BY Alvin Li in Music , Opinion | 26 FEB 18

What a Hip Hop Ban and TV Blackface Skit Tell Us About Chinese Soft Power

Two controversial events suggest a precarious relationship between China’s culture industry and the state’s soft power project

BY Alvin Li in Music , Opinion | 26 FEB 18

For those of us in China’s cultural industries it’s been difficult to relax over this year’s Lunar New Year holiday. A year ago, we were perhaps parsing the implications of Donald Trump’s presidency and feeling optimistic about China’s future. Now, much of that optimism has dissipated in the wake of Beijing’s recent draconian suburban slum clearances, and two events that have sparked widespread controversy and outrage – namely, a state-issued ban on depictions of hip hop culture on mainstream media channels and a comedy sketch on the state TV’s annual New Year Gala that has led to accusations of racism. Together, the two events prompt a reflection on the precarious relationship between the country’s culture industry and the state’s soft power project.

On 15 February 2018, China Central TV (CCTV), the state television network based in Beijing, screened its annual New Year’s Gala. Since 1983, the gala has been broadcast every year to a growing audience via multiple TV channels and radio, in China and abroad. (In 2012, it won the Guinness World Record for Most Watched National Network TV Broadcast.) Its variety programme typically serves as a mirror for what the Communist Party considers to be appropriate entertainment in line with socialist values. 

Less than a month ago, a rumour went viral that the hip hop artist GAI, one of the winners of last year’s reality TV sensation, The Rap of China, had been invited to perform at the gala. His absence on 15 February seemed to confirm that the state has banned hip hop from TV and other mainstream media outlets. 

Cblock performance at YOLO music festival 2017, Shanghai. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; photograph: Jiangxiaobai

Though popularized by The Rap of China – whose first episode, aired on the online platform IQiyi, received 1.3 billion views in a month – Chinese hip hop culture goes further back. At the turn of the millennium, an increasing number of pop musicians in Taiwan, most of whom are Chinese diaspora from North America, first introduced it to local audiences by infusing the genre with distinctly Chinese musical elements. Chengdu and Chongqing, two cities in southwestern China with a combined population of around 45 million, have, in recent years, become the centre of a booming hip hop scene. A thriving internet culture (aided by widespread use of VPNs, which allow access to channels, such as YouTube and Soundcloud, banned by the Party) and the relatively lenient state censorship in the two second-tier southwestern cities have led to a decentralization of the country’s pop culture.

The Rap of China, 2018. Courtesy: IQiyi

Noticing this trend among the urban youth, Vice China premiered the two-part documentary, Rap in Southwest, in June 2017; just a few weeks later, The Rap of China aired. The show was essentially an adaption of the South Korean rap reality show, Show Me the Money (2012–ongoing). Working with four celebrity producers who also serve as judges, a mix of underground and ‘idol’ rappers (those already signed to labels) compete for the prize of one million RMB. The show achieved huge commercial success, reaching more than 200 million viewers per episode. One of the contest’s most hyped sub-plots featured MC Jin, who participated under the pseudonym HipHopMan. The first Asian-American rapper to be signed to a major US record label, in the early 2000s, Jin was eliminated in the show’s 7th round. (Born in Miami to parents from Hong Kong, Jin speaks fluent English and Cantonese, but not Mandarin.)

From the United States to South Korea, to China, the transnational movement of pop (in the combined form of a rap reality show) is predicated on a logic of fetishization and appropriation. The enormous success of The Rap of China can be largely attributed to its calculated deployment of a core narrative: that China can produce its own, authentic hip hop culture. Take the elimination of MC Jin: a deliberate plot device that serves to affirm the win of homegrown rappers over their (Asian-)American predecessors. This call for authenticity holds mass appeal to a growing Chinese middle class no longer satisfied with imported cultural products. Within this cycle, the emergent genre of Chinese rap is exploited by its pop culture industry. If early Chinese rappers’ use of local dialect seemed idiosyncratic, then their on-screen performances, candy-coated with layers of exotic Chinese instruments, have since become mainstream. 

MC Jin performance at Lotus. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; photograph: munyaradzi chawora

The official hip hop ban came two weeks after news of an adultery scandal surrounding PG One, the joint winner of The Rap of China. State media dug out an old song in which lyrics depicting drug use and misogyny spurred widespread criticism. Within a few days, PG One’s music was removed from every music streaming platform in China, and many other hip hop shows were cancelled. The official reason for the ban, given by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, was that drug use and promiscuity in rap lyrics depart from the moral conduct the Party demands of public figures. But, the ban has an economic dimension as well, aimed at a media company that had found a profitable business model which circumvented state control. Reality entertainment shows in China have been around for some 15 years, but most of these have been broadcast on national, provincial or prefectural TV networks, meaning greater censorial scrutiny. While online content is also monitored, the internet-based model of The Rap of China, gaining direct engagement with China’s growing urban middle-class, threatened to become much trickier to manage. (Immediately following the announcement of the ban, iQiyi announced its forthcoming programmes, which include two similar series: Idol Producer and Rexue Jiewu Tuan, which translates to ‘Hot-blooded Street Dance Crew’.)

Censorship in China is, of course, nothing new, but the hip hop ban is exceptional for its ambiguity, attracting a spectrum of readings by Western media, from the typical condemnation that it is an attack on freedom of speech to more controversial criticism pointing to racism.

This latter view, which associates the anti-hip hop backlash with the genre’s roots in African-American culture, was perhaps strengthened by an unfortunate sketch as part of the New Year’s Gala broadcast. To celebrate the completion of the Nairobi–Mombasa Madaraka Express railway, one of more than 20 Chinese-funded mega-projects underway in Africa today as part of President Xi’s flagship ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, the gala included a comedy sketch. A Chinese woman, with her face painted black and sporting giant fake buttocks, showed her gratitude to China’s contribution to Africa’s developing infrastructure. The media response in the West, where blackface has a history and cultural weight to which a mass Chinese audience is perhaps not fully attuned, was understandably, outrage.

The controversial Lunar New Year Gala skit, 2018. Courtesy: CCTV / Youtube

Presumably, the narrative of the skit, with all its provincial ‘naïveté’, was intended to embolden a large domestic public who find hope in a Sino-centric worldview and take pride in increasingly visible Chinese power plays abroad. Driven by anger and embarrassment at this episode, some in China took the issue online and have engaged in intense discussions in person and in writing. Hopefully the regrettable event can bear something productive, raising awareness of the near-total absence of these conversations locally and the lack of discourse surrounding colonialism and racism for those locked behind the ‘Great Firewall’. 

Together, the hip hop ban and the ill-judged propagandistic comedy sketch remind us of the increasing tension between China’s growing pop culture industry and the state. While the official stance on culture has greatly shifted since the late 1970s, the old thinking that directs popular culture toward nation-building at home and ‘soft power’ abroad is still strong. For Chinese rappers serious about their craft, it is perhaps time to think about nuanced strategies to resist the exploitative methods of the media industry; for China’s ‘soft power’ abroad to gain traction, however, its representation of other cultures needs some nuancing of its own.

Main image: MC Jin. Courtesy: Flickr / Creative Commons; photograph: Roberto Lee Fanfan Cortes 

Alvin Li is a writer, a contributing editor of frieze, and The Adjunct Curator, Greater China, Supported by the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, at Tate. He lives and works in Shanghai, China.