China’s cultural crackdown: few areas untouched as Xi reshapes society

On the second floor of a nondescript concrete building in north-east Beijing, the Youyou internet cafe is less than half full. Quiet and dark, the cafe’s customers are all adults, sitting in brown sofas in front of screens set up for hours of comfortable online gaming.

Minors aren’t allowed in, and a poster on the glass entrance reads: “The whole society together cares about the healthy growth of underage teens.” Under new regulations from the Chinese government, minors are limited to just a few hours of gaming a week, with tech platforms ordered to enforce it. The intervention is just one of a recent rush of directives from Beijing aimed at reshaping society.

The slew of regulatory overhauls has been swift and dizzying. In recent months, Chinese authorities have come for e-commerce, social media, the $100bn private education industry, artists, celebrities and reality television, affecting individuals from Alibaba boss Jack Ma to actor Vicki Zhao.

At every step, regulators justified their move as one for the greater social good. In recent weeks the focus has been on celebrity and fan culture, but other sectors haven’t been forgotten: China’s internet regulator says it has shut down and banned 1,793 so-called self-media accounts since 27 August.

On Wednesday, regulators tightened their grip on ride-sharing companies, and separately invited Tencent and Netease – two internet giants in China – in “for a talk”. The terms of the conversation – relayed by Xinhua news agency, the official state media outlet – name-checked traits being targeted in other areas of the pop culture crackdown, including what has been pejoratively described as “sissyness”, and homosexuality.

The push comes at a time when many among Chinese intelligentsia are expressing their fear of the sort of tight control reminiscent of the pre-reform days. Labelled outside China as “profound”, a “great leap backwards”, or a “second Cultural Revolution”, the vast range of new regulations on society are seen by some as an attempt by Chinese president Xi Jinping to put his stamp on young minds and cement control.

The crackdown is having a global impact, too. China is now one of the world’s biggest markets. As offending industries and individuals have been targeted, stock markets have turned skittish, major brands have scrapped deals with celebrities, tech and gaming companies have scrambled to navigate new content and distribution laws, and foreign film producers and actors have struggled to navigate the increasingly sensitive market.

In response to concerns about specific moves against the social media accounts of K-pop artists, a hugely successful music genre with an extraordinarily powerful fanbase, China’s embassy in South Korea said the crackdown was not targeted at any particular country.

“China’s actions are aimed at all words and deeds that may impact public order – customs as well as laws and regulations – and will not affect normal exchanges between China and any country,” it said on Thursday.

Some say these moves were unsurprising and inevitable. Prof Peixin Cao of the Communication University of China, an institution that has trained much of China’s TV talent, said: “Recently there have been frequent occurrences of illegal, wrong or unethical behaviours by celebrities and entertainers in the economic, political and personal fields, which made me feel that the government … [should] put forward new requirements and norms.”

Cao said there had long been calls from parental groups and social science researchers for an intervention into the “negative impact” of the industry on children, but the industry had used its economic power and media influence to ignore them.“ I believe that the general audience also has dissatisfaction with the bad ethos of the entertainment industry, and the parents of adolescents may have felt it more deeply.”

Last week, the National Radio and Television Administration asked Chinese media to “resolutely resist showing off wealth and enjoyment, hyping up gossip and privacy, negative hot topics, vulgar ‘internet celebrities’ and the bottomless appreciation of ugliness, and other pan-entertainment tendencies”.

But the regulator was also clear that the new measures were designed to create an atmosphere of love for the party and the country, as well as respect for morality and art. They asked producers to include political and moral conduct as criteria in the selection of guests and performers.

In some ways, this reflects the party’s long and complicated relationship with popular culture. “On the one hand, the party represents the people and wants culture to be popular,” said Michel Hockx, director of the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “On the other hand, they really don’t approve of what the people seem to like. They consider much of popular culture to be ‘vulgar’.”

The party’s stance on culture and who writers and artists ultimately serve was laid out in a big speech by Xi in October 2014. Artists should not “lose themselves in the tide of market economy nor go astray while answering the question of ‘whom to serve’”, Xi told the forum of artists and writers. “The arts must serve the people and serve socialism.”

Hockx said: “Xi’s 2014 speech was explicit about promoting a kind of culture that could set strong moral examples, as well as promote patriotism. Since then, the various government departments have been trying in various ways to implement these ideas.”

Hockx added that the underlying moral stance under recent crackdowns on popular culture “is very conservative – a bit like 1950s American TV culture: clearly defined gender roles [with] strong patriotism”.

Dr Hongwei Bao of the University of Nottingham observed that the changes in the ways Beijing handles these issues are related to internal as well as external changes in the past couple of years. Domestically, China was undergoing a demographic crisis, and Beijing was concerned about the fallout of it.

Meanwhile, he said, the increasing antagonism between China and the west has led to a new wave of surging nationalism within China. “Increasingly, we are seeing – both inside and outside China – the forming of the narrative ‘China v the west’. The longer the standoff persists, the more likely Beijing is to emphasise its uniqueness in comparison to the west, or to other Asian countries.”

But the changes the authorities wish to pursue may not be easy in today’s China, where decades-long economic opening and societal change have upended traditional norms and rewritten parts of the unspoken social contract between the rulers and the ruled.

“In this process, rules are challenged, negotiated and sometimes consolidated, but they are very much a two-way street,” Bao said. “The authorities cannot determine everything in today’s China. Time has changed. Things don’t always stay the same and people never give up on their hopes.”

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