In early September, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched a new campaign to cleanse its national popular culture of western, frivolous, and “polluting” characteristics.
“Sissy idols,” “effeminate men,” and media deemed “overly entertaining” and “warped” have to go, along with media stars earning ostentatious paychecks and those with “incorrect political positions,” the government informed broadcasters, ominously warning of resulting “punishments” for those who don’t comply. President Xi Jinping even issued restrictions on the amount of time that Chinese youth are allowed to play video games each week.
This came just after one of the nation’s biggest movie stars, Zhao Wei, an actress, director, and investor with a massive social media following, completely vanished and all traces of her career were scrubbed from the Chinese internet. She was the most high-profile celebrity to be memory-holed, but not the only one.
All of these dramatic changes are part and parcel to President Xi’s “national rejuvenation,” which he glowingly touted earlier this year amid the CCP’s 100th anniversary celebrations. “Today, we are closer, more confident, and more capable than ever before of making the goal of national rejuvenation a reality,” Xi, the secretary general of the CCP, said during a July 1 speech on Tiananmen Square to mark the party’s centenary.
The pomp, circumstance, and ubiquitous red-and-yellow hammers and sickles were a celebration of the country’s long communist history, and if there was any doubt that it was in fact communism that was being glorified, a massive portrait of the party’s founder and notorious former dictator, Mao Tse Tung, hung in the center of the square and all of the festivities.
A few months later, just weeks after Zhao’s disappearance and as the CCP began issuing demands for the entertainment industry to play its role in this “national rejuvenation,” a mysterious blog post started circulating through Chinese state media. “The red has returned, the heroes have returned, and the grit and valor have returned,” the little-known blogger, Li Guangman, wrote.
Li’s post touted the recent moves made by the government to target the nation’s indulgent celebrity worship culture, as well as to curb the capitalistic aspirations of some of its biggest companies, including e-commerce giant Alibaba, as part of Xi’s efforts to expand the nation’s “common prosperity.”
“[All] of this tells us,” Li wrote in summation, “that China is undergoing a major change. From the economic sphere to the financial sphere, from the cultural sphere to the political sphere, a profound transformation is underway — or, one might say, a profound revolution.”
Chinese-American author Helen Raleigh summarized the blog post thusly: “Welcome to Xi’s Chinese Cultural Revolution 2.0.”
“Mark Twain famously said, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.’ That seems to ring true in Communist China,” she recently mused, explaining that Xi’s holistic efforts to reign in entertainment and industry serve as chilling echoes of the bloody and chaotic Cultural Revolution that she and her family endured in her home country in the 1960s and 1970s.
She sees parallels in Li’s blog post with the publication of a dazibao, or “big character poster,” by student Nie Yuanzi at Beijing University in 1966, which denounced the school’s staff as being overly western and bourgeoise.
The dazibao, like Li’s blog post, was later published in the state-run People’s Daily and, also like Li’s blog post, was almost certainly written at the behest of party officials.
Months after the dazibao was published, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to reinvigorate the communist ideology while simultaneously purging the country of dissidents and those who lacked adequate revolutionary spirit.
“Borrowing phrases from Nie’s big letter poster, Mao claimed bourgeois elements had permeated every aspect of Chinese society, from the government to schools, factories, and other institutions,” Raleigh explains. “They sought to restore capitalism and the party’s ability to exploit people. What followed was a decade of chaos and destruction throughout the country and complete isolation from the outside world. Therefore, Mao insisted that only ferocious class struggles could eliminate these counter-revolutionary elements and ensure China was on its correct path to a Communist utopia.”
Between 1966 and 1976, an estimated 2o million people were murdered or committed suicide, including everyone from young children to party officials that Mao considered to be opponents, and private property and cultural and historic relics and sites were ravaged or completely destroyed.
The parallels of Mao’s rhetoric to Xi’s “national rejuvenation” today are remarkable — and frightening.
In addition to lofty goals for less “polluting” entertainment, the CCP has been targeting some of China’s biggest businesses for higher taxation, which in turn have ramped up their efforts to appear loyal to the party. Alibaba, for example, rushed to pledge 100 billion yuan, or $15.5 billion, to Xi’s plans for “common prosperity.”
China’s permitted social media networks, meanwhile, issued a self-discipline convention last month in which they vowed to suppress celebrity accounts that fail to adhere to the party’s “ethical” standards, while the China Performance Industry Association ordered talent agencies to assume the responsibility for the [political] education and management of artists or be punished. Already, 700 talent agencies have been shut down as part of the CCP’s crackdown.
Despite all of these similarities, there is one key difference between Xi’s new cultural and economic initiatives and that of his predecessor. While Mao’s Cultural Revolution was aggressively isolationist, Xi’s CCP has made it perfectly clear they’ve got their sights set on the rest of the world.
The Belt and Road Initiative has long been spreading Chinese money — and influence — into the vulnerable underdeveloped and developing worlds, putting pressure on local governments that are unable to repay massive infrastructure loans to nonetheless, somehow keep Beijing happy. The CCP also also has an extensive network of influence on Western college campuses; its controversial Confucius Institutes have been known to pressure universities to block and ban speakers or events that are critical of the communist regime.
For some time, CCP censors have stood between Hollywood producers and the lucrative Chinese consumer market they hope to access with their films, meaning that in the West, we often view movies that have been curated to the liking of Beijing’s cultural standards.
With “sissy idols” and “effeminate men” banned on China state television, one does wonder how this will impact the future relationship between our own aggressively progressive, “woke” entertainment industry and the newly rejuvenated China market. Could it be that the chickens in this unholy alliance are coming home to roost?
There is a wildly errant assumption in the West that the 1990s brought a new era of global liberalism, individual rights, and freedom, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
As our own nation seems to be in the midst of an American-style cultural revolution in the form of cancel culture purity tests, censorship, and the suppression of dissident views on such topics as gender, history, philosophy, and medicine, it’s hard not to wonder: Is Xi’s Cultural Revolution 2.0 really so different from what’s happening in the West, with the only difference being that China’s cultural revolution is designed to strengthen its society while America’s is clearly weakening our morals, our masculinity and femininity, our institutions, and our sense of ourselves?
Now, that is a truly terrifying thought.