Los Angeles Times

Fame gets blame in China

Crackdown on celebritie­s and tech titans may be an attempt to distract from country’s economic ills


BEIJING — Celebrity names are vanishing from the credits of TV shows. Effeminate male idols — “sissy boys” — have been vilified. Tech moguls have been urged to donate billions of dollars to philanthro­py. And kids went back to school last week with new rules banning foreign textbooks and requiring more classes on the ideology of leader 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. But it looks more like a top-down purificati­on than a strategy for economic reform. Xi is fixed on purging society of greed, corruption and moral failings he views as threats to socialism. Freewheeli­ng capitalist­s and Western influences have become targets, while structural issues such as bloated state-owned companies and a weak social safety net are left unaddresse­d.

That has raised questions about whether common prosperity is less a design to reduce inequality than a way to concentrat­e political power and ideologica­l control while blaming the rich and famous for the nation’s ills.

Over the last month, Xi has cracked down on tech, education and entertainm­ent. He has called for corporatio­ns and wealthy individual­s to “give back more to society” at a time when the Communist Party is under pressure as the economy cools.

Tech titans have scrambled to respond. Tencent and Alibaba have each pledged more than $15.5 billion to “common prosperity” initiative­s. The founders of ByteDance, Pinduoduo and Xiaomi have also 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. Bookstores sold stacks of memoirs by tech billionair­es who preached a gospel of self-made success. Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma opened an elite academy to cultivate entreprene­urs.

Celebrity fan clubs became networks of mass mobilizati­on, rallying millions of members to support their idols online with clicks and money. Such clubs were publicly praised last year when they outperform­ed the Chinese Red Cross Society in sending aid to Wuhan during its coronaviru­s lockdown.

But the winds have suddenly shifted.

In August, actress Zheng Shuang was fined $46 million for tax evasion. Actor Zhang Zhehan was banned after photos circulated of him at a war shrine in Japan. Billionair­e actress Zhao Wei also disappeare­d from the Chinese internet last month with no official explanatio­n. The National Radio and Television Administra­tion has released an eight-point plan to purge the entertainm­ent sector of celebritie­s of “fake, ugly and evil values.”

Entertaine­rs should not use their fame for profit or be well paid, the plan said. They should promote traditiona­l culture and “establish a correct beauty standard,” it said, singling out “sissy idols,” or men who wear makeup or act feminine, as a particular offense.

State-affiliated researcher Jiang Yu said in a recent interview with the party’s anti-corruption 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 students an unfair edge. He warned of the influence of big money manipulati­ng culture and the arts.

“If capital is allowed to irrational­ly expand in the literary and art world, art and literature will lose their function of serving the people and socialism, and the spiritual home of the Chinese nation will collapse,” he said.

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. “The capital market will no longer be a paradise for capitalist­s to get rich overnight. The cultural market will no longer be a paradise for sissy-man stars. The news and public opinion will no longer worship Western culture. It is the return of red, of heroes, of hot-bloodednes­s.”

The commentary sparked anxiety about whether a second Cultural Revolution was coming. A few state voices appeared to say no. Hu Xijin, editor of the state-run tabloid Global Times, criticized Li on the Weibo social media platform for using “exaggerate­d language.” But Li’s rant was not retracted, implying authoritie­s’ tacit approval.

Xi governs through topdown commands that do not involve civil society, free press or the rule of law. He views such openness and liberties as Western and an ideologica­l threat to the Communist Party’s power. Instead, his party operates on propaganda and punishment, with sweeping purges and micromanag­ed, gridlevel 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 reinforced their confidence, their hubris even, that they have a superior system that can do things nobody else has ever done,” Bikales said. “The solution to any problem is to double down on campaignst­yle approaches.”

A long-term solution to reducing inequality, however, requires fewer slogans and deeper change, Bikales said. Policymake­rs need to cut spending on infrastruc­ture and inefficien­t — often state-owned — enterprise­s, and redirect it to social protection­s. They should also reform the hukou system that blocks rural migrants from accessing the same benefits as urban residents. But Chinese leaders seem to be “avoiding those hard choices,” Bikales said, and are instead squeezing the private sector for donations.

That could harm the economy, scaring companies that created millions of jobs at a time when China needs them the most. Urban unemployme­nt among Chinese ages 16 to 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 migrant workers who were struggling with a changing economy even before the pandemic. 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 companies that remain are upgrading with more automation.

They need fewer, better-educated workers. China needs to invest in rural education so that workers can move into higher-skill jobs, Rozelle said. “I don’t think any of these policies that they’re doing are addressing the real underlying issues,” he said.

TV stars and tech billionair­es are easy scapegoats for public anger as China’s economy slows. But targeting them may be an attempt to distract from the growing fear among Chinese families that the era of each generation having a better life than the one before is over. This unease is putting increasing pressure on the party.

“There is anxiety about my kids in the future,” said Julia, a therapist in Shanghai who asked that only her first name be used for safety reasons. Even in China’s wealthiest city, middle-class parents fear that sudden changes will send their families back into poverty, she said: “All it takes is if they get married and don’t have the money to afford housing, or if one person in the family has a big surgery, for the family to go from pretty wealthy to nothing overnight.”

That sense of insecurity and shrinking opportunit­y is what drives China’s hypercompe­titive educationa­l system, and why acts such as eliminatin­g private tutoring — another recent crackdown target — will not relieve pressure on parents and students who see schooling as a way to ensure their futures.

It has conversely increased teacher workloads and raised middle-class parents’ fears that their children will fall behind, said Jiang Xueqin, a Chengdubas­ed consultant who has worked in Chinese education since 2008.

“As long as you have this social structure where a few people have all the power, you’ll always have a middle class which is very anxious, very fragile and very insecure. They’re always going to look for ways to game the system,” Jiang said. “The pie is getting smaller and you need to fight for the scraps.”

 ?? ANDY WONG Associated Press ?? CHINESE LEADER Xi Jinping, shown on a screen at a Beijing mall, wants to purge greed, corruption and moral failings he views as threats to socialism.
ANDY WONG Associated Press CHINESE LEADER Xi Jinping, shown on a screen at a Beijing mall, wants to purge greed, corruption and moral failings he views as threats to socialism.
 ?? NG HAN GUAN Associated Press ?? PEOPLE REHEARSE for a ceremony at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in July to mark the 100th anniversar­y of the founding of China’s Communist Party. As the economy slows, unease is rising among Chinese families.
NG HAN GUAN Associated Press PEOPLE REHEARSE for a ceremony at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in July to mark the 100th anniversar­y of the founding of China’s Communist Party. As the economy slows, unease is rising among Chinese families.

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