The clean-up of the entertainment industry, in the words of Li Guangman ‘will wash all the dirt, capital markets will no longer be paradise for capitalists to get rich overnight, cultural markets will no longer be heaven for sissy-boy stars, and news and public opinion will no longer be in the position of worshipping western culture.’
On 29 August 2021, more than 30 official media outlets at China’s central, provincial and municipal government levels reposted a 2,798-character long article entitled “Everyone can feel that a profound transformation is underway!” from Li Guangman’s official WeChat account. Li, a columnist and former editor of the Central China Electric Power, has justified China’s crackdown on the entertainment industry. In Li’s words, government’s actions from “suspension of Ant Group’s IPO, to the central government’s rectification of the economic order, anti-monopoly, to 18.2 billion yuan fine imposed on the Alibaba and the investigation of Didi Chuxing, to central government’s solemn commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the proposed path of common prosperity, and a series of recent actions to rectify chaos in the entertainment industry (娱乐圈乱象) tell us that mega changes are taking place in China and that spheres such as economic, financial, cultural, and political are undergoing a profound transformation (深刻的变革) or a profound revolution (深刻的革命). It marks a return from capitalist cliques (资本集团) to the masses (人民群众), a transformation from capital-centred (资本为中心) to people-centred (人民为中心). Hence, it is a political transformation (政治变革) with people as the mainstay, and all those who obstruct this people-centred transformation will be rendered useless. This profound transformation is also a return to the original intent of the CPC (中国共产党的初心), a return to a people-centred (以人民为中心) approach, and a return to the essence of socialism (社会主义本质).”
Surprisingly, the politically charged essay drew Hu Xijin’s criticism. Hu, the editor in chief of the jingoistic Global Times, opined that “the article made an inaccurate description of the situation, made use of some exaggerated language, deviated from the country’s major policies, and caused misleading.” Rather than pronouncing the measures to clean the entertainment industry as a “revolution”, Hu maintains that all is aimed to “further improve social governance” (社会治理). Hu sees the “profound transformation” as a continuous process of the reforms, rather than China “bidding farewell to the reforms”. These contradictory messages have given rise to the speculation that there are factions within the CPC supportive of each such view. Why has Li Guangman’s essay created such a storm in China? Was it intentional? Or must it be interpreted as “Bombard the headquarters” big-character poster of the Cultural Revolution 2? What are the plausible scenarios that the essay hints at?
One, the reasons behind the crackdown on the big-tech, edtech and now the entertainment industry range from curtailing the financial clout of the Shangai clique, cost of schooling and tutoring by the millennial Chinese in an ageing society, and China’s scandalous entertainment industry. According to Li Guangman, “scandals involving Wu Yifan, Huo Zun, Zhang Zhehan’s devil worship at Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine, and recent rape allegation against Hunan TV host Qian Feng have made people feel that the Chinese entertainment industry has already rotten to the core (烂透了).” Tax evasion by celebrities is cited as another reason. The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) has dealt a heavy blow to the celebrity “fan clubs” (饭圈). The State Taxation Administration (STA) on its part fined actress Zheng Shuang 299 million RMB (US$46 million) for tax evasion, and Zhao Wei and Gao Xiaosong were banned and their content taken off from various platforms. If Zheng Shuang and Zhang Zhehan invited the ire of netizens for visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, Zhao Wei wearing a dress made of Japanese military flag two decades back has also been subjected to condemnation by the xenophobic netizens. She is believed to be close to bigwigs like Jack Ma and Wang Lin, associated to the Shanghai clique. It is also believed that Zhao Wei’s censorship is also linked to investigations of Zhejiang party secretary, Zhou Jiangyong, for the celebrities, business tycoons and party bosses are in hand and glove and form a strong alliance. The clean-up of the entertainment industry, in the words of Li Guangman “will wash all the dirt, capital markets will no longer be paradise for capitalists to get rich overnight, cultural markets will no longer be heaven for sissy-boy stars (娘炮明星), and news and public opinion will no longer be in the position of worshipping western culture. It is a return to the revolutionary spirit (红色回归), a return to heroism (英雄回归), a return to courage and righteousness (血性回归).”
Two, it is also related to the promotion of “common prosperity” (共同富裕) and prevention and mitigation of major financial risks (金融风险) as could be discerned from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s remarks made on 17 August 2021. Xi had remarked that “It is necessary to strengthen the regulation and adjustment of high incomes, protect legal incomes in accordance with the law, reasonably regulate excessive high, and encourage high-income groups and enterprises to return more to the society.” This is the so-called “third distribution” the CPC has imposed on its billionaires and wealthy people, perhaps selectively. According to a new ruling, an individual holding deposits more than 500,000 RMB will be subjected to investigation. China’s bigtech companies like Tencent, Bytedance, Xiaomi, Meituan, Lenevo etc., groups have already “returned” more than US$5 billion to the society.
Three, Li Guangman’s essay also hints at levelling the “three great mountains” of education, medical care, and housing. Edtech has already come under the scanner and billions of dollars have been eroded from the market, with China bringing these companies under the antimonopoly and data security protection laws. Children’s access to online gaming has been restricted to three hours a day, and that also during weekends. The medical sector, where there is an unholy nexus between big pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and doctors could be the next for cleaning up. Hainan has already placed a new procurement system that has reduced the prices of drugs by 31.91%. The real estate sector, which was one of the pillars to place China’s economic growth on a solid trajectory, is riddled with problems. Though the sector accounts for around 14% of the national GDP, however, it also has the maximum bad debts amounting to US$7.7 trillion. The non-performing loans have reached a whopping 30% across the five largest banks to US$15 billion.
Finally, Li Guangman cautions China about US military threats, economic and technological embargo, financial attacks and political and diplomatic siege (政治及外交围剿). Li accuses the US of “waging biological warfare, cyber warfare, space warfare and public opinion war against China”. According to him, “In this hour, if we still rely on those big capitalists to fight the forces of imperialism and hegemonism, and if we continue to bow before US’s tittytainment strategy (奶头乐战略) and if we allow our young generation to lose their virility and masculinity, then we don’t need an enemy—we will have brought destruction upon ourselves.” No wonder, the hammer has also fallen on a fan club of popular South Korean K-pop band BTS for raising illegal funds. On 2 September, China’s National Radio and Television Administration issued a notice that puts a lid on reality shows like “Produce 101”. The article may not have a “Bombard the Headquarters” essay effect, however, it raises many questions about various social, political and economic contradictions brought into play amidst an intense power struggle within the rank and file of the CPC just before the 20th Party Congress next year. Until then, cleaning up of the “chaos” across various sectors is likely to go unhindered.
B.R. Deepak is Professor, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.