He was “China’s No. 1 Pa­parazzo”— un­til the gov­ern­ment de­cided he wasn’t “中国第一狗仔”卓伟兴衰记

The World of Chinese - - POP CULTURE - BY LIU JUE (刘珏)

Zhuo Wei (卓伟) knew the price of fame ex­actly. For months, his sur­veil­lance team had been fol­low­ing actress Bai Baihe, hop­ing to prove ru­mors of her in­fi­delity. They’d trav­eled as far as Ja­pan, but it was in Thai­land that Zhuo’s snoop­ers fi­nally hit the jack­pot: Video of Bai em­brac­ing a model, iden­ti­fied as Zhang Aipeng, on the street.

As Zhuo pre­pared for pub­li­ca­tion, some­one claim­ing to be Bai’s friend of­fered “a big num­ber” to spike the story. With­out wait­ing to hear the sum, Zhuo hit the post but­ton, ig­nit­ing yet an­other Chi­nese celebrity sex scan­dal, while adding a fur­ther 1.6 mil­lion fol­low­ers to his “China’s Num­ber One Pa­parazzo Zhuo Wei” Weibo ac­count and 200,000 users to his en­ter­tain­ment news app, Quan­ming Xing­tan (“All-star In­ves­ti­ga­tion”).

Two months later, Zhuo learned the other price of fame. His per­sonal Weibo, with over 7 mil­lion fol­low­ers, was abruptly shut­tered, along with his Stu­dio Fengx­ing (“Travel Like the Wind”) com­pany ac­count, the ac­count of pho­tog­ra­pher “De­tec­tive Zhao Wu’er,” and those of nearly 90 gossip and en­ter­tain­ment blogs across Wechat, Weibo, Toutiao, and other plat­forms.

En­ter­tain­ment and sports jour­nal­ism had long been con­sid­ered “safe spa­ces” in China’s strictly reg­u­lated me­dia en­vi­ron­ment, but on June 7, the rules sud­denly changed. Ac­cord­ing to the State Cy­berspace Ad­min­is­tra­tion, “The low­brow and vul­gar trends to am­plify celebrity scan­dals, ex­ploit per­sonal pri­vacy, sen­sa­tion­al­ize celebrity news, and dis­play wealth and in­dul­gent life­styles” were now in the crosshairs of the Com­mu­nist Party, who have called on the likes of Sina Weibo, Ten­cent, and Baidu to “com­bat the vul­gar and sen­sa­tion­al­ist cov­er­age of celebrity scan­dals and life­styles.”

Un­til he found him­self out of a job, Zhuo was China’s most pro­lific gossipmonger. It was Zhuo who re­vealed that di­rec­tor Zhang Yi­mou had three se­cret chil­dren de­spite the onechild pol­icy, Zhuo who first re­ported the ro­mance be­tween actress Zhang Ziyi and mu­si­cian Wang Feng, and Zhuo who caught mar­ried ac­tor Wen Zhang cheat­ing. For 14 years, Zhuo was the king of celebrity news, widely re­garded as the top pa­parazzo in China.

While the English term “pa­parazzo” de­rives from a char­ac­ter in the 1960 film La Dolce Vita, the Chi­nese word狗仔队 ( g6uz2idu#, lit­er­ally “team of pup­pies”), was coined in Hong Kong in the 1990s. Ac­cord­ing to Jimmy Lai, found­ing mem­ber of Next Mag­a­zine, which com­piled the city’s first in­ves­tiga­tive team of en­ter­tain­ment re­porters, the name was bor­rowed from a spe­cial Hong Kong po­lice unit that worked with in­for­mants. Like pup­pies, they fol­low, sniff, and dig out what’s hid­den. Pa­parazzi, though, is rarely a term of en­dear­ment, and nei­ther is gouzai— the char­ac­ter “dog” (狗) has par­tic­u­larly neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions in main­land cul­ture and can be a se­ri­ous in­sult.

Zhuo, how­ever, has never seen his work as de­grad­ing or triv­ial. In his gray suit and pin­striped shirt, he could be eas­ily mis­taken for a ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist, and once told a jour­nal­ist he was liv­ing his child­hood dream. “I was prob­a­bly the only per­son in the en­tire coun­try as­pir­ing to be a tabloid re­porter at a young age,” Zhuo ex­plained to Vista mag­a­zine in May, adding that read­ing about 1930s tabloid re­porters in Shang­hai had caught his imag­i­na­tion as a teen.

Zhuo has long op­er­ated above the fray of the red car­pet and long lens, though. Far from tail­ing celebri­ties and ri­fling through their garbage like a typ­i­cal pa­parazzo, he worked be­hind the scenes, iden­ti­fy­ing tar­gets, spot­ting clues, and mas­ter­mind­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Oth­ers took the pic­tures. In one in­stance, he sur­mised that a pair of ac­tors was hav­ing an af­fair sim­ply be­cause they were com­fort­able eat­ing to­gether in si­lence. Months later, footage leaked sug­gest­ing the two had spent the night in a ho­tel.

Zhuo started his ca­reer as a film re­porter at a Tian­jin news­pa­per in 2000, un­der his real name Han Bingjiang (韩炳江). Two years later, cit­ing dif­fer­ences in “news be­liefs,” he left for Bei­jing, where he met pho­tog­ra­pher Feng Ke at en­ter­tain­ment mag­a­zine Big Star Weekly. It was here that Zhuo had his first big break, snap­ping a pic­ture of iconic 1980s actress Liu Xiao­qing af­ter her re­lease from prison for tax eva­sion. In­stead of wait­ing out­side the jail, Zhuo had spo­ken to Liu’s neighbors and dis­cov­ered her pas­sion for bad­minton. Af­ter stak­ing out the court for two days, Zhuo and Feng clinched their shot.

Tir­ing of the slow pace of mag­a­zine pub­lish­ing, where re­porters mostly serve as a mega­phone for celebri­ties’ PR moves, Feng and Zhuo de­cided to part­ner up to find their own ex­clu­sives. “If I work as a re­porter for 10 years and all I can tell peo­ple is that I have been to 200 press events, where’s the fun in that?” he ex­plained to Renwu mag­a­zine.


Zhuo’s ca­reer soon took off af­ter he and Feng set up Stu­dio Fengx­ing in 2006, send­ing out three teams each day to scout for sto­ries—each with a driver, a videog­ra­pher, and a pho­tog­ra­pher, with spe­cial­ists wait­ing at the stu­dio to edit the im­ages and add sound ef­fects and commentary.

Over the years, Zhuo has been ac­cused of in­vad­ing pri­vacy, in­flict­ing hurt, and break­ing up fam­i­lies; he’s de­nied it all. “There was an ac­tor who cheated on his girl­friend…he called and ac­cused me of hurt­ing his girl­friend. I told him he’d mixed up the cause; it was him who hurt his girl­friend,” Zhuo ar­gued to news site Sohu En­ter­tain­ment. In 2015, Wang Feng sued Zhuo for li­bel, de­mand­ing 2 mil­lion RMB and a pub­lic apol­ogy af­ter Zhuo’s re­port about the singer’s hon­ey­moon re­ferred to Wang as a “top gam­bler.” Zhuo ar­gued that Wang had in­deed fre­quented casi­nos when in Ma­cau, and he was sim­ply car­ry­ing out his “right of free speech and me­dia su­per­vi­sion.”

Zhuo won the case, bol­ster­ing his con­vic­tion that stars are of­ten hyp­o­crit­i­cal when it comes to pro­tect­ing their im­age. Celebri­ties fre­quently use fake re­la­tion­ships to boost their pro­file or mend a rep­u­ta­tion, and Zhuo main­tains there is a dou­ble stan­dard when it comes to pri­vacy. “Why don’t they men­tion pri­vacy when they de­cide to put their chil­dren on TV?” he once asked. “So if they are paid, their chil­dren’s pri­vacy no longer mat­ters?”

Zhuo has claimed in var­i­ous in­ter­views that re­veal­ing ugly truths is a civic duty. “It’s our right to know, when it comes to a pub­lic fig­ure. We can­not be pre­sented with only their good side,” Zhuo said to San­lian Weekly. “We Chi­nese of­ten have a mis­un­der­stand­ing that a celebrity or a suc­cess­ful pub­lic fig­ure has perfect morals. But it’s quite of­ten the opposite…be­hind the halo, there are many hid­den, dirty deals.”

Zhuo—now a celebrity in his own right, due to his many me­dia in­ter­views—has been ac­cused of sim­i­lar shady prac­tices, in­clud­ing post­ing bo­gus text mes­sages, ma­nip­u­lat­ing con­tro­ver­sies, and making ground­less in­sin­u­a­tions to pro­mote him­self. “Many [pa­parazzi] sim­ply fab­ri­cate sto­ries to gen­er­ate views. They make money from ev­ery click…when did the pa­parazzi ever leave empty-handed?” won­dered the Qian­jiang Evening News af­ter news of Zhuo’s trou­bles broke.

“I am a jour­nal­ist with in­tegrity and be­lief in news,” Zhuo de­clared af­ter be­ing awarded the 2013 Nan­fang Me­dia Group “Jour­nal­ist of the Year” as a chief writer at SE Weekly. In Fe­bru­ary, Zhuo won “Me­dia Per­son of the Year” at an award cer­e­mony held by Phoenix News. But even be­fore the June crack­down, cracks in Zhuo’s care­fully con­structed im­age had started to ap­pear.

In May, Zhuo’s en­tire team of pho­tog­ra­phers col­lec­tively walked out, cit­ing his at­ten­tion-grab­bing be­hav­ior. “We do not wish our hard work to be used as tools by a cer­tain in­di­vid­ual to seek at­ten­tion,” the team wrote on Weibo.

But many be­lieve the walk­out was over dis­putes with Stu­dio Fengx­ing’s profit-shar­ing pol­icy. While West­ern pho­tog­ra­phers can sell their work as in­di­vid­u­als at mar­ket value, in IP rights-un­friendly China, pa­parazzi of­ten have to deal with the fact that their work is un­der­val­ued, and can be eas­ily and fre­quently stolen. Zhuo built a strong per­sonal brand that claimed own­er­ship of all works from his stu­dio, partly as a bul­wark against in­dus­try thieves. But some em­ploy­ees felt he used this po­si­tion to profit un­fairly from their work. Ac­cord­ing to a Ten­cent ar­ti­cle, Zhuo has an­nual con­tracts worth 20 mil­lion RMB with at least three video sites, Iqiyi, Youku, and Sohu.

Some of his for­mer team have started their own stu­dio, first call­ing them­selves “New Fengx­ing” and later, “Go Ying.” But Go Ying also fell victim to the anti-vul­gar­ity pol­icy, although the stu­dio was quick to re­bound with a fresh Weibo ac­count and an as­tutely hum­ble apol­ogy.

“This was a very pro­found les­son,” Go Ying an­nounced. “From now on, we will make sure to strengthen our own think­ing and moral ed­u­ca­tion.” Zhuo, mean­while, has re­mained silent, deny­ing in­ter­view re­quests and re­fus­ing to com­ment on the ap­par­ent loss of his main busi­ness. But one can be sure that, where there’s peo­ple and profit, there will for­ever be gossip— and peo­ple like Zhuo.


Zhuo Wei's spoke­man Ju Chun­lei (right) dis­cusses Wang Feng’s 2015 li­bel case out­side Bei­jing Chaoyang Dis­trict Court

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