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More is on trial in celebrity pot case than pot

Taiwanese media had a field day after news broke of local actor Ko Chen-tung's (柯震東) arrest in Beijing for doing marijuana. Even before the mainland state broadcaster CCTV video released video footage of Ko's tearful public apology, apparently taken by the Chinese authorities, Taiwanese TV stations had already been filling the news with vivid descriptions of Ko's fall from grace.

The 23-year-old actor, who shot to fame with his debut in the 2011 romantic comedy “You Are the Apple of My Eye,” has been spoiled by his success and his arrogance, local media suggested. Some TV channels even openly blamed his parents' “indulgent education” for Ko's drug problems despite their earlier praise for the actor's close relationship with his family. The media also speculated on the possible end of Ko's career and the compensation demands he faces from his sponsors.

What's missing in the constant loop of infotainment on Ko's arrest is any serious discussion on the real issues surrounding the incident. First of all, the Chinese authorities' parade of a yet-to-be-tried person raises questions on human rights and Beijing's use of legal cases for political means. The media focused on how Ko broke down in his videotaped mea culpa. But the fact that Ko, seen in his detainee's uniform, was put on stage by his prosecutors, as well as the broadcasting of the video footage by the Chinese flagship state media, points to the deliberate use of a disgraced celebrity as a prop to highlight Chinese President Xi Jinping's anti-graft/anti-decadence campaign.

The nature of the drug taken by Ko also calls for attention. A recent much-quoted comment described pot as a bad habit and a vice but “not very different from cigarettes.” The comment came not from Ko sympathizers but from U.S. President Barack Obama, who also said that “I don't think it (pot smoking) is more dangerous than alcohol.” While there is no question that doing marijuana is against the law in both China and Taiwan, the media's shallow narrative of Ko's marijuana scandal reflects in part what the Chinese call “stomping on a sinking ship.”

A society's inclination to jump on fallen celebrities often reflects more on the nature of the society than on celebrities themselves. In 2002, Hong Kong star Nicholas Tse (謝霆鋒) was sentenced to two weeks in prison for obstruction of justice after he crashed his Ferrari and allowed one of his staff to take the blame. Tse was in many ways similar to Ko. Both were in their early-20s (Tse was 22), both were rising stars and both were widely believed to have dated divas. The Hong Kong media ran a similar narrative of the fallen star, openly speculating on whether Tse was strip searched (widely seen as a sign of humiliation as it allegedly involved anal probing) when he reported to jail. There were also criticism that Tse was let off easily.

In an insightful description, a Hong Kong comedian-commentator pointed out that the public thought Tse was not punished harshly enough because he was not put on trial merely for obstruction of justice. “How about dumping Faye Wong (the Cantonese pop diva Tse had reportedly dated)? How about crashing a Ferrari in his early 20s? That alone calls for lengthy jail terms.” The media's obsession with the Tse case reflected a meanness in society, the comedian suggested.

The Taiwanese media is saturating the airwaves with Ko not because society is concerned by the danger of marijuana abuse. Ko was put on media trial for more than his alleged crime. Fair or not, the star has to expect such treatment from an infotainment industry that has worked feverishly to build the hype on his rise just as it is now feverishly narrating his fall. But Ko is not the only one on trial in this incident. By judging him, the media and society are putting themselves on trial.

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