Li Yundi, 李云迪 is China’s most well-known and accomplished pianist. He was born in Chongqing on 7 October 1982 Li is a highly talented musician, widely recognised as Piano Prince 钢琴王子. But from 21 October, news of his arrest shocked the world. First, a little background on Li Yundi.
Like many piano proteges, Li started young, winning the Children’s Piano Competition in Beijing in 1994. In 1995, he was awarded first place at the Stravinsky International Youth Competition. In 1996, he won the Third Class Award in the 10th Hong Kong – Asia Piano Open Competition, the most competitive competition in Asia for international pianists.
In 1998, he won the 1998 Missouri Southern International Piano Competition (Junior Division). The next year, he took Third Prize at the International Franz Liszt Piano Competition of Utrecht, as well as being ranked among the top in the China International Piano Competition. He also won first place at the Gina Bachauer Young Artists International Piano Competition.
In October 2000, encouraged by the Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China, Li participated in the XIV International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. He was awarded First Prize after nobody won it for15 years. The prize was last awarded to Stanislav Bunin in 1985. At 18 years of age, he was the youngest winner—and the first Chinese in the competition’s history. He was seen by millions of admirers as the reincarnation of Chopin, a patriotic musician. This was very much in line with the wishes of the Party.
Li was also given the “Polonaise award” by the Chopin Society for his performance of a polonaise. Soon after, Li sought out pianist Arie Vardi as an instructor. He left his parents’ home in China to live and study in Hannover, Germany.
In May 2010, in recognition of his contribution to Polish culture, the Polish Minister of Culture and National Heritage presented Li Yundi with a silver medal of the ‘Gloria Artis’ order of merit. With such a wholesome image, Li was the poster boy for the Communist Party.
Then, on 21 October 2021, Li was detained by Beijing police for allegedly hiring a prostitute. Under Chinese law, Li can be detained for up to 15 days and fined up to 5000 yuan (US$782) for illegally soliciting a sex worker.
However, this was not an ambush. The public has been prepared for the shocking event. Various social media accounts belonging to government organisations and a “civic group” 朝阳大妈 had been dropping hints on Weibo with images of piano keyboards, and preachy statements telling the public to be discerning between the black and the white etc. Not long after that, Chaoyang district (Beijing) police released a Weibo statement about a Li X Di being arrested for procuring services of a prostitute. Just a minute after that, China Daily shared the post with a hashtag revealing the full name Li Yundi. #李云迪嫖娼 instantly became a trending topic.
A flurry of essays (either written in minutes or planned well in advance) emerged on official media, with the usual righteous and moralising voice, telling stars in the entertainment industry that their talent and popularity do not give them a licence to misbehave. The Chinese Musicians’ Association subsequently declared that it would revoke Li’s membership. He also lost all his commerical sponsorships. It seemed so unbelievable that Li Yundi could be thoroughly ruined in just a couple of days of media coverage. If Mozart were Chineseand living today, he would have been similarly cancelled.
It was later revealed (perhaps inadvertently) that Li was caught from his WeChat transaction. If insiders’ information is accurate, the “prostitute” in question is someome he met online. He had been “dating” her and giving her monetary incentives. If true, it is then quite obvious that he was not caught in the act. The evidence was gathered from big data and the authorities had been watching him and coordinated the “attack” with the media and with Weibo influencers like the 朝阳大妈 civic group (operating with the blessings of the government) hinting to the public that something big was coming up before delivering the blow.
What is strange about Li’s downfall is that many rich and influential people in China have more mistresses than we can count. It’s an open secret and nothing happens to them unless they end up on the losing side of some power struggle. Why did they pick on Li Yundi, a poster boy for the Communist Party? He appeared 5 times on China’s Spring Gala, identified by the authorities as among the 10 most promising youth leaders in China and an ambassador for the May Fourth Movement. He is also one of the youngest member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. From his Weibo postings, it can be seen that he had not missed a single opportunity to praise the Party. Despite his international standing, he is as loyal and obedient as any communist could be.
The entertainment industry, casual as it seems, is closely watched by the Party. There are government bodies that control writers and performance artists in China. On the other hand, the government also sees the important role that frivolous entertainment plays in distracting the public from sociopolitical issues. The recent attacks on 网红 might look like an attempt to clean up the shallow and frivolous acts of social media influencers, but they play an important role in helping the government distract people from its blunders. Why is there a need to crack down now? Because they have gone out of control.
We have seen many examples proving that being a loyalist is no guarantee for a good life. No matter how well-connected you think you are, you will always be at the Party’s disposal. Some observers believe that when shit hits the fan in China, the authorities would distract the public’s attention with some juicy scandal. Whether it’s Zhao Wei, Fan Bingbing, Zheng Shuang then or Li Yundi now, when the Party sees no benefit in continuing to nurture them, they could be hauled up to be sacrificed to distract the public’s attention. The political cost is negligible. Beating down people like Jack Ma can cause job losses. Mowing down celebrities is relatively risk-free. Fans are not real supporters these days. They cheer when these folks are slapped with fines or go to jail.
Examples include Evergrande’s default and the chain reaction that follows, a massive Shenyang hotel gas explosion (later blamed on a BBQ restaurant), ban on “unofficial” news reporting with popular media like 财新 being delisted and Caixin boss Hu Xijin making a “pighead” remark before going down etc. In times of peace, stars in the entertainment industry would have a field day in China – the biggest market in the world. In times of conflict, they become sacrificial pawns in the game of wag the dog. Also not forgetting that Li Yundi’s scandal emerged at the same time as Namewee’s 玻璃心. The satirical MV which mocks the brainwashed 小粉红,自干5, now ranks 14 on the list of most popular YouTube videos. It is the only Chinese video in the list.
What is the signal that 玻璃心 is sending out? Well, it shows that you can still earn a pretty decent living without needing to kneel and knowtow to the CCP. The message to Taiwanese entertainers who have been bending over backwards is also clear and this may worry the CCP as it would thwart their ability to control and manipulate foreign artists. 党要你活你死不了， 党 要你死你活不了. Laws are never applied equally to everyone. Some will always be protected no matter how many times they have misbehaved. These are the blatant lapdogs of the party. They don’t just show their support for the Party every now and then while they go about their own business. They make it their business to praise and applaud the Party. Apparently, Li Yundi is not that crass and hence doesn’t qualify as an untouchable.
Why Li Yundi when he is such a wholesome character? There’s probably more to it than meets the eye. Jerome A. Cohen, a New York University law professor specializing in the Chinese law, called the “lack of transparency” about his case “concerning”, noting that prostitution is a “time-honoured Communist Party claim against political opponents” Check out what happens to one serial rapist in China.
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