Celebrity in China

A visit to a Chinese city of any size—looking up at downtown billboards, flicking through a magazine, riding public transport, shopping at a mall, or even a convenience store—is to be in the presence of a Chinese celebrity endorsing a product, lifestyle or other symbols of “the good life”. In contemporary urban China, the image of a Chinese actor, singer, athlete or TV personality is never far away. Celebrity in China is big business, feeding off and nourishing the advertising-led business model that underpins the commercialized media system and large sections of the internet. It is also a powerful instrument in the Party-State’s discursive and symbolic repertoire, used to promote regime goals and solidify new governmentalities through signalling accepted modes of behaviour for mass emulation (Jeffreys, 2009). The instrumentalization of celebrity by Party, state and business actors is strategic, motivated and sustained by the “spiritual vacuum” created by the transition to a market socialist system and its associated societal dislocations and aspirations (Kipnis, 2001). Despite its ubiquity, there is an aura of frivolousness around celebrity culture that perhaps explains why “Chinese stars and stardom rarely receive sustained academic attention” (Farquhar and Zhang, 2010: 2). While the professional milieux that celebrities inhabit have long been recognized as sites of political and cultural power, negotiation and contestation, the contours and implications of celebrity in contemporary China have received little recognition within the broader China Studies field. However, as demonstrated by recent pioneering work, on which this article aims to build (Edmonds and Jeffreys, 2010; Farquhar and Zhang, 2010; Hood, 2016), in combination with related studies on popular culture and the media (Berry and Farquhar, 2006; Chow 2007; Curtin, 2007; Keane 2013; Latham, 2007; Link et al., 2002; Wang, 2008; Zhang, 2004; Zhu and Berry, 2009), celebrity in China plays an important signalling role with implications for regime stability, social integration and the pursuit of the “Chinese Dream” of national strength and prosperity.

China has a long history of literary, musical and folk celebrity in the Imperial and Modern eras (McDermott, 2006), in addition to concerted efforts at creating “socialist stars” during the Mao era (Cheek, 1997). But the contemporary celebrity scene is a product of processes associated with the emergence of “market socialism”. Economic reforms and urbanization, increasingly widespread prosperity and the associated rise of consumerism, commercialization of the media and technological change, the growth of individualism and decline of collectivist ways of life have all contributed to the emergence of a celebrity culture that has imbued individuals with great wealth, visibility and influence within large fan bases. In addition to advancing a range of commercial interests, notably via advertising and endorsements (Hung, 2014; Wang, 2008), celebrities are increasingly involved in supporting social causes through philanthropy (Hood, 2015; Jeffreys, 2015a), advocacy and representation in formal political institutions (Jeffreys, 2015b), as activists and social critics (Strafella and Berg, 2015a; 2015b) and as leaders of online public opinion (Fu et al., 2015). With increasing internet penetration and the popularization of social media, celebrities have the capacity to connect directly, unfiltered and unmediated, with substantial audiences; the hundred or so entertainers we identify in this article as “major celebrities” (a sub sample of the celebrity population) have a combined following of around 2.5 billion people on Sina Weibo (新浪微博) alone. The ability to step outside their respective professional milieux is one factor that distinguishes celebrities from simply being well known figures such as members of the Politburo. Celebrity is a multidimensional quality, the sum of an individual’s product and packaging, personal attributes and life beyond the professional realm. We understand celebrity as analogous with the concepts of “brand identity” or “brand image” employed in marketing studies. A further feature that separates celebrity from well-knowness is the celebrity persona, i.e. “a crafted and consolidated public projection of the real person, built in part out of film roles and other public appearances” (Shingler 2012: 125). A review of the literature on “stars”, the sub-group at the apex of the celebrity hierarchy, highlights numerous attributes associated with this persona including glamour, beauty, sexuality, theatricality, charm, confidence, wealth and sophistication. The closest China has come to a celebrity politician to date was Bo Xilai, the former Chongqing Party Secretary now in jail.  The multi-dimensional celebrity persona, and the public interest it stimulates in off-stage lives, requires an academic focus on the workings of celebrity itself as a supplement to analysing the products (zuopin 作品) that celebrities create in their professional roles. The potential to connect with large numbers of ordinary people also marks the special status that celebrities have within China’s constrained socio-political ecology. The motivation for this paper is to further scholarly understanding of how celebrity operates in China and to bring this expression of popular culture into the broader conversation about contemporary Chinese politics and society. Full paper here.

Class in China

In the reform era the class structure of Chinese society and the nature of class politics have changed as the source of Party legitimacy has moved from socialist ideology to economic performance under conditions of “market socialism” (the CCP is nowadays a ‘party in power’ rather than a ‘revolutionary party’). A new class of private entrepreneurs unknown under Mao emerged, empowered by their riches and gradually embraced by the Party. Workers and farmers, formerly the bedrock of the CCP regime, have been marginalised by the restructuring of agriculture and industry. Millions have lost their jobs, their access to social welfare and their sense of place in a society that increasingly values a nakedly neoliberal vision of modernization rooted in urbanization and consumption. Economic opportunities have enabled the re-emergence of the middle classes (or ‘middle income stratum’; 中产阶层 rather than 阶级). They have also created a floating population of migrant workers: a new urban underclass with a corresponding cohort of those ‘left behind’ in the hollowed out countryside.

Class politics were one of the defining characteristics of PRC history in the 20th Century. In the transition to market socialism ushered in by Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms many class based terms have disappeared from the official lexicon, but class remains an analytically and substantively important way of approaching Chinese society. New types of class relations between the party and the people and horizontally between different groups are having a fundamental effect on Chinese society. Classification of the population was one of the first steps taken to establish the new regime, and by the early 1950s everyone in China was assigned a class from a granular list of 62 descriptors. People were assigned a class origin (阶级成分) determined by their activities in the three years immediately prior to 1949, and class background (家庭出生) based on their father’s occupation at time of birth. These two pieces of information, a socio-economic position and a political inclination implied by behaviour, were included on peoples’ household registration documents and went a long way to determining one’s fate during successive campaigns against landlords, industrialists, intellectuals, the bourgeoisie, rightists, capitalists and the like, which came to head in the Cultural Revolution. Class consciousness was ideological, political and operationalized through designations that for very large numbers of Chinese people and their offspring were a matter of life and death. People identified as ‘reds’ (peasants, workers, revolutionary soldiers) could do well (to the extent that anyone prospered under Mao), whereas coming from a ‘black’ background (capitalists, landlords, nationalists) was an invitation to be ‘criticized’ and worse during recurrent bouts of ‘class struggle’. By the end of 1956, the means of production were largely socialized. The countryside was arranged in collectives, urban enterprises were under state control and the effective negation of private property culminated during the Great Leap Forward. But that didn’t mean the end of class struggle.

When Mao appealed to the “bourgeoisie” within the Party, ostensibly soliciting feedback from academics, journalists and other intellectuals, he was shocked by the level of criticism and quickly launched the Anti-Rightist campaign to purge them. The pernicious threat of the “bourgeoisie” coloured much of Mao’s subsequent rule. When he identified four major classes (two exploiting, two labouring), he set the quota for class enemies (imperialists, bureaucrat capitalists, Rightists et al) at 5% of the population. Class struggle was central to Mao’s modus operandi, and was often underpinned by strategic thinking to further his own goals vis-à-vis political opponents in the top echelon of the Party leadership. The abandonment of Mao’s Great Leap and Deng Xiaoping’s role in re-introducing the material incentives that led to increases in production and recovery in the devastated countryside planted the seed for his subsequent purge (having been identified as a Capitalist Roader). Party leaders who did not accept Mao’s vision or otherwise incurred the Chairman’s displeasure were labelled class enemies. By the launch of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Mao’s power struggles led him to directly appeal to the masses to attack those in the Party supposedly taking the ‘capitalist road’.

After Mao’s death, ‘black’ class labels were removed and the judgement on Mao contained in the 1981 “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China” came with an attempt to smooth class relations. To wit, workers and intellectuals were said to belong to the same heterogeneous class; the possibility of class conflict under socialism was denied; and it was claimed that ‘the bourgeoisie’ couldn’t possibly exist within the Party. But as Deng’s reforms started to deliver results, and some sectors ‘got rich before others’, these simplifications came under stress, from the obvious advantages that Party cadres (and later their children, the despised富二代) were beginning to enjoy and the exclusion of the large number of private and would-be entrepreneurs. The Party’s response (with a blip around 1989 and accelerating after 1992) was to encourage the development of the middle classes (or strata)—and to embrace private entrepreneurs. This was the major symbol of the changing emphasis of economic activity over class relations, finessed post-hoc by Jiang Zemin’s notion of the Three Represents (the Party represents advanced social and productive forces, advanced culture and the interests of the overwhelming majority).

A middle class society is an aspiration for China. China’s modernization, the major pre-occupation for successive regimes since the mid-19th Century, has come to be tied to the development of a certain conception of the “middle class lifestyle” embodied by people who possess certain characteristics, behaviours and norms, many of them tied up with consumption and urbanization. Those who don’t fit the norm—typically migrants—are cajoled to become “civilized” (文明) or ostracized for their inferior “quality” (素质). The modernizing narrative is ubiquitous and to “be modern” is tied to the other pillar propping up the CCP regime, nationalism, via the “Chinese Dream” of prosperity and power. Certain types of economic behaviour—notably consumption—have been reified as acts of patriotism (notwithstanding the recent anti-corruption campaign against excessive consumption among party officials). Much is expected of the Chinese middle classes (by the Party as much as Chinese businesses and multinationals), and much is being provided for their benefit. The middle classes are seen as a force for “stability” (the regime’s major pre-occupation in the reform era), and the engine for upgrading China’s economic model, particularly via consumption (viz the expansion of higher education, tourism, online shopping, home buying, the automobile market etc.) When the middle classes are unhappy, governments listen: compare the fate of urban home-owner’s protests and demonstrations against chemical factory construction in well-off urban areas with those of dispossessed farmers or unpaid workers.

A New History of Laughter in China

In the popular western imagination China has long been represented as a mirthless place. This was a reasonable position during the Mao years when catastrophic famines and political mass-campaigns took place against a backdrop of ideological purity where class struggle and the construction of a socialist utopia was no laughing matter. Humour was dangerous: a misplaced snigger or ill-conceived joke could lead to struggle sessions, self-criticisms, education through labour or worse. But even today, four decades since Mao’s death and with China having reclaimed its position as a major world power, China retains a dour image among westerners, with nothing much to laugh about except for the sneering fun to be had from mistranslations of signs and headlines in “Chinglish”.

Is it something about the grey uniformity of the Politburo, the formality of the Chinese banquet or the crush and clamour of China’s uber-competitive urban jungles? Even among China watchers Chinese comedy does not rank very highly. Ask a China-based expat to name a Chinese comic and, if anyone, the majority will say Mark Roswell, aka Dashan, a Canadian expat and virtuoso of the traditional northern Chinese art of “crosstalk” (xiangsheng). Summing up this year’s CCTV Spring Gala, the 5 hour variety show that ushers in Lunar New Year for hundreds of millions of Chinese people (Chinese TV’s “superbowl”), New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley described it as “a mash-up of a Politburo report, Pee Wee’s Playhouse and a PLA parade”.

The Chinese reputation for humourless drudgery is, as one might suspect, a negative and undeserved stereotype. From the Zhuangzi, a foundational Daoist text from the Warring States period more than two thousand years ago, which overflows with irreverent anecdotes, through the Ming Dynasty classic Journey to the West, to the modern fiction of Lu Xun and Lao She and the reform-era writers Mo Yan (Nobel Prize laureate in 2012) and Wang Shuo (whose postmodern satirical stylings have been described as “hooligan literature”), Chinese literature and philosophical texts of all stripes have diverse comedic elements. Chinese internet users, partly due to the necessity of evading the censors, are masters of satire as demonstrated in the parodic mash-ups of egao and the language play of the Grass-Mud-Horse lexicon (Caonima). Dealing with the exigencies of continuing Communist Party rule and dog-eat-dog capitalist competition, many Chinese are past masters at laughing in the midst of pain (kuzhong zuole).

Befitting a long comedic tradition, Christopher Rea’s The Age of Irreverence: A new history of laughter in China, is the latest in a long line of anthologies, studies and collections by Chinese scholars going back hundreds of years. A China historian of the highest regard at the University of British Columbia, Professor Rea has produced an indispensable history of Chinese comedy during the tumultuous, formative period from the end of the Qing Dynasty to the Civil War (approximately 1890-1930). During this period of forced reckoning with western modernity, Chinese intellectuals debated, adopted and modified every conceivable ideology, form, genre, etc. Combined with the affordances of modern printing methods for Chinese characters, there was a huge outpouring of writings in politics, economics, history, cultural studies, and comedy. The abundance of Chinese tabloids in the 1920s and 30s, particularly in Shanghai, were full of satire and ribald jokes to rival our current day red tops.

Rea’s study is beautifully written and meticulously researched; it comes with 65 pages of endnotes and a hugely useful list of humour collections and a glossary of Chinese terms. The book is divided into an investigation of five comedic forms: jokes (xiaohua), play (youxi), mockery (maren), farce (huaji) and humour (youmo). The latter was a contemporaneous import from the west, a device and springboard for the work of the writer and editor Lin Yutang. Lin’s 1934 essay “On Humour”, and the journal he had founded in 1932 “Analects Fortnightly”, were major sites for the investigation and contemplation of the tradition and future of Chinese comedy. But this fertile period for the production of Chinese comedy did not last beyond the civil war and Japanese occupation. Lin emigrated to Taiwan via the US and then Mao began the serious task of building socialism (when humour was restricted to the nasty fingering of landlords and evil capitalists). The fate of Lao She, a humorous writer and dramatist styled as a “peoples’ artist”, was symptomatic; he was humiliated and abused during the nascent Cultural Revolution and committed suicide in 1966.

This wonderful book reminds us of the importance of the Republican Era, in many ways the intellectual basis of China’s (ongoing) quest for modernity, and the centrality of various forms of comedy in Chinese literature and life. At a time when western interest in and access to Chinese “cultural products” have never been greater, books like this are essential for challenging entrenched stereotypes and fostering greater appreciation of the country.

The demise of “guardian democracy”

When erstwhile Kuomintang presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu, 67, was asked to comment on the suicide of a troubled young man protesting at the national curriculum last summer, her response was sympathetic and in character. “It’s a terrible shame,” she said, adding that “kids don’t know any better” (小孩子不懂事 ).

The phrase, implying that younger generations don’t understand worldly affairs, is commonly used in Taiwan as a platitude by the supposedly older and wiser to comment on upsets and misguided life choices. It is usually a benign, sometimes indulgent, dismissal of the naive or uninformed opinions of younger people, the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head. In Taiwan, it is also an attitude that has long been deeply embedded in the political culture. But it is no longer sustainable, with significant implications for the forthcoming presidential and legislative elections and the future shape of Taiwanese politics and cross-strait relations.

The notion that wise elders should take care of decision-making, in the family and in politics, has a long history across many cultures. In various guises, it is manifest in “Confucian heritage” societies, in Lee Kuan Yew’s “Asian values” and in the Chinese Communist Party’s longstanding paternalism. It underpinned KMT one-party rule, a time when Taiwanese, like their contemporary mainland counterparts, were upbraided for lacking “quality” (素質) and “civilisation” (文明), and thus not to be trusted with democratic responsibilities. Taiwan’s transition to a flourishing democracy is a constant rebuttal to the self-serving narratives of conservative, change-resistant elites: Taiwanese have proven there is nothing inherent in Chinese or Confucian cultural heritage that disqualifies them from having a fully functioning, vibrant democracy. Continue reading at SCMP.

Taiwan 2016 elections are not about China

It is not news that, in Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, is heading for victory on January 16. She has enjoyed a double-digit lead across all polls throughout the year, and recently crossed the psychological 50-point mark, ahead of her rivals, Eric Chu of the Kuomintang and James Soong of the People First Party. Seasoned Taiwan watchers know to take media polls with a pinch of salt. But the consensus across the political spectrum is that Tsai is a lock, barring something unforeseen.

Unexpected things do happen in Taiwanese elections. In 2000, the then independent Soong was ahead in the polls until the KMT broke a corruption scandal about him. Chen Shui-bian sustained gunshot wounds while campaigning on the eve of his re-election in 2004, which might have swung the vote in his favour. More recently, no one foresaw that Ma Ying-jeou would have a face-to-face meeting with President Xi Jinping (習近平).

If the latter surprise was intended to give the KMT’s election chances a boost, it didn’t work, despite the appealing optics of “the handshake” for the world’s media and the boost it might provide for perceptions outside Taiwan of Ma’s “legacy”. (In Taiwan, the meeting was greeted with anger or apathy.)

The 2016 presidential election is all about Ma and the KMT; Tsai’s big lead does not necessarily reflect huge enthusiasm for the DPP. The KMT’s expected loss in the coming election would reflect widespread discontent with Ma and his party, particularly the outcomes and trajectory of his economic policies. In the past 7½ years that Ma has been in power, the cost of living in Taiwan has steadily risen while wages have barely moved. House prices have increased by 45 per cent, and the price of a Taipei home is now about 16 times the average annual income (it is 7.5 times in Taiwan as a whole). Full article at SCMP

Assessing Ma’s presidency

Six weeks out from Election Day in Taiwan, the DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen has an unassailable lead in the polls, and the only uncertainty is whether her party, the DPP, will win a legislative majority, and if so, by how large a margin. The ruling KMT is reeling; damaged by an unpopular outgoing president, rifts in the party, an indecisive last minute candidate and a series of policy flops and scandals. Whatever the intention behind last month’s hastily arranged meeting in Singapore between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou, it has failed to invigorate the KMT or change its fortunes in the polls. For readers with a passing interest in Taiwan, this may come as a surprise. After all, Ma has overseen a period of unprecedented calm and productive relations with Taiwan’s biggest existential threat, China.

Upon entering office in 2008, Ma had four overarching aims. First, to stabilize cross-strait relations that effectively came to a halt at the (semi-)official level during his predecessor Chen Shui-bian’s tenure. Second, to revive Taiwan’s economic fortunes through closer integration with the Chinese economy. Third, to balance the imperative of economic incentives with the maintenance of “national dignity.” Fourth, to roll back the “de-Sinicization” elements of Chen Shui-bian’s “Taiwanization” program by emphasizing Taiwan’s Chinese cultural heritage and situating Taiwan within the framework of the greater Chinese nation. Read the full piece at The National Interest.

The Cultural Logic of Politics in China & Taiwan

When Duke political scientist, Professor Tianjian Shi sadly passed away late in 2010, he left behind a manuscript already accepted by Cambridge University Press. Through the efforts of the series editor, Andy Nathan, with help from reviewers Dorothy Solinger and Doh Chull Shin, that manuscript has been finalized and brought to publication. It is a fittingly ambitious and accomplished bequest to the fields of comparative politics and China Studies, to which Professor Shi contributed so much. Theoretically sophisticated and empirically rigorous (there are 32 pages of appendices), this book will provoke great interest—and, as all ambitious books should—much contention and avenues for further research.

Shi argues that since many social scientists assume that people are instrumentally rational to varying degrees, when they find that similar social-structures in different cultural contexts produce different outcomes, they tend to explain it in terms of variance in access to information, for instance through censorship and control of the media. Thus when people in China are observed to have a relatively high degree of trust in government, particularly central government, this finding has often been attributed to the effects of an authoritarian information regime that reduces access to the information needed to make ‘rational’ decisions. Shi rejects this interpretation and instead advances a sophisticated yet forceful case for ‘bringing culture back in’. Specifically, he argues that rationality is culturally embedded, and that a culturally defined normative rationality shapes people’s choices in social and political life.

The crux of Shi’s thesis is that rather than a universal, materialist concept of reality, individual interest calculations are based on ‘socially shared ideas about acceptable and expected behaviour’ (p.2). To counter the charge that culture is not an independent cause of behaviours but rather an effect or proxy for structural or institutional factors, Shi invokes the case of China and Taiwan, two societies that share elements of Confucian cultural heritage, but which have developed very different political structures and institutions. Shi argues that the momentous processes of modernization in China and democratization in Taiwan did not cause significant cultural shifts in these societies. Indeed he cites survey data to the effect that these changes reinforced peoples’ commitment to traditional cultural norms, which in turn are associated with greater trust in government, a lower likelihood of confronting the regime and an inclination to define democracy as government by benevolent guardians. Given the resilience, flourishing even, of the CCP and KMT under these changing conditions, it is an interesting argument. Full review in China Quarterly here.