Actress Bai Ling returns to China, provokes outrage in documentary

Bai Ling in a female Red Army outfit for a new television documentary series commemorating the Long March, a pivotal event in Communist Party history.
Bai Ling in a female Red Army outfit for a new television documentary series commemorating the Long March, a pivotal event in Communist Party history. PHOTO: BAI LING/ FACEBOOK

BEIJING (NYTimes) - Nearly 20 years after government officials barred Bai Ling from returning to China, the Chinese-born Hollywood actress has once again found herself at the tense intersection of entertainment and nationalism.

A new television documentary series commemorating the Long March, a pivotal event in Communist Party history, has instead provoked public outrage for featuring Bai, who is seen by some as anti-China, in one episode.

After the uproar last week, CCTV, the state broadcaster that produced the series, removed the offending episode from its websites and reposted a new version without the scenes featuring Bai.

"I am deeply sorry for all those things in my past that friends on the internet have brought up," Bai, 50, wrote in a lengthy open letter posted last week on Weibo, China's version of Twitter. "From now on I want all of you to see a brand new Bai Ling, a Bai Ling who is full of positive energy, a Chinese Bai Ling."

"I will bring the wonderful and beautiful culture of our motherland to Hollywood and to the whole world!" she added.

She is the latest in a growing list of entertainers who have been pilloried in China for holding "incorrect" political views. Many, like Bai, have issued public apologies, fearing the consequences of losing access to one of the world's biggest markets.

This time around, some online commenters cited Bai's role in the 1997 movie Red Corner, in which she played a Chinese defence attorney who helps an American framed for murder (played by Richard Gere) navigate China's corrupt legal system. (Bai has also spoken out about sexual abuse she said she endured as an entertainer for the People's Liberation Army in Tibet.) Soon after Red Corner was released, it was banned in China, and Bai was prohibited from returning to see her family.

"I was in tears," she told Paper Magazine in 2004 regarding the ban. "I couldn't sleep. I requested a meeting with the government, and I wrote an apology letter. I solved my problems."

Years later, she is apologising again.

"I love China, and I love Chinese culture," she said last week in her letter, which was written in Chinese. "I always say that every bit of goodness and wisdom in my body comes from Chinese culture and what growing up in the land has given me."

Her letter came just days after CCTV debuted the eight-part series, called Long March Shakes The World. The documentary is one of many programmes that have been released this year to commemorate what China considers the 80th anniversary of the end of the Long March, the fabled trek across China by embattled Chinese communists as they fled Chiang Kai-shek's advancing Nationalist troops.

Bai, also known for her work in films like The Crow (1994) and Nixon (1995), was originally featured in the sixth episode of the series.

During the course of filming, she is said to have spent about a month retracing the route of the Long March - a journey that she closely documented on her social media accounts. In photos posted online, she is seen wearing a light-blue Red Army uniform and braids.

Videos on her social media accounts show her singing with schoolchildren in Sichuan province and making traditional sticky rice in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

In one photo, she is dressed in a red-and-white sleeveless jumpsuit, leaning seductively in the doorway of Mao Zedong's former residence in Yan'an.

"You are not suited to perform in the Long March," one person wrote on Weibo. "Even though you are not at fault given freedom of speech, good actors have to take positions." A post by another user said, "Don't come to my country, you disgusting person. Get out!" The sentiment was echoed by many others.

A commentary published last week in Global Times, a nationalist-leaning newspaper, cited Bai's "many vulgar nude photographs" and her arrest in 2008 for shoplifting two magazines and a pack of batteries at Los Angeles International Airport as additional reasons Chinese have a "very negative impression" of her.

"The Long March is sacred in everyone's hearts," said the commentary, which was written under a pen name usually used by Hu Xijin, the newspaper's chief editor. "Everyone thinks that to have Bai Ling put on a female Red Army outfit to play a small role is to blaspheme this great historical event." The commentary sought to tamp down the public uproar, calling CCTV's decision to cast Bai a "slip-up". Still, it continued, the overall message was clear: "This incident is yet another warning that mainland Chinese audiences are gradually forming specific political requirements, particularly in regards to 'problematic' entertainers. The people now have higher standards for moral behaviour and political positions."