Celebrity Delegates in Spotlight as China’s Legislature Meeting Starts

Jackie Chan Beijing Political Conference 2013 H

Authorities have instructed local media to steer clear of star-chasing as Jackie Chan, basketball star Yao Ming and others help outline the year's political agenda.

HONG KONG – Given the recent tensions in the diplomatic relations between China and Japan over a group of disputed islands, it’s hardly a surprise that the issue would come up during the annual plenary session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which convenes every March to help lay out the year's political agenda.

The sensitive issue indeed came to the fore early this week as a delegate rose in a meeting to criticize the way recent Chinese films and TV series have broached China’s anti-Japanese years during World War II as a form of “farcical entertainment.” He said: “They made a mess of what should have been a solemn period in history. This will provide wrong guidance to young people who haven’t been through that historical period.”

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The speaker was not some career apparatchik, but Chen Daoming, a star of many a Chinese blockbuster and hit TV series and known internationally for his roles in Zhang Yimou’s Oscar-nominated Hero (in which he plays a tyrant) and the final installment of the Infernal Affairs trilogy.

He is not the only A-lister to have weighed in with comments on serious social matters since representatives of the CPPCC and the country’s legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), started the annual meeting in Beijing. In fact, celebrities have been drawing much media attention, even though Chinese authorities have instructed the media, through an editorial in the official People’s Daily, that they should steer clear of following the plenary sessions “in the mentality of chasing stars.”

The communique came amidst a surge of interest in the local media about the celebrity delegates appointed to the country’s political institutions this year. Among the newcomers in the CPPCC are Hong Kong action film star Jackie Chan and basketball player Yao Ming, who will be serving five-year tenures in an institution established by the Chinese Communist Party to "unite" the country by co-opting voices from beyond the party itself. (In practice, the NPC and the CPPCC rarely diverge from the political lines dictated by the ruling elite).

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And indeed, journalists swarmed around Chan as he turned up to attend a meeting on Monday – perhaps waiting for him to utter yet another one of the controversial pro-establishment remarks, which have landed him in hot water over the past few months.

Meanwhile, photographers have been busy taking pictures of Yao sitting at a desk especially provided to him to fit his seven-foot physique.

Serious topics raised by well-known delegates have also been in the headlines, though.

Director Chen Kaige, who is also a CPPCC delegate, spoke out on Sunday about how the “appalling” and “unbelievable” air pollution in the Chinese capital has adversely affected his work. “Cornered by the terrible weather, I have nowhere to go,” he said in a report by the country's official Xinhua news agency. “I am unable to focus on my artistic creation.” The Xinhua article began by describing Chen as “a leading Chinese director” rather than highlighting his CPPCC role.

Chinese authorities are certainly concerned about the celebrity sideshow overshadowing the main program of the NPC and CPPCC plenary sessions this year. The meetings this year will mark the official beginning of Xi Jinping as China’s new leader, with the 59-year-old – who was already appointed general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in November – taking over the Chinese presidency from incumbent Hu Jintao next week.

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Official skepticism about the local media’s obsession with celebrity delegates is also understandable given the controversy that surrounded the two show-business figures appointed to the provincial arms of the CPPCC last month.

Having been given a post in the conference’s Guangdong province branch, comedian-director Stephen Chow Sing-chi was subsequently criticized in the Chinese media for missing most of his meetings due to his nationwide tour promoting his latest film, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons.

Meanwhile, actress-producer Diana Peng Dan, who was appointed a delegate of the CPPCC’s Gansu province branch, was subjected to much ridicule by conservatives in the press because of her participation in a raft of saucy comedies and erotic dramas in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s -- despite having established herself as a mainstream figure in the Chinese entertainment industry with a string of officially-sanctioned, uplifting dramas in recent years.