(Don’t) fight the power

Amy Hawkins surveys the cultural landscape in the world’s second-largest economy.


A still from the music video 'Room Service', via the record label 88rising, by hip hop sensation Higher Brothers.

‘Just like a jigsaw puzzle, trying to find my place to be,’ belts out Xue Feng, lead singer of Beijing scream-punk band The Peppercorns. In a scruffy bar, tucked away in one of the city’s ancient alleyways, Xue and his ensemble – which includes a theremin, a Russian-invented electronic instrument dating from the early 20th century – pose the dilemma to a crowd of loyal, moody punk rockers.

The band has an angsty energy; the crowd is muted and focused – perhaps they too are pondering the point that Xue later puts to me: ‘Most Chinese indie music is unoriginal and still at the phase of imitation… Chinese Prince, Chinese Oasis, Chinese Guns N’ Roses, Chinese Radiohead, we have them all.’ While Western rock stars may be known for their hedonism as much as their music, their emulators in Beijing are outwardly better behaved – any gig ends on the dot at the scheduled time, and encores are rare.

Beijing’s live-music aficionados may see themselves as more subversive than the mainstream K-Pop (Korean pop) and more recently C-Pop (Chinese pop) idols that command mass adoration in China, but they are all beholden to the same government strictures, and tightly controlled performances is one of them.

There used to be more of a raucous indie music scene, flashes of which can still be seen. But, by and large, the city’s police, who in recent months have become pre-occupied with shutting down anything fun, will come knocking well before the sun comes up.

One way in which even the grungiest of musicians can curry favour with the local authorities, though, is to make their political allegiances clear. Nowhere is this more apparent than in China’s hip-hop scene.

Party’s delight

Grassroots hip-hop has existed for decades in China, particularly in the southern cities of Chengdu and Chongqing, where rappers spit rhymes in the distinctive Sichuan dialect. But in 2017, the notion of ‘Chinese hip-hop’ went mainstream as a breakout act, Higher Brothers, burst onto stages around the country and even achieved international attention; the Sichuan foursome were profiled by The New Yorker in March 2018.

Higher Brothers channelled the style and demeanour of US West Coast doyens from the 1990s, but with a Chinese twist. As well as rapping in a Chinese dialect, the topics they address are idiosyncratically Chinese: songs like ‘Made in China’ and ‘WeChat’ play with national references and concerns. ‘There’s no Skype, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram/ We use WeChat,’ raps Masiwei. Part of Higher Brothers’ appeal in China is that they have adopted subversive, youth-driven culture from the West and turned it into something unapologetically Chinese. Internationally, they buck the stereotypes of Chinese youths as studious, meek and unworldly.

But, in 2019, a celebration of all things Chinese is inextricable from Communist Party loyalty. The nationalist drumbeat of the CCP over the past two decades, and especially under President Xi Jinping – who popularized the slogan, the ‘Chinese Dream’ – has been that China’s glory days are back, and they are led by the Party.

So it was not surprising when in August 2019, two members of High Brothers, Melo and DZ Know, posted the Chinese flag on their blocked-in-China Instagram accounts. While a national flag might be innocuous, the posts came during the protests in Hong Kong, where the symbol was being used by Beijing loyalists to insist on their message that Hong Kong is a part of China.

It’s hard to imagine the likes of 2Pac or Biggie Smalls, in their heyday, swearing allegiance to the stars and stripes during a political crisis. The other two Brothers didn’t post Chinese flags on social media, so it’s likely that Melo and DZ Know’s flags were a personal choice rather than mandated by their management or higher powers. But in a country where censorship is ubiquitous and the Party is the ultimate gatekeeper of power, the lines between statements being forced, judicious or genuinely felt are blurry.

A star is gone

It’s not just musicians who feel the patriotic heat. In July 2018, the actress Fan Bingbing, who was China’s highest paid celebrity, with a net worth of $100 million, suddenly disappeared. She re-emerged three months later, having been accused of tax evasion, and was ordered to pay back $131 million. In her apology on social media, she begged for her fans’ forgiveness and wrote: ‘Without the Party and the state, without the love of the people, there would have been no Fan Bingbing!’

The reasons for Fan’s temporary downfall for an offence that is known to be widespread in the film industry are complex.1 But the nature of her apology highlighted the changing pressure on Chinese cultural luminaries: whereas in the 1990s the social contract for stars and normal people alike was that you could get rich quick if you stayed out of politics, now, the equation has changed. For high-profile figures, it is only by specifically leaning into politics, by making your enthusiasm for the government explicit, that your star can continue to rise.

Fan is one of the few Chinese actors who has gained some traction in Hollywood. A Vanity Fair profile of her tribulations noted that she was slated to star in Universal-backed movie 355, alongside Penélope Cruz and Lupita Nyong’o, but that the Chinese distributor pulled out because of the tax scandal. The film project is ongoing, but the hiccup revealed the extent to which Hollywood is tangled up with the capricious Chinese film industry, a trend that looks set to continue.

Alibaba Pictures, China’s largest film company – which in 2015 was valued at $10 billion compared to Paramount Pictures’ $4 billion – has been involved with an increasing number of Hollywood productions, including the Mission Impossible and Star Trek franchises. The company co-produced 2019’s The Wandering Earth, one of the few Chinese films to be released widely in the West. The music world is similarly intertwined, with Tencent in talks to buy a 10-per-cent stake of Universal Music Group.

Businesses in China are as beholden as celebrities to government loyalty: last year, to no-one’s surprise, Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma announced that he was a Communist Party member. Xi Jinping has pushed for all major companies to have CCP chapters. The effect on culture is that one way or another, those wanting access to Chinese finance or the 1.4 billion market of consumers, will have to triangulate. The making of Iron Man 3 is a case in point – it is cited as one of Fan’s Hollywood successes but, in reality, she only appeared in the Chinese version of the film. Her addition was to maximize the chances of it being one of the 34 foreign films approved for release in China each year.

This was a compromise in place of another compromise: the film was originally supposed to be a co-production with the Chinese company DMG Entertainment, but Marvel decided against this arrangement because of the creative control it would give DMG, despite the fact that co-production status would have guaranteed a release in China – hence the need for Fan.

While her addition may have appeased the censors, critics were not convinced. ‘The Chinese portion of the film is just terrible,’ the reviewer at the state-run People’s Daily declared. ‘It’s a pointless commercial with a lot of plot holes.’ Although the film was a commercial success in China, raking in $64.1 million in its opening weekend, many saw the added scenes as tokenistic. As one Chinese news anchor put it: ‘A good way to get Chinese on board is to just make a good movie.’