Sunday, November 14, 2004

Brilliant Disguise
Well, I'm beginning to realize just what a small town Shenzhen is after you've hung around awhile. Thanks to a recent Hong Kong news report, I've learned that I have a tangential aquaintance with a figure in a major political and business scandal going down in what The Standard often refers to as "the southern Chinese boomtown".
Faithful Shenzhen Zen readers may recall an entry about a year ago (Rocky Mountain Way) wherein I waxed slightly hysterically about meeting a young Shenzhen author/budding film star whose pen name was Niuniu and who'd written a book (Sheep with Wings)and made a movie about her years as a high school student in England. The hook as far as I was concerned was that she'd also graduated from the University of Denver and I'd tracked her down just to talk about Colorado.
We spent about two and a half delightful hours basking in Denver-Boulder nostalgia. In particular Niuniu - whose English name is Jennifer - said she missed snow, the Boulder Mall and a great Vietnamese noodle restaurant that I also favored in Denver called Pho 97.
"You can't get decent Vietnamese food in Shenzhen!" she'd moaned.
I'd wondered how a 25-year-old could so easily get a book and movie made and Niuniu - delightful as she was - had been a bit coy about the process. Later, though, some colleagues at the Shenzhen Daily had told me her father was a high official in the city government and Communist Party. That was confirmed a month or so later during my ill-fated Chinese New Year homestay with a wealthy raging alcoholic (The Strawberry King) and his family, whom I learned were professionally and socially connected with Niuniu's folks.
As summer came and went I'd wondered what had become of Niuniu's film. She'd told me it was due for an August release and starred a well-known Hong Kong heart throb, Edison Chan, as the male romantic lead. August passed and I kept scanning the film listings but saw nothing about it until today when I edited a commentary column.
Here's the first paragraph: "A well-publicised corruption scandal involving a top Communist Party official in Shenzhen is jeopardising embarrassed authorities' efforts to introduce so-called ``sunlight'' rules aimed at cleaning up their government."
The official is Niuniu's dad, Li Yizhen. Turns out he was also, in a way, my ultimate boss at the Shenzhen Daily because his duties also include overseeing Shenzhen propaganda and media - and the Daily is the city government's primary English language media outlet.
Reading further, I soon discovered what had happened to the film version of Sheep with Wings. It was retitled Seven Hours Time Difference and it had been delayed until October when Comrade Li's office sent notices to parents of middle school students in Shenzhen requiring them to pay 20 yuan (US$2.40) for their children to see it.
The proud father's office also ordered all the schools to organize the students for viewings. In Mao's heyday it was normal for schools to order students to watch movies designated by authorities. Though the practice was discontinued years ago, Shenzhen parents nonetheless dutifully paid for the tickets ``What do the authorities want our children to learn from it?'' some parents were quoted as asking (by non-Shenzhen newspapers) after watching it with their children.
I guess they wanted the pupils to learn what a kick-ass talent Niuniu (real name: Li
Qianni) was. Not how a rich and powerful pop can make you an instant star.
The outrage has continued, with Comrade Li refusing to apologize or resign and then conducting an "internal investigation" (by his own office) which cleared him of wrong-doing.
But there's more: "Subsequent media reports noted that the daughter was also director and producer of the film, and she and Li's wife own three Shenzhen companies engaged in business, with the daughter's assets estimated at 7.69 million yuan."
My jaw dropped. This charming fresh-faced, pig-tailed, snow-loving sprite I'd had coffee with was also a businesswoman worth nearly $1 million US dollars. I still have her mobile phone number, however she's probably not taking calls from the media.
But maybe she'd be up for bankrolling a decent Vietnamese restaurant in Shenzhen for me after the smoke clears.

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