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Song Zuying performs in Hong Kong on June 30, 2012, the 15th anniversary of the territory's handover to Chinese sovereignty. She has recently fallen out of favor with Xi Jinping.   © AP
China up close

Downfall of a diva mirrors Beijing's backstage politics

Dangerous liaisons: Chinese entertainers and their political patrons

TOKYO -- A Chinese folk diva is in the spotlight, put there by her absence from a list.

The name of Song Zuying, a female military singer close to Jiang Zemin, the 91-year old former Chinese President, has disappeared from the list of members of the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. It was released late last month; the committee is to meet in March.

"This day has finally come," Chinese citizens gossiped. "It's a surprising incident."

The 2,000 or so who make the CPPCC list are officially recognized as heavyweights in China's power structure. But many famous faces have dropped off the latest draft.

For years, Song has appeared in a live music gala that state-run China Central Television broadcasts on the eve of Chinese New Year, which this winter lands on Feb. 16. Her exit from the political stage has made a splash among many Chinese.

The 51-year-old diva is a member of the Chinese military. Her rank is said to be major general-level. She is too young to retire.

Folk diva Song Zuying, right, was considered to be close to former president Jiang Zemin.

The hubbub is not about celebrity gossip but about Chinese politics.

Musicians and dancers have traditionally played important roles in the military, entertaining soldiers and serving as conduits for propaganda.

In the U.S., too, top performers entertain the troops. Mariah Carey, for example, once gave a concert for troops in Kosovo, in the former Yugoslavia.

In May 2016, Song visited Fiery Cross Reef, also known as Yongshu Reef, in the South China Sea as head of the art troupe of the navy's political department. The troupe held a concert there to entertain Chinese military members and others involved in reclamation work.

Around the same time, the U.S. military was conducting a so-called "freedom of navigation" operation in the South China Sea to counter China's aggressive island building.

Every spring, the CPPCC National Committee holds an annual session at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, in conjunction with the yearly session of the National People's Congress, China's parliament.

In the past, Song would attend and flash smiles as she acquiesced to requests to pose for commemorative photos.

The superstar's departure from the committee came as a big surprise to many. In contrast, pro-China Hong Kong movie star Jackie Chan retained his committee membership.

"Has she somehow violated military discipline?" the rumor mills accelerated as Song's political fortunes took a turn for the worse. 

State-run Xinhua News Agency cited "integrity" as one criterion used to choose new committee members. Those who were not chosen this time will be looked at with suspicion. .

Singers who belong to the Chinese military need patrons in the political world if they are to rise to stardom. Song was born a Miao ethnic minority; her patron is former President Jiang.

Jiang became China's top leader in the real sense of the term in 1997, in the wake of Deng Xiaoping's death. As Jiang consolidated power and wielded enormous influence, the so-called "Shanghai faction" coalesced around him.

Around the same time, Song, Jiang's favorite singer, was named a deputy to the National People's Congress -- with her patron's full backing.

Once she became a member of the CPPCC National Committee, Song was able to retain her standing even after Hu Jintao took over from Jiang as Chinese president and as the party's general secretary.

Not long ago, Song was referred to as "the mother of the state," by Beijingers. They were not putting her in a positive light. They saw Song as a member of the political establishment, one with free access to the Zhongnanhai, Beijing's political nerve center.

But the situation surrounding Song has changed significantly since the autumn of 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power as the party's general secretary.

In the past five years or so, Xi has cracked down on his political rivals by leveling corruption charges against them. As for the military, more than 70 high-ranking officials have been swept up by Xi's dragnet.

Peng Liyuan waves goodbye after she and U.S. first lady Melania Trump visited a Beijing primary school on Nov. 9, 2017.   © AP

Perhaps unfortunate for Song was that one of her rival military folk singers, Peng Liyuan, happens to be China's first lady. Peng currently serves as vice chairperson of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, which gives guidance to the entertainment world.

In terms of political power, Song is no match for Peng.

There is one more prominent woman who has been left off the list of committee members -- Li Xiaolin, 56, the daughter of former Premier Li Peng. The elder Li is now 89.

Li Peng's family has dominated China's electric power and energy industries, with Li herself playing a crucial role in the family business. She has even been dubbed "empress" of the electric power industry.

This has allowed Li Xiaolin to build a wide network of personal connections.

The younger Li's exit from the political stage has sent shockwaves through China. "Even the future of princelings is not secure in Xi Jinping's new era," a Chinese source said. This view echoes throughout Chinese political circles.

Princelings are children of prominent and influential senior Chinese Communist Party officials.

At the ruling party's 19th national congress in October, Xi had his eponymous ideology enshrined in the party's constitution and declared the beginning of a "new era."

Li Peng's family is not popular with the general public. Many Chinese have a negative image of Li Peng because he was premier during the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests that were eventually put down by Chinese tanks and troops.

The bloody military operation against student and other demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square sparked strong international condemnation.

Li Xiaolin attends a news conference held by China Power International Development in Hong Kong in 2006.   © AP

Among the other princelings whose names disappeared from the list are children and grandchildren of former party heavyweights Mao Zedong, Zhu Rongji, Zhu De, Deng Xiaoping and Li Xiannian. 

The name of Jiang Zehui, a 79-year-old younger sister of former Chinese President Jiang and a dendrologist, is also missing.

Relations between China's political and entertainment worlds are strikingly similar to how North Korea's military and entertainment elite intermingle. The leaders of both the Chinese Communist Party and the Workers' Party of Korea have close connections to show business, which is under direct state control.

Ri Sol Ju, the wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, used to be a performer in the military. She is said to have been instrumental in establishing the Moranbong Band, an all-female music group.

The Moranbong Band's leader, Hyon Song Wol, attended talks between North and South Korea held in mid-January at Panmunjom, in the heavily fortified demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.

The talks were held as part of preparations for North Korea's participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea.

A crowd turned out in Seoul for the arrival Monday of a North Korean advance team led by the singer Hyon Song Wol, center.   © Reuters

Later in January, a North Korean delegation headed by Hyon visited South Korea to check Olympic venues where North Korean entertainers might perform.

In December 2015, the Moranbong Band caused a diplomatic row in Beijing by canceling a show in the Chinese capital at the last minute and returning home. At a rehearsal, Chinese officials noticed that a video depicted a hydrogen bomb turning a city that appeared to be Washington into a sea of fire.

China demanded that the performance go on without the video. The Moranbong Band rejected the condition and returned to North Korea. Sino-North Korea relations have been deteriorating ever since.

North Korea has said it is sending "cheerleaders" to the Pyeongchang Olympics. Might a similar drama unfold? North Korea's cheerleaders have close relations with the secretive state's military and art troupes, though they veil any ulterior political motive.

In China, there are other examples of political leaders marrying performers. Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, was a stage and movie actress. She was part of the Gang of Four, which led the deadly 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.

The Gang of Four's downfall came on the heels of Mao's death, in 1976. Jiang Qing was initially sentenced to death; she eventually committed suicide.

Peng, China's first lady, doubles as vice chairperson of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles. Party elders, including those belonging to former President Jiang's Shanghai faction, have been critical of the arrangement. They claim a lesson must be learned from how an actress instigated the Cultural Revolution.

If China's political winds shift, entertainers who have waded deep into the game will be unable to escape unscathed. Song's exit from the political stage -- and the lack of fanfare that accompanied it -- shows this.

A considerable number of generals and other military cadres have fallen from power in the past several years due to inappropriate relations with female performers in their ranks. Now that such relationships are considered tantamount to corruption, those in Chinese show business should put themselves on notice: Xi's political dragnet could be coming for them.

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