Xi Jinping’s war on popular culture
Chinese President Xi Jinping has never been more powerful. This year he moved to further consolidate his power and prevent people being exposed to views other than those of the Chinese Communist Party as he understands them, stamping down on the entertainment and tech industries. Seemingly trivial aspects of popular culture have incurred the state’s displeasure. Tech companies are experiencing tighter regulation. Those who stand up for the rights of LGBTQI+ people and survivors of sexual assault are facing backlash: tennis star Peng Shuai is the latest high-profile target. Only one form of identity and action is acceptable: that which serves the party and the growing personality cult around President Xi.
Chinese President Xi Jinping enjoys imperial power. When the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) met this November, it passed a rare ‘historical resolution’, only the third in its 100-year history. This placed him alongside the party’s acknowledged historical giants, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. The three were recognised as leaders of China’s transformation. Xi was lauded for his central role in ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’. The ideology he has developed, Xi Jinping Thought, was called the ‘essence of Chinese culture’.
This was no mere ceremony marking the CCP’s centenary. Nor was it a vote of thanks to a retiring president. Next year the CCP will hold its National Congress, convened every five years. This should have been the moment for Xi to bow out after two terms, but in 2018 the party scrapped term limits. The Congress will do nothing other than confirm his dominance.
A single acceptable identity
It might seem a leap, from Xi’s awesome power and the formal ceremony of the proceedings that exalted him, to reality TV, online games and the whereabouts of a tennis star. But no issue is too small to escape the state’s gaze.
Xi’s totalitarian power seeks control not only of people’s actions but also their thoughts. One of the key influences on Xi Jinping Thought is an analysis of the break-up of the Soviet Union, which Xi attributes in part to a rise in ideological contestation and criticism of the establishment. He is out to make sure that doesn’t happen in China. Xi’s ideology sees the CCP playing a central role not just in the economy but in every part of life, allied to an international assertiveness that generates and demands nationalism.
Any loophole through which free thought may filter looks a threat, a possible harbinger of a Soviet-style collapse. In the social media era, online spaces, however trivial, could expose people to diverse points of view, leading to the development of independent identities. This is why all means of expressing dissent or identifying with anything other than party and country are being pre-emptively attacked. This turns artistic expression and popular culture, as well as traditional forms of expression of identity, such as religion, into key targets.
No issue is too small to escape the state’s gaze.
The policy of repressing rival identities was tested at scale in Xinjiang region, where the state stands accused of crimes against humanity committed against the largely Muslim population, including enforced disappearances, torture, systematic mass detention, forced labour and sexual violence.
A key part of the attack is a sustained attempt to eradicate Xinjiang’s distinct culture: regulations officially described as ‘de-extremification measures’ restrict expressions of faith identity such as clothing, facial hair, language, music and food, as well as acts of worship and public calls to prayer. Those cultural figures who have not been detained have been co-opted. All public gatherings have been banned, many mosques have been destroyed and loyal CCP cadres have been brought in on ‘home stays’. The aim is to make Xinjiang more like the rest of China. The crime of its people is to be different: to have rival loyalties the regime sees as a threat.
This appalling repression comes from the top: leaked secret speeches by Xi and other top officials from 2014, when violations intensified following an upsurge in anti-government violence, make clear that the region was to be subdued in the name of national stability. This would then enable China to project itself as a strong state in its foreign policy.
China’s former commitment to uphold Hong Kong’s separate, more open system has been another victim of this process of eradicating anything different. The democracy movement has been crushed and Hong Kong is increasingly indistinguishable from mainland China. The Chinese state is also growing more hostile towards Taiwan, the continued existence of which as a thriving Chinese democracy it sees as an ongoing provocation.
A fresh war on popular culture
These are big moves, but then there are the many apparently smaller ones. China has long been notorious for its repression of artistic freedoms. Censorship is all pervasive and artists are routinely persecuted, criminalised or detained if they are seen to criticise the party or state. Restrictions were tightened further in 2021 when the state’s China Association of Performing Arts issued new rules on the conduct of performing artists, which among other regulations, saw them required to demonstrate ‘love for the party and its principles’ and refrain from ‘endangering national unity’ and ‘undermining ethnic unity’.
Alongside this repression, 2021 saw a further front open in China’s war on alternative forms of expression: popular culture, particularly youth culture, and the online spaces where it has grown.
In June, the government announced a crackdown on online fan clubs, accusing them of encouraging bullying and manipulating public opinion. In August, it declared that all online lists ranking celebrities by popularity must be taken down; as everywhere in the world, young people liked to compete to support their favourite celebrities and demonstrate their fandom, but in China this is now viewed as an activity suspiciously outside the control of the CCP. In September, the authorities told TV programmes not to promote internet celebrities, banned some TV talent shows and ordered broadcasters not to air ‘abnormal aesthetics’, including ‘vulgar influencers’, performers with ‘lapsed morals’ and effeminate-looking men.
At an entertainment industry symposium in September, those attending were told they should act with morality in public and private, oppose ‘money worship, hedonism and extreme individualism’ and love the CCP and China. The TV and radio authority stated that animated shows should uphold ‘truth, goodness and beauty’ and avoid vulgar, violent or pornographic content.
Games came under the state’s gaze. In August, online gaming companies were ordered to cut the amount of time young people can play online games; under-18s can now play for just three hours a week, less than most parents might allow. State media described online games as ‘spiritual opium’. Officials have also called on game designers to add more nationalistic themes to their games. In September, the government said that people under 14 would be limited to 40 minutes a day on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok.
Away from phone, laptop and TV screens, real-world relaxation has not been spared. In August, the CCP’s anti-corruption body issued a warning against practices of excessive after-work drinking. If those after-work drinkers want to show off their singing skills, that’s got harder too. From October, a list of state-approved karaoke songs has applied. Songs are banned if they’re deemed to harm sovereignty, territorial integrity or national unity, or to encourage illegal activities or non-approved religions.
Comedy too has come under the state’s attention; authoritarian regimes have no sense of humour and are suspicious of any mockery. China’s growing stand-up comedy scene is now being reined in by rules that require comedy venues to screen their performers’ routines in advance.
Obviously there can be no escape in the classroom either. In September, new school textbooks were issued setting out Xi Jinping Thought, a throwback to the days when children were indoctrinated into the Mao cult. Senior officials are also required to install an app on Xi Jinping Thought and study it daily. After Mao, the CCP moved away from personality cults. Not any more.
The behaviours targeted do not directly dispute the power of the CCP; sometimes they even support it. Online fan groups mobilised to attack Hong Kong democracy protesters. And there may be good reasons to seek change: to prevent the harm caused by online bullying or tackle the misogyny that enables sexual abuse, something associated with after-work drinking culture. Some of the measures on their own may seem trivial.
But together they amount to an intensification of state control over what in most countries would be considered part of the private domain. Popular culture must serve the party and Xi’s agenda. If it doesn’t, it is automatically suspected of being against it.
A new direction for state capitalism
Entertainment and tech industries saw great growth as part of China’s economic expansion. From Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s onward, China’s leaders pursued economic growth by any means, with the objective of making their country a world-leading economy. As part of this, like in many other places, entrepreneurs drove a booming online sector. While political speech was always highly censored, e-commerce, online entertainment and social media were allowed to explode.
This year’s moves mark a break with that approach. Now it seems economic development has reached a point where the state can afford to be choosy over which industries drive it further – and who gets to run them. Online gaming, for example, has been immensely profitable, but if it is perceived as a threat to the CCP, control trumps growth.
Tech entrepreneurs got very rich. China’s strong GDP growth created a super-rich class while fuelling vast economic inequality and enabling corruption. Amid this year’s flurry of announcements, in August the government stated it would ‘adjust excessive incomes’ and ‘encourage high-income groups to return more to society’. In response, private sector corporations hurried to donate money to state-associated charity groups. Tencent, one of the biggest of China’s tech giants, said it would expand its social outreach.
Redistribution is the stated aim. Xi is positioning himself on the side of the people rather than the billionaires.
But clipping the wings of the new business elite seems to be another objective. Big tech companies got too big for the state’s comfort: so big they might appear to offer an alternate source of power to the CCP. No charismatic billionaires must compete with the Xi personality cult. Both their economic power base and celebrity status must be eroded. Business leaders should understand that they are not bigger than the party and certainly not than Xi, and moderate their public profile. This also gives them less of a platform to offer criticism. High-profile corruption trials of business tycoons, bringing heavy sentences, help reinforce the message.
In August, the government announced a five-year plan to increase and strengthen its control of key economic sectors, including technology and healthcare. Tech companies have seen increasing regulation and raids, and CCP staff have been placed within them. This year the state took a stake in ByteDance, owner of TikTok and Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent; a state official reportedly has a seat on its board. It also has a stake in Kuaishou, a video-sharing app, among other tech platforms.
In September, the state ordered the break-up of online payments giant Alipay, forcing it to sell some of its loan companies. As part of this, user data will be handed over to a new state-owned company. In November, regulators demanded prior approval of any new apps and app updates provided by Tencent. Online tutoring companies have come in for tighter regulation as part of a broader crackdown on private education and told they must restructure as not-for-profit concerns.
In September, the state introduced tighter regulation of ride-sharing companies; Didi, one such firm, faced intense state pressure after it listed on the New York stock market in June, prompting its removal from Chinese app stores. In December it delisted from New York and switched to the Hong Kong exchange, signalling compliance.
The government declared all activities related to cryptocurrencies illegal and ordered a crackdown on financial blogging. It was reported that a state anti-fraud app, which has the stated aim of blocking scam calls and malware and which is compulsory for state employees, is being used to identify and question people who view non-Chinese financial news sites.
Self-censorship has followed. In August, streaming platform iQiyi said it would stop showing talent shows, associated with the celebrity pop culture now under official disapproval. In October, Microsoft announced it was closing LinkedIn in China, citing ‘a significantly more challenging operating environment’. This was the last US-owned social media platform in China, with 53 million users. In November, the makers of Fortnite, the world’s biggest online game, pulled their game out of China, having failed to navigate complex and lengthy licensing processes.
It’s becoming increasingly clear what kind of tech industry China wants: one that enables state surveillance and control rather than conversation and sharing. The state’s future big tech investments are likely to come in growing areas such as AI and data and cutting-edge technologies such as quantum computing: areas that combine economic with military and security benefits.
Tech billionaires aren’t the only ones losing status. China has its own form of top-down cancel culture. Several celebrities have been de-platformed, affectively airbrushed from the airwaves. Well-known actor Zhao Wei vanished as an online presence in August. Shows featuring her disappeared from streaming services. Her name was erased from credits lists. Obviously, online discussion of her was banned too. She had previously faced criticism for being ‘unpatriotic’ and attracted attention for her extensive business investments, including in the tech industry and a PR agency.
One of the clients of that agency, Zhang Zhehan, experienced a similar de-platforming after photos appeared of him visiting a Japanese war shrine, an act that was predictably characterised as unpatriotic.
Popstar Huo Zun is another example: ludicrously, videos now show him erased or blurred out. He hasn’t challenged the CCP, but evidently his break-up with his girlfriend was enough to make him a bad role model for Chinese youth. There are many others. In November, an official list of 88 celebrities banned for ‘illegal and unethical behaviour’ was published.
And then in November it was a tennis star’s apparent disappearance that made international headlines of the kind China doesn’t like. A handful of days from the Central Committee meeting that would exalt Xi’s status, Peng Shuai posted a statement on Weibo that she had been sexually abused by Zhang Gaoli, a top CCP official. Her statement lasted only half an hour before being removed and discussion was prevented, with even search terms such as ‘tennis’ blocked, but enough people had seen it for it to become news outside China. And then Peng Shuai vanished.
As the sporting world demanded answers, and some stars threatened not to play in China-hosted tournaments, an unconvincing and fake-looking email statement and evidently staged videos were published. It is still not clear where Peng Shuai is or whether she is safe. The Women’s Tennis Association has suspended all tournaments in China and the matter promises to stay in the spotlight, embarrassingly for China as it hopes to benefit from the prestige of hosting the February 2022 Winter Olympics.
Peng Shaui’s allegation wasn’t China’s first MeToo moment. As in other countries, recent allegations have centred on business and entertainment leaders. But Peng Shuai’s accusations were against a figure at the heart of the CCP. The party’s response was to try to hush the matter up, and then attack people who expressed concern, accusing them of interfering in Chinese affairs while failing to deal with scandals in their own countries. The paradoxes of China’s position ran deep: it was forced to mobilise internationally to deny a story it said was a non-story.
MeToo and LGBTQI+ rights under attack
The MeToo movement hasn’t been allowed to take off in China, even when it doesn’t directly question the impunity of senior CCP figures. When the movement first mobilised in 2018, the state’s response was to shut down university feminist groups. The movement is repressed because it offers a form of collective action outside CCP lines and is therefore perceived as calling into question the authority of the CCP.
It’s a similar story with LGBTQI+ rights. The state long largely stayed away from the bedroom. But that seems to be changing too. In July, the WeChat service deleted the accounts of university-based LGBTQI+ groups, with no warning. Until then, student clubs and unregistered groups had been allowed to operate for many years, offering safe spaces for young LGBTQI+ people.
In October, a leaked memo said that licences would not be given for video games featuring same-sex relationships. In November, leading LGBTQI+ organisation LGBT Advocacy China announced it was closing down, having faced increasing state pressure. A human rights lawyer who worked on women’s and LBGTQI+ rights cases and a journalist who campaigned on MeToo issues have been among those detained this year.
LGBTQI+ groups, like women’s rights groups, fall foul of the growing official disapproval of non-party organising. And like seemingly innocuous groups such as fan clubs, LGBTQI+ groups appear in the crosshairs of the crackdown on popular culture and young identities.
A sign of strength, or a sign of weakness?
The only hope is that, since the crackdown precedes the coronation, the pressure may ease once the National Congress is held next year and Xi is certain that his power will not be challenged. But under Xi, restrictions on rights, once imposed, are not rolled back. The vision of Chinese society – monolithic, nationalist, socially conservative – that the party-state is imposing strengthens his political power. But it also appears to be what he believes.
The repression of non-party identities at home is supposed to assure stability and security in a way that enables China to position itself as a global superpower, promoting its state capitalist approach in other countries. But its micro-management of celebrity culture, and pursuit of people like Peng Shuai, don’t project power. Rather, they make the state look weak, overly worried about the small stuff. A more powerful state would be one that does not feel threatened by people simply being and expressing themselves.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
International human rights institutions should expand their monitoring and reporting on China’s rights abuses, including in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and its violations of women’s and LGBTQI+ rights.
Businesses with interests in China should refuse to be instrumental in acts that enable repression, including censorship, data gathering and surveillance.
International leaders should send a signal by refusing to attend the Beijing Winter Olympics and other high-profile sporting events hosted by China.
Cover photo by Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images