China and celebrity politics

Writing in the 1970s, the Italian sociologist Fransico Alberoni described celebrities as a “powerless elite”, because they did not possess authoritative or institutional power. Since then, the rise of a celebrity industry associated with expansion of the media, internet and entertainment industries, has changed celebrity culture beyond all recognition. Celebrities are still an elite, but they are no longer powerless.

As the lives and loves of celebrities have become ubiquitous in western popular culture, performers like Angelina Jolie, Bono and Beyoncé have acquired huge stores of cultural, economic and even political capital. Donald Trump, a celebrity businessman with no political experience, has shown it is even possible to ride the affordances of fame to within reach of the White House.

The American presidential election is a combination of soap opera and reality TV, covered by media enthralled by dramatic storylines, drawing on metaphors from sports and war, playing to a global audience on television and social media. As each day brings further revelations, insults and gaffes, pored over by a proliferating pundit class, the political process in the US looks increasingly like a made-for-TV production.

When the sixth plenary session of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee opens in Beijing this month, the contrast could not starker. While elite politics receive abundant coverage in China’s media, we can be fairly sure there will be no intemperate tweets, personal attacks or unsavoury stories emanating from the meeting.

Unlike in the US, where electoral competition demands politicians embrace the media and entertainment industries, celebrity and elite politics have not, as yet, converged in China. It is unimaginable that any Chinese leader would play the sax on a late night chat show like Bill Clinton did, or dance with Ellen DeGeneres like Barack Obama, or hang out with the Spice Girls like Tony Blair (let alone be a frequent guest on shock jock Howard Stern’s radio show like Donald Trump).

Chinese officials prefer to follow a script that promotes the decorum and gravitas of office. They don’t do sit-down personal interviews or fraternize with performers trailing paparazzi photographers. And for all the Chinese government’s massive online presence, no one in the Politburo has a social media account.

Yet, while Chinese politics does not embrace the celebrity mechanism, China is far from immune to the seductions of fame. In a country that has long emphasized public restraint and traditional values, celebrity is big business and subtly pervasive.

Chinese and western celebrities are prominent in China, on billboards, magazines and social media. Chinese movie and pop stars are as glamourous, worshiped and wealthy as their western counterparts. But the Chinese celebrity industry’s balancing of serving popular tastes with political correctness, has resulted in a celebrity culture that is distinct from the west.

Chinese celebrities are expected to uphold certain standards of behaviour and act as positive role models for society. The triviality and excess surrounding celebrity lifestyles in the west are generally replaced with narratives of persistence, cultivation of talent and high standards of morality.

Celebrities may be akin to carnival performers, but in an orderly society the carnival is also ordered, with performers and audiences assigned distinct roles. Celebrity is conferred on people who generally conform to dominant social norms. China’s own celebrity CEO, Jack Ma, became rich and famous through hard work and perseverance, and his success acts as an example for others to emulate.

But, the commodification of individuals with talent and looks is not alien in China. From luxury cars, clothes and watches, Chinese celebrities endorse some of the world’s most glamourous brands. And many ordinary Chinese appear increasingly susceptible to the attractions of “DIY celebrity”.

Writing in their excellent 2011 book Online Society in China, scholars David Herold and Pete Marolt argued that Chinese internet users preferred anonymity, eschewing “performance” in favour of simply “living online”. Borrowing the words of Chinese media scholar, Hu Yong, the majority of people were “onlookers”, happy with their role as observers.

However, there are signs of a changing emphasis, from merely worshipping the stars to wanting to become one—or at least the truncated version of fame available to DIY celebrities.

It is a truism that anyone can become famous via the internet. Admittedly there are more examples of becoming infamous, symbolised in China by the cases of Furong Jiejie, Muzi Mei and Guo Meimei.

But nowadays there are examples of Chinese using the internet to seek fame and perhaps wealth: from the profusion of live-streaming apps like Ingkee and the crass stunts featured on video site Kuaishou, to more mundane expressions of “me-casting” manifest in public declarations of love, body challenges and China’s ongoing selfie craze.

While these trends can appear vulgar, they are mainly harmless modes of entertainment and self-expression. Banal as they are, they portend changes in the social mores of mainly younger people, challenging traditional values such as protecting face and public reticence.

The rise of individualism among the younger generation in China is well known. Among the expansion of subcultures and behaviours considered unbecoming by their parents, are changing expectations and attitudes. This includes feelings about public performance, mediatisation and celebrity.

There is little research on the social and political implications of these changes, but there are signs that the Chinese government is aware of the need to connect with younger people, including the vast expansion of e-government services and the professionalization of political communications.

Elite leaders have even taken tentative steps towards experimenting with the informalities common to politicians in the west; President Xi Jinping’s visit to a Beijing restaurant and sending a message on weibo among them. Yet, despite the fact that First Lady Peng Liyuan is a famous singer and fashion icon, it is fanciful to talk of the celebritization of Chinese politics.

As Chinese celebrity culture continues to mature and expand its reach, and positive attitudes toward fame become normalized among the young, it will become something that future governments may find it easier to adapt to rather than merely seeking to control. For now though, a Chinese version of The Donald remains agreeably far off.

China Daily piece here.

Democratization in Taiwan: A short introduction and bibliography

In the second half of the 20th Century, Taiwan evolved from a colonial backwater under one-party rule to become an exemplar of equal economic development and peaceful democratization. During the past thirty years elections have constituted important milestones and strongly contested political competition to control resources, implement policy agendas and set the ideological tone. In January 2016, Taiwan will hold its latest set of presidential and legislative elections. Taiwan is a polity where core issues like “who are we” and “where are we going” have yet to be decided. Befitting such a polity, Taiwan 2016 will be fiercely contested and the outcomes will have major implications beyond the Taiwanese political scene. In anticipation of these elections, and drawing on work I have done separately for the Oxford Bibliographies in Chinese Studies project, I will be posting a number of annotated reading lists on various aspects of Taiwanese democracy, the first being democratization.

Democratization processes in Taiwan proceeded incrementally over a prolonged period punctuated by electoral milestones. Although generally peaceful, political liberalization required significant effort on the part of activists and the opposition movement to pressure the ruling KMT into adopting reforms. Concessions by the KMT were soon followed by further demands from the opposition, generating momentum towards democratization that eventually overwhelmed conservative elements within the party. In 1986, opposition activists with disparate concerns and interests came together to form the Democratic Progressive Party, the first organized opposition party. To do so was technically illegal under Martial Law, but the DPP was allowed to field candidates in the 1986 Legislative election and Martial Law was rescinded a year later. Following the death of President Chiang Ching-kuo in 1988 Lee Teng-hui was selected by the KMT to be interim President. He was officially elected to the Presidency, not by universal suffrage but by the rubber-stamp National Assembly in 1990, the final time that the ROC President would fail to be chosen by universal suffrage.

After a protracted struggle between relatively conservative and reform-minded factions within the KMT, which resulted in the formation of the breakaway Chinese New Party (NP), President Lee accelerated both the indigenization of the KMT and democratic reform, including bowing to widespread demands, the Wild Lily student movement for instance, for the President to be chosen by direct election. Lee himself later became the first ROC president to be elected by popular vote in 1996. A DPP candidate, Chen Shui-bian, won the presidency in 2000, marking the first change in ruling parties. Political competition in democratic Taiwan is intense. Major parties are well organized and highly motivated. By the standards of many consolidated democracies, the electorate in Taiwan is highly engaged. The media environment is well developed and relatively free, and civil society actors are politically involved. Support for democracy remains strong and widespread at the individual level. In short, on several salient indicators, Taiwan’s democracy is a success story, despite continuing concerns about corruption, media ownership and inequalities and inefficiencies within the political system. In the existing scholarship on Taiwan’s democratic transition and democratic practice, debates continue around the extent to which democratization was led by top-down or bottom up processes, the extent to which Taiwan’s democracy “works” or whether it is uniquely susceptible to political crises, and the issue of how to enjoy the fruits of democratization in the shadow of a complex relationship with China.

There are several valuable accounts that put the democratization period in historical perspective. Bruce Jacobs (2012)provides a concise but authoritative analytical account of the democratization processes from the origins of Taiwanese resistance to the Japanese colonialists to Ma Ying-jeou’s first term. Linda Chao and Ramon Myers (1998) is a similarly careful historical study of the Martial Law period and analysis of the initiation and development of democratization processes. The treatment of the emergence of the opposition movement and movements within the KMT which in combination created pressures for reform is particularly strong. Denny Roy’s (2003) Political History provides a concise and useful (albeit less sophisticated) chronological account of Taiwan’s political development. Mikael Mattlin (2011) is a close examination of the political reform process in which the ruling KMT attempted to lock-in certain institutional advantages that would serve it after the transition and ensure continued social politicization. If you have access to a university library, the four volumes of The Politics of Modern Taiwan (2008), a collection of seminal papers on various topics relating to Taiwanese politics, are the closest thing the field has to a dedicated Handbook.

The processes that constituted and advanced democratization in Taiwan took place over a prolonged period of time and involved bottom-up, top-down and external forces. The contribution of bottom-up “democratic forces” is well covered in Cheng (1989), an influential article that went beyond then-prevailing explanations of Taiwan’s democratization rooted in economic modernization theory. Winckler (1984) on the other hand surveys debates and developments within the ruling KMT as it faced external challenges and domestic pressures. It is an excellent analysis of manoeuvres and preferences within the KMT and the pressures and resistance to political liberalization among the “gerontocratic-authoritarian” regime. Tien (1975) provides a detailed contemporaneous account of KMT thought and strategy on political liberalization at a time of crisis for the regime. The collection edited by Cheng and Haggard (1992) has good coverage of the transition from ‘hard’ to ‘soft’ authoritarianism. Most chapters focus on political developments in the 1980s and provide then-pioneering empirical detail and theoretical work on regime change.

Chu 1992, a landmark examination of political liberalization in the early democratization era, provides sophisticated reflections on the nature of political reforms undertaken by the KMT. Chu Yun-han is probably Taiwan’s pre-eminent political scientist, and he combines rich empirical detail with sophisticated explication of a number of theoretical frameworks. Chu and Lin (2001) examine the close, perhaps inextricable, links between democratization and national identity. This important article establishes the continuities between the two “émigré regimes”, the Japanese and the KMT, that dominated Twentieth Century Taiwan, providing a compelling explanation for the evolution of each. The edited volume Feldman and Nathan (1991) presents the views of numerous DPP and KMT politicians on the nature of political reforms particularly in the 1980s. The analysis of Taiwanese society, and attempt to explain both the high and equitable growth rates and socio-political stability that characterized the ‘economic miracle’, presented in Gold 1986 is the essential backdrop to developments on the political scene (for more on the rapid growth era, see also Wade 1990).

By the start of the 1990s, much progress had been made towards democratization. The KMT had (willingly or because it had little choice) loosened its grip on civil society and the media, allowed opposition political parties to form and contest a growing range of public offices put to electoral competition. Chao and Myers (1994) investigate the KMT’s reform policies which led to the progressive opening up of political space and electoral offices from the mid- 1980s onwards. Tien and Chu (1996) similarly focus on the KMT, particularly the run up and implications of the first full legislative election in 1992. A stylized version of the KMT’s own liberalization narrative, for domestic and external consumption, was that enlightened leaders Chiang Ching-kuo and Lee Teng-hui were committed to democratic reforms. Leng and Lin (1993)provide an early challenge to the KMT’s top-down liberalization narrative, noting the contribution of opposition activism in pressuring the ruling party. This article is an adept study of the complexities of identifying the causes of democratization.

Noble (1999) provides a detailed and incisive analysis of the important revisions made to the constitution under Lee Teng-hui’s presidency in the mid-1990s, focusing on the need for and consequences of the new arrangements. The machinations over constitutional reforms in 1997 suggest that common political concerns, such as strategy and self-interest, were dominant motivations. Rigger (2001) demonstrates that elections weren’t just symbols of progress, but were crucial mechanisms for coalescing and concentrating support for democratization within society, and inculcating the attitudes and norms that provided the momentum for Taiwan to consolidate its transition. Finally, Lin et al (1996) investigate how elections changed the nature of inter- and intra-party political competition, and in particular the effect this had on how the national identity cleavage would affect political competition after democratization.

The next instalment will focus on the presidency.

Year of the Lame Horse

I have a piece at The National Interest today with @michalthim, looking at Ma Ying-jeou’s travails, cross-Strait legacy and upcoming elections:

The year of the horse began last week, but for Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou (whose surname means horse) the signs are inauspicious. With two years remaining in his second and final term, and with important midterm elections scheduled for the end of the year, Ma has alienated large sections of society and his own party, the Kuomintang (KMT). Even the historic first visit to the mainland later this month by the head of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), the ministry-level agency that deals with cross-Strait relations on the Taiwan side, lacks the feel of the culmination of a successful six-year rapprochement and engagement strategy. Indeed, the KMT-controlled legislature, prompted by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), felt compelled to impose restrictions on the scale of the MAC mission. The opposition raised concerns that a desperate pro-China president, one who sees himself as a ‘history man’, might seek to do something intemperate and irreversible to rescue his crumbling legacy. Ma’s failed purge of the KMT Speaker of the Legislature late last year no doubt had a bearing on proceedings…

To read the entire thing, press this button

CPI Blog special issue on the NPC/NPPCC 两会

From March 5th China’s legislature (the almost 3000-strong National People’s Congress) will meet to pass legislation on the policy directions established by the Party at its Congress held in November last year. Although the NPC is not an autonomous body, indeed it is largely constituted by Party members and takes its lead from the Party Congress, the plenary meeting is an important part of the legislative mechanism. Furthermore, as the Party and state transition to a new leadership, the two meetings take on added significance as a valuable source of information on the direction the country will take under Xi Jinping. To decipher the political details and strategic subtexts, and to provide a broader perspective on the leadership transition and the prospects for reform in various policy sectors, the CPI Blog which I Edit has assembled a cast of renowned China scholars. You can find the blog here.

The confirmed line-up includes:

Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at Oxford University.

Jun Zhang, Professor of Economics at Fudan University and Director of the China Center for Economic Studies.

Allen Carlson, Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University.

Linda Yueh, Fellow in Economics at Oxford University, Professor of Economics at London Business School and incoming Chief Business Correspondent at the BBC.

Lowell Dittmer, Professor in the Department of Political Science at UC Berkeley.

David S G Goodman, Professor of Chinese Politics and Academic Director of the China Centre at the University of Sydney.

Willy Lo Lap Lam, former CNN correspondent and Professor of China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Shaun Breslin, Professor at Warwick University, Associate Fellow at Chatham House and an editor of The Pacific Review.

Shujie Yao, Professor of Economics and Head of SCCS at the University of Nottingham.

Kerry Brown, Professor and Executive Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, and former Head of Chatham House Asia Programme.

Andrew Wedeman, Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University.

Zhengxu Wang, Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham.

Steve Tsang, Professor of Contemporary China and Director of the China Policy Institute.