Echoes of the Cultural Revolution are reverberating throughout China today, with the Chinese government harking back to the past and placing curbs on many aspects of ideology and culture.
As pointed out in a recent story published by Japan-based newsmagazine Nikkei Asia, “the use of cultural avenues to tighten the [CCP’s] grip on society is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, when young people, egged on by Mao, attacked intellectuals and leaders of the old guard.” Recently, Chinese fans of K-pop sensation Park Ji-min (known as Jimin) to mark his upcoming birthday were harshly rebuked by the CCP. Even otherwise, the Chinese entertainment industry has been put on notice that it must either self-regulate—or risk facing disciplinary action if found to violate recent norms introduced by the CCP.
Targeting the entertainment industry
According to an article posted to New York Times-affiliated newspaper Korea JoongAng Daily, a Chinese fan club had raised funds in August to have an airplane plastered with photos of Korean popstar Jimin and a birthday banner for his 26th birthday set for October 13 of this year. Subsequently, the Chinese microblogging service Sina Weibo, on which photos of the customized plane had been widely circulated, suspended the fan club’s account for 60 days. According to Weibo, the offense cited was “irrational star-worshipping behavior,” which issued a statement pledging to “handle such behavior in a serious manner.” Weibo’s swift response is seen as part of a larger clampdown on “fandom culture” by the CCP, fearing that such fandom could get out of control if spread unchecked.
President Xi Jinping’s efforts to shape the minds of Chinese youth and control Chinese culture have begun to resemble the tactics employed by Mao Zedong. An example of the support for Xi’s directions is evidenced in a piece by blogger Li Guangman, in which he praises Xi’s efforts and echoes the current mindset within the CCP. The article opens with a summary of recent restrictions placed on China’s entertainment industry to curb the influence of celebrities, which follows last year’s suspension of the blockbuster IPO of China’s Ant Group, the fining of Alibaba, and the crackdown on “fandom culture.” All of these moves have come amid intensified calls by Xi, and the state media, for China to pursue a renewed form of “shared prosperity” (gòngtóng fùyù). The article argues that Beijing’s intervention in industries such as entertainment, technology, and business is driving a “profound transformation” or even a “revolution.” The article was picked up and carried by numerous Chinese state media, including Xinhua News Agency, the People’s Daily, China Military Online, and China Central Television’s website.
Coincidentally, this incident calls to mind criticism of the Peking opera Hai Rui Submits His Memorial, which the Chinese government banned in the mid-1960s. The play was initially printed in the Shanghai-based daily Wenhui Bao but ultimately triggered the Cultural Revolution. In August 2021, multiple Chinese celebrities—including highly successful businessmen, were fined, fired, or otherwise punished for various offenses, including tax evasion. Chinese actress Zheng Shuang was fined 299 million yuan (approximately $46 million) for tax evasion last month, about the same time that actress and Fendi brand ambassador Zhao Wei had her name removed from all works on major entertainment platforms. Chinese actor-singer Zhang Zhehan was similarly punished, and de-platformed after old photos of the actor resurfaced, showing him visiting the Yasukuni War Shrine in Tokyo, Japan, sparking an online nationalist backlash.
Just how seriously the CCP takes this process of indoctrination is evident from the conduct of a Chinese entertainment industry symposium, held on September 7, during which attendees were told to ensure they acted “with morality” in both public and private. The seminar was held in Beijing under “Love the Party, love the Country and Advocate Morality and Art.” According to state media reports, the event was attended by senior Communist Party officials, who introduced new regulations on industry practices and the required behavior of celebrities.
According to state media reports, attendees were told that they must “consciously abandon vulgar and kitsch inferior tastes, and consciously oppose the decadent ideas of money worship, hedonism, and extreme individualism.” The CCP has already banned some reality shows, restricted social media “fan culture,” and ordered broadcasters to resist “abnormal aesthetics” such as “sissy” men. They have also targeted those whom they deem to be “vulgar influencers,” stars with “inflated pay,” and performers with “lapsed morals.” The entertainment sector is just the latest to be targeted by the CCP. Before that, the Chinese tech industry has faced waves of regulatory changes and investigations in recent months and years. Online gaming has been strictly curtailed in the name of protecting children, and social media companies have been ordered to tackle the “chaos” of celebrity fandom, including the use of popularity-ranked blacklists of persons and productions deemed “problematic” by authorities.
Controlling the business class
The CCP’s Propaganda Department has declared that the Party will tighten oversight of artists and intensify the ideological education of children, indicating that the CCP wants the entertainment industry to join the media as a subservient mouthpiece for the Party. The other aspect of the Chinese state’s newfound desire to control society can also be seen in the CCP’s efforts to control Chinese businesses and professionals. The Cultural Revolution also starkly demonstrated the fatal impact it had on China’s economy. The domestic economy shrank in three out of the ten years during that period and only got back on track following Deng Xiaoping’s introduction of the “reform and opening up” policy in the late 1970s.
One instance of this tactic was seen when Alibaba Group Holding Limited was thrust into the spotlight on Weibo. A user posted a question asking if he could withdraw money from Alipay (a unit of Alibaba Group), given Jack Ma’s ties to multiple celebrities caught up in the recent purge. The post showed how Ma—who has been in Beijing’s crosshairs before—remains in a precarious position, raising concerns about whether Alipay would continue operating. The CCP’s current efforts to clamp down on the domestic entertainment and business industries are reminiscent of Mao’s use of the Cultural Revolution to target his political enemies. Many big names in the technology sector have ties to former president Jiang Zemin. For instance, the family of Zeng Qinghong, Jiang’s former vice president and close aide, is highly influential in the entertainment industry.
Education, too, is a casualty of new Chinese policy
The CCP is also tightening its grip on education. In the new school year that began in September, Chinese students in elementary, middle, and high schools will be required to study “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (abbreviated “Xi Jinping Thought”), and will have to memorize aphorisms from President Xi found in their “Moral Education” textbooks. Ideological education linked to a specific leader is widely regarded by critics as bordering on a personality cult. The prospect of “a return of the Cultural Revolution—which was brought about because Mao concentrated too much power in his own hands—is terrifying,” said one source within the CCP.
In their paper “Truth, Good and Beauty: The Politics of Celebrity in China,” Jonathan Sullivan and Séagh Kehoe conclude that Chinese celebrities are being used as “a vehicle for promoting socialist values and patriotism” and for obtaining “orderly progress towards a modern society under the leadership of the Communist Party.” This indicates that the CCP’s approach towards dealing with society—particularly the business and entertainment industries—is aimed at regulating aspects that it considers detrimental to its larger goals and is likely to have a lasting impact on Chinese society, just as the Cultural Revolution did in the 1960s.
Welcome to China’s Cultural Revolution 2.0.
• Dr. Jianli Yang is founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China and the author of “For Us, The Living: A Journey to Shine the Light on Truth.”