been imposed on her by the tax authorities – nearly 884 million yuan (US$128 million) in overdue taxes and fines.

The South China Morning Post reported that she had been released from secret detention in a “holiday resort” two weeks before she posted the statement and had returned to Beijing as the tax authorities completed their investigation.

It all started in May, when television presenter Cui Yongyuan posted images of two contracts for one of Fan’s upcoming films. One showed a salary of US$1.6 million to be reported to the tax authorities, while the second listed what appeared to be the actual salary of US$7.8 million.

After Fan’s detention, the Chinese government launched a massive crackdown on tax evasion by sports and entertainment celebrities.

Gene-edited babies

Chinese scientist He Jiankui stunned the world in November when he claimed to have created the world’s first gene-edited babies. The former researcher at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen was dubbed “China’s Frankenstein” after releasing a YouTube video in November in which he said his team had modified the embryos of twin girls to effectively switch off an HIV-related gene because their father had the virus.

It unleashed a storm of criticism over the ethics and transparency of the work, its medical necessity, and the scientist’s responsibility for the lives of the gene-edited children.

Days later, he faced his peers and the public at an international genome conference in Hong Kong, apologising for creating the controversy and saying the couples who took part in the experiment gave their informed consent and that he was proud of his achievement. He also revealed there had been another pregnancy involving a gene-edited baby.

He was roundly condemned by China’s scientific community and health officials, who said they knew nothing of the experiment, as did the university. The Ministry of Science and Technology launched an investigation into the case and ordered He not to undertake any further research. International experts have described He’s claim as “unexpected and deeply disturbing” and called for an independent assessment to verify it.

Dolce & Gabbana

While the US prepared to celebrate Thanksgiving in November, China was up in arms on social media over a conversation by one of Dolce & Gabbana’s founders that was widely perceived as racist and a controversial advertising campaign.

The Italian fashion house later cancelled its Shanghai fashion show – D&G’s biggest promotional event of the year in China – after Chinese celebrities and models boycotted the brand.

Fashion industry watchdog Diet Prada had posted a screenshot of an online conversation from the Instagram account of designer Stefano Gabbana in which China was described as “a country of s***”.

Gabbana said his Instagram account had been hacked and he was sorry for what happened.

The company also issued an apology to “China and Chinese people”, but it was not enough to save the event, as models refused to walk in the show and celebrities cancelled their appearances.

Soon after, Dolce & Gabbana products were pulled from China’s biggest e-commerce platforms including Tmall, JD.com, Xiaohongshu and Secoo.

D&G’s overall brand health score fell from +3.3 to -11.4 among Chinese consumers in about a week after the fashion show was cancelled, according to YouGov’s BrandIndex, which measures public perception of thousands of brands across dozens of sectors.

Sabrina Meng Wanzhou

Huawei chief financial officer and heir apparent Sabrina Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver on December 1 at the request of the United States, accused of violating US and EU trade sanctions against Iran.

Beijing immediately lodged a diplomatic protest and demanded the US and Canada clarify why she had been detained.

Meng, who is the daughter of the telecoms giant’s founder Ren Zhengfei, was later released on C$10 million (US$7.5 million) bail and faces extradition to the US.

It came as China and the US are locked in a trade war, and US President Donald Trump suggested he may intervene in the case if it would help secure a broad deal with Beijing.

After she was released, Meng wrote on social media platform WeChat: “I am proud of Huawei, I am proud of my country. Thank you everyone who is concerned about my situation.”

Nine days after her arrest, China detained two Canadian citizens, accusing them of activities “that endanger China’s national security”. The first was Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat who is currently a senior adviser on Northeast Asia for International Crisis Group.

Michael Spavor, a businessman based in the Chinese city of Dandong who facilitates visits to North Korea, was also detained.

China has not said whether Kovrig and Spavor were detained in retaliation for the arrest of Meng.

A third Canadian was later detained in China, but Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the case of Sarah McIver appeared to be routine and unrelated to the detentions of Kovrig and Spavor. Beijing said the teacher had been given “administrative punishment” for working illegally in China.

#MeToo

The #MeToo movement continued to make waves in China in 2018, particularly against academics at various Chinese universities, as well as other powerful men including a top Buddhist monk and leading figures in the media and at non-governmental organisations.

In August, Richard Liu, chief executive of Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com, was arrested in the US on a rape allegation. But on Friday prosecutors in Minnesota announced that they were dropping the case due to insufficient evidence. Liu had maintained his innocence throughout.

Despite the movement, however, Chinese women face a host of barriers: police inaction, a legal system ill-equipped to address their claims, state crackdowns on activism and immense pressure both from society at large and those closest to them.

A survey by Guangzhou journalist and activist Huang Xueqin, who has experienced sexual harassment herself, found that over 80 per cent of 400 women journalists polled had been subjected to varying degrees of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Some of the men accused of sexual abuse have also hit back.

A senior executive at wildlife conservation organisation WWF China is suing a former employee who accused him of sexual harassment in July under the #MeToo banner.

Television star Zhu Jun is also suing a former intern for damaging his reputation and mental well-being after she accused him, also in July, of groping and forcibly kissing her.