It started with a cryptic post on Brad Pitt’s officially verified Sina Weibo account – China’s answer to Twitter with around 400 million users. The Hollywood A-Lister announced January 7: “It is the truth. Yup, I’m coming.”
Just as soon as the puzzling note was forwarded more than 47,000 times, generating more than 22,000 comments, it was deleted. But the word was out, and by the next day his page had more than 175,000 followers.
This foray on Weibo was only the first ambiguous step towards China for the actor, who was banned from entering the country due to his role in the 1997 film Seven Years in Tibet. According to the Chinese government, the film negatively depicts China’s treatment of Tibetans. Pitt plays the young Dalai Lama’s Austrian tutor in the movie.
Also exciting speculation on the Pitt-China front, gossip began to circulate online last month that he and his long-term partner and actress Angelina Jolie have started taking Mandarin lessons.
Many jumped to the conclusion that the couple plans to adopt from China, adding one more to their brood of six – of whom three are adopted from Cambodia, Vietnam and Ethiopia, while the other three are biologically their own. The couple reportedly enrolled their kids in the lessons and even got Jolie’s father actor John Voight on board, bolstering the adoption theory.
While this speculation may prove correct, Pitt’s sudden gestures towards China raise a larger question. Could the star’s actions be part of a gradual softening of the relationship between Western celebrities and a government that has historically been quick to ban actors and musicians who have caused a stir?
According to some accounts, China has banned more celebrities than any other place on earth. The list is extensive, with China’s rule of Tibet serving as the lightning rod in almost every case.
Alongside Pitt, a brief list of Hollywood celebs blocked from entering the People’s Republic includes director Martin Scorsese, for his pro-Tibet film Kundun, Tibetan Buddhist actor Harrison Ford, who testified in favor of freeing Tibet to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and actor Richard Gere – also a Tibetan Buddhist – for his outspoken support of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan independence on numerous occasions.
Nor has China overlooked the music industry. The most noteworthy case was the kerfuffle surrounding legendary dissenting folk figure Bob Dylan as he arranged his first China tour in 2011 who was under a long-standing ban. In an earlier instance, Icelandic singer Bjork was made unwelcome after shouting “Tibet! Tibet!” at the end of her song “Declare Independence” during a March 2008 concert in Shanghai.
But there are signs that the Chinese government may be relaxing its position, at least for some stars. Dylan was was finally permitted to do a brief tour in April 2011. And closer to home for Pitt, the director of Seven Years in Tibet, Jean-Jacques Annaud, was welcomed to chair the jury at last year’s Shanghai International Film Festival after formerly being banned.
Could this be a sign that the government may extend grace to others who have been blocked from entering China?
Whether there is a shift taking place in the Chinese government’s stance on pro-Tibetan advocates, there is clearly an uptick in the number of stars coming to China’s turf, both virtually and literally.
Buzz was created in 2002 when Quentin Tarantino, then filming Kill Bill in Beijing, was spotted stepping out for a late night snack. Other sightings in the capital have included Keanu Reeves and Gwyneth Paltrow, while Paris Hilton and John Cusack have been seen partying in Shanghai. The list goes on and will surely continue to grow.
And on Weibo, Pitt isn’t alone. Tom Cruise has an account, as do Dwayne Johnson (“The Rock”) and former NBA star Stephon Marbury, who now plays for the Beijing Ducks.
“A lot of foreign celebrities, like movie stars and sports stars, use Weibo,” Zhu Dake, a prominent culture critic at Tongji University in Shanghai, told The Daily Beast. “They all have followers who love them … People are interested in their private lives and especially their love affairs.”
Whether he plans to travel to China or the adoption rumors come true, Chinese fans have made it clear that they want Pitt to visit. But it remains to be seen if he will be allowed to make the trip.
Editor’s note: Thanks to Shanghai-based journalist Adam Minter for pointing out that Bob Dylan was not actually banned from performing in China, as many media reports initially claimed. Read more about the circumstances leading up to Dylan’s 2011 China tour here.