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Blazing Memories: About the Comparison of the Notre Dame Fire to the Burning of the Old Summer Palace (Op-Ed)

Understanding why the Yuan Ming Yuan went trending in China after the Notre Dame fire.

Manya Koetse

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First published

A What’s on Weibo news article on Chinese online responses to the Notre Dame fire attracted very mixed reactions on English-language social media this week.

After the fire at the Notre Dame in Paris earlier this week, What’s on Weibo published an article describing Chinese online responses to the devastating blaze, and the ubiquitous comments that compared the destruction of the iconic French cathedral to the burning of the Chinese Old Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan) in Beijing by the Anglo-French army in 1860.

There have been many reactions to this story on various social media platforms. From one side, there were those who questioned why we would even publish an article like that, suggesting that our position in covering this trend was biased. On the other side, there were those who jumped into the discussion, blaming Chinese for playing the victim and ignoring the destruction of old historical buildings or Mosques within their own country over recent years.

The reactions to this article and overall trend show the polarized stances on social issues and media in China, and how to cover them. Some suggested that it was not fair to write down the “negative social media opinions of a few Chinese commenters,” saying that it “reflected badly” on China overall, or that they were “irrelevant.”

Covering the voices of a few dozen ‘trolls’ and presenting them as an ‘overall sentiment’ is not what we do at What’s on Weibo.

Some people pointed out that the comparison of the Notre Dame blaze to the burning of the Old Summer Palace was not something that most Chinese agreed with. As also covered in our article, there were indeed many commenters, including historians and Key Opinion Leaders, who opposed to the Yuan Ming Yuan trend in light of the Notre Dame fire.

The fact of the matter still is that the Old Summer Palace became a massive topic of online debate following the Notre Dame fire. Ignoring such a trend in covering Weibo responses to the tragic Paris incident would be a huge blind spot problem.

Instead of condemning these Chinese online responses, ignoring they are there, or trivializing their relevance, it is perhaps more constructive to consider where they come from, and understanding that the history of the Old Summer Palace is still deeply ingrained in the collective memory of the Chinese people and nation.

Before further elaborating on this, let’s first go back to the trend itself.

 

From Notre Dame to Yuan Ming Yuan

 

As news of the catastrophic fire that engulfed the Notre Dame Cathedral (巴黎圣母院) in Paris on Monday made headlines across the world, the Old Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan 圆明园) suddenly became a trending topic on Chinese social media.

Besides all the people who mourned the destruction of the historic cathedral, and those who posted photos of their previous visits to the scenic spot, there were many Chinese netizens who started addressing the plundering and burning down of the Yuan Ming Yuan (“Garden of Perfect Brightness”) in 1860, leading to the Notre Dame and the Old Summer Palace becoming top trending topics on Weibo at the same time.

As Notre Dame goes trending on Weibo, so does the Old Summer Palace (top 4 top trending).

On April 18, WeChat self-media account Fang Zhouzi (方舟子) wrote about the reaction: “On Chinese internet, a peculiar response started to emerge, as many people suddenly started remembering the burning of the Yuan Ming Yuan by the Anglo-French forces 159 years ago, and thereupon saying that the Notre Dame deserved to be burned.”

It is unclear who first drew a comparison between the Notre Dame and the Yuan Ming Yuan, but on April 16, actor Zhou Libo (周立波) wrote on Weibo that “compared to the Yuan Ming Yuan, the Notre Dame is just a garden.” A former editor at the Phoenix News Military Channel, Jin Hao (金昊), also published an article on WeChat titled “Mourning it, my ass! I’m pleased with the big fire at Notre Dame” (“哀悼个屁!巴黎圣母院大火,我很欣慰!”) (since deleted).

On other social media sites, such as Douban, people also started posting blogs with titles such as “the Notre Dame collapse makes me think of the Old Summer Palace” (“巴黎圣母院的倒塌让我想起了圆明园”).

An exploration of search queries on Chinese search engine Baidu shows that at the time when ‘Notre Dame’ peaks as a query on April 16, so does the term ‘Yuan Ming Yuan.’ Similarly, on Google Trends, the Chinese query ‘Notre Dame’ shows the Yuan Ming Yuan Park as the number two related topic in its overview of the past week.

Baidu trends show that both the search terms ‘Notre Dame’ (A) and ‘Yuan Ming Yuan’ (B) simultaneously peak on April 16.

At time of writing, there are dozens of pages on Weibo filled with comments relating to the Notre Dame/Old Summer Palace comparison. We won’t list many of them here, but some of the comments include reactions such as: “Now you can also experience how it feels when art and culture are burned,” “I might have a narrow sense of patriotism, but seeing the Notre Dame burn makes me happy inside,” and “even a hundred Notre Dames still don’t make the Old Summer Palace,” with many netizens claiming that the loss of the Old Summer Palace was just as bad, or rather worse, than the destruction of the Notre Dame.

These collective responses to the Notre Dame fire also drew much criticism. State media outlet CCTV published an article that condemned the comparison of the Notre Dame and the Old Summer Palace, stating that people “should not vent their emotions in the name of history” (Li Xuefei 2019).

Various other news channels also published critique, including one article titled “The Notre Dame fire as retribution for the burning of Yuanmingyuan? Please stop this inhumane line of reasoning” (“巴黎圣母院大火是烧圆明园的报应?快停下反人类思维”).

As covered in our previous write-up, there were also many voices on Weibo denouncing the trend. One of them was Yan Feng (严锋), a professor at Fudan University, who posted:

The Notre Dame cathedral was constructed in 1163, the Yuan Ming Yuan was destroyed in 1860. The people who burned the Yuan Ming Yuan were not the people who built the Notre Dame of Paris. They were separated by 700 years. The French feudal separatists were in no way French according to modern-day standards. Every injustice has its perpetrator and every debt its debtor, why should you let the Notre Dame bear the responsibility of burning down the Yuan Ming Yuan?

“First of all, we are people, then we are Chinese,” another popular comment said: “The loss of such a historical cultural gem is a loss for all mankind.”

 

Collective Memories of Yuan Ming Yuan

 

In October of 1860, British and French troops sacked and burned the Old Summer Palace, which was once a massive complex consisting of more than a hundred buildings, pavilions, and scenic spots, built since the 17th century for the Qing emperors.

The event took place at the end of the Second Opium War. Unsatisfied with the Treaty of Nanjing and, among others, demanding more Chinese cities and ports to open for trade, the Anglo-French army invaded Beijing in 1860. They plundered the Yuan Ming Yuan, which was filled with books and art treasures. The burning came afterward, to destroy the evidence of their looting. The fire blazed for three days and three nights, leaving the enormous palace grounds in ruins (Chey 2009, 79).

The site of the once magnificent Old Summer Palace is now the Yuanmingyuan Ruins Park, an initiative that was set up in the 1980s after decades of neglect. In “The Ruins of Yuanmingyuan,” Haiyan Lee calls the site a “national wound” (2009). It is a symbolic space, where the ruins remind visitors of the injustice China once suffered at the hands of Western powers.

This injustice is an important incident in China’s so-called “Century of Humiliation,” the time from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s during which China was attacked, weakened, and torn by foreign forces.

The “Century of Humiliation” still plays an important role in China today, as young people are also taught that this historical consciousness is important. The four character slogan “Wù wàng guóchǐ” (勿忘国耻), “Never forget national humiliation”, is frequently repeated in Chinese media, museums, schools, documentaries, and in popular culture.

Young Chinese students carrying a sign “Never Forget National Humiliation”, image via Xinhua.

As described in the insightful work by Zheng Wang, Never Forget National Humiliation, the historical memory of China’s era of humiliation has become part of Chinese national identity, promoted in official discourse, and often unconsciously yet profoundly influencing people’s perceptions and actions. This is also what collective memory is: an accumulation of memory-forming processes that take place on both conscious and non-conscious levels (Koetse 2012, 10).

The Yuan Ming Yuan Park is a particularly significant cultural heritage site where the remembrance of the humiliations and injuries China suffered at the hands of foreign imperialists comes to life through the ruins (Lee 2008, 169).

 

Blazing Memories

 

Collective memory and nations are tied together in many ways, as historical memories serve as an important vehicle to unify the nation. They also play an important part in how people from different communities, societies, or nations will interpret big or important events that happen in the world today.

When certain news makes headlines, it is not uncommon for people to reflect on it speaking from their own experiences and the collective memory of their own nation or bigger community – especially when the place where it happens is far removed from them.

This is not unique to China. To grasp, process, and comment on faraway incidents, it is sometimes easier to relate it to something that is closer to you.

Former American first lady Michelle Obama visited Paris earlier this week for her book tour, and told the audience about how shocked she was about the Notre Dame blaze, briefly comparing the incident to the devastating American 9/11 attacks.* Does it make sense to compare the burning of the Notre Dame to the 9/11 attacks? Perhaps not. Yet Obama was not the only one to raise the 9/11 events; some on Twitter even called the burning of the Notre Dame “a cultural 9/11” disaster.

Seeing the overwhelming responses to the Notre Dame fire on Chinese social media, where so many people linked it to Chinese history, the reaction perhaps should not be whether these online responses and media discussions were either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – instead, it is important to understand where they come from, and how people from various backgrounds, cultures, or religions, often use their own cultural or social frameworks, historical narratives, and dominating ideas to make sense of what is happening around them.

As the Notre Dame trend on Chinese social media shows, but what’s beyond the scope of this article, is that the mechanisms of online nationalism and anti-foreign sentiments often also come into play once these memory-machines start running.

In the end, the Notre Dame fire actually has nothing to do with the history of the Old Summer Palace. But the news of the Notre Dame blaze was enough reason for many Chinese netizens to trigger and bring up this memory of Chinese suffering that still exists in the minds of the people today.

Instead of condemning that, or trivializing news reports on these trends, one could try to understand it, and then see it as a completely separate issue from the Notre Dame fire – as many people on Weibo also do.

By Manya Koetse

Recommended reading:

References

Fang Zhouzi 方舟子. 2019. “巴黎圣母院和圆明园有什么关系?” April 18, Fang Zhouzi / Self-Media WeChat link[4.18.19].

Koetse, Manya. 2012. “The ‘Magic’ of Memory. Chinese and Japanese Re-Remembrances of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).” Research Master thesis, Leiden University.

Lee, Haiyuan. 2009. “The Ruins of Yuanmingyuan – Or, How to Enjoy a National Wound.” Modern China 35 (2): 155-190.

Li Xuefei 李雪菲. 2019. “巴黎圣母院火灾怎能与火烧圆明园混为一谈 狭隘的民族主义可休矣.” April 16, CCTV,Sina News https://finance.sina.com.cn/roll/2019-04-16/doc-ihvhiqax3118848.shtml [4.18.19].

Ong, Siew Chey. 2009. China Condensed: 5, 000 Years of History & Culture. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish International.

Weatherley, Robert D., and Ariane Rosen. 2013. “Fanning the Flames of Popular Nationalism: The Debate in China over the Burning of the Old Summer Palace.” Asian perspective 37(1):53-76.

Zheng Wang. 2012. Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations. New York: Columbia University Press.

* Segment on Michelle Obama in Paris from Dutch “Talkshow M” of April 17th, 36.00 min.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please email us.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Wulfgul

    April 18, 2019 at 8:10 pm

    Might as well cover this article while you are at it.

    https://www.weibo.com/ttarticle/p/show?id=2309404362357362038276#_0

    • Avatar

      Admin

      April 19, 2019 at 11:52 am

      Wow, very interesting, thank you. Think we’ve written enough about this topic for now though. Thanks anyway!

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China Insight

“Support Xinjiang MianHua!” – China’s Social Media Storm over Xinjiang Cotton Ban

The hashtag “Wo Zhichi Xinjiang Mianhua” – “I Support Xinjiang Cotton” – received over 6 billion views on Weibo.

Manya Koetse

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Western brands faced heavy criticism in China this week when a social media storm erupted over the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and its brand members for no longer sourcing from China’s Xinjiang region. The ‘Xinjiang cotton ban’ led to a major ‘Xinjiang cotton support’ campaign on Weibo, and a boycott for those brands siding with BCI.

In 2019, an extensive brand ‘witch hunt’ took place on Weibo and other Chinese social media networks in light of the protests in Hong Kong, with international fashion and luxury brands, from Versace to Swarovski, getting caught in the crossfire for listing Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan as separate countries or regions – not part of China – on their official websites or brand T-shirts.

Now, another brand ‘witch hunt’ is taking place on Chinese social media. This time, it is not about Hong Kong, but about Xinjiang and its cotton industry.

H&M, Uniqlo, Nike, Adidas and other international brands have caused public outrage for the stand they’ve taken against the alleged use of forced labor involving the Muslim Uyghur minority to produce cotton in China’s western region of Xinjiang.

The social media storm started earlier this week on Wednesday, March 24, and is linked to H&M and the ‘BCI’ (Better Cotton Initiative), a Swiss NGO that aims to promote better standards in cotton farming.

In October 2020, H&M shared a statement on its site in which the Swedish retailer said it was “deeply concerned” over reports of forced labor in the production of cotton in Xinjiang, officially Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

H&M stated that it would no longer source cotton from Xinjiang, following the BCI decision to suspend licensing of BCI cotton in the region.

 

BCI and its Suspension of Activities in Xinjiang

 

The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is the largest cotton sustainability program in the world. It practices across 23 countries and accounts for 22% of global cotton production. The governance group was established in 2005 in cooperation with WWF and leading retailers, with the aim of promoting the widespread use of improved farm practices.

While H&M is a ‘top member’ of the Better Cotton Initiative (link), many others brands such as IKEA, Gap, Adidas, Nike, Levi’s, and C&A are also brand members.

January 2020
In January of 2020, the BCI was slammed by Dr Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow with the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington DC, for its refusal to pull out of the Xinjiang region. At the time, 20 percent of its ‘better cotton’ was sourced from Xinjiang, which is China’s largest cotton growing area.

According to a 2020 report by EcoTextile, the BCI maintained that its implicated council member, the yarn producer Huafu, denied the allegations and that an independent audit of the company’s Aksu facility in Xinjiang had failed to identify any instances of forced labor. An earlier report by Adidas from 2019 also stated that their independent investigations found no evidence of forced labor.

March 2020
In late March of 2020, the BCI reportedly did suspend activities with licensed farmers in the Xinjiang region for the 2020/21 cotton season while also contracting a global expert to conduct an external review of the Xinjiang situation. Chinese state media Global Times later reported that despite suspending its licensing activities, the BCI would remain committed to cotton farming communities in Xinjiang and would continue to engage in activities in the region.

July 2020
The pressure on BCI and other brands to stop sourcing from Xinjiang was heightened when a coalition of civil society groups raised concerns over the treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority in China and the “grave risk of forced labor.” Reuters reported that more than 180 organizations urged brands from Adidas to Amazon to end sourcing of cotton and clothing from the region and cut ties with any suppliers in China that would benefit from the alleged forced labour of Uyghur other Muslim groups.

October 2020
In October of 2020, the Better Cotton Initiative announced it would cease all field-level activities in Xinjiang with immediate effect because the region had reportedly become “an increasingly untenable operating environment.” The aforementioned statement by H&M came out in the same month.

March 2021
By late March 2021, various Chinese state media reported on the BCI suspension. These reports came days after a coordinated effort by the United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada to impose sanctions on Chinese officials over China’s alleged human rights violations and abuses in Xinjiang, something which was called a “concerted effort to slander China’s policies in its Xinjiang region” by Global Times. The news outlet linked these “anti-China forces’ efforts” to the BCI decision to suspend its Xinjiang activities.

 

A Social Media Storm over Xinjiang Cotton

 

The news developments were followed by a wave of social media boycott movements and Chinese brand ambassadors cutting ties with international brands, with H&M being the main target over its Xinjiang statement.

Chinese e-commerce platforms Taobao, JD.com, Pinduoduo, Suning.com, and Meituan’s Dianping on Thursday all removed H&M from their platforms, with Chinese Android app stores also removing H&M. On Thursday, a search for “H&M” came up with no results on these sites (see images below).

Two of China’s largest online maps also removed H&M from its systems.

No H&M on these maps.

On Thursday, virtually all topics in Weibo’s top trending lists related to the Xinjiang cotton ban (see image below), with Chinese famous influencers and celebrities one by one announcing they would terminate their contracts with international brands related to the Xinjiang cotton ban.

The storm became so big this week that some people on social media even commented that “if you’re a Chinese celebrity and you don’t have any contracts to terminate now, you’re not doing so well.”

After H&M, an entire list of brands was targeted, including Adidas, Nike, Calvin Klein, New Balance, Tommy Hilfiger, Uniqlo, Converse, Puma, Burberry, and Lacoste.

In light of the heated discussions and calls for boycotts, there was also another hashtag that popped up on Weibo, namely that of “don’t make it hard for the workers” (不要为难打工人). The hashtag came up after some Chinese staff members at Nike and Adidas stores were scolded on a live stream, with netizens calling on people to stay rational and not let the boycott turn into personal attacks on people. But another popular video showed a man in Chongqing calling customers out in an H&M store for buying their “trash.”

Another hashtag gaining many views, 520 million in total, was that of two ‘girls from Xinjiang dancing outside H&M’ (#新疆小姐姐在HM门店外跳新疆舞#) – it was linked to a video that showed two women performing outside of a H&M store in Chongqing.

Meanwhile, some brands, including Chinese company Anta Sports and the Japanese Asics, reportedly announced they would leave the Better Cotton Initiative in order to continue sourcing cotton from Xinjiang.

The discussions on Xinjiang as Weibo saw this week are unprecedented, as ‘Xinjiang’ was previously a sensitive topic on Chinese social media and was barely discussed in political contexts. The last time Xinjiang became a big topic of discussion on Chinese social media was in 2018, when CCTV aired a program on the region’s “vocational education programs” in Xinjiang. That media moment triggered mixed reactions on Weibo, with some commenters wondering what the difference between a ‘re-education center’ and a ‘prison’ is.

 

Chinese State Media and the ‘Xinjiang Cotton Ban’

 

While Chinese netizens and celebrities play a major role in the storm that erupted over BCI, H&M, and Xinjiang cotton, the role of Chinese state media is pivotal.

Over the past week, various state media outlets posted strong messages regarding the ban in various ways, the most noteworthy one being People’s Daily‘s “I Support Xinjiang Cotton” (#我支持新疆棉花#) hashtag, which had garnered six billion views by the weekend. “The H&M Group released a statement that sparked outrage among netizens. Let’s pass it on together: Support Xinjiang Cotton,” the tagline of the hashtag page said.

The message came with an image saying “Xinjiang Mianhua” (Xinjiang cotton) in a similar font to the H&M logo, the “H” and “M” within ‘mianhua‘ being identical to the H&M letters.

The image and post by People’s Daily was shared over 36 million times.

A message by People’s Daily: those who slander China are not welcome.

Another image by People’s Daily published on March 25 said that the Chinese market does not welcome those who slander China.

The Communist Youth League also contributed to the online storm by posting about H&M, writing: “On the one hand they are starting rumors and boycotting Xinjiang cotton, on the other hand they want to make money in China. Dream on, H&M!” That post received around 430,000 likes.

Various official media, including Global Times and China Daily, posted about cotton production in Xinjiang. Besides refuting the forced labor accusations and accusing Western players of hypocrisy and ulterior motives, a recurring issue stressed is how 42 percent of Xinjiang’s cotton is harvested by machines. Ministry of Commerce spokesman Gao Feng was quoted as saying that “the so-called forced labor in Xinjiang is nonexistent and entirely imaginary. The spotless white Xinjiang cotton brooks no slander.”

This image was posted by China Daily USA.

On March 27, People’s Daily posted a rap video by ‘Xinjiang Youth’ (新疆青年) on its official Weibo channel (video below) that included some tough lines attacking Western powers, companies, and media.

Also noteworthy in this propaganda campaign is how the Canadian YouTuber Daniel Dumbrill got caught up, as what he said in one of his videos was quoted by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying (华春莹) on March 27 during a press conference, with his video being screened before the conference.

In this video, that was part of a larger panel on Xinjiang, Dumbrill responded to the decision-making process on how China’s treatment of Uyghurs is called a “genocide.”

Recently, a number of countries and parliaments including the U.S., Canada and the Netherlands have declared that China’s crackdown on the Muslim minorities amounts to “genocide” in violation of the U.N. Genocide Convention. Dumbrill talks about why the Xinjiang narratives matter to both the foreign and domestic politics of the US and other Western countries, with Dumbril claiming it “isn’t really about human rights and a care for overseas Muslims” but about other political goals. Dumbrill’s video was praised by authorities, state media, and by Chinese netizens.

“We have to push for the truth to come out,” some netizens commented. Others wrote: “But we’re only allowed to discuss it from within [the country].”

Meanwhile, while many companies are seeing sales falling, there are also many who are benefiting from the current developments. Some sellers on Taobao have found another way to attract customers, promoting their products as being made with “100% Xinjiang Cotton!”

As this is an ongoing topic, we will report more later. Meanwhile, don’t forget to follow us on Twitter.

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Miranda Barnes

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©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Arts & Entertainment

“Love the Motherland” – New Moral Guidelines for Chinese Performers Come Into Force

New “Self-Disciplinary Measures” for performers in China come into force on March 1st.

Manya Koetse

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On February 5th of 2021, the China Association of Performing Arts (中国演出行业协会), which is run by China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, officially released new guidelines for Chinese performers in order to promote the idea that Chinese performers should abide by rules of ‘social morality,’ stating they could face a permanent ban from their profession if they fail to comply.

The guidelines, that come into force on a trial basis starting from March 1st, are meant to “promote the healthy development of the performer industry” (“促进演出行业健康发展”). It is the first time for the Association, which was established in 1988, to introduce “clear regulations” in this way.

The regulations are presented as being “self-disciplinary measures” for actors, musicians, dancers, opera performers, acrobats, and any other people engaged in performing within China.

Part of the article presented by the China Association of Performing Arts includes the “practice norms”, which stipulate that performers, among other things, should abide by national laws and regulations, should honor their contracts and comply with copyright laws. The article also lists other things. For example, performers should:

 

  • “..love the motherland, and support the Party’s line and policies” (“热爱祖国,拥护党的路线方针政策”)
  • “..persevere in the orientation that literature and art should serve the people and socialism” (“坚持文艺为人民服务、为社会主义服务的方向”)
  • “..actively uphold a positive image” (“积极树立正面形象”)
  • “..actively participate in social charity events, help the development of public welfare undertakings, consciously put social responsibility into practice” (“积极参与社会公益活动,助力公益事业发展,自觉践行社会责任”)

 

Another part describes what performers are not allowed to do. Among other things – of which some seem obvious, such as ‘do not violate the basic principles of the Constitution’ – they include things like ‘performers may not..’:

 

  • “..jeopardize national unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity, endanger national security or damage national honor and interests” (“危害国家统一、主权和领土完整,危害国家安全,或者损害国家荣誉和利益”)
  • “..encite hatred against ethnic groups, discriminate against ethnic groups, infringe the customs and habits of ethnic groups, insult ethnic groups or undermine national unity” (“煽动民族仇恨、民族歧视,侵害民族风俗习惯,伤害民族感情,破坏民族团结”)
  • “..organize, participate in, or promote illegal activities regarding obscenities, pornography, gambling, drugs, violence, terrorism, or criminal elements etc” (“组织、参与、宣扬涉及淫秽、色情、赌博、毒品、暴力、恐怖或者黑恶势力等非法活动 “)
  • “..violate national religion policies, promote cults or superstition” (“违反国家宗教政策,宣扬邪教、迷信”)
  • “..do lip-sync in professional performances, deceive the audience by fake playing instruments etc” (“在营业性演出中以假唱、假演奏等手段欺骗观众”)

 

The punishment for going against these regulations is an industry-wide boycott of one year, three years, five years, or even a permanent ban depending on how serious the case is.

By stressing that art should serve the people, the China Association of Performing Arts reiterates President Xi Jinping’s views on the arts, which he previously shared at a symposium of prominent artists and writers in Beijing in 2014, and where he also said that “the arts must serve the people and serve socialism.”

As discussed by Chinese author Murong Xuecun in the New York Times in 2014 (‘The Art of Xi Jinping’ link), President Xi’s comments reminded of the famous Yan’an talks by Mao Zedong in 1942 where he prescribed the new direction for art and literature in China, saying they should serve the ‘people’ – the workers, peasants, and soldiers – and not the petty bourgeoisie or intellectuals.

The Beijing comments by Xi signaled that the Chinese government fixed its sights on literature and the arts, with Murong Xuecun already predicting that it would be the start of new lists of forbidden films, broadcasts, and publications. Those lists may now also include banned performers.

 

“Idols should be a good example for others”

 

The China Association of Performing Arts also has a Weibo account (@中国演出行业协会) where they posted about the new regulations.

“I support this, idols should be a good example for others,” one top commenter reacted to the regulations.

Others suggested that there should be a blacklist of performers engaged in illegal activities in order to “warn the industry.”

But there are also voices, such as some on Q&A site Zhihu, expressing that the current regulations are too vague, as they include stipulations that are already part of the law. Some argue that there should be a clearer description of the consequences artists will face when they violate industry guidelines or when they engage in acts that are illegal.

“Surrogate pregnancies, insulting China, taking drugs, evading taxes, etc etc – this should be banned forever,” another person said.

The ‘surrogate pregnancy’ comment refers to the controversy involving Zheng Shuang (郑爽). It already is the biggest celebrity controversy of the year in China. The 29-year-old famous Chinese actress dominated all trending topics in January of 2021 when news came out that the actress and her husband Zhang Heng (张恒) had separated and that she had left behind two children born out of surrogacy in the United States. Surrogacy is not legal in China.

Since the controversy, Zheng Shuang was dropped by the brands she represented, she was shut down by China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, and her honorary titles were revoked by Huading Awards.

Among all Weibo comments on the new regulations, there also many mocking them – especially the rule that stipulates performers should not lip-sync and deceive their audiences. “What about the Spring Festival Gala?”, multiple commenters say, referring to the biggest live televised state media event, that is often criticized for lip-synced performances.

 

“Can Zheng Shuang still make a comeback?”

 

The recent regulations come at a time when Chinese celebrities have enormous influence in popular culture due to the blossoming of various social media platforms – some of Weibo’s top celebrities have over 120 million fans.

At the same time, the past decades have seen a higher grade of commercialization of Chinese media, with entertainment and celebrities being a major driving force behind the success of hundreds of Chinese television stations. This has only further accelerated the influence of China’s top performers.

Loved by millions of fans, the power of Chinese celebrity artists is often also used by authorities to promote Party ideology and policies. This is done in myriad ways. In 2017, a group of Chinese celebrities praised China’s “New Era” in a song supporting Xi Jinping Thought; in 2019, influential pop stars sang about the importance of social credit.

In this thriving celebrity culture, Chinese authorities are tightening control on the culture & entertainment content that reaches millions of fans within the country. In 2019 there was a crackdown on the rising popularity of Chinese costume dramas. In 2017, China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) issued a notice that Chinese television stations should refrain from broadcasting TV dramas “focused on entertaining” during primetime. These are just minor examples of ways in which authorities are shaping a popular culture environment that is not just about the entertainment alone – it should also serve the Party’s goals.

As the “self-discipline management measures” have now gone into effect, some discussions on social media are focused on whether or not these measures should be applied retroactively, and if Chinese celebrities could still be affected now for past behaviors.

In a previous interview with Xinhua News, The Secretary-General of the China Association of Performing Arts Pan Yan (潘燕) stated that previous actions or situations will not be taken into account when it comes to the current guidelines.

“Does this mean Zheng Shuang can still make a comeback?”, some netizens wondered.

Pan Yan also said that the Association has an ‘ethics committee’ which will be involved in the process of assessing whether or not artists have violated the practice norms.

 
By Manya Koetse

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