“The arts must serve the people and serve socialism” said Xi Jinping, during a symposium of prominent artists held in Beijing. It was 2014, and the world was just getting the first glimpses of the profound overhaul that the new secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party was aiming to achieve. Fast forward 7 years, China is in the process of redrawing its own entertainment sector and reshaping the connection between culture and the people.
Of course, popular culture has had a massively important role in the history of the People’s Republic of China. During the Maoist era, popular entertainment was deeply infused with Party ideology and messages. Revolutionary martyrs and their deeds became the subject of epic songs and plays, presenting them as role models for the Chinese audiences. In fact, culture possesses a deeply normative capacity, helping society to reproduce itself and forward its own values through the representation of role models. Mao well understood the importance of culture for the formation of popular beliefs, and for decades popular culture in China has been tightly controlled precisely for this reason.
Yet, after the turn of the century, China was something completely different. The era of reform and opening up had allowed foreign cultural products to enter the Chinese markets, and domestic productions (although under scrupulous control) were permitted to experiment with new artistic forms. Cinema has been growing, as the number of cinema-goers in China has rapidly expanded over the last few years. Another interesting, recent trend is the influence of South Korean cultural productions on the Chinese music industry: K-pop, as an art form and as an entertainment product, has had an outstanding impact across Asia, and China has not been exempted. Idol bands have been forming in China as well and, along with them, dedicated fan groups. Far from being the same as its Western counterpart, the Chinese entertainment industry has proved its ability to create cultural products for its own audience and the results have underlined its commercial success.
The government steps in
Yet, all that glitters is not gold, and the industry has been marred by a range of problems. Over the course of 2021, the government has come down with increasing harshness on the entertainment industry as a string of new rules and guidelines have been issued by relevant authorities. The targets of these publications have been twofold: on the one hand redirecting the artistic independence of Chinese culture, and on the other addressing the negative social impact of the entertainment industry.
The first of the two targets is probably the easiest one to understand in the context of the efforts undertaken by Xi Jinping to reset the relationship between the state and Chinese society. Reimposition of central Party leadership has been the first, most apparent guiding principle of Xi Jinping’s new era, and culture (as a key arena for the shaping of ideas) could not be exempted from the Party’s drive to assert its own ideological supremacy. Throughout 2021, Chinese regulators have issued a range of documents aimed at redefining the standards of cultural productions as well as the public persona that artists and performers are expected to embody in front of society. In this respect, the canary in the coal mine was the February publication by the China Association of Performing Arts of new guidelines for performers, a sort of sector-wide ethical code. The document contained prescriptions such as loving the motherland and supporting the Party line, serving socialism, not endangering national interests, and not engaging in misleading advertisements. Nevertheless, other more personal prescriptions were included, like upholding a positive image, not taking drugs, and not engaging in illegal activities involving violence and obscenity. On such grounds, over the following months several top Chinese celebrities were taken down: actress Zheng Shuang was fined and backlisted for tax fraud, while Kris Wu was “cancelled” after allegations of sexual assault emerged. Yet, the most prominent blow to the industry was the 8-point regulation issued by the National Radio and Television Administration in early September: the document essentially ordered broadcasters to resist “abnormal aesthetics” and encouraged traditional, revolutionary or “advanced socialist” culture.
The second objective of the regulatory frenzy seen in the entertainment industry is to correct the social distortions in terms of popular culture produced by the industry. Central to this effort is the reform of youth “fan culture” springing up around idolised celebrities. This phenomenon has allegedly generated grave social downsides, leading for instance to a wave of online abuse between fan groups of different celebrities. In another prominent case, a celebrity development program allowed fans to support their favourite idol if they bought and scanned the dairy products of the program’s sponsor: as a result, it was estimated that 270,000 bottles of milk were bought and dumped by fans. This happened last year in May as the Party was waging its anti-food waste campaign and raised awareness of the distortions connected with the entertainment industry. In the following months, public authorities acknowledged that such fan behaviour was undermining a “healthy” online environment and began a swift crackdown, taking down fan-related content, social media accounts and apps. On top of that, the Cyberspace Administration of China released a set of rules to address the issue. These aimed to curtail the environment where fan-inspired “chaos” took root: so, celebrity influence rankings were banned to disincentivise toxic fan competition, fan groups were required to gain authorisation from celebrity agencies, and social media platforms were encouraged to keep a closer eye. Also, celebrity-endorsed advertisement would undergo more stringent limitations and a negative list would be established to punish the dissemination of content deteriorating “mainstream values”.
Where does the Party stand?
These two objectives, however, are not as disjoint as they may seem at first glance. At least, not in the eyes of the Party. The red line connecting the campaigns to reform the entertainment industry and to crack down on fan culture can be identified in what Party officials have termed the “irrational expansion of capital”.
At the heart of the issue is the idol economy: on the one hand celebrities earn the bulk of their income from endorsing or sponsoring products that their fans will buy, while on the other the best traffic-generating celebrities are the most sought after by entertainment producers. As a result, the industry has increasingly pursued an “overly entertaining” trend to capture as many fans as possible and sell them as many sponsored products as possible. The problem with this business model, according to Party officials, is that popular culture has rapidly turned away from its mission of creating high-quality content, and is transforming instead into a traffic-obsessed commercial machine with problematic social side-effects. In short, profit-seeking capital has distorted the aims of culture: from supporting a common value system, to exploiting and reinforcing a somewhat toxic attachment of fans to their favourite celebrities. As a government-affiliated researcher stated in an interview published on the website of the Party disciplinary watchdog, “if capital is allowed to irrationally expand in the literary and art world, [the industry] will lose its function to serve the people and socialism, and it would destroy the spiritual home of the Chinese nation”.
This, of course, is not to say that the new wave of Party-inspired cultural products will be interested in merely parroting official talking points, regardless of what the audience thinks. Great examples are the TV drama “The Age of Awakening” on the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, or the movie “The Battle of Lake Changjin” on Chinese intervention in the Korean war, which have elicited highly positive responses from the public. Also, celebrities themselves are not the problem, as on some occasions officials have positively assessed the mobilisation capacity of fan groups to rally around a cause when this is in line with Beijing’s preferences (for instance when they did so in support of the Hong Kong police during the 2019 protests).
What the leadership aims to achieve with these measures is to rebalance the distortions that have emerged from the culture industry, not to upend the industry itself. As Xi Jinping sees it, China’s material development has generated significant non-material by-products, which now need to be tackled: the inflow of foreign moral values or unconforming cultural models is seen as an ideational and spiritual pollution that threatens the unity of China’s social fabric. Thus, reforming the entertainment industry must be seen in this light, as an effort to reshape the boundaries of what cultural products “make thinkable” and to reconnect the Chinese people with what the Party perceives as more appropriate values and models for Xi Jinping’s new socialist era.
The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of ISPI.