Last week, China’s top media regulators rolled out a directive prohibiting “sissy idols and other deformed aesthetics.” Their targets were the highly stylized, gender-bending young men who’ve defined Chinese pop culture for more than a decade. In the eyes of President Xi Jinping, these celebrities pose a threat to the masculine revitalization of the Chinese nation. Like cram schools, celebrity fan clubs and video games — all banned or restricted in recent months — they’ve become another victim of Xi’s push to build a patriotic younger generation in his image.
Such a cold-blooded cultural cull creates a dilemma, however. What are China’s teenagers to do with their time now that they can’t follow their favorite celebrities, play video games or grind away in nightly tutoring sessions? The government hopes that they’ll use that extra time to engage in physical activity and indulge in the study of “Xi Jinping thought” (now part of primary-school curriculums). Yet it’s unlikely that these aspirations will be realized even in part. China’s teenagers, like those everywhere, have their own ideas.
Forty years ago, the very idea of a “youth culture” was alien to a hard-working, mostly agrarian society. It was only with affluence that free time emerged, and even that was circumscribed by ambitious families who viewed rigorous academic study as sacrosanct. In urban China, a typical secondary-school day runs nine hours, plus another two for private tutoring. After time for dinner and family, it’s on to homework, which can take hours more. Unsurprisingly, researchers have often found that Chinese children are severely sleep-deprived.
Added to these pressures are some newer ones, including the demands that global consumer culture places on young people. As state media likes to note, Generation Z, the cohort born between 1995 and 2010, is the most affluent in Chinese history. In fact, China’s Gen Z kids outspend their counterparts in other parts of the world — according to one survey, they account for a larger share of total household spending (at 13%) than their peers in the U.S. (4%) and Britain (3%).
This newfound spending power has collided with another emergent cultural force: social media. After midnight, Chinese platforms hum with posts about teen idols. Interest in their songs and shows and personal lives is overwhelming. By far the most popular figures are the “little fresh meat” — delicate-featured, makeup-wearing young men who not only inspire endless gossip but strongly influence how urban Chinese present themselves (the booming male cosmetics industry is just one outcome). Their fans are so loyal that they’ve been known to buy up multiple copies of a new music release to drive it up the charts (often successfully).
In the context of affluent global youth culture, in which forming identity and community are priorities, such gestures aren’t unusual. The problem is that the Chinese Communist Party does not share these priorities. It views youth culture as an ideological battleground. Video games and fan clubs aren’t harmless diversions but competition for the affections of China’s next revolutionary generation. One result is that the authorities are increasingly curtailing or canceling any youth-oriented entertainment they view as threatening.
So far, the impact has been limited. Teenagers who want to play games easily circumvent the government’s anti-addiction measures. Fans of South Korea’s wildly popular, androgynous K-Pop acts continue to follow them (and emulate them), despite years of disapproval and occasional censorship by the authorities. Unlike previous generations, Gen Z has often found clever technical means of evading the government’s control.
But Xi’s effort to shape how Gen Z uses its spare time is undoubtedly the most aggressive in the country’s recent history. With his personal backing, the measures have had a political gravitas that previous crackdowns didn’t. The challenge for the government is presenting a compelling alternative to the high-end shopping, video games and androgynous boy bands that young Chinese have long embraced. Patriotic exercise and ideological education are well and good, but not exactly what most teens think of as a good time.
In fact, China’s regulators might soon learn what parents everywhere have long understood: The surest way to make a teenager want something is to forbid it.