Celebrity names are vanishing from the credits of TV shows. “sissy male idols have been denigrated. Tech moguls were urged to donate billions to philanthropy. Last week, school went back with new rules that banned foreign textbooks and required more classes on the of leader Xi Jinping. Xi Jinping.
The changes are part of Xi’s new “common prosperity” campaign to narrow the gap between rich and poor and create “material and spiritual wealth.”
It’s a noble-sounding slogan. It sounds more like a top down purification than an economic strategy. Xi is determined to purge society of corruption, greed and moral failures he considers threats to socialism. While freewheeling capitalists have been targeted, Western influences and structural issues such as bloated state-owned businesses and a weak social security net remain unaddressed.
This has raised questions as to whether “common prosperity”, while intended to reduce inequality, is actually a strategy to consolidate political power and ideological control and blame the wealthy and famous for the country’s problems. Xi has been aggressive in his efforts to promote tech, education, and entertainment over the past month. He called on wealthy people and corporations to “give back more” to society at a time where the Communist Party is under increasing pressure from the economy cooling.
Tech titans have scrambled for a response. Tencent and Alibaba have each pledged more than $15.5 billion to “common prosperity” initiatives. Pinduoduo, ByteDance and Xiaomi founders have donated millions to charity.
Entertainers and entrepreneurs have attracted cult followings in China over the last few decades as their wealth burgeoned along with the country’s rapid growth. Booksellers sold stacks upon stacks of memoirs written by tech billionaires, who promoted the gospel of self-made wealth. Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma established an elite academy to train entrepreneurs.
Celebrity fan clubs became networks of mass mobilization, rallying millions of members to support their idols online with clicks and money. These clubs were publicly praised when they sent aid to Wuhan last year during the coronavirus lockdown.
But the winds have suddenly changed.
In August, actress Zheng Shuang was fined $46 million for tax evasion. After photos of Zhang Zhehan at a Japanese war shrine were circulated, Zhang Zhehan was expelled. Last month, Zhao Wei, a billionaire actress disappeared from China’s internet without any official explanation. According to the National Radio and Television Administration, eight points have been released by the agency to rid the entertainment industry of stars who are “fake and ugly
“. The plan stated that entertainers should not profit from their fame or be well-paid. It stated that they should promote traditional culture and establish a correct beauty standard. This includes naming “sissy icons,” which are men who use makeup or act feminine ,.
State-affiliated researcher Jiang Yu said in a recent interview with the party’s anticorruption commission that the “irrational expansion of capital” had corrupted China through the “much-hated” realms of celebrity fan culture, tech monopolies and private tutoring, which gives wealthier and middle-class students an unfair edge. He warned about the power of big money to manipulate culture and the arts. He stated that if capital is allowed to grow irrationally in the literary-art world, literature and art will lose their function as serving the people, socialism will be weakened, and China’s spiritual home will fall.
Several dozen celebrities signed a public statement for “literary and art workers” in Beijing last month. Movie stars Zhou Dongyu and Du Jiang read the statement aloud, condemning fan culture and the “deformed aesthetics” of “sissy men” as signs that entertainers had become “slaves of the market.”
Such grandiose language is common in Communist Party messages, but last week the rhetoric reached ominous heights when eight major party and state media outlets republished a commentary by a little-known blogger named Li Guangman, calling the series of crackdowns and new focus on “common prosperity” a “profound revolution.”
“This change will wash away all the dust,” he said. He said that the capital market would no longer be a place where capitalists can get rich quick. The cultural market won’t be a paradise for sissy stars. Public opinion and the news will not glorify Western culture. It is the return to red, of heroes and of hot-bloodedness.” The commentary raised concerns about a second Cultural Revolution. A few state voices seemed to disagree. Hu Xijin (editor of the state-run tabloid Global Times) criticized Li on Weibo’s use of “exaggerated terminology.” However, Li’s rant wasn’t retracted or censored. This suggests that authorities have tacitly approved.
Xi is a top-down government that does not include civil society, the free press, or the rule of laws. Openness and freedoms are viewed by Xi as “Western” and an ideology threat to the Communist Party’s authority. His party instead focuses on propaganda and punishment. They employ sweeping purges, micromanaged grid-level surveillance, and control.
That approach was strengthened by China’s claimed successes in containing COVID-19 and eradicating extreme poverty last year, said Bill Bikales, a developmental economist who advised United Nations agencies on China’s antipoverty campaign.
This has strengthened their confidence, and their hubris even. “The solution to any problem is to double down on campaign-style approaches.”
A long-term solution to reducing inequality, however, requires fewer slogans and deeper change, said Bikales. The policymakers should reduce infrastructure spending and inefficient, often state-owned enterprises and redirect the money to social protections. They should also reform the hukou system that blocks rural migrants from accessing the same benefits as urban residents. Bikales stated that Chinese leaders are “avoiding these hard decisions” and instead are grabbing donations from the private sector. This could hurt the Chinese economy and scare companies that have created millions of jobs in a time China most needs. Urban unemployment among Chinese ages 16-24 is at 16.2%, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, more than triple the national urban jobless rate of 5.1%.
Those statistics do not include the hundreds of millions of Chinese migrant workers who were struggling with a changing economy even before the pandemic hit. Scott Rozelle, a Stanford economist who spent three decades working on rural development in China, said a crisis is afflicting “the China we don’t see.”
As wages rise, labor-intensive factory jobs are moving overseas. Those who are still around are investing in more automation. They require fewer and better-educated workers. Rozelle stated that China should invest in rural education to allow workers to move up the ladder into higher-skilled jobs. Rozelle stated that none of the policies they are using is addressing the underlying problems. As China’s economy slows,
TV stars are easy targets for public anger. They may be used to distract from the increasing fear in Chinese families that each generation will have a better future than the previous. This anxiety is increasing the pressure on the party.
“There is anxiety about my kids in the future,” said Julia, a therapist in Shanghai who asked to use only her first name for protection. Middle-class parents in China’s richest cities fear that drastic changes could cause their families to fall back into poverty. She said: “All they need is for them to get married and not have the funds to buy housing or if one of the family members has to undergo a major surgery. This is why China’s highly competitive educational system is so strong. Acts like the recent crackdown on private tutoring will not ease the pressure on students and parents who view schooling as a way of securing their futures.
It has conversely increased teacher workloads and raised middle-class parents’ fears that their children will fall behind, said Jiang Xueqin, a Chengdu-based consultant who has worked in Chinese education since 2008.
“As long you have a social structure that allows a few people to have all the power, there will always be a middle class that is anxious, fragile, and insecure. Jiang stated that they will always look for ways to cheat the system. “The pie is getting smaller and you need to fight for the scraps.”
Ziyu Yang of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed research to this report.