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China's home-grown paparazzi tapping a growing appetite for scandal

AFP, Thursday 14 December 2000, 10:01 AM

BEIJING, Dec 14 (AFP)—A pop star is stabbed. Photographers rush to the hospital and snap shots as he is rolled into the emergency room. His minders grab the cameras, push and slap one reporter and expose her film.

The scene is not unusual in most countries, but this is China.

Reports later alleged the hearthrob, Mao Ning, was a homosexual and that his assailant was his boyfriend. They also claimed Mao was involved in a love triangle and was stabbed in bed, rather than during a robbery on the street as he told police.

It is the biggest scandal to hit China's entertainment world in recent years -- bigger than the breakup between internationally acclaimed director Zhang Yimou and actress Gong Li.

It is also the first time the normally-guarded media is reporting on homosexuality among celebrities.

A poll by Chinese website sina.com showed 80,000 people surveyed were evenly split on whether they found Mao's homosexuality acceptable. Mao has not denied he is gay and has reportedly gone overseas to flee the press.

The incident involving Mao, who was stabbed in the abdomen, chest and shoulder, points to a maturing of the entertainment media industry that is driven by market demands not communist dogma.

It's what people want to read now, said Zhang Guang, editor of the glossy magazine, Satellite TV Weekly.

Living standards have increased in the past few years. People now have time to pay attention to celebrities. Work schedules also are very hectic, so when people go home, they want to read something light.

Right behind the debate about Mao's sexual preferences is a heated controversy over whether journalists should report on a celebrity's private affairs.

Leave him some space! I don't like the sissy Mao, but let's be rational. He's a victim, why should be undergo more pain? Are all these reports coming out because he's homosexual? What's happened to the media? What's happened to us? one irate person wrote on a popular website's chatroom.

But Wang Chao, a 22-year-old saleswoman, said readers want to know. He's a star. He's not a typical person anymore, she said.

The number of entertainment magazines and tabloids on news stands has ballooned in the past four years. Typically government-oriented papers also have expanded their entertainment sections and are even running celebrity photos on the front page.

Before the Beijing Youth Daily only had half a page on entertainment news, now they have up to two pages, said Zhang, whose magazine will increase the number of pages devoted to entertainment news from 10 to 15 next year and will double the number of reporters for the section to 15.

It sells more papers and it's the most popular topic along with sports and stocks news, Zhang said.

Newsstands are now colorful displays of publications full of glamorous photos rather than the gray selection from the past.

Coverage of China's growing array of singers, movie stars and other celebrities has also grown bolder.

In the past, we mostly stuck to press releases about their latest song or their next movie, but now we dig deeper into their private lives, said Beijing entertainment reporter Wang Jiangyue.

Papers, whose main role in the past was to publish government propaganda, now must compete for revenue and readership.

They no longer get government subsidies and automatic subscriptions from government organs, which were previously required to subscribe to a certain number of state-owned papers.

The competition is getting tough.

A few years ago, only a few dozen reporters went to press conferences, now it's a few hundred. And if you get there a little late, you can't even see the celebrity's face behind the roll of cameras, Wang said.

Previously, reports focused on entertainers' artistic talent. Now their behavior and personality are coming under intense scrutiny.

Movie actor Wang Zhiwen caused a media storm when he wrapped gum in a reporter's namecard -- leading to reports blasting his arrogance.

The media also went into a frenzy over rumours about director Zhang Yimou's alleged affair with his new leading actress Zhang Zhiyi.

But mainland Chinese entertainment reporters are still not as aggressive as the dog packs in Hong Kong who tail their celebrities and sneak secret shots of them, industry experts said.

Decades of strict government control of the media holds mainland reporters back.

But that might change very soon. The top leadership has turned a blind eye to entertainment gossip, considering it non-threatening and competition for readership may drive the industry to follow in the footsteps of Hong Kong or overseas papparazi.