Illustration for SupChina by Alex Santafe
Published December 2, 2021
From classrooms to phone screens to celebrity idols, the Chinese government is tightening its control over Chinese society. As culture reaches a new level of strategic importance, SupChina takes stock of the disparate changes to society in the past few years.
As Beijing rejigs its debt-ridden economy by diktat this year, a parallel operation is emerging in the sphere of culture. Media regulators have banned the display of “effeminate men,” ordering broadcasters to promote content with “traditional Chinese culture” instead. They have also publicly shamed or silenced “morally corrupt” celebrities, and shuttered fan communities. In schools, education regulators are expunging classrooms of foreign influence such as foreign textbooks and English-language courses. At the same time, in an effort to “cultivate masculinity” in schools, they have hired more gym teachers and promoted sports programs. Broadly speaking, the Party has become ever more concerned over the future of Chinese youths, how they spend their time, the role models they look up to, and the kinds of content they are exposed to. The new policies are part of larger currents that have existed for several years. Decades of history exist in China regarding celebrity crackdowns, enforced heteronormativity, and the prioritization of “traditional Chinese” culture over foreign aesthetics. This year, though, the rules have coalesced into a larger vision about society, its culture, and how youths should behave in what Xi Jinping has called “the great rejuvenation.” State attacks on “‘sissy men’ and “niáng pào” 娘炮 [effemintae, camp, or gay], all these ways of speaking have been around for a few years, so they aren’t fundamentally new,” Fang Kecheng, a professor of journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told SupChina. “But this time, I think they fit into a larger strategy, one that encompasses a holistic rethink of the way society should be organized.” If prior instances of cultural reforms occurred sporadically, the recent move suggests that a more strategic and steady hand has grasped the steering wheel.
How do we make sense of this year’s crackdowns on culture? Based on numerous interviews with people in the entertainment industry, academics, and media analysts, here is a guide to this year’s regulatory activities in media and education, their origins, and what to expect next.
Why is this happening?
What’s the context?
What is happening?
As a part of the general reorientation of priorities that have begun this year under Xi Jinping’s Common Prosperity drive, what SupChina calls the “Red New Deal,” Beijing is embarking on something akin to a cultural self-strengthening exercise. The policies have many points of intersection, but we have identified three categories based on the way Chinese children will see the world once the regulations settle, their role models, the content they watch, and the things they learn.
1. Celebrities and fan groups
In May, the season finale of an idol group show on streaming giant iQiyi called Youth With You 3 was canceled following a promotional campaign that went horribly wrong. The talent show encouraged viewers to buy a sponsor’s milk and scan the QR code inside the bottle caps to support their favorite stars. Obsessed fans brought up milk in bulk but dumped the milk into drains. Some calculated that 270,000 bottles of dairy products were poured directly into the sewage. Since then, regulators banned “idol development programs” altogether. In August, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), China’s internet watchdog, announced a ban on celebrity rankings. It followed the removal of 150,000 pieces of “harmful online content” involving fan groups, and 4,000 fan accounts, according to a Xinhua report.
Alongside the crackdown on “chaotic fan groups,” Beijing has imposed stricter scrutiny of celebrity behavior. For stage actors, a new wave of behavioral guidelines was rolled out in February to ensure actors and actresses “love the motherland,” “abide by social morality,” and “uphold the prestige of Chinese culture,” among others. Misbehaving superstars such as the actress Zhào Wēi 赵薇 and Zhèng Shuǎng 郑爽and the singer-actor Kris Wu (Wú Yìfán 吴亦凡) have had their social media accounts shut down or investigated.
On the other end of the spectrum, “well behaved” celebrities have been co-opted by the Party. The preeminent video streamer and influencer Lǐ Zǐqī 李子柒 , an emblem of bucolic Chinese rural life recently appeared on CCTV after disappearing for three months to parrot the official rhetoric of the party including “rural revitalization” and “common prosperity” and “guiding youths…away from becoming influencers.”
When did this start?
Authorities seem to have taken action this summer after a string of public scandals involving celebrities and fan groups. The proverbial last straw seems to have been the milk-dumping scandal. The month after, the CAC launched a rectification campaign called “Clear and Bright” (清朗), directed at reining in chaotic fan behavior.
Regulators have grown more intolerant of celebrity behavior in recent years. In 2014, after a series of drug and prostitution scandals, media watchdogs ordered TV stations to stop featuring celebrities convicted of criminal activity. The law compelled actors to maintain a “positive public image” and “core socialist values” or face bans. The disappearance of A-list superstar Fàn Bīngbīngg 范冰冰, in 2016 over allegations of tax evasion put the new expectations of Chinese celebrities into sharp relief.
The recent crackdown on “effeminate men” may be traced back to more discreet policies in 2019 targeting men’s earrings and colorful hair on TV. In recent years, the Chinese film industry has also pivoted from regulatory defense — telling you what not to show — to offense — telling you exactly what to show. “It’s very strategic right now,” a veteran in the China entertainment industry told SupChina. “There’s a list of projects that you’re allowed to make and the government provides a lot of financial backing so it’s very tempting to just go along with the program.”
But the impulse to secure good idols for society has been a facet of the Chinese Communist Party for decades. Early examples include the revolutionary martyr Huáng Jìguāng 黄继光 in the 1950s and the model soldier Comrade Léi Fēng 雷锋 in the 1960s.
As the reform era unfolded, idols gradually escaped from the staged personas of socialist heroes to more hipster types. These include the 1990s rock star Cuī Jiàn 崔健, an emblem of disaffected Chinese youths, and Lǐ Yǔchūn 李宇春, the androgenous star of the hit show Supergirl in the early 2000s. Celebrities today are combining the gender-bending themes of the early 2000s with conspicuous consumption. These include Lǐ Jiāqí 李加琦, known as China’s “lipstick king,” and the entirety of the Chinese idol industry whose aesthetic copies from K-pop bands. “It was pretty heavy make-up.” Luke Pfleger, one of the few American contestants on the idol competition Produce Camp 2021 told SupChina. “For everybody [on the show], it’s eyeshadow, it’s contour to make your cheeks look more defined, I mean, it was everything.”
But now the Party wants to pivot back to an aesthetic that reflects traditional gender roles.
2. Short-form videos, games, and macho-men
Beijing has fundamentally altered the kinds of content Chinese youths can consume this year. In September, Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, imposed a forty-minute time limit on video consumption for children under 14. Young viewers can now only view “prepared” content such as historical information, science experiments, and patriotic clips. A five-second pause feature also aims to prevent screen addiction, with irremovable notifications to “put down the phone” or “go to bed.” In late August, regulators also restricted children’s gaming to only three hours a day.
This year, the regulators are also ramping up restrictions on vulgarity and gender-fluid content for children. Video platforms have also been ordered to scrub content with effeminate men or “other abnormal aesthetics.” After the prohibition, neither Tencent nor iQiyi, two of the biggest video platforms for idol content, have renewed their respective variety shows for another season despite receiving billions of views earlier in the year. Enforcement of heteronormativity is also on the rise. In July, WeChat permanently banned nearly all public accounts created and run by LGBTQ groups at Chinese colleges for no specific reason. In November, LGBT Rights Advocacy China, an influential nonprofit organization, announced it was “suspending all operations” for an indefinite period of time. Bilibili — one of the few pockets of gay content online — has lately begun censoring itself.
When did this start?
The gaming restrictions were announced just two days after the new school year. “Online gaming addiction is a social problem,” said one unnamed official to Xinhua. Chinese authorities have become increasingly alarmed by the amount of time children are spending on algorithm-enhanced media sites. From 2017 to 2020, the average time spent on short-form videos ballooned from 50 minutes to 125 minutes a day, according to a survey by China Netcasting Services. That led to a sweeping campaign against gaming addiction which dates back to 2018 (see big tech crackdown guide).
The macho-man trope in Chinese media, as seen in blockbuster hits such as Wolf Warrior in 2015 and 2017 has emerged in recent years alongside rising nationalism and a more assertive foreign policy. “It’s a huge part of [the new era],” said an industry insider, referring to the era of Xi Jinping. “Deng Xiaoping said ‘hide your strength and bide your time’, but that doesn’t make you tough, that doesn’t get you respect.” SupChina was told that films with more masculine personas began to be actively encouraged after 2012. “It’s always been there, it’s just been suppressed,” he said. “And post two pugnacious leaders, it was unleashed and promoted instead.”
3. Education, sports, and socialist core values
China’s education sector is in the midst of a major overhaul. This summer, Beijing banned for-profit tutoring in an effort to alleviate the workload of children. But the regulation left in its wake a moral question: If children aren’t doing homework, what else should they do? So far, the Party has not given a compelling answer, although there are some hints. Earlier this year, for example, the Ministry of Education announced a plan to “cultivate masculinity” in schoolboys, requiring schools to increase the number of gym teachers and promote more sports. The initiatives are as much about health as they are about culture.
At the same time, the education ministry is also ensuring that classrooms are free from foreign influence. In September, a private education law issued by the State Council barred overseas textbooks. The law also barred foreign businesses from holding an ownership stake in private schools, and demanded that they adhere more closely to national curriculums that promote “socialist core values.”
In the city of Shanghai, education authorities suspended English-language final exams in local elementary schools. The pushback against Western influence in China’s schools are being referred to as “reversing gears.” Instead of English, new textbooks on “Xi Jinping Thought” have become required reading in Shanghai elementary, middle, and high schools. One chapter of the new textbooks packs a lesson on conformity into a sartorial tip: “Cultivating the right values is like buttoning shirts: if you get the first one wrong, the rest of the bunch will be ruined too.”
When did this start?
The masculinity drive in schools began as a response to a top political advisor during the annual legislative conference known as the Two Sessions. Last May, Si Zefu, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee, said the “feminization” of teenagers, if unchecked, would threaten China’s development.
From the 1970s and 1990s, the influence of foreign capital, foreign teaching methods, and English education was encouraged, seen as vital to Deng’s modernization reforms. English became a compulsory subject in all primary schools in September 2001. All of this began to change relatively recently. A draft of the education law that banned overseas textbooks was circulated in 2018 in response to growing discontent that the public and private education sectors had begun to blur. Curbs on English language education, however, are a new development. As recently as 2019, a People’s Daily commentary wrote that China’s foreign language education “should be strengthened.”
Why is this happening?
In recent years, the priorities of the Community Party have shifted. In a 2017 speech delivered to the National People’s Congress, Xi Jinping redefined “the principal contradiction,” a Marxist term that locates the primary agenda of the Party. After three decades of unbridled economic development, he declared, the main challenge that stood in the way of the Party was “unbalanced and inadequate growth.”
“We could think of this in terms of the Party saying, we’ve handled the hardware, we have a strong industrial base and military. Now the key contradiction is the software” (the attitudes, values, and psychology of the country), said Timothy Cheek, an intellectual historian of China on the Sinica Podcast. Xi Jinping has alluded to this much. In his speech introducing the Common Prosperity, he warned against the “tearing of the social fabric” that had befallen an unnamed Western country. In this country, the divide between the rich and poor have led to “disintegration, political polarization, and rampant populism,” he said. China must choose another path built on “maintaining social harmony.”
The Communist Party sees culture (the “software”) as a potential casualty of unbalanced growth. The more chaotic the fans, the more screen-addicted the children, and the more misbehaved the celebrities, the more the Party sees the need for a moral reckoning as well as an economic one. On this view, Xi Jinping’s “Common Prosperity” drive has two parts. The first is to restructure the engine at the heart of China’s growth model, making it more sustainable and equitable. The second is to clean up the pollution that has come from that same engine — the “spiritual pollution” the Party has long viewed as a byproduct of economic reforms, the decadent norms around sex, individualism, LGBTQ+ rights, and hedonism. “In Xi’s conception of the ‘new era‘, wealth inequality and the uber-rich are of course important challenges,” said Fang to SupChina. “But the other half of this ledger is something the Party sees as equally important: a unified system of values.”
What’s the context?
The Party’s relationship to art and culture has always been tethered to ideology. In a series of talks delivered in Yan’an, in 1942, Mao Zedong claimed that although victory over an enemy depends, primarily, on armies with guns, “this kind of army alone is not enough.” “We still need a cultural army.” “Mao believed in the power of culture,” said Cheek to SupChina, “Culture equals belief. Belief equals will. And that’s going to get you mobilization.” That approach to culture dates back even earlier. “The whole instinct of the state, of having this kind of rectification of morals is nothing new,” the journalist Zha Jianying told SupChina. “The Kuomintang went through it too, and believe it or not, even in the Republican period.”
Throughout the decades of reform and openness, the instinct returned in fits and spurts in a pattern Chinese scholars came to call fang/shou (“opening and tightening.”). In 1983, amid the initial burst of Western cultural imports of the reform era, conservative segments of the Party launched the “spiritual pollution” campaign, a catch-all term that denounced all kinds of Western cultural imports from erotica to existentialism. The campaign subsided until 1989, when China witnessed another chill. “The most enduring lesson Party leaders took away in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Massacre was the imperative of mastering the social zeitgeist,” wrote David Bandurski, head of the China Media Project.”
After Tiananmen, the Party launched the patriotic education campaign, a program designed to rebuild belief and will in the Party by directing energy toward young Chinese. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the campaign operated alongside one of the biggest challenges to the Party’s legitimacy: the Internet. As foreign cultural content flooded into China through new digital forms, China scrambled for several years to find the best way to restore order to its cultural sphere. In the years after the Beijing Olympics, online censorship remained steady, then came 2012. That same year, as a new president took the reins, a significant “tightening” came in the form of a new agency: the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). According to Fang, who specializes in media censorship, the administration was expressly designed to organize disparate agencies under one roof in order to patch perceived ”loopholes” in China’s highly guarded cyberspace.
Authentic Chinese brands
In the coming years, Chinese brands will reach deeper into Chinese history to capitalize on the new zeitgeist. Some recent trends include “Hanfu” clothing (汉服), the style of dress of the Han dynasty; “China chic” (国超) cosmetics brands and consumables like Chicecream, a Chinese ice cream in the shape of Chinese roof tiles.
The Patriotic Blockbuster
Judging by the best-performing film this year — the Korean War epic The Battle at Lake Changjin (长津湖) — patriotic war films remain a huge market opportunity, with their strong Chinese characters standing up against foreign adversaries. Director Zhang Yimou is also working on another Korean War film called “Sniper,” which has yet to set a release date. Industry sources told SupChina that after 2016, Chinese war movies (especially with the U.S. as the enemy) have become the easiest to receive approvals for.
Red-themed Chinese Dramas
The “Red thematic drama” ( 红色题材剧 a term referring to ideology-infused state-sponsored productions) is another growing category this year. The history drama Age of Awakening (觉醒年代 jué xǐng nián dài) a state propaganda film about the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), received glowing reviews since its March finale, scoring a 9.3 out of 10 on Douban (among 350,000 voters). Viewers overwhelmingly voiced their surprise at the quality of the film. Recently, Chinese propaganda has improved significantly from the agitprop that defined earlier Communist countries. With more money and better tech, the production quality of films can sometimes make up for the gushy melodrama of state-sponsored content.
In 2019, the top-grossing Chinese film was Ne Zha, an animated film about the eponymous, irascible superkid of Chinese myth. Chinese animation, donghua 动画 in Chinese, is at the edge of a revival. “I’m convinced [China’s animation industry] will overtake us in production in three years and in skill in five to 10 years,” wrote a famous Japanese animator on Twitter in 2017. Just as being the world’s factory taught China a thing or two about building successful products, Chinese animators have built their own production houses after years of outsourcing their talents to American and Japanese animators. Recently, the brain drain has reversed: Japanese animators are flocking to China to look for new opportunities and better pay. The result is a deadly combination: Chinese culture brought to life by talented Chinese animators supported by a fanbase of Chinese anime nerds.
In 2021, Beijing announced a plan to make sports into a 5 trillion yuan ($773 billion) industry by 2025, a 70% increase from 2019 levels. Alongside benefits to the economy, sporting activities dovetail with a lot of the rhetoric around a “strong nation” in Xi’s new era. In 2019, The State Council issued the “Outline for Building a Leading Sports Nation,” drawing a roadmap for how China can become a world leader in sports. Sports spending has also skyrocketed in the lead-up to the 2022 Winter Olympics. As China confronts the challenge of childhood obesity, gaming addiction, and excessive homework, sports have become a natural alternative for children to which Beijing is actively lending its support.