China ramps up scrutiny of culture

Source: NYT (5/24/23)
As China Ramps Up Scrutiny of Culture, the Show Does Not Go On
Performances across the country were canceled last week after Beijing began investigating a stand-up comedian.
By Vivian Wang, reporting from Beijing

A person walks in front of a building with bright yellow facade and a sign saying “You are part of the show.”

The Beijing venue of the stand-up comedy company Xiaoguo Culture Media Co., which was fined around $2 million after one of its performers was accused of insulting the Chinese military in a joke. Credit…Tingshu Wang/Reuters

The cancellations rippled across the country: A Japanese choral band touring China, stand-up comedy shows in several cities, jazz shows in Beijing. In the span of a few days, the performances were among more than a dozen that were abruptly called off — some just minutes before they were supposed to begin — with virtually no explanation.

Just before the performances were scrapped, the authorities in Beijing had fined a Chinese comedy studio around $2 million, after one of its stand-up performers was accused of insulting the Chinese military in a joke; the police in northern China also detained a woman who had defended the comedian online.

Those penalties, and the sudden spate of cancellations that followed, point to the growing scrutiny of China’s already heavily censored creative landscape. China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has made arts and culture a central arena for ideological crackdowns, demanding that artists align their creative ambitions with Chinese Communist Party goals and promote a nationalist vision of Chinese identity. Performers must submit scripts or set lists for vetting, and publications are closely monitored.

On Tuesday, Mr. Xi sent a letter to the National Art Museum of China for its 60th anniversary, reminding staff to “adhere to the correct political orientation.”

Mr. Xi’s emphasis on the arts is also part of a broader preoccupation with national security and eliminating supposedly malign foreign influence. The authorities in recent weeks have raided the corporate offices of several Western consulting or advisory companies based in China, and broadened the range of behaviors covered under counterespionage laws.

Xi Jinping, in a suit, in front of a red flag.

Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, sent a letter to the National Art Museum of China on Tuesday reminding staff there to “adhere to the correct political orientation.” Credit…Pool photo by Florence Lo

Many of the canceled events were supposed to feature foreign performers or speakers.

It was only to be expected that Beijing would also look to the cultural realm, as its deteriorating relationship with the West has made it more fixated on maintaining its grip on power at home, said Zhang Ping, a former journalist and political commentator in China who now lives in Germany.

“One way to respond to anxiety about power is to increase control,” said Mr. Zhang, who writes under the pen name Chang Ping. “Dictatorships have always sought to control people’s entertainment, speech, laughter and tears.”

While the party has long regulated the arts — one target of the Cultural Revolution was creative work deemed insufficiently “revolutionary” — the intensity has increased sharply under Mr. Xi. In 2021, a state-backed performing arts association published a list of morality guidelines for artists, which included prescriptions for patriotism. The same year, the government banned “sissy men” from appearing on television, accusing them of weakening the nation.

Rows of books in a store, with customers.

A bookstore in Zibo, China. Literature is closely regulated by the authorities. Credit…Qilai Shen for The New York Times

Officials have also taken notice of stand-up comedy, which has gained popularity in recent years and offered a rare medium for limited barbs about life in contemporary China. The government fined a comedian for making jokes about last year’s coronavirus lockdown in Shanghai. People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, published a commentary in November that said jokes had to be “moderate” and noted that stand-up as an art form was a foreign import; the Chinese name for stand-up, “tuo kou xiu,” is itself a transliteration from “talk show.”

The recent crackdown began after an anonymous social media user complained about a set that a popular stand-up comedian, Li Haoshi, performed in Beijing on May 13. Mr. Li, who uses the stage name House, had said that watching his two adopted stray dogs chase a squirrel reminded him of a Chinese military slogan: “Maintain exemplary conduct, fight to win.” The user suggested that Mr. Li had slanderously compared soldiers to wild dogs.

Outrage grew among nationalist social media users, and the authorities quickly piled on. In addition to fining Xiaoguo Culture Media, the firm that manages Mr. Li, the authorities — who said the joke had a “vile societal impact” — indefinitely suspended the company’s performances in Beijing and Shanghai. Xiaoguo fired Mr. Li, and the Beijing police said they were investigating him.

Within hours of the penalty being announced on Wednesday, organizers of stand-up shows in Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and eastern Shandong Province canceled their performances. A few days later, Chinese social media platforms suspended the accounts of Uncle Roger, a Britain-based Malaysian comic whose real name is Nigel Ng; Mr. Ng had posted a video poking fun at the Chinese government on Twitter (which is banned in mainland China).

But the apparent fallout was not limited to comedy. Scheduled musical performances began disappearing, too, including a stop in southern China by a Shanghai rock band that includes foreign members, a Beijing folk music festival and several jazz performances, and a Canadian rapper’s show in the southern city of Changsha.

The frontman of a Buddhist-influenced Japanese chorus group, Kissaquo, said last Wednesday that his concert that night in the southern city of Guangzhou had been canceled. Hours later, the frontman, Kanho Yakushiji, said a performance in Hangzhou, in eastern China, had been canceled, too. And the next day, he announced that Beijing and Shanghai shows had also been called off.

“I was writing a set list, but I stopped in the middle,” Mr. Yakushiji, whose management company did not respond to a request for comment, wrote on his Facebook page. “I still don’t understand what the meaning of all this is. I have nothing but regrets.”

Organizers’ announcements for nearly all of the canceled events cited “force majeure,” a term that means circumstances beyond one’s control — and, in China, has often been used as shorthand for government pressure.

Stand-up show organizers did not return requests for comment. Several organizers of canceled musical performances denied that they had been told not to feature foreigners. An employee at a Nanjing music venue that canceled a tribute to the Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto said not enough tickets had been sold.

Members of an audience, illuminated by streams of light, in front of a stage where the silhouette of performers can be seen against a red light.

A Chinese rock band concert in Qinhuangdao, China, last year. Scheduled musical performances have been canceled, with organizers citing “force majeure.” Credit…Wu Hao/EPA, via Shutterstock

Some of the foreign musicians whose shows were canceled have since been able to perform in other cities or at other venues.

But a foreign musician in Beijing, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said his band was scheduled to play at a bar on Sunday and was told by the venue several days before that the gig was canceled because featuring foreigners would bring trouble.

Lynette Ong, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Toronto, said it was unlikely that the central government had issued direct instructions to spur the recent cultural crackdowns. Local governments or venue owners, conscious of how the political environment had changed, were likely being especially cautious, she said.

“In Xi’s China, people are so scared and fearful that they become extremely risk-averse,” she said. “Overall, it’s a very paranoid party.”

In the past, when nationalism has gone to extremes, or local officials overzealously enforced the rules, the central government would eventually step in to cool down the rhetoric, in part to preserve economic or diplomatic relationships. But Professor Ong said Beijing’s current emphasis on security above all would give it no reason to intervene here.

“If people don’t watch comedy, there’s no loss for the party,” she said.

Joy Dong and Li You contributed research.

Vivian Wang is a China correspondent based in Beijing, where she writes about how the country’s global rise and ambitions are shaping the daily lives of its people. @vwang3

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