On January 7, Brad Pitt made his grand debut on Chinese social media, joining Sina Weibo -- the country’s wildly popular Twitter-like microblog service -- with this simple message: “It is the truth. Yep, I am coming…”
Now, just one month later, the actor’s Weibo account has disappeared.
According to Tech in Asia, a startup news portal that covers the region’s technology space, within two hours of Pitt’s first post last month it received 8,000 comments, was re-tweeted 20,000 times and attracted the star some 73,000 fans. But as of Thursday, his account had mysteriously dropped off the service (previously here, under an @Brad_Pitt handle, his former landing page now redirects to the company’s default error message).
Despite his global celebrity, Pitt is no favorite among Chinese authorities. The actor has been banned from entering the country since his star vehicle Seven Years in Tibet was released in 1997. The Chinese government then objected to the film’s portrayal of the annexation of Tibet by Communist China as something of a historical tragedy.
Pitt’s co-star, David Thewlis, and the film’s director, Jean-Jacques Annaud, were also banned. Annaud was able to return to China to chair the jury of the 15th Shanghai International Film Festival in 2012 – but Pitt hasn’t been back since.
It’s possible Pitt’s entry into the Chinese social media space was simply an experiment he decided to abruptly end (The Hollywood Reporter was unable to reach Pitt’s representatives at time of print). But given the heavy government censorship of Sina Weibo, and the actor’s history in the country, it’s likely his account was deactivated by Sina – out of preemptive deference to government censors – or that the authorities already interceded and order his account terminated. Sina and other Chinese internet companies regularly find themselves in the difficult position of both having to please their millions of increasingly vocal and independent-minded users, and government censors, who are under growing pressure to contain the social and political power of the medium.
In January, the forced censorship of a Chinese newspaper based in Guangzhou, Southern Weekend, led to a street protest by the weekly’s editorial team and a wave of support on Weibo, with leading Chinese celebrities such as Li Bingbing and Yao Chen leveraging their popular profiles to tweet in solidarity. Taiwanese talent Annie Yi, now based in Beijin, also sent several missives urging solidarity with the magazine team. However, her tweets were said to disappear from her account and a follow-up message, suggesting that she had been “asked to tea” -- code for being summoned for a closed-door meeting by government authorities -- also went missing.
The Chinese government never announces or confirms its Internet censorship actions, so independently verifying alleged government interference is often difficult.