The divorce hearing involving leading Chinese actor Wang Baoqiang has become the hottest news item on mainland China, with all the major portals broadcasting live reports from outside the Beijing court to millions of online viewers.
The media were barred from entering Beijing Chaoyang People’s Court on Tuesday, but that did not stop reporters from social media and news websites camped outside from following the case, which saw a crowd of hundreds of onlookers waiting for the arrival of 32-year-old Wang.
The live broadcasts about the divorce hearing – launched by Wang on August 14, after six years of marriage, when he accused his wife, Ma Rong, of cheating on him – finished at 6.43pm.
About 23.7 million people had followed the story just on the Tencent news website, with viewers posting 275,377 comments.
A further 11 million people watching the live coverage on the news portal NetEase.com.
Ma, who has denied the accusation that she had cheated on her husband, has filed a counter claim asking for damages for the harm to her reputation, which was heard separately at the same court on Tuesday.
Wang posted a message on his microblog after Tuesday’s court appearance, saying it had gone quite smoothly and he believed he would be given a fair hearing.
He did not mention any details of the trial, or the possible outcome.
“I’m now waiting for the final verdict,” he wrote.
The frenzied interest in Wang’s divorce drew criticism from Xinhua, the state-run news agency.
Xinhua published a commentary at midnight, saying that it was a shame some celebrities were using their own family issues as a way to expand their profile on social media and promote their latest feature film.
The commentary did not refer to Wang by name, but mentioned only that “some celebrities” were publicising their family “shame” at press conferences and attracting huge crowds to watch their divorce proceedings – both online and outside the court hearing the proceedings.
“It is shameful for people to turn family issues into public affairs and use the shame in their families to expand their social influence,” it wrote.
“Some entertainment stars have broadcast their family issues on Weibo and talked about it extensively at a press conference … it violates traditional Chinese virtues.”
The divorce case became the nation’s most discussed topic – and most-watched news item – after Wang, a migrant worker-turned actor, posted a “divorce declaration” on his Weibo social media page on August 14.
He claimed that his wife had been cheating on him for years with his agent, Song Zhe.
However, Ma later hit back at Wang, accusing him of damaging her reputation.
Wang, who was born into a poor family in Xingtai, Hebei province, met his future wife, who is two years younger than him, when she was studying at university in Xian in 2007.
He pursued her with much determination and they were eventually married in 2009.
The couple have a son, aged six, and a five-year-old daughter.
Wang has starred in many prominent feature films in recent years – few of them on romantic topics – including playing a serial killer in the award-winning 2013 film, Tian Zhu Ding , or A Touch Of Sin, which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, in France.
The film’s Chinese director, Jia Zhangke, won the festival’s award for Best Screenplay.
Wang, who was a pupil at the Shaolin Temple in Henan, from the age 8 to 14, decided to try to become a film star after watching a film starring kung fu star Jet Li.
The attention paid to Wang’s divorce declaration far exceeds the usual level of interest involving celebrity break-ups in China.
Even the financial channel of China Central Television mentioned the saga in one report after inviting experts to discuss how the couple’s assets might be divided up after a divorce.
Qiao Mu, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said: .“There are two reasons for the craze over the divorce case. It contains many juicy factors, such as sex and cheating, and it’s also a safe topic to talk about.”
So many subjects that were once permissible to discuss had now become contentious and “off limits” because of Beijing tightening up censorship, so people were likely to focus more on this kind of “safe” topic, such as celebrity divorce, he said.
The number of men watching the online reports of the divorce exceeded that of women, while section of the audience was made up of people born in the 1980s, followed by a group people born after 2000, according to data that Tencent posted on its live coverage page.