China’s war on celebrity: the Cultural Revolution 2.0?

Beijing has fired the latest salvo in its increasingly harsh war on China’s raucous celebrity culture, said Mimi Lau in the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong).

Last week, the Communist Party’s (CCP’s) “Central Commission for Discipline Inspection” published a diatribe against “popular celebrities” who bring “chaos to the internet”. It was a marked escalation in the CCP’s efforts to address the country’s “increasingly obsessive celebrity fan culture”, which has seen a rise in online abuse, as well as doxxing (publishing personal details online) and the stalking of celebrities.

From now on, virtual “fan communities” will be closely regulated, and celebrity popularity rankings – a big feature of online groups – banned. More than 1,300 groups have already been shut down. The crackdown may be a reaction to the recent arrest of the Canadian-Chinese singer Kris Wu on suspicion of rape; many social media users came out strongly in his defence.

But other celebrities have also been targeted. The actress Zheng Shuang was recently ordered to pay a huge $46.1m fine for tax evasion; and the online presence of Zhao Wei, one of China’s biggest film stars, was mysteriously “scrubbed” last week with no official explanation.

China’s celebrity crackdown has been a long time coming, said Alexandra Stevenson in The New York Times: in 2014, President Xi Jinping declared that art and culture should be “in the service of the people”, and in the years since, the entertainment sector has emerged as an “ideological battleground”.

But it also points to a wider phenomenon in Xi’s China, said Bill Birtles on (Sydney). In an article endorsed by state media, the prominent blogger Li Guangman wrote last week that “China is going through a great transformation, in the economic field, in the financial sector, in the cultural field through to the political field”. Xi is increasingly casting himself as “a bold reformer curing society’s ills”, with a flurry of “sudden edicts” that suggest the country may be in the midst of a “Cultural Revolution 2.0”.

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In recent weeks, the CCP has clamped down on TV shows featuring “effeminate” men; introduced a ban on under-18s playing online video games during the week or for more than three hours at weekends; and ruled that private tutoring for children can take place on a non-profit basis only, devastating a $100bn-a-year sector.

China’s tech sector has been reined in to maintain control over its people’s digital lives. And in schools, “Xi Jinping thought” was added to the national curriculum last month; textbooks teach children that “Grandpa Xi always cares about us”.

It’s no coincidence that some of the most radical reforms in Beijing’s “regulation frenzy” are aimed at China’s young, said Katrin Büchenbacher in Neue Zürcher Zeitung (Zurich). The CCP knows the country’s working-age population is shrinking, threatening its long-term prosperity, and wants to forge a “healthy, educated, obedient” generation to step into the breach. Small wonder, then, that in May it also raised the cap on the number of children couples can have to three.

But the impact of recent reforms isn’t limited to the young only, said The Economist (London): Xi has also been making a great show of his drive to achieve “common prosperity” by tackling inequality. Beijing has taken steps in recent months to strengthen workers’ rights and cut housing costs, pledging to use the tax framework to promote equality. And it has also encouraged private enterprises to involve themselves in the “common prosperity” drive: Alibaba, the Chinese tech giant, last week became the latest business to answer the call, pledging to invest $15.5bn in economic and social development in the next five years.

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Many of these economic reforms are welcome, said Diana Choyleva in Nikkei Asia (Tokyo), but it’s unlikely that they’re motivated solely by a spirit of egalitarianism. Instead, they reflect a more fundamental calculation: that the “grotesque inequality” that has accompanied China’s 40-year economic growth spurt could eventually threaten the CCP’s legitimacy.


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