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Curse of the honey pot

Updated: 2016-07-11 07:24
By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

A woman who dates or marries a famous man doesn't have to be a gold digger, yet she should possess the dexterity to avoid certain pitfalls. Tian Pujun could be a cautionary tale in that regard.

Wendi Deng might have envied Tian Pujun.

The former Mrs Murdoch had all the photo opportunities with major celebrities in the world, but it was not easy for her to stay in the headlines. There are only so many puff pieces a veritable media outlet can carry for the spouse of their industry leader.

Curse of the honey pot

Tian is not yet Mrs. Wang Shi, yet she has managed to monopolize national attention on so many occasions that her celebrity status can well serve as a prism through which lies China's evolving attitudes toward women of a certain type.

OK, I'll take a step back and provide the background information. Deng was the third wife of News Corp chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch, from 1999 to 2013. Like Deng, Tian is having a May-December affair with a top-echelon business leader - Wang Shi in this case. And Wang is in trouble, which some in China blame on Tian.

Tian met Wang in 2008 when she was 27 and he 57. She said she got to know him at a famous business school, which has now taken on the overtone of a gold-digging platform. But a newly released article claims they were introduced by another business tycoon who came up with the saying: "When an entrepreneur is chasing starlets, his business is doomed."

Before she met Wang, Tian had appeared in several films and TV shows in minor roles. Now, Wang's company, Vanke, faces the risk of a hostile takeover. Many in China have pinpointed Tian as the curse, but there is no evidence for that.

Curse of the honey pot

The business complications have been a national obsession and, a business major that I am, I have not done the due diligence to offer proper elucidation, which, anyway, is outside the scope of this article.

Traditional Chinese culture contains an innate prejudice against women in powerful positions, especially when that power is not earned, but associated by marriage. When a political or business empire falls, many of us have the habit of targeting the woman for castigation.

When Liu Bang of 2,000 years ago started persecuting those loyal to him, his actions did not fit the profile of a great leader. So, the public pointed the finger at his wife as the source of all evil.

As a joke that's now viral goes, an old man suddenly in love is like an old house that caught fire. It cannot be saved. But in noway can a new, catchy aphorism prove that Wang has lost his business acumen because of this love affair. It is much harder to frame an ongoing relationship in the familiar melodramatic mode than to interpret historical events under murky circumstances.

While outsiders are not really in a position to judge those in love, famous or not, it is quite clear that Tian has not been positive for Wang's public image.

Wang is one of a handful Chinese tycoons who have minted a persona that goes beyond the boardroom. He is known more for his audacious mountain-climbing than for his business dealings. He is admired - and criticized in the recent crisis - for his free-willed and unregimented lifestyle.

Tian may have many virtues, but wisdom about publicity is not one of them. She has tried to project the image of an independent woman, but her tactics are second-rate at best. For the first couple of years of the relationship, she would use every chance to associate herself with Wang and other celebrities.

When she publicized a photo of herself in a friendly pose with another business leader, which seemed to suggest they were old buddies, he explained that he had no choice because he "had to give face to Wang Shi".

When she called filmmaker Peter Chan her "male confidant", his wife openly laughed at her.

Tian was just too eager to elevate herself to the league of Wang and his peers. The stories she told about how Wang pursued her and she first turned him down have been taken with suspicion. That wasn't because a much more successful man could not have set his eyes on her, but because the story had too many touches of an incompetent romance writer.

Even if Wang had acted like a love-stricken teenage boy, wouldn't it be unwise for her to portray him as such?

There must have been a moment of self-reflection when it dawned on Tian that too close an association with Wang would not be good for her own image. So, she swore it off.

In recent years she refused to mention him under all circumstances. Instead, she touted the virtue of women's independence. Just a day before Wang's business crisis broke, she had a public speech streamed online during which she said, "I swear that in this lifetime I will not rely on men and I want to be stronger than men".

This feminist declaration received overwhelming jeers for its perceived hypocrisy. It sounded suspiciously like someone running away from a burning boat. Some said Tian should openly support Wang in his time of crisis. But that would also be playing the game of melodrama.

The speech was probably planned and taped weeks in advance. But the unfortunate timing has put Tian in an even worse position - not only a gold digger, but an ungrateful one at that.

It's not wrong for a woman to crave independently achieved success and romantic relationships with those more successful than they are. Tian's current dilemma is in part the result of age-old Chinese traditions that downgrade women to a default status of subordination, and in part self-wrought.

If she had regarded Wang and herself as absolute equals, there would have been no need to flaunt the relationship or the subsequent about-face. Almost all her public appearances are built on the premise that she is Wang's girlfriend - whether she likes it or not. To pretend otherwise is self-deception.

If she is serious, she should show - not just tell - that women can be independently successful despite their affiliation with more famous men.

Hillary Clinton has pulled it off. Why shouldn't other women? But I doubt Tian has that aptitude.

Contact the writer at raymondzhou@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 07/11/2016 page20)

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