Shortcuts / 25 November 2021

China’s cultural crackdown

The disappearance of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has us left with a lot of questions… After all, she’s not the first high-profile person to have seemingly vanished after criticising the Chinese government. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we look at what’s been called China’s cultural crackdown. We’ll cover the rise of Chinese President Xi Jinping and his authority over the Chinese Communist Party and the country, the CCP’s history of cultural crackdowns and what’s happening now, and a few high-profile disappearances, including, of course, Peng Shuai.

Let’s take it right back… How did we end up here?
Well, China has changed a lot in the last 4 decades. It was at the end of the 1970s that the nation introduced major economic reforms, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and leading to it becoming the second-largest economy in the world. And in recent years, there’s one man who has led what he has called a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

Would that be President Xi Jinping?
It would. Long story short, he is a Chinese Communist Party man through and through. And he worked his way to the top becoming president of China in 2012, ushering in an era of increased assertiveness and authoritarianism.

How has he achieved that?
Well, he has been front and centre of China’s push to cement its position as a superpower. And while he’s been hailed for launching crackdowns on corruption, he’s also shown he has no patience for internal dissent against himself or his government.

He’s even mentioned by name in China’s constitution…
That’s right – that was an honour that had been reserved only to Mao Zedong – the founder of modern China. And those mentions in the constitution are known as ‘Xi Jinping Thought’.

So what’s the deal with that?
It essentially means that any challenge to Xi is seen as a threat to Communist Party rule. And to add to that, he’s also changed the rules to allow him to stay on as the president for the rest of his life.

So in summary he’s a powerful dude…
He is. Xi’s leadership has affected the economy as well as China’s position in the world.

Alright, let’s get into it – the cultural crackdown. It’s not a new thing, is it?
No, the Chinese Communist Party has form on this sort of thing. The 1966-76 Cultural Revolution saw politicians, educators, and musicians locked up for years without charge, often in solitary confinement. The death toll from that era ranges from hundreds of thousands to 20 million.

So what’s happening now?
These days, things are playing out as what has been called a “second Cultural Revolution”. That’s happened via a vast range of new regulations on society that are seen as an attempt by Xi to cement control – and specifically to put his stamp on young minds.

What kind of regulations?
Well, a big one is regulations affecting businesses. So this year alone, there’ve been a dizzying array of changes to regulations that govern Chinese e-commerce and social media companies – some of the biggest businesses in the world.

Like Alibaba?
Exactly – that’s China’s e-commerce juggernaut. Founder Jack Ma was the poster child for China’s technological rise until he gave a controversial speech criticising the government’s regulation of the financial sector.

Which put a big target on his back…
It did, and long story short was his financial technology firm Ant Group was stopped by the Chinese Government from publically listing late last year. That was a really big deal because it was set to become the largest initial public offering in history.

As for Jack Ma?
He disappeared from public view for about 3 months.

And it’s just one example…
It is – Beijing cracked down on more than 30 companies in its booming technology sector. We’re talking about businesses like Tencent, JD, Didi – these are China’s biggest companies and are the local equivalents of Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Uber.

So what exactly is the government trying to do?
Some context: China’s regulation of its tech sector had been relatively lax before this point. This helped to fuel the rapid rise of those companies. With that rise came dominance in the lives of their consumers – Chinese citizens.

And I guess that was a presence Xi’s government was not happy with…
You’d be right. Enter rules around how much time the Chinese public – especially kids – can spend using these apps.

Sounds like a parent’s dream…
It really does, but not so for the adults…

So what are the regulations?
Minors are limited to just a few hours of gaming a week, with tech platforms ordered to enforce it. One thing parents might also be interested in: last month laws were passed to reduce what they call the “twin pressures” of homework and off-site tutoring on children.

What’s that about?
The government says that it will give parents the chance to arrange their children’s time to account for rest and exercise, thereby reducing pressure and avoiding internet overuse and developing unhealthy habits like too much gaming and worshiping internet celebrities.

So, they’re right up in people’s grill about how to live their lives…
Yep, and it doesn’t stop there… Xi says that male pop idols who wear makeup don’t conform to more macho societal ideals and that’s banned. That’s described as “sissyness”. That ban extends to reality TV shows and anything that is overly entertaining…

And female stars have been targeted, too…
They sure have been. Probably the most high-profile case was billionaire Zhao Wei, also known as Vicky Zhao – she’s an award-winning Chinese actress and filmmaker.

What happened to her?
She was ‘de platformed’ from China’s social media sites during the squeeze on celebrity culture. There’s no clarity on why she has been targeted, but state media have called her a “scandals-hit actress”, and there are rumours of her being too-in with the Alibaba crowd. She also disappeared for a time…

As did tennis player Peng Shuai…
Yep – she’s a professional tennis player who recently took to the Chinese social media site Weibo to accuse a very senior Chinese Communist Party official – Zhang Gaoli – of raping her. The post was only up for about 30 minutes, but that was enough time to screenshot it and share it in chat groups. It was the first time that a claim like this has been leveled at the upper echelons of China’s ruling elite.

And they didn’t like it….
No they did not, for all those reasons we have already discussed.

So what happened next?
Once Peng made her claim online, it was taken down and she was effectively scrubbed from the internet. Searches for her name, and in some cases the word “tennis” seemed to be blocked by censors, and users were unable to comment on her social media posts.

What’s the international reaction been?
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has taken this really seriously, as have her high profile peers like Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic – they’ve called on China to provide proof that Peng is alive and well.

And did the Chinese government do that?
Well, this is where it starts to get weird… An email was released by Chinese state media purportedly from Peng to the WTA saying she was alive and well, wishing for privacy and saying that those rape allegations against Zhang were “not true”.

Enter a few raised eyebrows…
Indeed. The WTA said that they had a hard time believing the email was written by Peng, and the United Nations Human Rights chief and the White House also questioned its validity.

What about those videos?
So some videos were also released by Chinese state media that appeared to show Peng at a restaurant, and later at a tennis match. But the conversation in the videos seemed a bit strained – perhaps even staged – and there was no date stamp on the videos.

And didn’t the head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Thomas Bach speak with Peng?
He did. He had a 30-minute conversation with her where she apparently asked for privacy and agreed to have dinner with him early next year when Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics.

But there’s scepticism about that call also?
Yeah – it was short on detail. They didn’t release the video, just pictures of Bach speaking to the tennis star. The call reportedly didn’t follow up on the initial sexual assault allegations made by Peng in her Weibo post.

And the IOC faced some criticism for that…
Yep. It had already been criticised for pushing ahead with the Games despite China’s human rights abuses, and now it’s become kinda like a partner with Beijing in delivering their message, rather than providing Peng an open forum to air her allegations.

Gotcha. So do we actually know where Peng is?
Well, it’s assumed that Peng is alive. When we talk about someone disappearing in China, we don’t actually know where they are. But the idea is that they are somewhere under the tight control of the Chinese Government, and that they are reduced in their movement and their ability to speak freely.

So many unknowns… Alright, moving on – what’s happening with the Beijing Winter Olympics?
They’re scheduled for February 2022. But like we said earlier, even before Peng’s disappearance there were calls from some human rights groups to boycott the Games because of atrocities committed against Uighur Muslims.

Have any countries indicated they’ll do that?
Well, there have been reports doing the rounds that the United States would stage a diplomatic boycott of the Games, which would mean sending athletes but not staff.

But that’d have to be looking a bit more likely now, right?
Yeah, it’s definitely not great timing for China. All eyes are on them for all the wrong reasons…

Squiz recommends:

China’s Cultural Revolution – Vox

Cheng Lei no closer to release a year after being detained – The Guardian

The disappearance of Alibaba’s Jack Ma – Squiz Shortcuts

Xi Jinping – Squiz Shortcuts

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