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Are There New Limits for Artists in China?

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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Last fall, Papi Jiang, a 29-year-old graduate student in Beijing, began posting short, satirical and occasionally profane monologues about daily life in urban China to social media. Within a couple of months, she'd racked up tens of millions of views, earned nearly $2 million in private funding and raised hopes that online celebrities might offer a new revenue stream for China's Internet companies.

Then, last week, it all ended: Papi Jiang's videos abruptly disappeared.

According to an editorial in People's Daily, the official paper of the Communist Party, Papi Jiang raised two concerns. First, she used foul language, a practice out of sync with President Xi Jinping's new effort to create a "healthy, positive culture" in cyberspace. More important, she offered a high-profile example of how online media is becoming more influential than the traditional outlets that Chinese authorities have long kept a watchful eye on.

In other words: The censors were making an example of Papi Jiang; more restrictions will be forthcoming.

Artistic restraints have been a fact of Chinese cultural life for decades, of course. But in the past few years, the censors have become more aggressive. In part, that's because the Internet has challenged them to update and refine their tactics. And in part it's because the government is now committed to creating art that raises China's "soft power" to the level of its hard economic and political power.

The combined effect is a censorship regime that can border on the absurd. In mid-April, officials announced that the children of celebrities are now forbidden from appearing on reality television shows. No explanation was given, but the most likely rationale is that the censors are wary of stoking public outrage over the luxe lifestyles of China's rich. The impact was immediate: Two of the country's most popular shows feature(d) celebrity kids and their parents.

But politics isn't the only motivation. The Communist Party has (publicly at least) always fashioned itself as a moral compass for the masses. Xi, more so than his predecessors, has embraced the role, promoting traditional Confucian values such as filial piety and modesty. His idea of a good night at the movies reflects this line of thinking. In a 2014 speech, he extolled art that "embraces patriotism as a theme, leading the people to establish and maintain correct views of history, nationality, statehood and culture," and railed against that which caters to "vulgar interests" and provokes "the senses."

It seems likely that Xi's values are now informing the work of China's censors. In the same speech, Xi derided art in which the "dark side of society is over-emphasized." In March, censors used the same phrase when issuing an order that -- among other things -- banned depictions of homosexuality, extra-marital affairs, "puppy love," one-night stands, smoking, drinking, witchcraft, reincarnation and any content that calls into question the Chinese state or "erases the difference between truth and falsehood, good and evil, beauty and ugliness."

Needless to say, there's not much worth watching on Chinese broadcast TV these days. Younger Chinese, especially, have turned to the Internet, where censorship has generally been less onerous. But, as Papi Jiang's muzzling demonstrates, that's been changing too. A week before the censors cracked down on homosexuality, they banned a popular online series that followed the lives of four gay high school students for its depiction of "abnormal sexual behavior." What was particularly chilling was the lack of a warning or guidelines. The censors just did it, leaving any prospective filmmakers to wonder where the lines are that they must not cross.

In China, the way one typically deals with red lines is to stay as far away from them as possible. When it comes to art, of course, that's a recipe for self-censorship and the stifling of creativity. China's leaders, so determined to export their culture to the world, are instead cultivating a neutered entertainment industry disconnected from the concerns of its audience. One result is that the country's aspiring film tycoons, including Alibaba's Jack Ma, are busy investing in Hollywood studios and franchises, looking abroad for entertainment they can bring home rather than the other way around.

Ultimately, China's restrictions on artistic expression will prove self-defeating for its entertainment industry and artists. The question is whether that matters more to the government than its desire to control the media. For now, at least, it doesn't.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net