China 'stabs itself in the eye' with pop culture regulations
Last week, controversy arose when Chinese social media platform Weibo imposed suspensions on over 20 K-pop fan accounts. While the measure has led the Korean public to resent that China is intentionally suppressing K-pop, experts say that it is only a small part of the Chinese government’s ongoing “Rectification Movement” to regulate China's pop culture and society in general. K-pop is in fact not being specifically targeted, and the crux of the matter is the Communist Party of China (CCP)’s desire for stronger control, experts say.
Between August and earlier this month, the Chinese government announced numerous strengthened regulations on its entertainment industry, especially fan activities online. According to China’s state-run newspaper Global Times, the Cyberspace Administration of China “ordered a heightened crackdown on the unhealthy online fandom culture, to reduce frenzied idol worshipping among underage fans” on Aug. 27.
Several measures ensued: celebrity fan accounts were suspended, China’s largest music platform QQ Music imposed a purchase limit so that one ID can purchase only one copy of a digital album and online platforms prohibited fan fundraisers. A fan club account for Jimin of boy band BTS received a harsher 60-day suspension because earlier this year, fans raised money to fly an airplane covered with photos of the singer in celebration of his birthday.
The measures seem to put a check on K-pop. However, weeks before suspending the two dozen K-pop fan accounts, Weibo had already suspended or banned at least 145 fan accounts for Chinese celebrities. Popular Chinese actor Zhao Liying even had her personal account suspended because her fans often incited online feuds. Her fan club accounts, which had over 2 million followers, were also suspended. The strengthened regulations apply equally on Chinese celebrities and are actually hitting them harder.
But why is the Chinese government recently feeling an increased need for stronger “rectification” and control?
“I doubt that the Chinese leadership is truly worried about young people spending too much money on fan activities or becoming overzealous,” said Park Kyung-suk, a history professor at Yonsei University who specializes in modern Chinese history. “That’s obviously a pretext. However, K-pop isn’t being particularly targeted either. The bigger reason is that [Chinese President] Xi Jinping doesn’t want to face the necessity of a political reform, yet is seeking a third term.” Xi’s current second term is set to end next year.
“So instead, he is laying the groundwork for his third term by strengthening control and tightening Communist discipline within Chinese society. The essence of recent policies is Xi tightening his grip, not about K-pop per se.”
On top of Xi’s personal ambitions, Park added that the CCP leadership most likely shares the view that some things have gone too far.
“The CCP has mostly been accepting of many Capitalist and Western elements, as they helped China accomplish rapid economic development,” he said. “But I think the CCP leadership has a certain standard in their minds on what ‘crosses the line’ by going too astray from Communist and Chinese values. That line is subjective, but once it is crossed, the leadership cannot tolerate that and starts imposing regulations.”
Another regulation announced earlier this month also shows the subjective nature of what the Chinese government is willing to control. On Sept. 2, China’s National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) instructed broadcasters to “promote China’s excellent traditional and revolutionary culture” and ban niang pao — a derogatory Mandarin term that roughly translates to “sissy men” — from appearing on television shows as part of that. The NRTA reasoned that effeminate, androgynous male celebrities promote “abnormal aesthetics.” Some state-run news outlets even presented photos of specific Chinese idols including Luhan, a former member of K-pop boy band Exo, as examples of niang pao.
Several Korean news outlets portrayed China’s ban on effeminate men as another measure to antagonize K-pop, since male K-pop idols are known for their signature “pretty boy” looks. Many Chinese online commenters have also been accusing hallyu, or the Korean wave, as the root cause of Chinese men turning “sissy,” claiming that K-pop boy bands directly influenced the niang pao style.
Although it is true that K-pop idols’ aesthetics have been wielding strong influence in other Asian countries, to think that these bans are strictly about K-pop is to miss the fundamental point, according to head researcher Kim Jin-woo of Korea’s album sales tracker Gaon Chart.
“Whether the regulation is on fan activities or effeminate men, the point is that the Chinese government’s decisions are made by a small group of people in the CCP leadership,” Kim said. “Hence the regulations often don’t make sense to the general public in both China and Korea. CCP leaders are mostly elderly men with conservative social views, and they also have the power to impose such bans since China is not a democracy. A lot of the Chinese government’s regulations are like this; banning something just because it can.
“This time, the regulations affected quite a few K-pop fan accounts, so Koreans are taking it personally and reading too much into it. But we must understand that China has always been controlling its entertainment industry. The policies are about control, not K-pop, and are often arbitrary.”
Long before the NRTA’s announcement this month, the Chinese government has consistently been criticizing men who diverge from conventional masculinity. In 2018, China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency condemned China’s male pop idols for creating a generation of “sissies” by wearing make-up and accessories. Several Chinese television shows sparked controversy in 2019 when they censored male celebrities’ earrings by blurring out their earlobes. The official niang pao ban is an extension of this stance, rather than to put a check on male K-pop idols in particular. The Chinese Embassy in Seoul also emphasized last week that the ban on K-pop fan accounts were not meant to target hallyu or Korean celebrities.
At the same time, experts added that although Beijing’s recent regulations do not specifically target K-pop, Chinese officials are still very conscious about hallyu’s rising popularity around the world.
“China has been striving to increase its soft power over the past decade, not only for international recognition but also to bolster national pride among its people,” Park said. “But the very existence of hallyu detracts from China’s efforts to present itself as a cultural superpower. As Korea’s soft power gains global recognition, including in China, China’s cultural contents become subject to comparison — and they honestly fall short of quality. Chinese officials can’t help but be conscious about hallyu and view it as competition.
“Someday if the CCP leadership deems that the influence of hallyu has grown too powerful and ‘crossed the line,’ it may start imposing regulations aimed at K-pop. But that wasn’t the case this time.”
Nonetheless, due to the per capita purchase limit on digital albums and ban on fan fundraisers, which are mostly held to buy albums in bulk, some fear that K-pop album sales will take a major hit. Ever since Korean singers became unable to hold concerts in China due to the Covid-19 pandemic, CD sales and digital downloads have been the main source of revenue for K-pop from China. Kim, however, says that fear is groundless according to the numbers.
“There’s been a vague expectation that since China has a large population, sales in China are also massive,” Kim said. “In reality, about 3 million K-pop CDs were sold in China last year while 42 million were sold worldwide. Three million in a nation of 1.4 billion is ridiculous; Japan and the United States bought much more. The K-pop industry has been overestimating the Chinese market solely based on population size. China is actually not that substantial of a market for K-pop in terms of CD sales.”
According to the Korea Customs Service, export revenue from global K-pop CD sales in 2020 rose by 78.2 percent compared to 2019. While the amount increased by 93.4 percent in Japan and 117.2 percent in the United States, it only grew by 26.9 percent in China.
“K-pop is widely popular in China, but the Chinese public still has low awareness of intellectual property rights, so illegally copied CDs and pirated music are rampant,” Kim added. “That’s why CD sales are disproportionately low in China, and it’s not a very profitable market for K-pop. About 50 million K-pop CDs are expected to be sold worldwide this year. Even if the purchase limit makes K-pop CD sales in China drop by half, it’s not that great of a damage. The K-pop industry shouldn’t be too worried.”
If anything, Kim believes that China has made self-destructive decisions for its own entertainment industry, likening the policies to "stabbing oneself in the eye."
“The strengthened regulations will hit China’s domestic pop industry the hardest,” he said. “Loyal fans of Chinese idols who used to buy 10 copies of a digital album are now forced to buy only one per person. That limit will reduce sales and make the Chinese music market unprofitable, leading to less content production and a further decline in the quality of the content. Who would want to invest more in a market that puts a limit on how much profit can be made? The Chinese government decided to stunt China’s rapidly growing entertainment market by its own hand, and the industry is now bound to regress.
“But to the CCP leadership, strengthening communist control and maintaining the regime is most important. So I doubt that the Chinese government cares whether China’s music industry dies out or not. The recent policies are a fatal blow to China’s music industry, much more than it affects K-pop.”
BY HALEY YANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]