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Shockwaves of Suppression: China’s Cultural Crackdown

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The recent wave of cancellations and penalties in China’s creative landscape has sent shockwaves across the nation. From Japanese choral bands to stand-up comedy shows and jazz performances, the abrupt and unexplained cancellations have highlighted the growing scrutiny and control over China’s artistic scene. This phenomenon can be attributed to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s relentless pursuit of ideological conformity and a nationalist vision of Chinese identity. Under his leadership, artists are expected to align their creative pursuits with the goals of the Chinese Communist Party, and their works must undergo strict vetting.

This cultural crackdown is not an isolated incident but part of a broader preoccupation with national security and the elimination of foreign influence. Recent weeks have witnessed the raiding of corporate offices of Western consulting firms and the broadening of counterespionage laws. The cancellations of performances, particularly those featuring foreign performers or speakers, can be seen as an extension of China’s determination to maintain its power and control amid deteriorating relationships with the West.

The increased emphasis on the arts is in line with Mr. Xi’s vision of molding Chinese society according to his ideological agenda. The government’s regulation of arts and culture has intensified under his rule. In 2021, a state-backed performing arts association published morality guidelines for artists, emphasizing patriotism. The government also banned “sissy men” from appearing on television, accusing them of weakening the nation. This level of control over creative expression echoes the past, where the Cultural Revolution targeted creative works deemed insufficiently revolutionary.

Stand-up comedy, in particular, has come under scrutiny as it gained popularity in recent years, offering a platform for subtle criticisms of contemporary life in China. Comedians have faced fines and suspensions for making jokes that challenge the government’s narrative. The recent crackdown began after a popular stand-up comedian, Li Haoshi, made a joke referencing a Chinese military slogan. Nationalist social media users, fueled by outrage, amplified the situation, leading to penalties and cancellations.

The impact of this crackdown extends beyond comedy to include music performances and other forms of artistic expression. The cancellations have affected both domestic and foreign artists, leaving many puzzled by the lack of explanation. Organizers cite “force majeure,” a term often used as a euphemism for government pressure. The fear of repercussions has made organizers and venue owners increasingly cautious, resulting in the cancellation of events.

While some believe that the recent cultural crackdowns are localized and driven by local governments, others express concerns about the broader implications for Chinese society. The tight control exerted by the Chinese government is reminiscent of a paranoid party, instilling fear and risk aversion among the populace. In the past, extreme nationalism or overzealous enforcement by local officials would prompt central government intervention to preserve economic and diplomatic relationships. However, Beijing’s current emphasis on security gives little reason to expect such intervention in this case.

The far-reaching effects of China’s cultural crackdown are not limited to the domestic sphere. With China being one of the world’s biggest markets, the impact extends globally. Stock markets react to targeted industries, major brands sever ties with celebrities, and foreign companies navigate new content and distribution laws. Foreign film producers and actors face challenges when engaging with this increasingly sensitive market.

As the Chinese government tightens its grip on society, concerns arise about a return to the tightly controlled days of the past. From restrictions on minors’ online gaming to the regulation of e-commerce, social media, and private education, China’s recent regulatory overhauls aim to reshape society. While regulators argue these measures are for the greater social good, critics fear that they are a means for President Xi Jinping to solidify his power and maintain strict control over every aspect of Chinese society.

The cultural crackdown in China reflects a broader trend of increasing authoritarianism and a tightening grip on freedom of expression. As the government continues to assert its dominance over the arts and culture, concerns about individual rights and creativity are growing. The stifling of dissenting voices and the suppression of artistic freedom not only limit the development of a vibrant and diverse cultural scene but also hinder the growth of a critical and independent society.

The international community also faces a dilemma in engaging with China’s cultural sphere. Balancing economic interests and the promotion of human rights becomes increasingly challenging as the Chinese market becomes more influential. Companies and individuals must navigate the complexities of operating within a system that restricts creative expression and enforces ideological conformity.

The long-term implications of China’s cultural crackdown remain uncertain. While it is evident that President Xi Jinping’s administration seeks to exert control over the arts to reinforce its power and nationalist agenda, the effects on Chinese society and global cultural exchanges are yet to fully unfold. It is crucial for stakeholders to monitor and address these issues to ensure the preservation of artistic freedom and the protection of human rights in the face of growing authoritarianism.

This are some of the examples and indications cited in the supporting documents:

  • Japanese choral band touring China, stand-up comedy shows in several cities, jazz shows in Beijing – These performances were among more than a dozen that were abruptly canceled.
  • Chinese comedy studio fined around $2 million after one of its stand-up performers was accused of insulting the Chinese military in a joke.
  • Detention of a woman in northern China who defended the comedian online.
  • Performers in China must submit scripts or set lists for vetting, and publications are closely monitored.
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a letter to the National Art Museum of China, emphasizing the need to “adhere to the correct political orientation.”
  • State-backed performing arts association publishing a list of morality guidelines for artists, including prescriptions for patriotism.
  • Ban on “sissy men” appearing on television in China, accusing them of weakening the nation.
  • Fine imposed on a comedian for making jokes about the coronavirus lockdown in Shanghai.
  • Cancellation of musical performances, including a stop by a Shanghai rock band with foreign members, a Beijing folk music festival, jazz performances, and a Canadian rapper’s show.
  • Use of the term “force majeure” as a reason for the cancellations, often indicating government pressure.
  • Tightening grip on ride-sharing companies and focus on traits like “sissyness” and homosexuality.
  • Intervention by regulators in areas like gaming and celebrity culture justified as actions for the greater social good.
  • Request for Chinese media to resist showing off wealth, hyping gossip, and negative hot topics, while promoting political and moral conduct.
  • Labeling the crackdown as a “profound” or “great leap backwards” and a second Cultural Revolution.
  • Closure of K-pop artists’ social media accounts and the embassy’s statement that the crackdown was not targeted at any particular country.
  • Calls from parental groups and social science researchers for intervention into the negative impact of the entertainment industry on children.

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