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Chinese Singer Faces Backlash for Video Filmed at Ukrainian Theater Devastated by Bombing

The Chinese singer is on a balcony inside a theatre in Mariupol, Ukraine, which was attacked by Russian troops last year and is now in ruins. A snippet of the Soviet period patriotic hymn “Katyusha” plays as she raises her arms in the air and performs for the camera.

Wang Fang, a 38-year-old performer of patriotic songs and Chinese opera, has gone viral in recent days after a video of her singing the anthem went viral online. Last week, she made an appearance in Mariupol as part of a delegation of Chinese journalists and artists.

The theatre, which was bombed by Russian aircraft while residents sought refuge inside, was called a “symbol of tragedy, a symbol of Russia’s war crimes” by the city’s exiled mayor, Vadym Boychenko.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Beijing has been trying to present itself as a neutral mediator while still offering diplomatic, cultural, and economic assistance to Russia, a longstanding ally. Articles and the video of Ms. Wang were quickly scrubbed from the Chinese web.

The authorities in Beijing may have been worried about the “tone deafness” of the film, according to Elizabeth Wishnick, a senior research scientist at the Centre for Naval Analyses in Virginia who monitors Chinese foreign affairs.

In 2022, during Russia’s weeks-long siege of Mariupol, the Academic Regional Drama Theatre was bombed and destroyed. Before the raid, the word “children” was scrawled in huge white letters on the ground outside the theatre as a warning, since hundreds of people had sought refuge inside throughout the siege. The death toll in Mariupol ranges from the low dozens to the high hundreds.

Denis Pushilin, the self-proclaimed leader of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, said in a Telegram message that Ms. Wang and the other Chinese guests met with him after her performance. He applauded Ms. Wang’s performance and said the theatre was “being restored by St. Petersburg.”

Sergei Aksyonov, the senior Russian official deployed in Crimea, met with the group as well, and according to a Telegram message, they discussed “cooperation in the field of tourism.” Vladimir V. Putin, who is the president of Russia, was reported by Mr. Aksyonov as stating, “China is a brotherly state to Russia.”

Ms. Wang has remained silent about the incident. However, her husband, the nationalist writer Zhou Xiaoping, was in Moscow to defend her. He wrote that Ms. Wang was a “Chinese folk singer without any political identity” and that she had been advocating for peace in a post that was subsequently removed.

Mr. Zhou, a member of a Chinese government political advisory group, has been hailed by China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, for displaying “positive energy” in his writings, many of which are critical of the United States. However, Mr. Zhou has said that he did not come to Mariupol in order to “avoid unnecessary disputes.”

Ms. Wang, a product of the Shenyang Conservatory of Music in the country’s northeast, sprang to fame after taking first place in a 2012 competition designed to spread “red songs,” or Communist patriotic music. She has appeared on state television, typically in military-style attire, and her versions of songs like “Hymn to Heroes” and “Beautiful Chinese Dream” are well-known.

There has been a firestorm of worldwide internet criticism of Ms. Wang, with many arguing that she should be barred from performing. Other artists in the business have also felt the effects of the dispute.

Ying Fang, another well-known Chinese soprano who often performs at major opera houses, said that she, too, had been the target of racist and threatening comments after being mistaken for Ms. Wang.

Jonathan James
Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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